MUSI 112: Listening to Music

Lecture 19

 - Romantic Opera: Verdi's La Traviata, Bocelli, Pavarotti and Domingo


This lecture focuses on opera and the operatic voice, from the Romantic period to the present. Professor Wright integrates a discussion of one of the most often-performed and famous operas in the Western canon, Verdi’s La Traviata, with a discussion of vocal performance practice. For the latter, he uses recordings of singers from the early to late twentieth century as examples of different types of voices and the ways in which aesthetic values about the voice have changed throughout the past hundred years.

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MUSI 112 - Lecture 19 - Romantic Opera: Verdi's La Traviata, Bocelli, Pavarotti and Domingo

Chapter 1. Introduction to Opera [00:00:00]

Professor Craig Wright: So good morning. Today we’re going to be talking about opera, particularly opera of the nineteenth century. This is actually the third opera that we have engaged in our course, and it occurs to me that I should ask you the names of the other two. Can you remember any of the other operas that we looked at, albeit briefly, in this class? Thaddeus.

Student: Don Giovanni.

Professor Craig Wright: Don Giovanni, by Mozart. That was the one we had a run at acting out particular scenes of. We enjoyed it. And what was the other one, an earlier one that we heard at least an aria out of? Is it Leah? Leah, please.

Student: Dido and Aeneas.

Professor Craig Wright: Dido and Aeneas of Henry Purcell, taking us back into the seventeenth century. So we had a seventeenth-century opera, an eighteenth-century opera. Now we come to a nineteenth-century opera. Nineteenth-century opera, as you may know if you’ve peeked there in chapters twenty-six, twenty-seven, and twenty-eight of your textbook, concerns two figures in particular: one, Richard Wagner and the other, Giuseppe Verdi. Now we’ve had some music of Wagner before. What was the big aria that we dealt with out of his opera Tristan? Remember that? What was that? It had an interesting name. Thaddeus again.

Student: The Liebestod.

Professor Craig Wright: The Liebestod — the Liebestod of Richard Wagner. But we’ve had some Wagner here in our course. We’ve had no Verdi and I think it’s — it is probably wiser to focus on Verdi because Verdi in a way is much more representative of nineteenth-century opera generally than is Wagner. Wagner is a very special kind of thing that gets put on only in — usually only in Wagner festivals, whereas Verdi, in an odd way — Verdi and Mozart and Puccini — are sort of the staples of most opera companies around the world.

Last night I went online just to see what was happening with Italian opera — Verdi, and particularly La Traviata. And immediately, of course, the first thing you get on any kind of Google search is somebody trying to sell you tickets to something. But I was just interested at how many opera houses around the world you could buy tickets for La Traviata tonight, tomorrow night, or the next night. And it turns out that there are five opera houses in the United States playing La Traviata Thursday evening — one of them at the Metropolitan Opera. So this gives you a sense of hey, this is really popular; this is what opera companies are really working with. So we’re going to focus on Giuseppe Verdi here and particularly La Traviata.

Verdi is an interesting case. We’ve dealt with lots of musical prodigies, such as Mozart, and in an odd way, Verdi at the beginning of his career was an abject musical failure. He tried to get into — he applied for admission to the Conservatory of Milan and was rejected. He tried to get a job as the director of music at his small farming community of Busetto in northern Italy near Parma and was turned down for that job. So he got a job as the town bandmaster, ultimately, but he was — he persevered and he continued to write operas, and then eventually he got one performed at La Scala. Now, La Scala is the main opera house in Milan. So that was successful. And on the basis of that success, then impresarios — producers around the world — contacted Verdi and tried to convince him to write operas for their theaters. And he did, and eventually his career spread even to North America and South America.

So let’s take a moment and look at the operas that Verdi composed. You have a list over there. Put Nabucco on because that’s the one that launched his career, really, in Milan in eighteen forty-two. Then we have a series there in the middle: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata. These are sometimes called his more “domestic” type of opera subjects — rather than historical ones. Then we move on to later works. You can see Don Carlos there, another historical one; Aida, for the opening of the Suez Canal; Otello; and Falstaff based off of the — I guess “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” So you can see a couple of points here: one, that Verdi lived a long time and was active as a creative artist for a very long period of time. Any other artist has a longer productive career than Verdi? There is one painter working in the twentieth century. Think about it a minute. Picasso, yeah, from about 1905 until really the time of his death in the early 1970s I guess. So he was productive, in the case of Verdi, for five or six decades there. And notice also the importance of Shakespeare here, lots of Shakespearian setting. Shakespeare was the dominant literary figure of the nineteenth century.

