Embarassing Voices

Since we are close to World Voice Day (April 16), I thought I’d share some remarks on an old argument: Is beauty or expressivity more important in a voice? Possibly the best case for expressivity comes from Cathy Berberian:

“I feel that today’s singers should avoid the kind of concentration on just pure sound, like the old school is Renata Tebaldi and today we have Montserrat Caballé, these beautiful voices but they sing like cows, they have the mentality of cows . . . they just want the sound to come out. They don’t think of . . . the meaning behind it . . . They’re worried about the next note, the high note that is coming . . . I think after their voices are gone, they are just old cows.” (Music is the Air I Breathe)

I couldn’t but help think of this upon reading quotes of an interview between star soprano Anna Netrebko and the New York Times:

Ms. Netrebko was reluctant to speculate about her character’s inner life. Asked how strong or vulnerable she planned to play her, she replied: “She’s blind. That’s it.” …In other instances, too, Ms. Netrebko favors a literal approach. Asked what the white and red roses mentioned several times in the opera might represent, she retorted, “I don’t know: roses!”

If you are looking for beautiful, well-executed singing, Netrebko is a good place to start. But what makes the media of opera so exciting sometimes is when singers deliberately adopt ‘bad’ techniques for expressive reasons. Let’s think about this in terms of my favourite opera ever: Richard Strauss’s Salome. Salome KarajanThis is an excessive performance of an excessively overripe opera. Strauss set a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s fruity and exotic play of the same name in a directly representative manner. Everything mentioned in the metaphor-laden text is represented in the music, from birds flying around Herod’s head to the reeling, drunken madwoman-like moon (!) to the jewels and rubies, and even the (off-stage) decapitation of Jochanaan (a solo, squeaky double-bass!). The vocal parts are extremely demanding in terms of sheer pitch and volume range required (given the unusually large orchestra). Salome herself has many conflicting moods, often in rapid succession (and rightly so, given the opera really is about the journey from love to death). I thought it might be interesting to look at four sopranos interpreting some key moments in the opera and see how they (ab)use their instrument.


Salome is in a single act, but divides nicely into distinct scenes separated by progressively longer musical interludes (the last of which is the famous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’). The first early climax comes after Salome attempts to seduce Jochanaan (John the Baptist) by successively praising, and then cursing, his body, hair and lips before he retreats to his prison. Salome heralds her seduction with an exclamation as the horns hammer out her characteristic motive: Jochanaan

Here are the four sopranos, in order they are Nina Stemme, Hildegard Behrens, Maria Ewing and Teresa Stratas

All seem to take the beauty approach, but there are subtle differences. Stratas seems to restart on the second syllable Jo-CHA-naan; Ewing slides first and then seems to glottalise the final syllable; Behrens appears throatier, if more rapturously pretty than the others; and Stemme takes a no-nonsense approach, gliding rather quickly through the notes while soaring above a very loud orchestra. (Note the Ewing and Stemme recordings are live, whereas the others are studio recordings).

Gib mir den Kopf des Jochanaan!

After dancing for Herod, Salome requests the head of Jochanaan as reward. Herod at first refuses, instead offering her everything from his peacocks (producing the memorable line “You are ridiculous! You and your peacocks!”) to the mantel of the temple. Salome is unmoved:
Gib mir
Once again the four sopranos in the same order:

Stemme is deliberate, but not ugly. She takes her time on the final arpeggio, as well as clearly aspirating the “k” of “Kopf”. Her Salome is not wild or ferocious, but calculating and intense. Behrens is at first intense and accurate, but loses control at the end of the arpeggio, hooting out the final syllables. The effect is unashamedly ugly – her Salome is fed up with Herod’s excuses and wants what she has been promised. Ewing is perhaps the most successful in conveying ferocity. Her high Bb is shaky, but deliberately so, and the final snarl is truly frightening. Stratas’s snarl is less convincing than Ewing. All sopranos seem to have some difficultly pitching the Gb, which really doesn’t agree with the accompaniment.

As can be seen, while Salome is a role demanding singing of the utmost beauty, on occasions the active denial of bel canto technique is necessary. How can singers perform in such a way and preserve their instruments? As Cathy Berberian also said, she sang lots of modern music and made weird and wonderful sounds doing so and her instrument held up until her death; whereas Maria Callas who sang only the classics destroyed hers.

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