Voice Lessons

The bel canto superstar urges the music of her madness toward its climax; she takes aim at the stratospheric E-flat on which much of her renown rests, scores a bull’s- eye; the audience, its own blood throbbing to every nuance in that climactic buildup, now goes wild. The political demagogue harangues the crowd with his own kind of mad scene, a vision of his world domination; his voice, too, rises, in pitch and in vibrance; at the end he, too, faces a crowd transported by the moment’s ecstasy into another world.

This is what the human voice can accomplish, skillfully employed. It is the total musical instrument; no massed string section, 76-member trombone choir or percussion ensemble can come close to the emotional ties that bind a singer of phenomenal magnetism and a listener willing to open his soul. Plenty has been written on that relationship out on its lunatic fringe (Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, Evan Eisenberg’s The Recording Angel and, as a look at one peculiar outbreak of opera mania in times long past, Joseph Horowitz’s Wagner Nights). Peter Davis is as mad about opera as anyone, but the wisdom that winds itself around his passion makes his new book – The American Opera Singer, a chronicle of the kingly and queenly throats, native-born or permanently transplanted, that established the United States as an operatic power base as long ago as 1825 – important, even thrilling.

Davis replaced me as New York magazine’s music critic, with my blessing, in 1981. He has survived that publication’s slippage from a decently liberal mirror of New York affairs to an Upper-East-Side-murder-of-the-week slicksheet. He is both smart and knowledgeable; a sublime operatic performance can send him into terminal ecstasy, and he always knows why. I know Davis well enough to suspect him of having participated in opera-house ovations now and then; I also know how long, and how carefully, and how assiduously he has worked on this book. Although he may write others, and I hope he does, The American Opera Singer has about it a sense of culmination: It’s a remarkable synthesis that captures both the lives and times of native-born singers who have earned their place in the galaxy over most of the last two centuries, and illuminates that information, as if from within, by writing about them as if the (let’s guess) 400 singers touched upon had each personally sung into his rejoicing ear. It’s not easy to fabricate what a musician may have sounded like, or been motivated by, in New York’s Italian Opera House in 1833, but it can be done – assembled from published reports or private diaries. Harold C. Schonberg did that kind of second-guessing in his The Great Pianists, with remarkably vivid results; Davis’ book belongs alongside.

Inevitably, the book assumes an inter woven texture: biographical and anecdotal material on one singer after another, with the more illustrious earning ampler space. There’s more to it than that, however, most of all the ongoing narration of the growth of cultural awareness in a nation which, at the start of Davis’ account, knew not opera from ocelot, and had only faint inklings from abroad of such “modern” composers as Mozart, Beethoven and Rossini. Much remains the same in the slow-moving world of opera; and much has changed. In 1953, the Metropolitan Opera’s honcho Rudolf Bing fired his eminent Wagnerian prima donna Helen Traubel, on the pretext that her singing pop-music repertory (on disc and in clubs) “degraded” the reputation of the opera company. Today, American soprano Dawn Upshaw (who has “the world by the ear,” Davis rightly notes) sings Mozart at the Met, and Rodgers and Hammerstein in the recording studios. Davis, possessor of a fine sense of irony, gently slaps on the wrist the writer of the audition note for a chubby New York soprano named Mary Kalogeropoulos – “needs work on her voice” – who would soon change her name to Maria Callas.

Davis is smart enough, in selecting the vast cast list for his narrative, to broaden the definition of “American.” Enrico Caruso, foreign-born though he was, did as much as any native in his time to establish the glamour of opera-going in his adopted New York; without that one famous tenor, there would not now be a famous three. Callas, on the other hand, America’s own, never enjoyed the triumphs here that greeted her most spectacular work at the opera houses of Milan, Paris and London. Among the lesser binationals, France’s Lily Pons benefited enormously from the peculiarly American hype she received here in terms of passing for an important musical artist, and, recognizing a good thing, knew better than to try to impose her “terminally chirpy” inclinations on her fellow French.

Inevitably, too, The American Opera Singer will raise hackles – which can be raised higher in both pitch and volume among operaphiles than in any other field – for its interweave of accurate history-spinning and personal judgment. Read him on Beverly Sills, her early triumphs and (says Davis) her protracted decline, and you encounter an essence not always recognized in the critical canon: regret. He wants Sills to be better than she began to sound in the 1970s. He also castigates the merciless gods for making Aprile Millo into a self-indulgent booby with all she could have accomplished. From earlier times he reconstructs the career of one of opera’s great fascinatrixes – Sibyl Sanderson, mistress of Massenet and creator of several roles – then adds the troubled reactions of her critics to darken the portrait.

That is Davis’ triumph: perspective. Books about singers of the past exist in profusion (Henry Pleasants’ The Great Singers being the quirkiest and most fun to read). What appeals to me most of all about Davis’ book, about the dozens of pages of opinions with which I fully concur, as well as the fair number that set my blood aboil (the short shrift accorded Renee Fleming, the unconscionably long shrift enjoyed by Richard Tucker), is its caring.

As a companion to the book, RCA has issued a two-disc gathering of perform ances by the stars themselves, not a difficult task seeing as RCA (as its earlier avatar, the Victor Co.) had dibs on most operatic recording in the U.S. until well into the LP era. It makes for a neat package, although I would guess that many of the more ardent readers of the book already own most of the tracks. In any case, Davis’ writing brings these singers to life almost as well as any recording. I can hear them now.