Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

Fire In The Groin
by Derek McGovern

Now be honest! How many of you looked at the cover of the last Free Radical and thought to yourselves: Oh no, not Mario Lanza again! What is it with Perigo and that guy? Why does he have to keep ramming him down our throats? I mean, itís not like Lanza was a libertarian!

Intellectually - perhaps not, but if one equates libertarianism with reaching for the stars, then Lanza was surely its exponent par excellence. In his singing - as in his sheer unrestrained zest for life - Lanza simply blazed with a passion that stunned his adoring public. Coupled with this passion was a tenor voice that almost defied description (but Iíll give it a go): exultant, golden, dazzling, and romantic to the nth degree. Yet this "fire in the groin," as one admirer has described Lanzaís musical credo, was totally at odds with the conformist America of the 1950s, and Lanza paid the ultimate price for his exuberance. Mercilessly slain by the critics for his emotive singing, hounded by the IRS, and fired by M-G-M for daring to assert his individualism, Lanza fled to Italy, where he self-destructed two years later at the age of 38.

cannot begin to describe the loss of such a talent. The man was a vocal god. "Yours is a voice such is heard once in a hundred years," the great conductor Serge Koussevitsky told his 21-year-old protťgť in 1942. Nearly six decades later, there isnít a tenor in sight with even a hint of Lanzaís vocal splendour. Yet his detractors are still very much with us, whether they be the Victoria University lecturer haughtily dismissing him as "a bull in a china shop," or those pinch-faced guardians of public taste who respond to the name "Lanza" in much the same way they would to a turd on their shag pile. "Oh," they say through thin, pursed lips, "Lanza. The American. How vulgar." Concert FM treats him as a pariah, and it is rare indeed for any of the standard musical reference books to acknowledge he even existed.

Lanzaís crime? A sense of life too vital for these anal-retentives to contemplate. During Lanzaís lifetime, their comrades-in-envy were the gutter press, self-righteously condemning the tenorís bravado at every turn. Even in death, Lanza was not spared a mean-spirited obituary from Time Magazine. But then Time had always had it in for him, gleefully predicting his vocal demise from the outset and criticising his lack of sufficient humility.

Hatred of the good for being the good
. Randís words perfectly sum up the sneering attitude that one encounters towards the Lanzas of this world. It occurs at every level of society and in every artistic genre, but for this brief essay Iíll restrict myself to music. Or more precisely, singers.

Iím not talking about the whining of todayís pop "performers," whose reedy, off-key, vocal crimes speak volumes as to how far society has sunk in this Age of Crap. That can wait for another essay. No, itís the loss of passion in our opera singers that really bothers me. Something is horribly wrong when the majority of todayís vocal talents excite the senses with all the passion of my grandmotherís bread pudding. Why is the prune-faced approach to singing so tediously commonplace today? Itís enough to bring Lanza back from the grave - "swearing in high C and smashing a glass against the wall," as Time tut-tutted - with one of his Vesuvian outbursts: "Letís get going! Youíre fracturing me with this misery!"

Just listen to the big names of today. With very few exceptions - and Iíll get to those later - the last thirty years or more have been blighted by singers whose lack of passion would have been perfectly suited to the stuffy drawing rooms of nineteenth-century England. Take Luciano Pavarotti. The manís a Victoria University music lecturerís dream; he sings the notes with unerring accuracy and thatís that. If youíre looking for feeling, forget it. Emotion counts for nothing with him; itís as if the lifeforce has been sucked out of him in a quest for robotic perfection. In the words of his friend Joan Sutherland - in so many ways the female equivalent of this flaccid performer - "If people want drama in their opera, they should go and see a play!" No wonder the great Giuseppe Di Stefano, an admirer of Lanzaís and no vocal slouch himself, was moved to comment: "When I sing, I sing words. Luciano sings notes." (Italics mine.) If the man does have any passion lurking within him, heís certainly not letting on. I can only ask: why does he even bother? No one ever emerges from a Pavarotti concert with bright eyes and goosebumps, simply blown away by the emotional depth of his singing. A macrame exhibition would engender more passion.

