Maria Callas, Bel Canto & Wagner

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Maria Callas, Bel Canto & Wagner

In one of the interviews with Lord Harewood Maria Callas stated that singing the part in a Bel Canto Opera was much more difficult than say a role for one of Wagner's operas. I had always been under the impression that that the latter would have been a far more demanding role. Callas does not elaborate on why this is the actual case in the interview. On this basis I am interested on the views on those in the forum that are actually singers or might have my experience in this area on whether this is actually correct or an alternative view might be taken.

Fine apples and tasty oranges.

I trust for a Singer with the authority of Callas, one may forgive her, when she went a bit over the top. In any case, to compare the Wagnerian singing with the Art of Belcanto is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

Generally speaking, the Wagnerian singing needs stamina, strong powerful voice and a sense of bing part of the whole (orchestra, chorus etc.). On the other hand, the Belcanto, as the name implies, needs predominantly a fine voice, excellent impeccable technique and a sense that the soloist singer (the Prima Donna) is above the orchestra and the others (at least when she sings).

Besides, one has to notice that in Wagner's works, the singer is very musical, almost like another instrument or voice. In the whole Tristan, Isolde has two high Cs. In the Art of Belcanto, in only one Aria, a singer might have to perform virtuoso passages of Paganini qualities reaching a great deal of high notes (going much higher than high C up to E-flat or even F), executing difficult fast passages, using perfect legato pianissimi etc. but, most importantly, keeping a very fine musicality all the way.

I cannot forget Pavarotti's comment when they asked him about how difficult are the nine high Cs Tonio has to perform in his more or less four-minute Aria "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fete!" from Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment. He responded: Yes, it is difficult but what is more challenging is what precedes them! (So, in a way, Callas knew what she was talking about).

Parla

And of course Lilli Lehmann,

And of course Lilli Lehmann, who sang both Wagner and bel canto (not so unusual in those days) famously once said that she would rather sing all three Brunnhildes in one night than one Norma. 

Elsewhere Callas said that she found Wagner easy because the voice was always supported by the orchestra and that the high notes weren't that many. How in bel canto, the singer was completely exposed and needed a full command of trills, fioriture, and flexible scales.

No doubt the Wagner singer would point to the stamina needed to ride a Wagnerian orchestra, the absolutel firmness and precision the voice needs. 

That said, Lilli Lehmann was no doubt right.

 

The common consensus then

The common consensus then seems to be then that the Belo Canto is the more demanding of the two mediums.  (Thank you for your insights),. Having said that it would have been interesting to see Joan Sutherland performing in one of Wagner's operas. I believe at one stage she was considering it but was discouraged by Richard Bonynge  for pursuing that avenue. Personally I think she was ill advised by Bonynge and he did not let Sutherland reach her full potential.

Callas and Wagner

The fact that Callas early in her career took on heavy Wagner roles was considered by many to have been the chief cause of the premature decline of her voice.

Adrian

No need for this kind of consensus.

I do not think that it is a matter of (or we need) a "consensus" on this question. We are talking about two different types of singers. As Adrian 3 very well spoted, the first endeavours of Callas in singing Wagner contributed to her voice more rapid deterioration. In the same way, it would have been destructive if ever Nilsson (or much more Flagstadt or Modl) embarked on any belcanto role.

Likewise, I am of the strong conviction that Bonynge was quite right to push Sutherland to deal predominanlty with belcanto, since her legacy in this field is one of a kind, while from her few efforts in Wagner, it seems that she would have been one among the others. It is wrong for you to believe that Sutherland did not reach her full potential. The fact that she had a strong, powerful voice was not enough to deal with Wagner, while, at the same time, she had an agility, unique for belcanto, and a range completely unnecessary for Wagner but extremely needful for coloratura roles. This strange and rare combination of a strong voice with excellent agility and a very high range contributed to some of her stunning signature roles in Belcanto as well as in lyric works of high tessitura (in Verdi, Puccini, Gounod, Massenet etc.).

Parla

Actually, I did want a

Actually, I did want a consensus, as the question was based on a comment by Callas in a interview ( someone who had sung in both mediums). Your original view supported Callas comments or are you now retracting that statement. ?.  As to Sutherland I don't think anyone is disputing the fact that she excellent in the area of Bel Canto. The fact of whether she would or would not have been able to perform or make the transition to Wagner, is something we will never know now and is merely a point of conjecture.

