The American Prima Donna Is an Endangered Species

My first exposure to the hardships of life off the opera stage came as a kid of 12 or 13, when I was allowed to stand backstage at a Metropolitan Opera matinee of Der Rosenkavalier . Disregarding the admonition to stay “well out of the way,” and thinking that I was invisible in my green loden coat, I found a vantage point in the wings with a good view of the stage next to the spot where the singers awaited their entrance cues. The Marschallin of the afternoon was the American diva Eleanor Steber, and after delivering her Act 1 monologue about the inevitability of growing too old for extracurricular passion, she swept into the wings, her pouter-pigeon bosom heaving under yards of silk and lace. I must have been staring at her with visible awe, for she paused and said, “Honey, it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

The great Steber is one of dozens of personalities whose hard roads to stardom are tracked in The American Opera Singer , by Peter G. Davis (Doubleday, 640 pages, $40), which is one of the most informative and entertaining books ever written about this most foolhardy of artistic pursuits. In recounting the meteoric and not-so-meteoric rises-and frequent falls-of the most notable homegrown luminaries of the Metropolitan Opera and lesser American companies, from Clara Louise Kellogg, the 19th century’s first full-fledged American prima donna, to Dawn Upshaw, Mr. Davis, who is the astute music critic of New York magazine, has written an authoritative history of beleaguerment. A recurring theme about many of these careers, he writes, was voiced by Beverly Sills in her 1987 autobiography: “In my own country, the American artist was low man, or woman, on the totem pole … most American singers were the Rodney Dangerfields of the opera world-we got no respect.”

Mr. Davis reserves some of his most stringent judgments-in a book crammed with stringent judgments-for the soprano who was nicknamed Bubbles. In a chapter whose unsparing account of Ms. Sills’ relatively brief period of vocal glory and shameless backstage Realpolitik -ing has become must reading in the corridors of Lincoln Center (over whose board of directors the ex-diva now presides), he unfondly recalls her back-stabbing of City Opera’s leading lady, Phyllis Curtin. He also takes special pains over Ms. Sills’ media potency as a “nonstop talker,” as well as the “increasingly audible reasons for [her] inability to realize her global ambitions.”

Mr. Davis also takes pains to correct the “popular misperception” of American opera singers as poor cousins to their European counterparts, recounting the triumphs of the many Yankees who achieved fame both at home and abroad. Certainly, there are at least three American-born singers whose names would not be out of place on lists of the 10 most admired performers of the century-the sopranos Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas, and the baritone Lawrence Tibbett. (Although the fact that Callas was European trained always made her seem a visitor to the country she left when she was 13.)

Nonetheless, the book’s general drift more than supports Noel Coward’s dictum, “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington.” As Mr. Davis tells it, most young American women and men who aspired to operatic careers faced formidable cultural and psychological hurdles. Not only did they frequently have to adopt Italianate names to sell themselves abroad (my favorite is John Clarke, who became Signor Giovanni Chiari di Broccolini, after the vegetable), but they had to contend-as they still do-with the greater gravitas and glamour that automatically adhered to non-Americans with names like Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Enrico Caruso, Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Luciano Pavarotti and so on.

As with their counterparts in Hollywood, success often turned singers’ marriages sour. (“It must be difficult to sing looking down the barrel of a gun,” the conductor Walter Damrosch said about the turn-of-the-century diva Lillian Nordica, whose jealous husband, one Zoltan Dane, threatened to shoot her if she ever appeared on a New York stage.) Fiery temperament, which so often accompanies artistic depth, often sparked titanic battles with management and resulted in shattered careers. (Both the Met’s first demonic diva, Olive Fremstad, and her most celebrated successor, Callas, can be said to have been done in by uncompromising integrity.) Mr. Davis’ pages are littered with alcoholics (Tibbett, Steber), victims of stage fright (Ponselle) and the wildly oversold.

Mr. Davis is not the first to observe that perhaps what has made things hardest for the American opera singer is the absence of a “clearly defined” native musical culture. He writes: “Each great American singer, it seems, was self-invented by a singular personality with a prodigious vocal gift, a fierce individualist fired by the burning creative imagination to make the dream come true. Beyond that, the history of American singers, as their life stories tell us, consists largely of a collection of fortuitous accidents. Small wonder that a school of American singing, with its own defining stylistic traits and musical characteristics, never developed, and even now can scarcely be said to exist.”

But there is a silver lining. Mr. Davis calls the special virtue of American singers “ingenuity.” I would call it pluck. Notwithstanding a piece in The New York Times recently, in which the composer Ned Rorem was paraphrased as saying that the “song recital is in death throes,” we are, in New York at least, in the midst of a golden age of song. Rare is the up-and-coming Met star who doesn’t feel obliged to show a certain individualism on the recital stage, and our concert halls are regularly booked-and sold out-with singers who are less concerned with fueling their operatic ambitions than with furthering the art of song.

Mr. Rorem himself was the object of rapt interest at Weill Recital Hall the other night in a new song cycle called “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” an ambitious arrangement of songs about death drawn from, among other sources, the Old Testament, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and W.H. Auden. Mr. Rorem is perhaps our finest craftsman of the so-called “art song”-a term that I, and probably he, loathe. But apart from serving the text with music that is acutely sensitive and accessibly “expressive,” his essential strategy has always seemed to be concerned with avoiding anything that might be taken as a genuine melody, an honest-to-God tune that might lift you out of your seat. The evening was produced by the New York Festival of Song, our most intrepid archeological society of vocal literature, and as with all N.Y.F.O.S. occasions, the spot-on performances by soprano Lisa Saffer, mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler, tenor Rufus Muller, baritone Kurt Ollmann, and pianists Michael Barrett and Steven Blier were totally winning for the evident joy in the enterprise.

A few nights earlier, I had attended a gala concert given at Carnegie Hall by the Marilyn Horne Foundation, an organization headed by the diva to support young singers of exceptional promise. As always at these events, I was moved more by the sheer guts of the youngsters than I was by the prowess of the established heavyweights who shared the stage, led by the ebullient Ms. Horne. What courage it took for the three young women on display-Rinat Shaham, Lynette Tapia and Guang Yang-to stand up there in their motley finery and show everything they had, for better or worse. As it happened, a great deal of what they sang was more than promising; hearing these young, healthy voices, the product of so much schooling and determination, in full cry was exhilarating.

In his book, Mr. Davis worries about the homogenization of today’s singers, about a loss of the spunky individualism that marked the older, more embattled American singer. Looking at those young, eager faces on the Carnegie Hall stage, it occurred to me that none of them would probably have the brass to say, as the long-overlooked American soprano Eileen Farrell loudly remarked during a Met rehearsal when she spotted the arrival of the conductor Thomas Schippers: “Ah, I see that Pippers is in the shit again!” Still, I dare say that many in the next wave of opera stars must harbor the sort of secret that Madame Steber revealed about herself: “Somebody once labeled me as ‘the prima-tive donna’-and that’s what I am: a prima donna with a small town kid inside.”