Friday, March 07, 2008

The 12 Greatest Opera Singers*

*The asterisk is for: as chosen by Harold Schoenberg, former music editor of the NYTimes...singers up to 1983...had to sing at the Met for at least nine years. Why nine years? Because otherwise, Chaliapin and Ruffo couldn't qualify.

This is the 25th anniversary of Schoenberg's list, and it certainly made a splash. I can recall hearing Marilyn Horne being interviewed, and her expressing surprise (and delight) that she was named the leading mezzo. I myself recall my shock on reading that Marcella Sembrich made the list--a soprano from the very distant past.

That would make a nice music program: the 12 greatest opera singers. I don't agree with all the choices. My own favorite tenor happens to be Jussi Bjoerling, not Caruso. And where is Victoria de los Angeles? Conchita Supervia isn't there because she never sang at the Met, but I wish she had been mentioned.

His favorite soprano is Rosa Ponselle. My favorite is Elisabeth Rethberg. Listening to hear while a teenager, I became enthralled by vocal music, so I'm prejudiced. But Schoenberg feels guilty: So he sneaks her onto his final list.

Chaliapin as the greatest bass? Hmm. WQXR's George Jellinek didn't like him; said he took too many liberties. And what about Siepi and Pinza and Kipnis? (I'm a big Kipnis fan.) Granted, Chaliapin was, among other things, exciting.

Marcella Sembrich? I'm not impressed by her recordings.

Kirsten Flagstad? Well, OK. Lawrence Melchior, I always felt, had a big but dopy voice. OK, I'm not a perfect Wagnerite.

What struck me about Schenberg's article was how many great opera singers he mentioned...WHOM I HAD NEVER EVEN HEARD OF! LET ALONE HEARD SING! Emphasizing something I've said: There's a universe of good, older opera singers out there. Here are the names, and I'll check whether there are any YouTube recordings:

Armand Castelmary, Karin Branzell, Marion Telva (sang with Ponselle), Clarence Whitehall, Nino Martini (very good!), Edoado di Giovanni (Edward Johnson), Armand Rothier, Leon Rothier, Aureliano Pertile (excellent!), Albert Nieman, Jacques Urlus, Max Alvary.

On YouTube, by the way, Sillyname says: Mario Lanza was the greatest tenor. Responds Ridiculous Name: You must be kidding. You can't have heard Joe Schmoe sing this aria. Then they call each other vile names.

Look, I've heard of and heard Pol Plancon. And David Devries. And I even know that Deanna Durbin was to star in a movie biography of Schumann-Heink. I must be in the 90th percentile of people familiar with older opera singers. Yet there's this crowd of singers I'm not familiar with! Something to do in my old age--listen to all the older singers I'm not familiar with.

Actually, I'm teaching a course on older singers, starting soon, and I hope to repeat this course semester after semester.
Here's the tentative schedule:


Institute of New Dimensions
Great Singers of Bygone Days

Classes are Tuesdays, 10-1130am, at the Central Unitarian Church

March 18
Richard Crooks & Alexander Kipnis

April 1
Elisabeth Rethberg & Paul Robeson

April 15
Conchita Supervia & John McCormack

April 29
Lawrence Tibbett & Rosa Ponselle

May 13
Caruso, Chaliapin, Ruffo, Gigli, et al.

Back to Schoenberg.

Here's his top 12:

Sembrich, Melchior, Flagstad, Ponselle, Chaliapin, Caruso, Ruffo, Melba, Schumann-Heink, Schorr, Rethberg, Horne.


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