Children are not bad judges. When they hear an opera singer who is loud, wobbly, and incomprehensible, they imitate the funny sounds they hear with glee. I get it. As a child and young adult, I enjoyed great singers of many genres, but did not understand the appeal of opera, with howling, shaking voices singing foreign words, or making my own native language garbled.
The first excellent classical singing I heard was a cassette tape given to me by my sixth grade reading teacher, Mrs. Mildred Thorngren, of her young daughter Jane, who went on to have a big career as a soprano. The tape was full of beautiful art songs, and Jane sang with a clear, shimmering, expressive voice that made the music come alive.
The first full opera I attended was during my first year of university. It was Dido and Aeneas. The Dido was dull and the 19 year-old Belinda had an absurd and ancient-sounding wobble that I found exceedingly unpleasant. In the next few years I did find recordings of opera singers that I learned to love – Beverly Sills, Luciano Pavarotti, Roberta Peters, and Marilyn Horne. I was poor, living in Iowa, and unable to attend professional opera productions at that time but I listened to a lot of records. A few years later, my first professional opera was Madama Butterfly in Toledo, Ohio. I hated it and left at intermission. Cio-Cio-san (a character in her teens) was sung by an obese middle-aged white woman with an extreme wobble who looked and sounded old, ill, and out of tune. Was this normal casting?
I paid my way through school by playing the piano for voice studios and ballet classes. As a pianist, I was exposed to a lot of song and opera repertoire by playing for singers in rehearsals and lessons. I also had singers as friends, and learned much from them. One principle I learned from listening chronologically to the recordings of many famous singers, as well as hearing university voice teachers and visiting artists, was that young voices sounded best and old voices went to hell, with few exceptions.
Through the years I have met a lot of people who have stuck by their favorite singers right to the ends of their careers, loving everything they sing regardless of how vocally impaired the singer became. I understand this attachment. I have done the same with non-classical singers. I find that some older singers’ storytelling and acting abilities keep improving, even with diminishing vocal abilities, and can combine for a great performance throughout their careers. These crossing trend lines happen less frequently with the singers of grand opera who are tasked with being heard over orchestras in big halls without microphones.
A related trend I’ve noticed over four decades is that many students and young professionals are sounding old at the beginning of their careers. It’s as if the formula for a “mature sound” has been patented and sold to the schools of music. To many people, “opera singer” now means a huge vibrato bordering on/slipping into a wobble, extreme loudness, and creepy timbres. I have seen too many young singers, billed as rising stars, whose voices are in serious trouble. Whatever the cause, a young bass who has a sepulchral wobble and unintelligible diction receives reviews containing words like “noble”, “stentorian”, “substantial”, and “vocally imposing”.
People have learned to expect these things. No wonder that a child cannot usually relate to “opera singing”. It is foreign in so many respects: language, voice use, expressiveness, and context. Most children have a good sense of what is phony and what is enchanting. It’s unfortunate that so many first experiences of opera are not charming, beautiful, or relatable. It doesn’t have to be that way.