The Wagnerian Singer
PRIMA DONNA SOPRANO, METROPOLITAN OPERA
Secured Expressly for The Etude Music Magazine
By Rose Heylbut
WHEN I WAS A GIRL, I used to wonder about what seemed to me a rather curious method of classifying singers. The grown-ups would talk of Madame G………. as “a singer” and of Madame S………. as “a Wagnerian singer.” This puzzled me. Did “Wagnerian” mean a special kind of voice? And, if not, why make such a distinction? Could not any skillfully trained singer sing any kind of music? Well, today I am fortunate enough to be termed a “Wagnerian singer” myself, and I appreciate clearly what the difference is. Perhaps at some time you, too, may have wondered about it?
Wagnerian roles, as a whole, require a special sort of voice, special training, and, above all, perhaps, a special mental preparation for which I can think of no better name than a spiritual approach. No singer with a naturally light voice should attempt the Wagnerian parts, which demand great power, great compass of voice, and great volume of tone. A small voice of firm quality may grow into these parts. I know this from experience; but an organ which is naturally light in timbre would best leave them alone. The Wagnerian roles are tremendously long parts. Isolde requires exactly one hour and twenty minutes of actual singing; Elizabeth is really a comparatively brief part, so far as continued singing goes; yet both demand a large, full, strong voice.
A New Singing Art
THE REASON for this goes back to Wagner’s own intention in writing these operas, or music dramas, as he preferred to call them. You will recall that Wagner rebelled against the “lighter” school of opera, like those of Rossini, for example, where the artists sang tuneful melodies or displayed vocal fireworks against a conventional, even unimportant, orchestral accompaniment. Wagner had a very different purpose. He wished to blend voices, orchestra, words, and action into one complete whole; no one element was to be more important than another; and the entire result was to be not merely a series of melodies but a complete musical delineation of life and emotion.
A system of this kind is a departure from the more conventional opera and places a greater responsibility upon the singer. He must learn to be a cooperative member of a vast musical group rather than an individual “star”; and, vocally, he must constantly assert himself along with a powerful and richly scored orchestra. Thus, at the outset, all Wagnerian roles require the sort of singing which is not accompanied by an orchestra, properly speaking, but in which the singer must rise to a plane of equality with it. This, in a few words, means that the Wagnerian interpreter, more than any other, must sing with a full, large, round tone. That is what we mean by designating these parts as “heavy” roles. They require singers with big voices and much physical endurance.
Further, in his insistence on the single, well-rounded dramatic whole, Wagner was careful to leave very exact instructions as to the way in which he wished his music song. Now, when most singers cover a large vocal span, from a low note to a high one or the reverse, they almost unconsciously use a slight glissando, swooping upon their tones in a vocal arc. In Wagner this is taboo, and by Wagner’s own indications. Unless the interval is specially marked with a glissando slur, it may not be “swooped” upon, or delivered in a portamento style. Each tone must be attacked clearly and separately. This is a difficult thing to master without much practice, especially in such skips as may not be interrupted for a fresh breath. And Wagner is full of just such skips! For the listener, they stand as one of his greatest and richest individualities.
The Wagnerian Method
AGAIN, WE MUST remember that Wagner wrote his own lyric text, not as an “opera libretto” but as independent dramatic verse, equally important with voice and orchestra. This at once lifts the text out of the category of words that have simply been “set to music.” They are vital in themselves, throwing light on the characters’ thoughts and actions; and, as such, they must reach the hearers as clearly as the music itself. This of course involves a special diction problem. The words must be both spoken and sung! Even a native German has to prepare very carefully for Wagnerian diction; and non-Germans, such as you and I, must make a special study, not only of German, but also of German refined for Wagner! I have found that the great point for which to work is a crisp, concise explosion of consonant values. My native Norwegian is not so explosive a language as German; it is perhaps more like English in the quality of its sounds; and I had to give special care to the sharp, incisive d’s, p’s, b’s, k’s, t’s, and w’s, when first I began singing Wagner in German.
My own career has been different from that of most Metropolitan singers, in that I had comparatively little earlier experience in wide repertory work. Before coming here I had sung only in Norway and Sweden, except for two seasons in Bayreuth. In my native Oslo we sang Wagner in Norwegian. When I arrived at Bayreuth, to sing for Frau Wagner and Intendant Tietjen, I sang as I was accustomed to singing and soon learned that my Wagner style was not the orthodox Bayreuth style! I was told that my diction was not crisp enough. Also, I needed to enlarge my voice. That meant setting to work, not only on the roles I was to sing, but also on a complete study of the special Wagner style, covering the points I have just outlined. By the end of that season, though, I, too, had a Wagner style.
From Small Beginnings
IT IS READILY understandable that one can improve ones diction; but how, you will ask, could I enlarge the power of my voice? By progressing slowly, by never forcing the voice in any way, and by sparing myself no effort. I can truthfully say that my voice reached its present scope less than three years ago. As a girl and as a music student, I had a very small voice. Indeed it is solely because my voice was so small that I chanced to take singing lessons at all!
Mine is a musical family. My father was an orchestral conductor, and my mother still conducts performances of opera and operetta in Oslo and coaches singers in their parts. She is called “the musical Mama of Oslo,” not because of me but because so many singers depend on her for help in their work. Before I was six, I could sing many of the Schubert songs, simply from hearing them at home. I was taught the piano, and I taught myself several parts; Elsa at thirteen, and next, Aida; but I never was expected to be a musician. My parents thought there should be at least one “practical” member of the family and wanted me to become a doctor. I passed my preliminary academic examinations two years younger than most students, worked too hard, and had a breakdown. So I did not study medicine after all.
