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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Distinctive Voices in a time of homogenized vocal music; an opinion

I was reading a post this morning on an opera blog and thought I might respond, but then thought the better of it and instead will share my thoughts with you.

We live in a time of vapid, homogenized vocal music.  Engineering trickery and amplification are utilized today on recordings and live performances of all genres of music.  Therefore it becomes difficult to really tell who is truly great.  One asks, what really makes an artist truly great?  In today’s music world, looks take precedent over vocal abilities; if the "artist" is "hot" then perhaps the public will forgive the fact that they cannot really sing.  In the land of opera, "Regie" is the current vogue and to many impressarios, looks and stage presence take precedent over vocal abilities.  If you don’t believe me, just think back to the "little black dress" dust up at Covent Garden a few years ago. After all, everyone knows that one goes to the opera to see a "hot” soprano and the director's vision, before one goes to hear the singers.  What ever happened to that famous "fat lady?"

I watched an awards show at some point last year and a young woman by the name of Katy Perry came out to sing.  I had heard the same song played ad nauseum on the radio, at restaurants and clubs, so I was familiar with it.  The song was catchy, but in the long run very forgettable.  She, like many others meet the criteria of today; hot, pretty face with a set of double d’s and a suggestive tiny costume.  What was broadcast during that live telecast and what is offered in her recordings are like night and day.  It was very clear she was out of her element live.  She was pitchy, sung with a different timbre than the recording and was vocally strained, all the more pronounced as she was performing a synchronized dance routine.  Today, with the massive amounts of media exposure, singers like Perry are homogenized, packaged based upon looks and in many cases dancing ability rather than real talent.  There are composers and song writers in New York, Nashville and Hollywood who are pumping out a ton of forgettable music to go with these packaged products which will not be remembered 6 months later. Which brings me to the crux of this piece, who today has a voice that down the road people will remember?  To me it boils down to one thing, the distinctive timbre of a voice and there are not many out there today, who have it. Perhaps only two of the current crop of pop singers are truly memorable stars with distinctive voices and the vocal qualities to be remembered for years to come, they are both British, Adele and the late Amy Winehouse.   The voice can be phenomenally natural, or in a number of cases across the genres, forgettable but used with such great taste and style, that it becomes entirely distinctive and memorable.

I used to play a game with some friends who liked old 78 rpm records.  We would slip a record on a gramophone and try to guess the singer as rapidly as possible.  With some singers, this is incredibly easy.  Caruso, Ponselle, Tauber, Pinza, Flagstad and Björling are a few examples of true natural voices whom one can hear a few notes and immediately name.  In more modern times, Luciano Pavarotti is a singer who needs no introduction once one hears his voice.  However, that being said, I find even more interesting singers who do not have naturally pretty voices. A few examples in the world of pop would include Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, in jazz, Louis Armstrong, in Country and Folk Leadbelly, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. You hear a few notes and you immediately know who is singing.  Their greatness is not in the quality of their voice, but the way the voice is projected to affect the listener.  Their difference and moreover their singularity and distinctiveness of tone has brought them fame, while there are far better singers out there, with not even a fraction of their reputation.   The difference with these singers is, “What you hear is what you get.”  If you were to attend, or in the case of several were to have attended a live performance, they are, or would be one and the same.  No engineering trickery needed.

In the opera world, Julius Patzak may not be the best known tenor these days.  His voice was far from natural, though well trained.  However, once you heard the voice and it is logged in your memory bank, you would not forget it.  Ivan Kozlowsky and Tito Schipa are much the same.  Neither had truly natural voices, but both are truly distinctive through the use of superb training and excellent taste, one knows immediately who is singing and in their lifetimes, both were superstars.  At my peril, I will add another one to this category, Maria Callas.  She was not always the most refined singer and did not possess a naturally beautiful voice like Beverly Sills, or Renata Tebaldi; but her singing was truly distinctive and what talent she had coupled with her distinctive sound and unrivaled passion allowed her to make one of the most extraordinary careers ever in opera, one with which she is remembered with religious reverence to this day.  It’s interesting that in the opera world where the average person expects to hear only the best of the best singers, there have been a number of true stars who were not naturally gifted with beautiful voices.

Now that is not to say singers with truly fine voices are not part of this, Frank Sinatra was a singer’s singer, a man with a true gift and a distinctiveness in his voice which made him one of the most famous and aurally recognizable  singers of the 20th Century.  What you heard on the record was what you heard live, no tricks, no games.  In the opera world, there is a stream of truly natural singers who are instantly recognizable through their recordings and sounded the same in person, though in most cases I am relying on reviews of the period.  Caruso, Pavarotti, Warren, Kraus, Pinza, Ponselle, Melchior, Flagstad, Wunderlich, Corelli and Björling come right to mind as singers who possessed naturally distinctive voices.  Most of these singers have been dead 50 years, or more and they are still widely listened to, today.

The original post that I read challenged other posters to recount singers today who sound the same on cd, as they do in the opera house.  The base was Jonas Kaufmann, currently the “it” tenor.  While, I can attest that he sounds the same in both recordings and live, to my ear, he is not one of these distinctive singers.  As a matter of point, one would be hard pressed to think of any singer today who makes a truly distinctive and original sound.  Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Florez are perhaps two opera singers who possess naturally gifted voices and are distinctive enough to be recognized in a blind test.  There is even a singer out there who frequently records, makes a beautiful sound but would be entirely forgettable except for the fact that she has marbles in her mouth, her poor diction makes her distinctive!  Perhaps most opera singers don’t want to push the parameters, but in my humble opinion, the opera houses are rife today with homogenized singers, ones who are serviceable and sing the right notes at the right time, but there is nothing to set one apart from the other.  They are perhaps “hotter” on the whole, but they are lacking that certain quality which provides a unique distinctiveness which will keep them in the public’s imagination after they are gone.   The days of the unnatural voice, trained with style and good taste, with a distinctive sound is in the past.  Today's popular music business and opera business are much the same and there is not much from either world today which sets each singer apart, enough that they will be remembered in the same way as a Sinatra, Nelson, Callas, or Pavarotti.

Julius Patzak sings Richard Strauss's "Standchen" in his very distinctive tenor

Ivan Kozlowsky sings "Arlecchino's Serenade" from "I Pagliacci"

Tito Schipa sings "M'appari" from "Martha"

Maria Callas sings "O Mio Babbino Caro" from "Gianni Schicci"

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