Chapter 2. Verdi’s La Traviata: The First Aria [00:05:09]

So let’s turn our attention now to La Traviata. It’s based on a play of Alexander Dumas, Alexandre Dumas — fils actually. Père happens to be on the cover of our textbook. The son wrote a play called “The Lady of the Camellias.” Camellia is a white flower. And the play was simply staging a true-life story involving this playwright, Alexandre Dumas the younger, and his love affair with a young lady named Marie du Plessis. You have a picture of Marie Duplessis in page — on page 302 of your textbook. She was a girl from the country who, by a liberal allocation of charm, and an even more generous distribution of her virtue managed to sleep her way to the top of Parisian society at that time.

I was trying to think this morning. I don’t know very much about popular culture, but who would be like that today? I don’t know. I — Paris Hilton, people like — I don’t know, but she was kind of the tabloid figure of the nineteenth century so much so that I was struck — I came upon this recently. Charles Dickens — and you don’t think of Dickens and Paris Hilton in the same sentence normally but Charles Dickens in faraway England at this time noticed that when Marie Duplessis died in Paris — and she died at the shockingly young age of twenty-three — when she died, Dickens said the following: “You would have thought her passing was a question of life and death or the death of a hero such as Joan of Arc.” So, obviously again sort of capturing everyone’s attention. In any event, we’re going to watch La Traviata on a video. And that video will be on reserve for you and you’ve got some hints about that on that flip side of your sheet.

Everybody got the sheet for today? It says “Opera News.” You’re going to be watching a video and you’ll see there that the scene is set in Paris about 1845, so this is core romantic time, a core romantic place: Paris, 1845. La Traviata — what does that mean? Well, if you break it down in terms of its syllables you get the following: “La,” feminine article I guess, “tra,” on the other side of, “via” is a road, “ta” is a feminine thing, so we have the woman that’s sort of fallen off the beaten path, or the expected road here. She’s the woman who has gone astray. She is a kept woman, a courtesan, if you will, a sort of high-class hooker here, and at the moment, she is under the protection of one Baron Douphol. He’s the bad guy in our opera, the bad guy on our video.

The opera opens at a party. In comes our hero. His name is Alfredo. So the love couple here, the love interests: Alfredo-Violetta. Violetta is the woman gone astray. So Alfredo comes in and he proposes a toast. So we’re going to listen to a little bit of our first music this morning. I will probably be breaking up this music and commenting more than I normally would, for reasons of copyright. I needn’t say more or go into that more than that, but I’m gonna break it up a little bit more than I normally would. So let’s listen to a little bit and think about here — think of the meter, think of the mode as we listen to this opening chorus. [music playing]

Okay. Let’s just pause it here for a second. You have the text. It’s the opening thing — aria — here, Alfredo. At the top there, waltz and drinking song, “Libiamo,” let us drink, let us drink, and so on; let’s have a good time. What about the mode and the meter? Basic question. Well, if it’s a waltz it’s got to be triple. Okay. So we have a fast triple, [sings] and the mode, major or minor? Minor? Let’s listen to some more. [music playing]

What about that chord? Major or minor? So it’s all in major. So we have a happy, joyful sort of crowd scene read by Alfredo here. Then he steps forward to announce his — to profess his love to Violetta. He’s been admiring her from afar, and we have the first major aria here. You have your sheet and you can see the arrow pointing to it, “Un Di Felice.” And let’s listen to a bit of this now and the same question to you: the mode and the meter of this. We’ll listen to a little bit of it and then we’ll talk about tempo here so let’s pay particular attention to tempo and meter. [music playing] Here we go. [music playing]

Can you conduct it? Where’s the beat? [music playing] Good. Evgeny’s got it. Stand up and conduct for everyone — no, don’t stand up but a nice, big beat for — very good. [music playing] Okay. [laughs] All right. So we’ve got a nice, slow triple meter here and what about the — it’s mostly major but sort of tinged a little bit with minor. Let’s watch what happens to the tempo now. We’re kind of one, two, three, one, two, three. A little bit more. [music playing]

