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.