Callas was right in the context of her interview.

I am not "retracting" from my first post here. What I tried to explain in this first post was the actual difference of requirements for the singer in two different styles of singing which, in any case, require different kind of voices.

In pure technical terms, Callas was right, as it is correct that Paganini requires more technical skills than Mozart. However, a virtuoso of Violin might struggle and never achieve to perform properly (not technically) Mozart and the same may apply to a violin specialist of Classical era composers violin repertory trying to perform let's say Ysaye or Sarasate.

My problem with this comparison is that we compare different voices with a common criterion, the technical vocal difficulties, while they do not have the same properties (a Wagnerian Soprano does not have, at least normally, notes above high C and, by nature, cannot posses the agility of a light voice of Belcanto, while the Belcanto Soprano cannot be expected to have the size and the strength of a Wagnerian one).

As for Sutherland, she tried to sing Wagner and, although she had a voice to deal with a Wagner orchestra, she didn't have the vocal style to excell in any role. She could be the very good but irrelevant singer for Wagner in terms of the actual style and expression. In her set of complete recordings of Decca, you may hear her few endeavours in this field. By the way, she never managed to excell even in Mozart, her Donna Anna excempted in the Giulini set on EMI, and, thus, she never became a great memorable Queen of the Night, although she had the high F and the agility required. So, shall we say that Mozart is more difficult than Belcanto. The way out is to admit that we are talking about different singing styles with different challenges.

Parla

My contention would be that,

My contention would be that, when Wagner was writing his operas, they would have been written for the same singers who sang Mozart, Verdi and bel canto. They all would have been well versed in bel canto with a full command of the technique required. Wagner did write trills into his scores, but how often do we hear them now? Listen to Frida Leider singing Brunnhilde's Ho jo to ho if you don't believe me. Lilli Lehmann, who professed all three Brunnhildes easier than Norma, would also no doubt have had a full command of coloartura techniques. 

Categorisation of voices into different types is largely a twentieth century preoccupation.

Why, even in Bellini's day, we should remember that Amina in La Sonnambula and Norma were written for the same singer, but, though Callas and Sutherland may have sung both roles, nowadays we have reverted to the practice of giving Amina to a light-voiced coloratura soprano and Norma to a dramatic soprano, who, generally, has to skate round the role's difficulties. 

Large voices are no longer encouraged to be flexible it would seem.

 

 

Anything is possible but is that all?

The fact that the composers had to work with what they had available in their own time, in terms of orchestras or voices, does not mean that it was the perfect medium to be followed in the ages to come. It mainly demosntrates how they managed to achieve their goals and aspirations within the limitations (or exceptional cases) of their time.

In any case, the first Brunnhilde, Amalie Materna, thrived mostly in Wagner roles (Brunnhilde, Kundry, Ortrud and Elisabeth).

The Walkure's call is an exceptional case -and not the rule- in the Wagner's writing. While there are almost two mesures of trills at the starting part of the "call", this is not what characterises the rest of the immense score of the Walkure, let alone the Ring or the rest of Wagner's output. Wagner resorted only in a couple of high Cs in Isolde and in Walkure's call, in a manner that has not involve the technique of coloratura, belcanto or even Verdi writing.

Technically, there are singers who can sing in a variety of styles even in late 20th century, but the question remains: how stylish, how convincing, how smooth they are in any different style? Carlos Kleiber chose Margaret Price as her Isolde for his quite memorable recording. She was a great singer, excelled in Mozart, some of Verdi roles and some of German repertory ones. Her Isolde is characterised by fine singing (she was a superb singer anyway) and her portrayal is one of a kind, in terms of refinement, but it is not a reference, an idiomatic, eventually a convincing performance.

Pavarotti could sing "anything" (even New York, New York!), but...he is gone anyway.

Parla

 

I think you  choose to

I think you  choose to misunderstand my point. Frida Leider would no doubt be cosidered the possesor of a Wagnerian soprano whatever period she was singing in. She had a technique that allowed her to sing Mozart and Verdi, and sing perfect trills. Unlike Margaret Price, she was the foremost Wagner singer of her day, and still knocks most of today's Wagner sopranos into a cocked hat. The trills are in the score. You can't ignore them. Why do we consitently allow singers to get away with technical imperfections we would never allow in instrumentalists.

As Callas once said in another interview, "The notes are there in the score. You can't just ignore them to make it easier for your voice."

 

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