Tag Archives: singing

maestros shouldn’t need restraining orders

Our 25th anniversary party

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.  

An opera orchestra


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:  



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don’t quote me . . .

Many fine singing teachers were never singers at all or didn’t have good enough voices to become famous. You don’t have to be a chicken to cook an omelet.
–John Cargher

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“best of” countdown #3 – high-note-itis?

 (first published February 19, 2010)            

Montserrat Caballé, Spanish soprano

“High-note-itis” is a virulent condition that strikes opera singers hungry for audience approval. At endings of arias or after a long  cadenza (an ornamental passage written to display a singer’s virtuosity), singers afflicted with high-note-itis take the note that’s written, ratchet it up by a fifth (like from do to sol), or an octave  and hold onto it, before descending to the last note, to a chorus of bravos or bravas. This illness afflicts singers dying to show off their pipes, to wow the audience–that sort of thing.            

Composers want their works to be sung as written. If they wanted a certain note sung a fifth or an octave higher, they would have written it that way.            

Luciano Pavarotti, Italian tenor, occasionally afflicted with high-note-itis

Needless to say, high-note-itis is not a flattering term nor a desirable condition in a singer. It is a form of vocal gymnastics that has nothing to do with the music that’s actually written. According to J. Merrill Knapp, author of The Magic of Opera, occasionally taking a high note other than the one written can be “a legitimate operatic practice.” But when these extra notes become too numerous, it negatively impacts the entire performance.            

Ten-year-old Jackie Evancho


Addendum to the original post: Even America’s new darling, the delightful ten-year-old opera prodigy Jackie Evancho, exhibited a minor case of high-note-itis  to conclude “O Mio Babbino Caro,” which she performed on “America’s Got Talent.”  But if I had her pipes and were bringing an audience of hundreds to their feet, I might succumb to the temptation of singing the last two notes an octave higher, too. (I almost interrupted this countdown to write about Jackie–who delivered an incredible performance–likely the first time many if not most Americans ever heard “O Mio Babbino Caro,” but a countdown’s a countdown. So, I snuck her into this post instead.)

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