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Distant voices

I was watching a Missy Elliott video on MTV the other day, wondering why her face always reminds me of someone. Then I watched the Ovation Channel on the new Optus/Foxtel mélange. It was showing an amazing program called ‘The Art of Singing, Golden Voices of the Century’. This was the second episode (the first one was lost to me in the quagmire plenitude of cable program guides), and it was about opera singers of the 1950s and ’60s performing on television. When Leontyne Price came on as Aida, singing the most sublime ‘O patria mia’ I have ever heard, it struck me finally that there was the resemblance: high cheekbones, almond eyes, generous mouth, and a fine nostril flare. But how things have changed now. Dulled and battered by too much bad music played by the young ’uns (though I have to admit parts of it are good) I was surprised to learn that as late as 1963, Joan Sutherland did a live TV performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. That was a rather unpatronising choice for the network-watching masses: certainly not as easygoing as the ubiquitous Butterfly or Carmen. I watched it all entranced, because these performances were, unlike Missy’s, completely live—no Pro Tools or Logic­Audio to tidy up any blunders. There she was, Joan before she was anything like a dame, a big black ship in full sail, rippling the runs and nailing almost every high note bang on without safety nets. As did Fritz Wunderlich, Jussi Björling, Giuseppe di Stephano and Victoria de los Angeles. Such riches demanded attention and consideration, and it needs to be said again: once there used to be live-to-air opera on TV.

But if Sutherland was La Stupenda, there should have been a like term for Leontyne Price that conveyed the velvet gold, the tensile strength and warm sweetness of her tone, the lavish technical ability that took each note and spun it into silk. Sheerest beauty then contrasted with the acclaimed but vocally very flawed Tosca, the Covent Garden production that had Maria Callas teamed with Tito Gobbi’s matchless Scarpia. Seeing Callas doing ‘Vissi d’arte’ near the end of her voice’s tether, despite her artistry and musicality, and seeing Price in the heyday of hers, made me wonder what it was about Callas that kept, and keeps, us all listening and watching. She was more than a singer who could act and look good: she had the genius of making one feel with her, not simply contemplate her. It was surely not for her voice’s beauty: a strange, strident, catarrhal tone it was, as though you were hearing the arias on a different instrument from normal. A ram’s horn rather than a French horn, perhaps, pressed and stretched and pushed by main force into the shapes that her excellent musicianship demanded, full of strange power and emotion but liable to waver, to howl, to screech and to crack if conditions were not optimal. And singers so rarely are in optimum condition: Feodor Chaliapin, the great Russian bass, said once that if he were to sing only when he was in perfect health and tone, he would sing maybe twice a year. The rest of the time is dependent on bedrock technique and whatever trickery is at one’s disposal. But Callas was too proud to trick anyone. Her Violetta was stunning, but the documentary showed her in a bootlegged film from the Lisbon production of Traviata doing the last high note of the death scene with a chaotic wobble and squeak: she was determined to attack it pianissimo as the score demanded. Anyone else would have hit it square and then softened off, but she refused to spare herself or us. It reminded me of Janis Joplin hefting her ruined, cracked larynx through ‘Mercedes Benz’. Think of that
last, heavy-beating vibrato gone feral: Callas in Lisbon was like Joplin in LA.

Nothing could have shown more clearly how damaged her voice was. My mother always says that any note that you can sing pianissimo, clearly and without wavering, is one that you can also sing fortissimo. It’s a sign of good health, proper vocal technique and an undamaged set of vocal chords. Callas lost her soft notes along with other good things in her life: like that other gay icon, Judy Garland, performance displayed her raw bleeding spirit, the spirit that rode her frail flesh till it failed.

These days you can sing ‘live’ into a mike that sends your voice through a pitch-correction system: pop singers in stadiums use it all the time because most human-scale abilities are defeated by the demands of huge spaces and heavy amplification. If I’ve just described to you some of the best stuff I’ve seen during 2002 then it needs to be said how much it contrasts with so much else on offer, particularly in music. The first-mentioned Missy Elliott is a rap artist of considerable ability: you need perfect timing to be able to rap, even if the vocabulary is limited. Now that I have seen her face for what it is, a classical singer’s template, I wonder how her voice would soar if she sang true to it. 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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