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European Views on North American Singers
Ronni S. Levine
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Voices6/1/2005

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In January 2005, singers from around Europe came to Como, Italy, to compete in the preliminary, semifinal, and final rounds of As.Li.Co., Associazione Lirica e Concertistica Italiana’s Competition for Young Opera Singers of Europe. Each year, As.Li.Co. auditions hundreds of young singers throughout Europe for principal roles in the Circuito Lirico Lombardo’s mainstage season. Each year, top professionals in the field of opera in Europe come together to identify some of Europe’s most promising young talent. From over 140 singers this year, two were chosen as winners of the competition and three as honorable-mention awardees.

With the hope of gaining insight into the obviously high standards and expectations for the aspiring European singer, and to better understand the motivations and rationale behind those people who work with, train, and adjudicate these singers, I sat down to talk with some of the members of the jury for As.Li.Co.’s 2005 competition: Menno Feenstra, artistic director of Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm, Sweden; Axel Joliet, artistic director of Oper Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany; Sven Mueller, artistic director of Oper Graz, Graz, Austria; Ana Esteban Arroyo, former general director of A.B.A.O. in Bilbao, Spain; and Bruno Dal Bon, president, As.Li.Co./Teatro Sociale di Como in Milan, Italy.

What was foremost in my mind was not necessarily the North American singer versus the European singer, but the concept of a European singer, if there is such a thing, and the influences that shape opera singing in Europe today. What is the operatic environment for young singers in Europe? What are the expectations of a young singer hoping to break into the world of professional opera singing in Europe? Do these expectations differ by country? What constitutes a quality audition? Is it feasible for an English-speaking person to successfully infiltrate the German or Italian market? How important is linguistic proficiency? How can a singer from North America best prepare themselves for successful entry into the European opera market? Is the European opera community open to young North American singers? If so, what are the recommended paths of entry?

Many questions with many differing viewpoints and opinions. Understandable when you consider the different cultures, traditions, and operatic histories. The trend today is moving towards a more unified European approach to opera and singing. However, honoring a singer’s cultural heritage is absolutely vital. This heritage only enriches the operatic experience and is key in defining expectation. Can a young singer with a different cultural heritage, such as a singer from the States or a Canadian or Asian singer, thrive in the European environment? Absolutely! Through intense study of musical methods and language, cultural immersion and absorption, and, of course, hard work.

Opera as a European art form

“In Europe we have a rich operatic history that is linked to our culture and traditions,” began Bruno Dal Bon. “In working with young singers we, training programs like As.Li.Co, must work to insert ourselves into that history. Everything is born from the history — where we come from.” “I don’t think there is such a thing as the Italian singer, Spanish singer, Greek singer, or American singer,” continued Dal Bon.

“I do think that there are different types of singers that are difficult to identify and are influenced by many factors. For instance, I do believe that aspects of the lyrical voice are directly tied to the language that one speaks. If you go to the Far East, like Japan, for instance, almost all the singers, especially men, sing in the back of their throats. But that is how the Japanese people place their voices when they speak. Understandably, a singer tends to adopt the position in their singing which is most similar to how they speak. Italian singing is greatly influenced by the Italian language. Our vowels are very open and have a roundness that French singing, for instance, doesn’t have.”

“I always thought I wanted the voices and technique of the U.S. singers and the soul and artistry of the Europeans,” said Menno Feenstra. “We would have the greatest of singers. But in the best of situations, I want Italian singers for Italian opera because 90 percent of what needs to be learned they already have in them. If I do a German opera, I want Germans, Scandinavians, or northern Europeans, because I know that they don’t have to think as much, they are creative with what comes from their roots. But if I do Candide, I want singers from the States — they understand what Candide is about.”

According to Dal Bon, Europeans try to defend their own operatic traditions. Although Switzerland and Italy are geographical neighbors, a singer in Los Angeles may seem closer to the Italian aesthetic than a singer from Zurich. This is because North Americans are open to absorbing the Italian opera traditions; they don’t have the deeply rooted operatic history and vocal expectations that prevail in Europe.

Axel Joliet agrees, “There is a large influx of Italian and German teachers, coaches, and singers who are now teaching in the United States who took the European tradition with them.” Respecting cultural expectations is important. Ana Esteban Arroyo said, “If I am planning a specific opera in French, for example, I try to get someone who specializes in this repertoire. Often it isn’t always that easy, however.”

Dal Bon believes that things are changing. “For many years, Italy was able to impose its own aesthetic standards on Italian lyrical repertoire abroad. My impression is that in Italy today the reverse is happening, that we are adopting aesthetic values and standards that are more Anglo-Saxon. Thirty or forty years ago in Italy, singers didn’t sing the way they do today. In the spirit of the European Union, working with young singers today in Italy means working towards finding a European singer.”

“If you want to sing the Italian repertoire in Italy,” continued Dal Bon, “it is imperative that you pay attention to pronunciation and the color of the voice. I am convinced that audiences in the U.S., Britain, Germany, Austria, etc. are more tolerant than Italian audiences. Up until the 1960s, for instance, opera was our popular culture. People of my father’s generation have heard certain cabalettas/arias thousands of times by hundreds of singers. They listened to opera on the radio like we listen to popular music today. So often people will come to the opera for the sole purpose of listening to how a singer sings a specific note in an aria. The concentration is on the singing, not necessarily the plot or the text.”“Every country in Europe is different with different audience expectations,” countered Esteban Arroyo, “For instance, German audiences are very open and liberal, while in Spain, although opening up a little more, audiences are still conservative in comparison.”

Language proficiency: Is this a must?

“In Italy, if you want to sing the Italian repertoire, you must pay attention to the word and the placement of the voice. That is imperative. Our language is the soul of our music,” said Dal Bon.

For a foreign singer coming to Italy to perform, there is a real pressure in terms of language. “You can’t sing an Italian aria, that we Italians have heard thousands of times, and mispronounce a consonant or not enunciate r’s or s’s correctly,” advised Dal Bon.

“If a singer’s voice is more appropriate for the German repertoire,” agreed Esteban Arroyo, “it would seem only appropriate that they learn German.”

“In smaller theaters in Germany, it is absolutely necessary to speak German. For the bigger repertoire houses, I don’t think it is as necessary,” said Joliet. “It can only help
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About the Author: Ronni S. Levine is currently the international relations coordinator at As.Li.Co. Prior to that she worked at OPERA America from 1997 in various capacities, culminating her tenure in 2002 as membership services manager. She has worked with The U.S. Trade Representative in Geneva, Switzerland; The University of Maryland School of Music; and The Washington Chamber Symphony in various administrative positions. She received her B.M. in voice performance from Northwestern University and her M.M. in voice from the University of Maryland.
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