The ugly, the not ugly, and the delectably ugly

Opera post: yay?

So after I went on about Gruberova having an ugly voice and at least one person found this not to be so, I thought I’d throw something on about ugly voices and beautiful voices. It is, of course, purely subjective, but I think there tends to be a loose consensus about it. So for example here’s Kathleen Battle, one person always spoken of as having a lovely voice, though her other claim to fame was being so unpleasantly nuts that she was essentially drummed out of the business. (Ok it’s actually a sad story, and it moves me to watch this now and remember how audiences loved her and think of things like the television interview where the interviewer asked her about her reputation for being “difficult” and she stood up, took off her microphone, and walked off the set. I heard her once in person, when I was 17.)


It’s always a dead end to talk synaesthetically about voices, and I lost patience ages ago with queens who would describe some singer’s sound as “chocolatey” or “peachy pearls and cream”–actual example–and so on down that road, but anyone would describe Battle’s tone as sweet. Other descriptors that get heaved around a lot are golden, rich, round…these are actually all words I might lazily use to describe another paradigmatically beautiful voice, that of Montserrat Caballe. She’s a little different in that, because the sound is fuller, it’s closer to the cartoon opera voice lots of people find aversive. Here is perhaps her most famous filmed clip, singing Norma at the outdoor festival in Orange, while the Mistral whipped everyone’s veils around ethereally.


She’s also famous for being an indifferent actor, making a record with Freddy Mercury, and having insane breath control that allowed her to sing extraordinarily long phrases. Also boring people make jokes about her weight.

Time for an ugly voice, then? Don’t mind if I do! I’m skipping Callas, who plenty of people think of as having made the most of an ugly voice, because I think I’ve blathered about her plenty, and opera people collectively have certainly used up every possible word on her. But there really is maybe a phenomenon where singers with rougher, less pure-sounding voices make up for it by giving more interesting performances. So like here’s Leonie Rysanek, who sang rather out of tune and had sort of a throaty sound with a flickery vibrato, but was also an object of great devotion because she used the sawblade edge of her voice to make her characters really intense.


What you hear at the end is people applauding after Ortrud’s curse, which is not a place people applaud because Wagner doesn’t have built-in applause breaks, but there was no other choice. Oh, you won’t want to watch more than twelve seconds of this next one but here is the curtain call at her farewell, the last time Met audiences clapped and screamed and shouted until management just turned the house lights off or something. Such ovations do not happen anymore. I don’t quite know why. Her little speech in the middle is kind of devastating if you’re an opera queen, even though it’s impossible to hear most of what she’s saying.


It’s probably no coincidence the voices I’m calling ugly are going to be in German clips. The music is put together differently in a way that doesn’t require soft edges and a certain nimble refinement. In fact I think I’m about to post Modl singing Wagner, and it’s harder to hear why I’d call it an ugly voice, but if I put a clip of her singing Verdi, instead, it’d be clearer. Um, but this is a better clip. Modl started as a soprano, sang big roles uncautiously for years, and then sang character mezzo roles, old crones and stuff, with what was left of her voice for literally a thousand years. Some people now call them “Modlrollen” (Modl roles.)


I actually had no idea that clip existed until I started writing this, so that’s exciting. This is getting long but I feel I ought to throw in a gentleman singer so here’s Jon Vickers. Same story: the voice is big and blowsy and sometimes unruly, so I think one might call it ugly, but usefully so, and anyway he was a genius of sorts. Here’s a kind of trippy video of him singing the big incesty come-on in Die Walkuere.


For dessert, here is the best of truly ugly singing, Madame Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy lady who made a career for herself despite having, let us delicately say, a modest vocal endowment and a unique musicality.


All I can really say about Madame Foster Jenkins is that the sheer awfulness of her singing somehow flips over into wonderfulness and her legacy is treasured.

13 responses to “The ugly, the not ugly, and the delectably ugly”

  1. Bryan says:

    Opera post: yay!

    The Modl/Bernstein was something else. I’m also glad that clip exists. And the thing I thought when I heard Madame Foster Jenkins is that she should be a staple of WFMU! Turns out she gets fairly regular play.

