Within the Shadow Jury and between colleagues in the Sibelius Academy lobby, I’ve had many discussions about the absence of dramatic voices from this year’s competition. As one of my colleagues put it: ”There’s not even a single Tosca here”. Dear readers, please do not misunderstand me: I do not mean that “dramatic” would be synonymous with “better”. It is simply that I would be delighted to hear them – if for no other reason, then simply because some diversity is always good. There are not that many operas where the cast includes only lyric voices.
One reason for this absence of dramatic voices might be the age limit. The biggest, most voluminous dramatic voices mature slowly, and very few can at the age of thirty compete against lyric voices, who bloom earlier vocally and simply have had the time to advance further at that age. Of course there are exceptions, there are wunderkinds whose dramatic voices mature early. However, this later maturing is a problem for dramatic voices not only in competitions: the society today expects a person to complete studies in five and a half years, and to have a Master’s degree, job and a mortgage loan when he or she reaches thirty. It is not easy to continue singing studies and slowly start up a career as a heldentenor against these expectations. Not every prospective singer has the tenacity to tolerate this uncertain waiting game, and head for other professions, leaving singing behind. To compensate, there are those who start in the “other profession” and make a singing career later: for example Catherine Foster, who has performed as Brünnhilde here at the Finnish National Opera as well as in Bayreuth worked as a midwife for years before her singing career – if my memory serves, she was well over thirty when she debuted as a singer.
Another reason for the absence of dramatic voices could be the preliminary elimination round, based on taped voice samples. Without having a formal study to back me up, a shared opinion amongst both singers and recording professionals seems to be that a big dramatic voice is far more difficult to record with a beautiful outcome, than a more compact lyrical voice. Especially cheapish, amateur-class recording equipment “clip” at loud sounds, and cut off some of the upper harmonics of the recording. Both contribute to a recording, where the “clang” and dynamics of the big voice are not captured, and the result is a flat-sounding, dull recording. Furthermore, for a good quality recording of a dramatic voice, one needs a sizeable quality room, and not every young singer has the financial means to rent out a suitable venue and hire a professional recording engineer. This is of course a pity, but then again, the eliminatory round jury really cannot take the risk associated with selecting a singer to a competition despite a bad quality recording.
Third reason might be the obligatory repertoire. For example a 17th or 18th century aria from a mass, cantata, passion or oratory for a dramatic voice is rather difficult to find. Even though one is able to sing Bach with a Wagnerian voice, it goes so heavily against performance tradition, that for many listeners it would simply sound wrong or at least odd. Of course this problem with repertoire affects to certain extent others as well – for example, lyrical baritones have a similar problem when selecting this piece, and they might end up singing bass parts from masses and passions – but the whole repertoire issue would need yet another blog entry to elaborate further.
I wish everyone a happy weekend listening to the Semifinals of the competition!
Jenni Lättilä is a Finnish soprano whose natural habitat encompasses both operatic and concert stages, as well as academic circles, but she prefers spending her leisure time in the silent Finnish forests with her beagles. Jenni is doing her best to break every possible “opera diva” stereotype, but still can’t help loving high heeled designer shoes passionately.