Idiom oddity

La Cieca has posted a recording of Renee Fleming singing “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Words fail.

Even better is La Cieca’s remix. Enterprising folks can make their own.

This is an especially funny (both ha-ha funny and funny as in peculiar) example of what happens when crossover goes wrong. Elsewhere in the Parterre vaults is an audio clip of Renata Scotto singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at a farewell gala for Beverly Sills. Even better is the story that goes with it. Ethel Merman had to share a dressing room with La Scotto:

About 15 minutes before curtain time, the quiet hum of backstage activity is rent by a sudden yell of “Jesus Christ!”

Everyone turns around, and suddenly Merman bolts into the corridor, wearing only bra, panty girdle, hose, platform shoes, body microphone, wig and jewelry. Someone asks, “Is something wrong, Miss Merman?”

Merman trumpets, “Somebody tell that insane bitch in there to shut up with the goddamn vocalizing! For two hours she’s been at it, and she’s driving me fucking crazy!”

Peering into the dressing room one sees La Scotto calmly seated before the mirror in caftan and turban. She takes a sip of hot tea with honey, gently clears her throat and sings:”Some-where . . . Some-where o-ver . . . no, no, cosi non va bene . . . Some-where . . . ah, ah, meglio, meglio . . . Some-where, o-ver the . . . ah, NO! Some-where o-ver the rain-bow . . . ah, si, si . . . that’s it! Some-where . . .”

And Merman growls: “Tell that bitch that if she can’t sing the fucking song by now, she’ll never get it!”

The voice is a telltale medium, unforgiving of crossover. Benny Goodman playing the Mozart clarinet quintet is plausible, if unexciting. But singers trying a style of music outside their specialty are naked before our ear’s ability to detect minute distinctions of diction, timbre, attack, intonation, etc. If you haven’t really marinated in the idiom you’re singing — if you haven’t fully absorbed its unwritten traditions — you just end up pissing off Ethel Merman.

This is interesting. The singer, CaroLuna Michelson, claims some conservatory training, but to my ear she’s basically a pop singer. A while back I was listening to a recording of Maria Callas coaching a soprano named Pamela Hebert in Callas’s legendary masterclasses at Juilliard. Hebert sang “Casta Diva,” and Callas threw a tiny diva fit (“I cannot let that go by. I will not let that go by.”) over the fact that, on the little turn ornament at the end of the first note of the aria, Hebert sharpened the lower-neighbor tone. This is a mistake, Callas explains; this is not Bellini’s style, and the vocal tradition does not allow it. I was curious about this, and listened to about a half-dozen recordings of Casta Diva, especially from the early part of the century. And Callas is right — no-one adds the sharp on the lower neighbor tone. It may sound like a small detail, but when CaroLuna does it, it sticks out painfully — it’s a part of this sort of “American Idol” style she does. (Listen also to the way she ends the first phrase.) Compare CaroLuna with Callas:

See what I mean?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Idiom oddity

  1. Scraps says:

    Whe I read Henry Pleasants’ book on the great popular singers of the twentieth century (the book stops in the 1970s), I was startled when he explained that modern classical music singing simply did not allow messing about with the notes as written; singers did not interpret, they sang what everyone else sang, more or less well.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Basically true, and not only of singers. The interpretive limits within which classical performers can work have been drawn tighter and tighter throughout the century — the book to read on the subject is Robert Philip’s “Performing Music in the Age of Recording,” although he doesn’t really deal with singers too much. We’re now at an interesting point, where reissue projects like Grove Music’s Andante box sets and Naxos Historical releases are popular and available and musicians are getting a better idea of what classical music sounded like before the modern fetish for clean, impersonal performance. But it’s one thing to hear older performance styles and another to emulate them. Glenn Gould is someone to mention in this context — he was more willing to mess with the printed text than almost anyone, and Gould who has enjoyed the best posthumous career of anyone. I think a lot of people envy the freedom he felt, even if they’re at a loss to figure out how to justify the liberties they’d like to take.

  3. Kip W says:

    Let’s see… Heifetz recorded pop music under an assumed name, and also recorded “bad” music under another assumed name.
    On the other side of the formula, Barbra Streisand recorded an album of classical tunes with results that I rather enjoyed, but which are kryptonite to opera lovers. It’s just about the only thing of hers I like — she has a swell voice, and an awesome technique that lets her sing a song setting of Chopin’s op64 #1 up to speed and be completely understandable — but when she’s doing her thing, she seems utterly lacking in taste. I keep coming back to what she did to “Tonight” — sounded like someone throttling a goose. “To-NIGHT, to-ni-hi-hi-hi-hi-HIGHT!…”

  4. Phil Ford says:

    What Heifetz recordings do you mean? Sounds interesting . . .

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