Okay. So we’re going to pause it there. So what happened? Well, obviously the tempo slowed way, way down there. And we have this term for this — it’s part and parcel of the romantic era — called tempo rubato, flexibility, more unstable tempos here, again part of the instability in a way and the mercurial switches back and forth of mood of the romantic period. “Tempo rubato” literally means “robbed.” “Rubato” means “robbed,” “something robbed.” Well, here the tempo is robbed. We’re taking away. We’re slowing it way down here and then it will speed back up to catch back up, so it’s kind of like a Slinky. Remember the Slinky you had as a kid that you’d put on the step and it’d go really fast and then slow and then all over the top. And so that’s what — sort of what tempo rubato is.

So let’s listen to a little bit more. [music playing] Here’s a shift to minor [music playing] and the word “mystery,” [music playing] more rubato there, slowed it way down. [music playing]

Okay. Let’s pause it here just for a second. Now Violetta’s going to come in. And I would ask you, “How does Violetta’s music differ from the music of Alfredo?” You ought to be to think of a couple of ways here. Let’s listen to Violetta. [music playing] Okay. So we’ll pause it there. So how does that music differ from what we’ve just heard? Anybody? Jerry.

Student: It’s faster.

Professor Craig Wright: It’s faster. All right. Take the basics. It’s faster. What did you sense about it? Darker or lighter? Probably lighter. It’s — and it’s higher in range and it’s a little bit flighty and it’s more disjunct. And this is what composers do. They try to depict characters. So right off the bat we have this kind of live-for-the-moment character, Violetta, coming in. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with this mystery of love that Alfredo is proposing here. And this is what Verdi was good at and this is what Mozart was very good at.

One of the things we should have noticed about that lovely duet that Richard Lalli and Lynda sang the other day, “La Ci Darem La Mano,” was that, as they were singing, Mozart was writing music in which there were rests in between each entry of the singers. And then as that duet went on — and we didn’t even notice, but it’s crucial to the effect of the duet — as the duet went on the length of those rests got smaller and smaller. And eventually they disappeared. And what Mozart is telling us here is that just as physical — as sonic space is disappearing, so too the distance between these two individuals is disappearing. They’re getting closer together musically as they’re getting closer together physically. And then it ended up with [plays piano] right together in parallel thirds there so Mozart brings this music all together.

Well, watch what happens here. Who’s going to win out? Is Violetta’s light music going to win out? Is Alfredo going to start singing like Violetta or is Violetta going to start singing like Alfredo? Let’s listen a bit more. [music playing] Okay. Let’s pause it right there. So who won? Who got his or her way? Roger.

Student: Alfredo.

Professor Craig Wright: Alfredo, right. So she came down in her range. She shifted to a slightly minor-tinted sound and then the tempo of the music slowed down so he won that contest of musical wills there or musical characterizations. So we’re going to listen to a little bit more of this, and now we want to shift our attention over to the issue of the relationship between the voice and the orchestra. And this is very different from what happens in Wagner. So we’re listening here to a typical setup of Verdi, and what is the relationship of the voice and the orchestra? What is the orchestra doing here? [music playing] Okay. Let’s pause here. What’s the orchestra doing? [sings], a little sort of pizzicato support underneath, not much more. Let’s listen to a bit more here and see what the orchestra is doing. [music playing]

Let’s pause it here. What’s the orchestra doing? Absolutely nuttin’. It’s disappearing completely. What is this? What’s going on? Well, this is the period — the great period — of bel canto singing. Literally, “bel canto” just means “beautiful song,” “beautiful song singing,” where all of the attention is focused on the voice. That’s what the audience is paying to hear. They don’t care. You almost get an amplified guitar underneath there and play that accompaniment so it’s all in the voices here. And again it’s very different than the orchestrally dominated score of Wagner. So let’s listen to the end of this aria, voices alone. [music playing]

Chapter 3. The Scena in Opera [00:19:37]

Okay. So that’s the first big aria together; indeed it’s a duet. Now we’re going on — to move on here in La Traviata to something called a scena. And a scena — the Italian word “scena” of course is simply “scene” but in opera it’s a little bit more complex than that. What we have is an amalgam of three items. We have an aria followed by a recitative followed by another aria, and that final aria is a very fast aria. Indeed it’s something called a cabaletta, that we’ll talk about later on.