When I was confirmed we had a party at home and I sang arias out of “Lohengrin” and “Aida” to help entertain the guests. A musical friend of my mother’s said it was a pity to use so small a voice for such heavy music, and offered to give me a few lessons, just to keep me from ruining my voice. We began very slowly, very carefully, letting the voice come out as naturally as possible. Then as my breathing improved and the voice became freer, my teacher said that its quality was good. Indeed she predicted that within two or three years I might even be ready to think about public work. Neither my family or I put much faith in such hopes, and I was set to learning stenography as a means of livelihood.
Then, two years later, a performance of “Tiefland” was organized in Oslo and I was allowed to try out for the part of the child. I was the thirteenth candidate heard at the audition, and I got the part. Two months later I made my debut—at eighteen. I had never intended to be an operatic singer, and yet my operatic career had begun. My voice found favor; some kind music patrons of the city offered to finance my further studies; and I was sent to Stockholm to work. After my study years, I returned to Oslo and sang many roles in Italian, French, and German. Elsa and Eva were my first Wagnerian roles. Two and a half years ago, I sang Isolde, my first role in German. I was invited to give an audition at Bayreuth, and there it was that I came into personal contact with the requirements of the “Wagnerian style.”
Enjoy Kirsten Flagstad and the Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera (Wilfred Pelletier conducting) in a performance of “Ho jo To ho” from Richard Wagner’s Die Walkure:
Let Nature Have Her Way
ALL ALONG, my voice had remained comparatively small. Study had improved it greatly, of course; but, even though I was singing large roles, it had not yet reached its full power. My voice developed by its use in singing. That is the best method I can recommend. I am certain that the mastery of Isolde gave me my full voice. Once a student has a firm background of correct personal singing methods, the only sensible thing is to go ahead and apply them, allowing time and proper vocal habits to open up the voice. Some voices may take longer than others to reach their full scope, as did mine; but the natural method is the only one to follow. Forcing the voice for more power defeats its own purpose and ruins the organ. Whatever one is to have vocally, must come naturally, for singing is a natural physical activity.
I do not believe, however, in pampering the voice. One reason why my voice grew, I think, is because I always allowed it fullest scope. I do all my practicing, coaching, and rehearsing in full voice. I never use mezza voce, unless the score specifically call for it. While I should not go so far as to advocate this for another, whose voice and general robustness may be different from my own, I can tell you that it has helped me greatly.
While studying Isolde, I sang the entire part every day in full voice, and then appeared at the theater in the evening for my regular performance. Thus, I sang two Wagnerian roles a day. I worked hard. Then, when I had the part well in hand, I noticed a strange thing: I weighed exactly the same as I had weighed before, and I certainly looked no stouter; but the sleeves of my dresses were bursting out in the back! What had happened was that my lung expansion had developed. And then it was that my voice sounded fuller, more powerful, more dramatic. Intendant Tietjen, who had heard me earlier, exclaimed that he would not believe it to be the same voice. It grew by slow, natural methods of development, and by unsparing hard work.
Creating the Role
BUT TO RETURN to our discussion of the Wagnerian singer’s needs. We have touched upon the requisites of voice and study; let us now consider that question of “spiritual approach.” The power of the Wagnerian characters lies in the fact that they are not “story book people”—they are actual figures of history and legend, who present to us real life, real emotion, real conflict. Without in any way disparaging the other operatic heroines, I think you will agree with me that Isolde stands as the greatest tragic figure in opera. She does not merely represent a woman tragically and fatefully in love; she is that woman. She is the very embodiment, not of a person in a tale but of a force that might come into the life of any one of us.
It is this utter and supreme reality which the Wagnerian singer must learn to capture. How to do it? By absorbing the part completely; by living with it, becoming it. By learning all one can of the age, the habits, the customs and the history of the character and her times. By lowing one’s own identity in that of the character, instead of merely dressing up one’s identity to “play a part.” All this is extremely elusive to talk about, I know; and yet it is one of the most important requisites of Wagnerian singing.
And finally, I should counsel all aspiring young singers to crown as much versatility as possible into their work. Here again I speak from experience. My own preparatory work lacked versatility, for the simple reason that there was no way of getting a truly wide repertory at home. Opera in Oslo is not what it is here. We have no full operatic season, where a different work is mounted every night, and the same singer may have a chance to take part in two or three different types of opera each week. In Oslo we have a theater which gives regular plays during the year, and then four or five weeks of opera, in addition. Perhaps only two or three operas are given during the season, and they are repeated each evening for a week or longer. Thus one might sing every night, but always in the same parts.
In Stockholm, of course, they do have a varied repertory; but the smaller Scandinavian cities proceed after the fashion of Oslo. In Gothenburg, for instance, where I appeared just before coming to join the Metropolitan, I sang only two operas—twelve time in “Fidelio” and fourteen times in “Tannhauser.” I had to learn the flexible versatility of operatic repertory over here; and it is an excellent thing.
Another thing I learned over here is the wonderful kindness of you Americans. Never in my life had I dreamed that people could be so warm, so generous, so truly welcoming to a perfect stranger. It has been the richest possible experience to come here, and I shall always count it gratefully as the high point of my career.
SELF-TEST QUESTIONS ON MISS FLAGSTAD’S ARTICLE
1. What special requirements does the Wagnerian opera demand of the singer?
2. How long does Isolde sing in a single performance?
3. In what particular way does Wagnerian singing demand an approach of tone
different from that of much other singing?
4. What method of developing the full resources of the voice is here recommended?
5. What is a distinctive quality of Wagner’s characters in his operas, and why?
Enjoy the following documentary on Kirsten Flagstad:
THE ETUDE MUSIC MAGAZINE – November 1935