I did not come from music. I sang in church. I loved Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, and not opera singers. Later I loved the black American opera singers: Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. I came by accident to Jussi Bjoerling but loved him still. And Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, of course.
So I suppose it should surprise no one that the loves of my present life are Cecilia Bartoli and Jonas Kaufmann.
I fell suddenly madly in love with Cecilia because there is simply no one like her. I can think of no one who presents song after song, aria after aria, where each note fascinates, each piece shines with a special glow. I think perhaps only my black Americans, who carried their native born styles with them into classical music, have achieved this.
Cecilia was born into her repertoire. It has been said of her in something I read recently that she could sell the phone book. I don't believe this. She knows her repertoire more deeply than others. Here in America our singers are trained to hit the correct notes and rhythms and to pronounce the words right, but of the music there is nothing. The music is in the spaces, the small variations in the rhythm, the subtle changes in the volume, the movement on and off the note, the subtleties that you perhaps must know from childhood to present the music effectively. Our singers are taught classical music as though it were a foreign language, which perhaps it is.
It is not a coincidence that Cecilia sings mostly in Italian. She is an educated singer of great knowledge, but she sings each piece as though she were born to it. And perhaps she is.
Currently I cannot let go of her Norma, it seems. I can go to performances that present it in the generally accepted way, and feel that I am seeing an entirely different opera.
When I hear her performances of Italian recitative, I find it a pity that so often the great composers did not compose the recitative themselves. It rises in her voice. It achieves the dramatic intensity it was meant from the beginning to carry.
So now I have Jonas Kaufmann to love also. I worked into him slowly. I saw his Florestan accidentally in Zurich, and loved it. "A Florestan to die for," I said. Then I fortuitously bought his Strauss Lieder and found them charming. Here I am entirely at home. He is also singing the music of his German soul. I love Lieder perhaps best of all, and feel my own heart opening to this intellectual man in a way that startles me.
Music is from the soul. He is astounding to me because he finds the music in such a wide variety of places and styles. People complain about him and want him to sound like Fritz Wunderlich, as though singers were in some way obligated to imitate one another. What they are required to do is to find the music in the pieces they are performing.
Modern young singers are constantly coaching with various people, people who I am sure reign them back from what ever corner they have wandered into. I'm telling you to go too far. Someone is sure to reign you back in. Look to Russians for their repertoire, see Italy in the Italians, find the French. Try as hard as you can to hear the differences between all these styles. A large part of the work is to find the music. Looking for stylistic differences between eras and genres is a good place to start.
I love it that the French fans find Jonas their favorite foreigner in French repertoire. I love it that he is both correct in all of these styles and deeply emotional.
Perhaps the Europeans are more at home in their own music.