So now we’re moving on our text sheet here to the second arrow, where we have an aria sung by Violetta. She’s saying to herself — she’s off by herself — “Ah, perhaps he is the one that I have been waiting for. Maybe this is finally the great true love of my life.” Let’s listen to a little bit of this. [music playing] All right. We’ll stop there.

Obviously, this is an aria because there’s so much attention on just producing sound, sliding all the way up to that high note, and it happens to be in a minor key. Then she begins to reflect further on this and she says, “Well, no. This is not what I want to do. Think about my situation here. Here I am in Paris, alone and abandoned.” We’re going to go on to the next arrow here down a little bit below: “Folia, folio, delirio e vanno e questo povera donna” — “Poor Lady” — “Solo, abbandonata in questo…” [quotes in Italian] “What am I going to do? Well, I’m going to enjoy myself.”

So what we have here is a recitative, but it’s a different kind of recitative than we’ve had up to this point in our course. Up to this point, we’ve had recitative called “simple recitative” and this is the recitative of the seventeenth and eighteenth century that — in which the particular protagonist would be going along and trying to relate what is happening at that time and then would come to the end of a section [plays piano], something like that, and would be accompanied only very lightly by a keyboard underneath.

And that — that’s kind of all that’s accompanied. But now we move on to a bigger kind of accompanying, orchestrally accompanied recitative. It’s got this fancy Italian-sounding word, recitativo accompagnato. We could pronounce it that way or just say “accompanied recitative.” It’s the same deal. You get the full orchestra accompanying rather than just the keyboard. So let’s listen to a good example of nineteenth-century recitative but recitative that is fully accompanied. [music playing]

So here we are at the third arrow, [music playing] a lot of tremolo in the strings. [music playing] “What am I going to do?” “Che faro deggio?” [music playing] Now this is a very joyful setting of the word “gioire.” [music playing]

And then the third part of our scena begins. Now we have the beginning of a fast aria. It’s called a cabaletta. It’s an operatic device. It usually appears at the end of the scene in order to allow the protagonist to make a strong declaration or an emphatic statement and then enthusiastically exit stage left or stage right. It’s a kind of convention to get the protagonist off the stage. Let’s listen to a couple of seconds of this and we’re going to come back to this particular cabaletta, “Sempre Libre.” It’s a famous one — virtually every major soprano has sung it — in which Violetta vows to remain always free. [music playing]

All right. We’re going to stop it there. We will come back to that. But of course, Violetta doesn’t remain free. She succumbs to the advances of Alfredo. The two of them live blissfully together for a while, then quarrel, separate. Ultimately, they are reunited after a period of time, but she has developed consumption, tuberculosis, akin to the AIDS of the nineteenth century, and she dies at the end of the opera. We’ve talked about this convention of opera before. Remember: “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” That’s probably a silly remark about opera. In this case, it ain’t over until the thin lady sings because on our video we have the role of Violetta sung by Teresa Stratas, the very thin Teresa Stratas — and she is a very fine actress indeed. That’s why she was chosen for this video production.

So that, in brief, is the story of La Traviata and you’ve got a video of it that I ask you to watch scenes out of. It’s directed by Franco Zefirelli and it was a production that he put together in the mid 1980s and it’s still used at the Met [ever since]. Again if you go there Thursday night, if you can pony up the expensive — the big bucks for the tickets — boy, are they expensive — you can see this Zefirelli production — with different singers of course, [from those] that are on — than those on the video, but it’s still being produced — all the sets and the costumes and all, exactly as you will see it there in your video.

Chapter 4. Critical Assessment of Vocal Performance [00:26:59]

Okay. So now what I want to do with the rest of the session today, having established a little bit about Verdi and a little bit about La Traviata, is talk about singers’ voices — what to listen for with regard to singers. When we went to the Saybrook Orchestra concert and we went to the Jonathan Edwards makeup concert we were engaging a critical ear with regard to hearing instrumental sounds, orchestral sounds. Well, now we want to do the same thing [music playing] with regard to vocal sound.

So what is it that makes a good operatic singer? Anybody in here take — ever take some voice lessons? I bet you have. Don’t be bashful now. Kristin? Okay. Did you ever try singing any opera? Okay. Oh, good for you. Well, tell us about it. I don’t mean to put you on the spot here. Do you remember — what was — any particular opera that you remember?

