This summer I didn’t hire an renowned caterer for our wedding anniversary whose food quality and presentation were unmatched. Here’s why. He had the idea that his food was supposed to be the centerpiece of our 25th anniversary party. Some of his ideas didn’t support our vision and our preferences for our evening. Though certainly an important element, the food was not the only element crucial to an enjoyable celebration. We ended up having a lovely celebration and good food because balance was more important to us than one single element.
Last month I saw an opera in which the conductor seemed to have forgotten why the audience came to see the opera in the first place–to hear the singers, not expressly to hear the orchestra. Some friends happened to be sitting in the eighth row and had little trouble hearing the singers. By comparison, I was in the 22nd row. While the highest notes soared over the orchestra–to their credit–not to the maestro’s–many of the passages in the middle of the singers’ ranges were lost.
To this listener, this proved very frustrating. The composer didn’t write a score consisting of only high notes. Yet, the maestro continued to pound the sound out of his skilled players, act after act, overpowering the singers. By the end of Act Two, I wished I could have served him a restraining order.
An opera orchestra doesn’t have to be loud to demonstrate vitality. To my ear, there’s nothing more exciting than the maestro who works to support and enhance his singers, masterfully restraining his orchestra so we can hear all the timbres of all the singers in the middle-range and lower passages as well.
British conductor and violinist Sir Neville Marriner, who founded the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has commented on how certain instruments can eat up the sounds of singers. ‘The cellos and violas, thick in the middle, can wipe out voices,” he said of contraltos.
And the same can be said for other instruments which are capable of smothering other singers’ ranges, if the conductor isn’t judicious. Sometimes this issue of restraint is addressed by the composer. Think of the aria in Act I of Norma, Casta diva, in which Bellini’s simply elegant accompaniment allows the voice to float above the orchestra.
Lacking any organic attention to restraint (via the score), it’s incumbent on the maestro to use discretion and finesse. Because like the food at our anniversary party, which was very good, the food wasn’t the reason for the celebration.
Here’s a clip of Casta diva. In the first several seconds, you hear Bellini’s masterful composition which allowing us to hear all the rich colors in Anna Netrebko’s voice, not merely the high notes: