Controversy is the mother’s milk of opera. The most famous controversy of the twentieth-century was the Callas vs Tebaldi rivalry. Maria Callas, probably the most exciting opera singer ever recorded, was wildly famous but extremely controversial, for her harsh upper register and occasional wobble. There were always people who preferred the beautiful voice and fabulous technique of Renata Tebaldi and said so loudly and often. But today the contest is decided: Maria’s recordings still sell very well while the far more bland Tebaldi generates much less interest.
I have liked a lot of controversial singers. My first great love was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I saw her sing the Marschallin when I had never heard of her. I realized at once that I was seeing something extraordinary, something far beyond anything I had seen to that time. What was the controversy? She covered her tone and pinched off the sound, problems which increased as she got older. She sought and for my ears achieved a level of expression far beyond the reach of the average singer.
I didn’t follow her everywhere she led. In her film autobiography she often chose to show herself singing cute folksongs. I don’t share her taste for these. I loved her Hugo Wolf Goethe Lieder album, honored her Strauss and Mozart where this uniquely German singer completely transcended the German taste for cute. She found the essence, and emphasized a narrow repertoire of exquisite performances. If you loved Renata Tebaldi, you probably wouldn’t like her.
Beverly Sills was always the center of a raging controversy which pitted her against Roberta Peters. They faced off against each other across the patio at Lincoln Center—Beverly at City Opera and Roberta at the Met. Sills possessed a passionate soul and a light, fragile, and almost soubrette like voice, while Peters was vocal and technical perfection, unexciting, maybe even bland perfection.
I have loved Kathleen Battle, controversial for her character rather than for her singing. She seems to hate the public. I read somewhere that she had set up a contest where the prize was that the winner got to meet her. Do I care? I was in a performance with Kathleen Battle when the San Francisco Symphony presented Brahms’ German Requiem, conducted by Robert Shaw. It was beyond wonderful, not least because of Ms Battle’s divine “Wir hab’ nun traurigkeit.” I was backstage with her and never thought of trying to meet her.
It is generally music that makes a singer interesting to me. Kathleen has a rare gift for musical phrasing which she acquired in black churches, the usual source for American singers of all kinds. The film biography with Winton Marsallis shows her singing in her home church. She has the chops.
I only ever wanted to meet Cecilia Bartoli, a very controversial singer. Her voice is not very large, and her technique is odd. Her technique was entirely invented by her very brilliant and creative and completely untrained mother. Her technique has changed enormously over the years so that her tessitura is now quite high, possibly too high, and she looks gorgeous, but she still hasn’t achieved what one would call a true legato, breaking the phrase unexpectedly at times. She addresses this issue by emphasizing less legato repertoire.
Cecilia is the most musically creative singer I have ever heard. I went completely mad over her Rossini Heroines album, and like a lot of other people, wish that is the path she had followed. We respect her and admire her choices, but pine away for Semiramide. I love her, but have given up wanting to meet her.
Which brings us to the latest of my controversial singers: Anna Netrebko. For me there is no controversy, but all around me I hear people complaining that they don’t like the sound of her voice. One friend says he doesn’t like anything about her. This is a shame. I have to say I adore the sound of her voice, and realize that it comes partly from god and partly from her characteristically Russian vocal technique. She is optimized for this sound. She is not optimized for coloratura and doesn’t really have a very good trill. Do I sit there thinking, “if only she would trill right there?” Not very likely! She leaves out the trills and the really high notes, so why listen to her at all? Name a singer, any singer, who can bring so much to a theatrical performance. She has beauty, both visual and aural; she has true emotion; she brings excitement to the opera stage as frankly no one else today.
My own feeling is that when a performer is putting it out, you should make an effort to take it in. Would my life be fuller if I refused to tolerate Maria’s wobble, Leontyne’s bad acting, Elisabeth’s narrow tone, Kathleen’s bitchiness, Beverly’s fragility, Cecilia’s chirps or Anna’s growl? You keep the bland ones, and I’ll go with the excitement.