Student: Gianni Schicchi.

Professor Craig Wright: Gianni Schicchi. Oh, how interesting. That has that beautiful “O Mio Babbino Caro” that we used as an example of melody a little bit earlier in our course so — by Puccini, of course.

So let’s talk about this for a minute. What constitutes a good operatic voice? — which may be a little bit different than what constitutes a good church voice or a good synagogue voice or a good mosque voice on top of a minaret, whatever it might happen to be. We’re talking opera here. What do you need to have to have a good operatic voice? What would you guess? Well, nice tone, a nice tone, and a tone that’s even from top to bottom. Oftentimes you run in to singers that have what’s called a break in their voice. It might have one tone quality in the lower register and then you can hear it shift in to a different tone quality in the upper register. So you — we don’t want that. We want a kind of smooth quality from beginning to end. Richness of tone color. Other things. Roger, you had your hand up. Anything you want to add to that?

Student: The need to project —

Professor Craig Wright: Okay. Project the voice. That’s very important. You’ve got to have a powerful voice. You have to have a powerful voice because if you’re singing at the Met — this came up in my section the other day — are you allowed to have microphones there? No, not at the Metropolitan Opera. You have to have a natural voice that’s going to fill that auditorium of twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven hundred people. If you go to a Broadway show, are the singers amplified by microphones there — “Phantom of the Opera”? Yes, they certainly are. And we talked about that, how that sound is picked up and immediately sent to a mixing board in the back and there’s an electronic engineer there manipulating that sound. But for opera singers — you don’t get to do that. You have to have a powerful voice that’s going to fill the hall and they want you to fill the hall. They want to fill the hall ‘cause they got to sell tickets. So they want big halls. So you have to have a powerful voice.

What about the quality of the voice? Well, the bigger the hall oftentimes you have to generate a vibrato. Right? And we’ve talked about that with string players. But what’s the liability of a vibrato? Well, sometimes it can get so big that it becomes uncomfortable. What is the pitch, please? So we have to have a well-focused voice. You have to have a powerful voice, a well-focused voice, and so on.

So let’s listen to a couple of famous singers here in the course of the twentieth century. I am struck by this ‘cause a lot of my acquaintances like this music. I was interested this morning that our cameraman, Jude, said that each morning his mother listens to Pavarotti and Bocelli. So here is Andrea Bocelli. And let’s listen to a little bit of his singing. How many of you know who this fellow Bocelli is? Most of you. Okay. He’s frequently on television. So listen — a little bit of Andrea Bocelli and we’ll focus — try to comment on his voice. [music playing]

Okay. I’d better stop it there before I get in trouble. What do you think of that voice? What do you think of that sound? Would you buy that? Is that opera? Well, it’s a little — it is kind of an operatic voice. Actually, he studied with Pavarotti. Is it as good as Pavarotti’s voice? Well, I — we don’t have all morning to focus on this. No, it’s not as good as Pavarotti’s voice. He goes in the upper register and he can’t hold the notes for as long [as Pavarotti]. It’s more pinched. You feel that he’s uncomfortable there. In terms of the style of this music, is — why is this not — and this is something — what makes this not a real opera aria here, different than an opera aria right at the beginning? It’s much more rhythmic. Right? It’s got a back beat to it and has a strong bass component and a strong rhythmic component. It’s what I call “pop-op” or “op-pop,” either way, “popular opera,” “opular popera,” whatever. There’s a kind of blend between the two so it’s somewhere between opera and pop music.

Chapter 5. Major Opera Singers of the 20th and 21st Centuries [00:33:06]

Let’s go on now to talk about the two tenors that have dominated the twentieth century and one of them continues to dominate in the twenty-first century, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Okay. Let’s start with Domingo — really developed as a baritone voice, then a second tenor, and then pushed himself up in to the higher range to sing first tenor, but not initially trained as a first tenor. A highly intelligent man, a great actor, a conductor. It’s fascinating. Sometimes he will sing a matinee and then in the evening will go in to the pit to conduct an opera, so a really impressive musician, but maybe not the voice of Pavarotti.

