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What's Opera, Doc? Part 5, Collaborations (ii). Soloists

By Alex Richards

Renatus Meszar as Wotan in Die Walkure; “Wotan’s exactly like us: he is the sum of today’s intellectual consciousness, whereas Siegfried is what we hope the human being of the future will be, but who cannot be fashioned by us, and who must make himself by means of our destruction!” (Richard Wagner).

Picture Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Previously, this subseries on collaborations looked at the Librettist . In this section, Alex turns his attention to the soloists.


The Soloists

As you’d expect from an artform that revolves around singing, the choice of soloist can make or break an operatic production – ideally based on the standard of their singing and acting ability – though it should come as no surprise that there were times when events backstage could be just as important. There are some soloists who are merely famous in the world of classical music – such as Mario Lanza or Leontyne Price. There are others who are national treasures of their respective nations – figures such as Bryn Terfel, Jussi Bjorling, or Kiri Te Kanawa. And then there are the true superstars, the likes of Luciano Pavarotti who manage to break free from the usual boundaries of classical and operatic fame to compete with the big names of the Hit Parade.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who appeared as the Australian Nellie Melba on Downton Abbey. I don't suppose anyone told the BBC there was a difference between Australia and New Zealand.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It’s easy to assume that this stardom is a function of the advent of sound recordings, and while that’s almost certainly the reason why Maria Callas has remained a household name while Adelina Patti has faded into obscurity among the general public, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only were major operatic singers of the 18th and 19th Centuries frequently enticed by composers and opera houses to lend their ‘star quality’ – at times from halfway across Europe – but many of the standard roles in the repertoire were defined by the artists who first performed them, or more fundamentally because the role was written, or adapted, with a specific individual in mind.

Sometimes this was simply because a certain artist was under contract with a company or opera house. Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden appears to have worked on this principle for their key performers – leading to the notable situation where their 1790 production Der Stein der Weisen features no arias for the role of coloratura soprano (a soprano who sings very elaborate melodies) as Josepha Hofer, née Weber, who was on maternity leave at the time. The following year, she would make her return in The Magic Flute, composed by her brother-in-law Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Even so, we can perhaps see the influence of someone who was both extremely talented and a working mother with a young child in the fact that the role of the Queen of the Night – which she would perform for the next 10 years – is comparatively small; a short scene in Act 1, a brief appearance in the finale, and in between a single explosively powerful aria in Act 2 that has gone down in history as one of the most technically demanding arias for the soprano ever written.

Josepha Hofer.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Some 70 years earlier, the combination of skilled singers and powerful personalities was a constant source of trouble for George Frideric Handel, who was given massive sums by the noble backers of the Royal Academy of Music (no relation to the later educational establishment) to recruit the best opera singers Europe had to offer. While his selections of the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and the alto castrati Senesino and Gaetano Berenstadt certainly fit the bill in terms of talent – as evidenced especially in Guilio Cesare in Egitto, the former two especially were difficult to work with. Cuzzoni’s later-than-expected arrival in London in 1723 was immediately followed by an initial refusal to have for her first aria in the country an aria merely adapated from something originally written for the comparatively unknown Maddalena Salvai in her absence. Handel reportedly threatened to throw her out of a second-floor window in response, a tale that would almost certainly be dismissed as mere historical fancy if it weren’t for the drama on and off stage that ensued once her contemporary Faustina Bordoni arrived on the scene three years later. Not only did Handel find himself having to carefully balance the roles assigned to each soprano to ensure an equal billing – while still balancing Senesion’s equally demanding requirements – but it soon became apparent that a fierce rivalry was emerging between the sopranos and their respective fans. By the time Bononcini’s Astianette premiered on June 10th, 1727, the situation had deteriorated to the point where the two rival groups of fans attempted to drown out their opponent’s singing with boos and hisses, which devolved into a fistfight that eventually came to include the sopranos themselves. By the end of the following year, the company had collapsed – partially due to how large the soloists’ fees were – and Handel founded a new company for his operas. His choice of soprano was Anna Maria Strada, who appears to have been somewhat less talented but decidely easier to work with.

Francesca Cuzzoni. Handel found her difficult to work with, and nearly threw her out of a second floor window.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The increasing professionalisation of the opera scene in the 19th Century toned down some of these aspects. Whereas Mozart in 1787 incorporated nods to Luigi Bassi’s previous roles in Don Giovanni, by the time Puccini was writing Tosca in 1900, he was picking tenors based on how well he felt they would deliver the already written music. This is not to say that the music wouldn’t be tweaked to better fit the exact talents of the person chosen – indeed Puccini actually ended up regretting casting the more experienced Emilio De Marchi over the then unknown Enrico Caruso in the role of Cavaradossi for this reason – but the days where Grand Opera would rewrite the entire role around the individual were largely over. Operetta, however, was a different matter. Gilbert and Sullivan’s tradition of patter songs began in Trial by Jury in part because this was a particular speciality of Sullivan’s brother Frederic, who had been cast in the role of the Learned Judge (and indeed his money issues may be the entire reason Arthur Sullivan even agreed to the partnership). In contrast, The Mikado features one particularly low line in ‘Brightly dawns our wedding day’ that was originally assigned to the character of Pish-Tush, but which ended up having the new character of Go-To created for it as it proved to be too low for the original singer. Most modern productions just cast someone with the range to reach these and eliminate the essentially extraneous role.

In discussing partnerships between composer and soloist in opera, it would be remiss not to mention the most famous and influential in British history. In 1937, the young tenor Peter Pears began to spend time at a cottage tenanted out to a friend of his named Peter Burra, where he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Britten, then a rising star in the composing scene. The following year Burra died in an aviation crash, and Pears and Britten offered to clear out the cottage. From that point, the relationship flourished, first professionally – where Britten’s offers to set poems for Pears revived the latter’s flagging professional career – and then romantically from the point where they travelled to America in 1939. They remained together, on stage and off, until Britten died in 1976, and their graves can be found in close proximity in the church at Aldeburgh.

As well as becoming arguably one of the first gay couples to end up being acknowledged as such by the media, the relationship ended up being intrinsically threaded through Britten’s works. Pears would create roles as diverse as the comic actor Flute/Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the brooding novelist Aschenbach in Death in Venice. It also cannot be ignored that there is a frequent return to the themes of unconventional or illicit relationships across their works together, and the boundary between what should rightfully be condemned and what should not. Their most enduring legacy, however, is in the festival – suggested originally by Pears himself – which the two founded in conjunction with librettist Eric Crozier in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh. It has run annually since 1948 and celebrates classical music, opera, historically informed styles and contemporary works in the vaguely classical tradition at prices aimed at being affordable to the masses.

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Alex Richards is the author of Tippcanoe and Wallace Too, from SLP.


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