Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Should little girls sing opera arias written for men?

re: Jackie Evancho singing “Nessun Dorma”
I see many opera lovers conflating performing an aria in concert with performing it in an opera. These are distinct modalities, and in fact people who sing in operas can encounter aesthetic difficulties when they do arias in concert–when they fail to grasp the difference, unlike Jackie Evancho, who understands it perfectly.
Thus when Ms. Evancho sings “Nessun Dorma” as a concert piece, she isn’t trying to portray Prince Calaf, madly in love with with the eponymous psychopathic princess of the opera. In the context of the opera, whoever’s playing the Prince must, of course, sing in character, and the aria, which is a soliloquy, sets the stage for the dramatic scenes that follow.
If the aria is only aesthetically valid when it’s doing that, then it shouldn’t be sung in concert by anyone–even a Corelli or a Domingo.
But this shortchanges Puccini’s genius as a composer. Of course the music stands on its own. Honestly, the opera needs it more than it needs the opera, whose libretto is the most problematic of Puccini’s operas, uncomfortably mixing a fantastical fable of a story with Puccini’s profoundly verisimo musical style. Maybe that’s why he died trying to finish it after two years of struggle.
Outside the opera the lyrics are poetic but about as meaningful as one of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. When Jackie sings this aria, she recontextualizes it for the concert hall, without the story–which isn’t there, since it’s the aria, not the opera, that’s being performed after all.
When Jackie sings it, it’s a song of great yearning and great will to achieve one’s dreams and aspirations.
And actually I find that to be a better fit with the music than Prince Calaf’s declaration of love for someone who is plainly a dangerous nut case any sane man would run from as fast as he could. Really, you’d be safer with the Queen of the Night. Every night you’d have to frisk her for knives and ice picks before you went to bed.
I should add that many people have sung this aria, man and woman, opera singers and otherwise. Aretha Franklin has done it, probably marking the nadir of her career–but not because she’s a woman. Because she sang it really, really badly.
Whereas, given the concert setting and not the operatic one, little 11 year old Jackie Evancho sings it as well as I’ve heard it sung–in concert.
For all the harrumphing about the lyrics, you’d think she was reading from the Kama Sutra. “Nessun Dorma”‘s lyrics are fine, given that this child is assuming the persona of the storyteller, not the person the story is being told about.
And when it comes to authentically expression powerful longing and equally powerful will–who can legitimately say they have more of either than her? What were the rest of us doing at age 11? She is, like most geniuses–which she is, obviously–highly driven. Which means that what she feels and what she wants to do with her time is not like what you cute little niece feels and wants to do with her time.
I find a lot of the naysaying I read here and elsewhere stems from a profound lack of understanding of human genius. Well, that’s to be expected. Geniuses are exceedingly rare, and many of us go through our whole lives without ever meeting one in person.
And they exemplify the unfairness of nature. You may have labored twenty years, diligently, to master something, and have a genius waltz in and say of your work “And then it just repeats…right? What if we tried this?” and proceeds to invalidate your entire career.
Lots of people tackle “Nessun Dorma” because it isn’t just a great aria in “Turandot”–it’s also a great song. And a lot easier to pop out of the opera that something from Wagner’s multi-hour songspiels, I might add.

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