Let’s listen to the two of them sing the same passage, and we have this at the bottom of your sheet here. It’s a cabaletta in which the hero, Alfredo, vows to wash away the sin that has been visited on his family. He’s going to wash away this disgrace. So he’s going to say, “I’m going to wash this away” and then he’s going to exit the stage. So let’s listen to Domingo sing this passage. You have the text, again, at the bottom of your sheet. [music playing] Okay. No comment. Let’s go on now to listen to Luciano Pavarotti sing the same passage. [music playing] So what’s the difference, maybe two things there that are immediately evident? Roger.

Student: He has a stronger voice —

Professor Craig Wright: He has a stronger, more powerful voice. I had to ask them to turn down the volume. It’s huge and it’s rich too. Anything else there? We were talking about — Emily, is it? Uh huh.

Student: Pavarotti has stamina.

Professor Craig Wright: Yeah. You heard at the end there — I was starting to look at my watch just as — Domingo held that note for four seconds. It’s like a diving contest or something. We’re going to hold up a ten or a seven after this jump here. But Domingo held this for four seconds. Pavarotti held it for eleven seconds — just a hugely high note. I think it’s a high C. It’s way up here. [plays piano] I don’t know. Maybe somebody with absolute pitch can tell us what that was, a hugely high note, and he just sat on this thing, powerful, beautiful tone. It really is — was — amazing.

Now I think through the marvels of modern technology here — and we may crash and burn — we will find out — take a look here at Pavarotti singing what might have been his signature aria, “Nessun Dorma,” out of Turandot and you have Turandot discussed in the exoticism chapter of your textbook. And the set-up here, as Lynda cues this particular — is that he — “Nessun Dorma” means no one will sleep. He’s going to go out and find the answer to the riddle that will allow him to be successful in his conquest of this ice-cold princess that he wants to make amorous advances upon. So here’s Luciano Pavarotti sing — This is the end of “Nessun Dorma” and here’s Pavarotti with Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Phil. And thanks to Lynda for helping me out and getting all of these things up and bookmarks and queued and things. [music playing]

Okay. So that’s the great Luciano Pavarotti and he was great. In terms of male voices, I’ve never heard — and I’ve listened to a bit of this, going backtracking into the 1920s, and I’ve never heard anything like this in the entire twentieth century — but a word of caution. You can go on YouTube here and you’ll see Pavarotti’s picture coming up with the same aria and maybe four or five different recordings of it. When was Pavarotti really good and when did he stop being really good? Don’t buy anything of Pavarotti after 1980.. From ‘seventy eight, ‘seventy-nine, ‘eighty — that’s the heyday of Pavarotti’s recordings and they’re spectacular. Nobody could touch this guy. But thereafter they really do begin to decline and you could do comparative — comparisons of these various recordings over time to watch the decline, and it’s sort of sad, but it’s the natural process of the aging of the voice and the aging of the body.

So now we’re going to talk about the ladies. We have a number of different voice terms here, vocal terms applying to particular registers. The lowest part of the female operatic register is called the contralto and there are some floating around. There used to be Maria — Maureen Forrester. Across the street at our School of Music, Lili Chookasian used to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. She teaches — is still teaching at the School of Music. I went to school with a woman named Joyce Castle, a contralto, frequently singing with the Met. So that’s the kind of low part, the alto, if you will, of the female voice in opera.

Then we have the mezzo-soprano, kind of half-soprano, mezzo, mezzo forte: half loud. That’s [halfway] between an alto and a soprano. Frequently, we’ve had here at Yale Frederica von Stade. She’s a good example of a mezzo-soprano, sneaking up in to the soprano range.

Then we have a soprano voice called the lyric soprano so we’re up in the high part of the female range, the lyric soprano, lovely sound, a smooth sound.

We also have a soprano called a dramatic soprano and these are voices like Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson and more recently Jane Eaglen, Deborah Voigt. These are the women that sing Wagner and sing Strauss where you really need superhuman, large voices with plenty of powerful, well-focused vibrato.

And then finally we have a voice range called the coloratura, the very top part of the soprano range — very high, tends to be light, tends — if it’s good — tends to be well focused. What does a coloratura sound like? We don’t have a visual here but we do have the leading, I think, coloratura today, Natalie Dessay, singing just a bit of something called the coloratura soprano just to give you a sense of what a coloratura sounds like. [music playing] You get the idea, high and light. That’s what the coloratura is all about.

Now we’re going to focus on four sopranos singing the same aria by way of comparison here. And the aria in question is the part of that scena that we were dealing with before, “Ah, forse lui, Folia, Folia” and ultimately “Sempre Libre.”

