Heaven for Voice Junkies: Singers’ Universal Aspiration

At a dinner the other night, I found myself seated next to Phyllis Curtin, one of the reigning American sopranos

At a dinner the other night, I found myself seated next to Phyllis Curtin, one of the reigning American sopranos of the 50’s and 60’s and a beacon of artistic savvy for generations of younger singers. In the course of discussing the best way for singers to connect with an audience, I asked, “Who should a singer have in mind as the ideal listener? The audience as a whole? A specific person? Or herself?”

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“None of the above,” Ms. Curtin said. “When I was doing recitals, I told myself, ‘Sing as if you’re singing to the universe.’ That’s what pulls them in.”

The past few weeks have given me plenty of opportunity to test the wisdom of Ms. Curtin’s prescription. After hearing a dozen or so notable voices doing their damnedest to pull the listeners in, I’ve come to the conclusion that her remark is the soundest piece of advice a singer can take.

Cecilia Bartoli, the world’s best-selling Roman candle, hardly needs to be told how to make audiences clamor for more. But though I cherish her recitals on CD-a format that perfectly suits her small, pearl-like mezzo-soprano-the megawatt mugging of her onstage demeanor has kept me away from most of her recitals. At her latest Carnegie Hall appearance in a program of Baroque music, she shared the stage with members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and perhaps it was the rigors of collaborating with this crackerjack period-instrument ensemble that prompted her to reach less for the applause meter and more for a level of musicianship free of “effect.” Ms. Bartoli amply indulged her impulse to knock ’em dead with displays of epiglottal razzle-dazzle-she’s the Ethel Merman of bel canto. But in the quieter moments of songs by Vivaldi, Handel and Gluck, her voice took on a breathtaking autonomy from the occasion-buoyed only, it seemed, by a desire to consort with the stars.

On paper, it was an eye-catcher for Carnegie Hall to combine the forces of the great German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff with the rising Wagner and Strauss soprano Angela Denoke and the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim in Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook . In practice, it was something else. Wolf’s brilliantly original anthology of 46 brief songs, which catalog a soured love affair, requires the singers and pianist to remain locked inside the prickly hothouse of their entanglement. Perhaps because of a desire to connect to Carnegie’s distant reaches, the performers opened the hothouse and invited everyone inside. From Mr. Barenboim, there was too much of the grand concert artist; from the cutely interactive Mr. Quasthoff and Ms. Denoke, too much of the feeling that we had somehow landed in a rerun of The Honeymooners . Only after the intermission, when Mr. Quasthoff, with his incomparably nuanced voice, and Mr. Barenboim, with his preternatural ear, got lost in each other’s music-making, did I experience the transformation from curious concertgoer to rapt eavesdropper that Wolf desired of his listeners.

Horse junkies have the Kentucky Derby; voice junkies have the Opera Orchestra of New York. For more than 30 years, this oddball project of its indefatigable music director, Eve Queler, has been mounting concert performances of seldom-heard operas, which attract ticket-buyers who are unseemly in their eagerness to be the first on their Upper West Side block to hear the next Caballé or the next Pavarotti. OONY, as the organization is riskily known, opened its season with Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles ( The Pearl Fishers ), featuring the débuts of a Bulgarian soprano named Darina Takova and a Russian tenor named Daniil Shtoda. Neither turned out to be the “next” anyone. Behind Mr. Shtoda’s bright, boyish appearance was a bright, boyish tenor that seems unlikely to carry him much beyond the lightest of lyric tenor roles, though there’s nothing wrong with that if he can mute a tendency, characteristic of Eastern European tenors, to sound whiny. Ms. Takova displayed a voice with formidable carrying power at the top, a formidable wobble in the middle, and-as is typical of many “fast-rising” sopranos these days-virtually no presence at the bottom. Both singers, with Ms. Queler doing her usual cheerleading on the podium, sang to nobody but the several thousand vocal scouts out front.

Renée Fleming continues to astonish, as much for the protean opulence of her voice as for her readiness to conquer new worlds vocally, but in getting the Met to mount Bellini’s rarely performed bel canto potboiler Il Pirata for her, she may have taken on more than she should. Not that she wasn’t up to the technical demands of a marathon role that requires full-throttle ensemble singing, long stretches of seamless legato, fiery trills, toboggan-speed runs, and the nailing of stratospheric high-C’s. Moreover, as the centerpiece of an otherwise lackluster production, (in the title role, the fine tenor Marcello Girodiani struggled manfully with murderous high-D’s), she looked magnificent in a procession of billowing taffeta gowns out of Gentileschi. But the dramatic intensity required to be fully convincing as a heroine caught in the mortal enmity between the man she loves and the man to whom she’s married just isn’t in her. For all her old-fashioned vocal splendor, Ms. Fleming is a radiantly American singer, with her feet thoroughly on the ground. At every turn in an opening-night performance that was deservedly cheered, you could feel intelligence, fearlessness and persistence at work. But the essential ingredient-a connection to the tragic muse-was missing. As a woman sitting behind me whispered during the mad scene, “She just isn’t loony.”

Nor, really, is Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, another American singer at the peak of her powers. And yet this mezzo-soprano, who has built a passionate following for her work in the Baroque and contemporary works (she is married to the composer Peter Lieberson), has qualities that make her peerless among today’s profusion of great mezzos-a gleaming pathos in her voice and a nobility of manner that are utterly unforced. I haven’t ever seen a recitalist walk out onstage in Alice Tully Hall in sandals before, but a connection to Mother Earth is another powerful component of Ms. Hunt-Lieberson’s artistry, and it was felt in a deeply moving, elegiac program, with the pianist Robert Tweten, that spanned more than 200 years and four languages. If I sometimes have the feeling that Renée Fleming is singing, as it were, to her glorious voice, the feeling I have with Ms. Hunt-Lieberson is that of a woman who is singing to humankind. With the exception of Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I have become lost to the world”), in which her unrelievedly sorrowing approach came close to self-pity, she took me so completely inside the world of her songs that when, at one point, she stopped and gently asked someone in the audience to adjust a whistling hearing aid, the jolt of everyday reality came like an electric shock.

Even more mesmerizing was the Winterreise of the Belgian baritone José van Dam in the same hall a few nights later. An international opera star of long standing, Mr. van Dam did not vigorously pursue a recital career until his mature years (he is 62), and as he took us along Schubert’s unflinching journey into the darkest chambers of his soul, I felt myself in the presence of a great artist who has distilled the wisdom of a lifetime into every phrase, every word, every shade of emotion. Histrionics of any sort are foreign to Mr. Van Dam, who stood as still as an oak and permitted his pliant, beautifully spoken baritone to reach full capacity only at the most telling moments. With the powers of Orpheus, whose singing could tame savage beasts, he and his superb young pianist, Maciej Pikulski, held a typically tubercular New York audience in absolute silence through the 75 minutes that constitute the most harrowing preparation for death in all of music. After the concert, as we walked down Broadway to a restaurant, I asked him the same question I had asked Ms. Curtin. “Well, I don’t sing to the audience,” he said. “In fact, tonight I sometimes forgot they were there. And, no, I don’t sing to myself. I am thinking about universal things when I sing-love, beauty, tragedy. Who do I sing to? I sing to the universe.”

Heaven for Voice Junkies: Singers’ Universal Aspiration