And it gets worse. Pavarottiís heir apparent, the blind tenor Andrea Bocelli, is even blander than his idol - if such a thing is possible. His voice is a paler instrument - smaller, thinner and with less facility at the top than Pavarotti in his heyday. Bocelli has an attractive falsetto, and, sadly, little else. To quote the verdict of one music lover on hearing his latest CD: "No fire. No vocal performance. No nuttiní - period."

To this roll call of mediocrity the equally dull names of Placido Domingo, Roberto Alagna, Alfredo Kraus and yes, Kiri Te Kanawa should be added ("weasel-piss singers one and all," our illustrious Editor would no doubt say). Domingo has a modest voice, and a tendency to produce a strangulated nasal sound, particularly in his upper register. He has little variety of tone, and quickly becomes wearying. To be fair, he is a more emotional singer than Alagna, who merely sounds like Pavarotti on a very bad day. Kraus, who died last year, had a very thin, wiry voice and was greatly praised for his taste and restraint (i.e., lack of vulgarity - that nasty synonym for "passion" in the vocabulary of anal-retentives). Late in his career, Kraus sang with Kiri, his emotional equal in the passion stakes. For all her considerable beauty of voice, Kiri has never set the world alight with any display of emotional fireworks. She may charm, but she never thrills.

But it doesnít have to be this way, and mercifully a few have dared to be different. Jose Carreras is one of them. The truest vocal poet of our time, he outlines his musical philosophy in his autobiography, Singing from the Soul. If Iím in the audience, he writes, "I want the singer onstage to communicate with me. I want his singing to reach all my emotions. I want to feel what he is feeling and to know what he knows. That is exactly why Iím there."

Mario Lanza expressed it similarly: "There is no word not important enough to give all your feelings to...I sing each word as though it were my last on earth."

Such "vocal individuality" is too rare, says Carreras. "We have many good singers, but most of them are unable to use their voices to show emotion and to arouse the audienceís feelings." And while Carreras doesnít say so explicitly, one senses a belief that political correctness is overwhelmingly at the root of the problem.

It goes something like this: in music, just as in other spheres of life, one shouldnít "stand out" from the crowd. This view has been around since the 1950s at least, when Time Magazine would lambaste Lanza for his "unorthodox practice" of acknowledging applause "with the overhead handclasp of a prizefighter." Acknowledging oneís own talent is simply not on. (If Lanza were around today, the politically correct would demand that he refrain from singing above a certain note - for fear of offending performers with lesser vocal equipment.) More recently, the young Argentinian tenor Jose Cura has been criticised for his "arrogance" (translation: unashamed self-confidence). Curaís sin was to sing and conduct at the same time. Well really! Now thatís showing too much talent!

But for all its malignant pervasiveness, political correctness will never succeed in reining in every singer with a personality. For every dozen Pavarottis churned out by the stuffy conservatoires, there will always be a young singer who sneaks onto the musical scene, his soul unblighted by considerations of so-called good taste and restraint. In the 1960s and early 70s, soprano Anna Moffo was one whose creamy seductiveness provided the perfect antidote to the sterile Sutherland-type technicians of the day. More recently, Dmitri Hvorostovsky has been thrilling audiences everywhere with his rich baritone and compelling intensity.

Back in 1994, a fellow spectator at Jose Carrerasís magnificent Auckland concert criticised the tenor for singing "too passionately." Whereís the refinement? he whined. Perhaps Carrerasís impassioned singing had recalled an ancient - and unsettling - thrill. Clearly he was disturbed by the unbridled display of passion on show. Harrumph! It was the old "bull in a china shop" criticism all over again.

Such critics miss the whole point of singing, and, indeed, life. But no matter; itís their loss, not mine. True, the Lanzas of this world may be rough diamonds compared to the technicians currently in vogue, but in the immortal words of Mr Perigo, "a diamond is still a diamond - no matter how rough - and a hell of a lot more interesting than a polished pebble."

Amen to that.

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