In the October issue of Opera News is an article on Christine Brewer, a dramatic soprano who was featured in the recent revival of Britten’s Gloriana. I was interested in the part of the article where she discusses being in a master class with Birgit Nilsson when she was young.
The issue is whether it is wise to contract with one of the German houses when one is young. In my list of how to become a great singer, I put that in. I know that Marilyn Horne did her time in Klagenfurt in Austria where she was contracted as a soprano. I also know that Montserrat Caballe worked as a contract singer in Germany for a while. In this kind of job you get to/have to sing a lot. A contracted soprano is assigned a role in virtually every opera but is also often double cast with other members of the company. My friend Ursula, who was around 30 at the time, sang the lead in every operetta, a significant part of German opera repertoire, as well as Martha, Hansel, etc. But then she was a coloratura soprano with a very secure technique. She was spared performing in La Forza and Salome because her voice was not suitable for heavy soprano parts. Giancarlo Del Monaco who was the intendant, didn’t care to hear her in Italian repertoire which may have been lucky for her. She was assigned Lisa’s maid in Pique Dame.
Birgit Nilsson advised Christine Brewer to avoid this like the plague. Perhaps it would be best to tell what she actually said, according to Brewer. “You’re a big girl, and you have a sound that sounds like it’s going to be a dramatic voice. People are going to start offering you big roles right away. Don’t take them.” Brewer goes on to say she was offered a house contract in Hamburg and Nilsson said, “Absolutely do not take that offer. Your voice will be ruined in a couple of years, because they’ll have you singing everything under the sun.” I know that too much too soon is very bad for a big voice. It’s best to grow into a big voice. It’s also best not to sing Wagner until you’re 40ish. I don’t know if Nilsson would agree, but I suspect she would.
Some people thrive in that environment, and others drop like stones. You are singing constantly and your voice teacher isn’t there to help. My tenor friend Jay went home to Texas every summer to brush up with his teacher, but I don’t think many do this.
Some of the assigned parts will be wrong for you, so what should you do? How you answer this question is key. If you should try to force you voice into heavy singing, try to cope by faking what you can’t actually do, you are doomed. If you’re 25 and could sing the lead in La Forza, perhaps it would be better to wait.