    My quick search of their website also turned up this little bio about her written by Gaylord Fields, though I can’t figure out in what context he wrote it:

    Florence Foster Jenkins
    Born: 1868 Philadephia PA
    Died: Nov 26, 1944 NYC NY, heart attack
    Drawn by: Alison Mork
    Madame Jenkins was a coloratura soprano who, undeterred by such vagaries
    as pitch and timbre, longed to be a Grand Dame of Opera. She formed the
    Verdi Club at NY’s Ritz-Carlton, where she gave private recitals, rewriting
    classics when they didn’t suit her. In a typical performance, she emerged
    from a cocoon as a butterfly in winged costume to regale guests in song and
    terpsichore. After a taxicab crash in 1943, Madame found she could sing “a
    higher F than ever before”; instead of suing the cab company, she presented
    the driver with a box of expensive cigars. She staged her first and only
    public recital at (a rented) Carnegie Hall on Oct. 25, 1944, before a
    sellout crowd. Bedecked in a lavish costume that accentuated her matronly
    mien, the 76-year-old diva warbled gamely. Polite titters escalated to
    raucous guffaws–which she attributed to jealous prima donnas. One month
    later, she died–it was reported–happy.
    –Gaylord Fields

  2. GF says:

    FFJ supposedly also said “people may say I can’t sing but they can’t say I didn’t sing.” I wonder if this is apocryphal as other stories focus on her apparent failure to grasp her, erm, limitations.

  3. Mister Smearcase says:

    I mean the whole thing is she’s like Little Edie: is the story more interesting if she’s in on the joke or not, right? There was a show on Broadway a decade ago called I think Souvenir that treated her fairly humanely and ended with Judy Kaye, who had been gamely singing horribly for the rest of the show, singing as FFJ heard herself, and Kaye’s a good singer, so it was sort of sweet.

  4. Bryan says:

    3. Wow — what a great concept for a show. I would have loved to have seen that.

  5. LP says:

    Opera post = Yay. I read this with pleasure but haven’t had a chance to formulate a proper comment, as I am on deadline. But I want to go on record as desiring more such TGW posts.

  6. Mr. S says:

    Say more! Say more! Um, after your deadline. But it’s only fun if people have opinions!

  7. LP says:

    Opinions to come next week!

    And what about the rest of youse? Surely everyone has an opinion on so-called ugly singing?

  8. Ruben says:

    Love that you brought up Freddy Mercury as he seems perfect for this discussion. He has a “good” voice but what makes him so compelling is how distinctive it is and how he uses it when collaborating with his primary band. There may be better technical singers but I wouldn’t necessarily want to hear them sing Queen songs. Part of what makes Mercury so great is that otherworldly place he can go, he takes risks that seem like they may not make sense but it works. My technical skills (still) stink so I apologize for the lack of embedded link but check out the isolated vocal track he and Bowie did for Under Pressure if you want a sample. I found it on the Open Culture website.

    But for as much as I am overwhelmed by that clip he wouldn’t be a good fit for some of the other bands I enjoy.

    So here’s a question: what singer would you most like to hear sing with other bands that you like? You get to make up a supergroup and choose the lead singer, which artist do you pick and why?

    So here’s a

  9. Bryan says:

    Somebody on Twitter just said they’d love to see Yoko front Yo La Tengo. I thought it was funny to get your question right after I read that. Strange confluence.

    This isn’t quite the same thing but I’d like to hear Kurt Wagner sing “If You Wish Upon a Star” b/c his voice kind of reminds me of Cliff Edwards.

  10. Bryan says:

    Oh, I guess THIS is why people were talking about Yoko fronting YLT.

  11. Dave says:

    Yeah, I watched the first ten minutes of that and cringed a lot for Yoko. The festival setting is not the best for her, and she responds by trying too hard, which is death for her kind of performance.

  12. Bryan says:

    I thought it was kind of sweet.

  13. Bryan says:

    But definitely related to the general topic of this post, it turns out.