The first soprano we’re going to start with is Nellie Melba. She was an Australian soprano and was the leading prima donna around the turn of the twentieth century. So this recording — This particular recording was made here on our own historical sound collection off of an old vinyl. It goes back to ninteen oh-five. So here’s Nellie Melba singing. It’s a very interesting voice. Tell me what you think about it. Put two adjectives with this voice. [music playing] Okay. Let’s stop it right there. What did you think? Santana and Lynda, you’re both professional singers. What did you think of Nellie Melba here? Your head is elsewhere but any thoughts?

Student: I love it. But it sounds like you’re allowed to have a much smaller of a voice —

Professor Craig Wright: Okay. Yes. “I love it but it sounds like you’re allowed to have a much smaller voice.” The Wagnerian voice hadn’t carried the whole world at this point and we think that this is much more typical of nineteenth-century singing: well focused, right on pitch but lighter, perhaps something closer to the coloratura.

Now we’re going to move on for reasons of time to another video and we’re going to hear the dominant prima donna of the mid-twentieth century and that was Maria Callas. Anybody ever heard of Maria Callas? Okay. [music playing] She was something of a fashion statement, a femme fatale and soprano that dominated the operatic stage in the 1950s. Let’s listen to a bit of her singing. Let’s see if you like it. [music playing]

Let’s stop it there. Do you like that sound? Yes or no. How many like it? How many don’t like it? It reminds me of the fact that one town that in California recently passed or a couple years ago passed an ordinance. To get vagrants out of this particular shopping center, they would pipe nothing but Maria Callas over the public address system. It’s a very kind of sharp, penetrating voice and the older she got the wider that vibrato got, so some people don’t find that particular — that sound particularly attractive.

Let’s go on to — not in chronologic order ‘cause I’m going to finish with somebody else — but the reigning diva of today, Renée Fleming from Rochester, New York. Her mother is a public school teacher, was a public school voice teacher in Rochester, so she’s just a hometown girl from Rochester here, but now she is the glamour girl, the poster girl, for all of the — all sopranos in opera. And I think we have a video of the famous Renée Fleming — always sells out the Met — singing this material, and as we listen what interests me here is her capacity to control the voice. Wow. She sort of can sit that tone out there and just spin it this way or spin it that way, slow it down, make it roll faster. It really — it may not be the biggest. It may not be the most — always the richest — but boy, it is sure the most controlled of these sopranos that I have seen. [music playing] Okay. So very impressive. And then finally we’re going to hear from — oh, question. Daniel.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: I don’t know how they do it. I’ve never — I have enough trouble standing up and singing, but I guess you wonder about that, how they can do that, how they can keep that pressure and tone and all, reclined like that but they always do it. It’s not unusual to see that. And we’re going to end here with a couple of things, Joan Sutherland, probably the greatest soprano of the twentieth century. She really also reached her peak about 1980 and she frequently sang with Pavarotti and on the CDs for your — our course here, I have chosen Pavarotti and Sutherland singing La Traviata because I get to choose these particular CDs, the recordings that go on our CDs. So here you’re going to see a bit of Joan Sutherland. She wasn’t particularly distinguished as an actress but boy, what a voice, and what you’re going to hear here — and I’ll play this very quickly. We’ve got a line that’s going [plays piano]. She’s going to add a soprano line here that goes — jumps up an octave higher than Verdi actually wrote it, and if you listen to Fleming in this aria Fleming will end here; [plays piano] Sutherland will end [plays piano] a full octave higher. So let’s listen to this woman with a beautiful coloratura, very well focused, powerful in all ranges, sort of the complete voice.

And then on the way out while we’re loading this, we have the “Habanera” of Bizet on our quiz and we’re going to have an alternative performance of Bizet’s “Habanera.” Listen to your CDs. Let’s go to our last clip. You remember the “Habanera” with the [plays piano] and so on, the descending chromatic scale, ostinato underneath. I found a better version of this. I don’t know whether this is the dumbest thing [music playing] you have ever seen; it probably is. Or it’s really funny. I can’t tell. [music playing] So I don’t know what kind of soprano voice this is, but it sure is different. [music playing] Okay. So lets see if we — I — I’m still after — Here’s Sutherland. [music playing]

[end of transcript]

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