No wonder opera is dying

In the last year, many classical vocal performances have been offered online, both live and recorded. There have been potentially interesting new operas premiered, as well as old ones re-imagined as films. There have been heaps of recitals, many by well-known singers who are much better known for opera than art song. Several opera stars have sung in beautifully-produced videos, often in beautiful historic locations, which I really appreciate.

There is a problem, though. The singing is generally not good. A voice that wobbles is standard across all age groups. The center of pitch is iffy, as the entire core of the voice is shaken about, with a large up and down excursion in every note. The timbre is generally dark and dull, yet fairly loud. I think to many listeners, this has to sound ridiculous or ugly. To me, it’s both. Unfortunately, the first time I ever heard an opera in person as a young pup in 1981, this was the sort of sound I heard. It was years before friends guided me to better singing, both recorded and live, and eventually, I learned to enjoy some opera and lots of art song.

I love a singing voice that is clear and sounds easy, with a steady core. The “vibrato” should not thrash the whole voice up and down, but rather be a shimmer or emanation from the steady core. A voice that can be both loud and soft is delightful. I want to understand the words. I know that in opera with a big orchestra this is much harder, but in a recital with a piano, caring for the words isn’t optional!

So much “opera singing” now is people trying to sound like impressive opera singers, rather than finding their best personal sound. Once you have heard singers with free, balanced voices, who actually sing intelligible texts in tune, it’s hard to take the dark, strained, dire wobbling that is rampant. The recent smaller manifestations of classical vocal performance, such as chamber operas, operas conceived and shot cinematically, and recitals, make it all the more ridiculous when the singing is poor.

People are more into musical theatre now than when I was young, so I think there is still a lot of interest in sung drama. Many people who love musicals could like opera, if it simply sounded good. However, when a singer is making ridiculous sounds and the audience member is told that this singer is “one of the best”, then they either no longer trust their ears, or they decide that they don’t like opera at all.


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