Floating in cyberspace for the past 10 or so years is an old grainy video of Mario Del Monaco singing Musica Proibita by Stanislao Gastaldon on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. The original video was slightly slower which made the audio a semi-tone lower. The audio itself was over modulated and filled with distortion. About 30 years ago, I purchased a CD in Italy which had a better quality reproduction of this performance which always made this video difficult to watch.
With a little effort, I was able to put together this video with the improved audio. Synching was a big issue since the source video varied 2-5% in speed – which forced me to break the video into small slices and “tweak” the speed every few seconds.
Just days after premiering my first blog post which was a gushing review of the “This Is Opera” YouTube page, I am saddened to see it has been shut down.
I hope they come back someday. I know they were extremely controversial and were accused by some of running a vocal studio. (As if that was illegal??) But they had excellent content and were able to provide countless examples of why the singers “of the past” were better than their modern counterparts. For me, it wasn’t just the singing that had changed over the past 75 years – but the entire culture entrusted with keeping this art-form alive had changed and the traditions of the past were deliberately dismantled. On the surface, opera companies still worked to produce the often performed “standard” repertoire, however using this same “standard” repertoire the art-form was subverted to re-interpret the artistic and cultural narrative.
What TIO did was document (although inadvertently) this systematic dismantling of the traditional operatic culture and mindset. Why were the singers “better” in the past? Was it because the concept of “chest voice” wasn’t being taught to singers today, as demonstrated by the TIO YouTube channel? Perhaps. But there is a deeper reason for the complete disregard traditions of the past, not in just the vocal style, but in the way the art was packaged, marketed, and delivered to the “high brow” culture of our bourgeoisie consumers. It was a corporate take-over of the art and it was also ideological. Singers couldn’t be like Brigit Nilsson or Mario Del Monaco any more, because the “singer” was no longer the star. It was the sets, the director, the “edgy” reinterpretation of the “standard” works that demanded the spotlight. The modern singers were just a part of the inter-changeable scenery. Singers could no longer be unique, but are now forced to comply with cultural and aesthetic standards set not by musicians, but by corporate huskers and political ideologues.
I think TIO was a threat to the self-absorbed bourgeoisie consumers and to the self-important promoters of this 21st century “art” – although I don’t think TIO understood the nature of the threat they posed themselves. I think their detractors saw TIO’s comparison videos as an attack against the hard working singers of the modern era, and any criticism only served to turn away audiences from an already diminished pool of potential supporters.
To me, and probably only me, the TIO YouTube page provided the most damning evidence of the cultural aesthetic decay. Video after video, not only did they show how much better the art was, and the performers were, but what is celebrated as “great” today, is in fact a phony imitation of what the art-form once was.
The most heart-wrenching reality presented by TIO, was that the grainy videos of Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Renata Tebaldi, Apollo Granforte, Maria Callas, and all of other videos of the past showed that the opera and cultural high experienced in the mid part of the last century, was actually a sunset mistaken for the dawn. Now, we are in the dark of the night.
My biases have been confirmed on YouTube via The “This is Opera” page.
Being a life-long opera lover, I’ve found myself at odds with former colleagues and friends over the state of the art. On one hand, I fell in love with opera through old recordings and old live performances. On the other hand, I’ve had a problem liking new singers today and caring about anything in the present-day opera world. My former colleagues almost without exception forbade me to express my leeriness of the current opera world – often belittling my love of certain singers of the past. I believed the problem was always my fault and that my dislike of modern singers was due to my lack of sophistication. But recently, I’ve come across the page “This is Opera” on youtube, and for once I’ve had someone confirm a nagging suspicion I’ve had for 40 years – the opera world today isn’t what it used to be, productions are terrible, stage-directors really hate opera and many of today’s top opera singers aren’t that good.
I believe the ailment with today’s singers isn’t just bad technique, but a systematic dismantling of the older traditions and the modern-day corporatization of the arts where all singers are treated as little more than “replaceable” cogs in the art-making assembly line. There is a reason why so many of the singers are steered away from “bold” presentations and from developing a “unique” sound based on traditions of the past. This is to make sure singers today create a “safe” and “reliable” product that can be inserted into productions on a moment’s notice without any revenue loss to opera companies, and are guaranteed to sound the same. This corporate mindset is enforced by a small inner-circle of music directors, high-profile coaches and stage directing “hacks” who will destroy a singer’s career if they do not perform according to the “esthetics” of today’s vocal scene.
Look up the press interview Callas gave in Dallas in 1958 on the night she received a telegram saying she was “fired” from the Metropolitan Opera by the General Director Rudolf Bing. She had a few choice words about Bing and the “anti-artistic” state of the Met by saying the productions were old and lousy, the repertoire was routine and that being paired up with multiple tenors/baritones (i.e. cogs in the machine) during the run of a production wasn’t art. 60 years ago, she nailed today’s corporatized art problem on the head. Opera companies don’t want uniqueness, unless it can be bottled, marketed, and safely put out for consumption. That’s why Bing had to get rid of Callas. Unfortunately this was only the beginning of what was to come in the corporatization of the art. Mr. Bing’s “bold” move of firing Callas scored a big victory for the corporatizing of the art world by putting all singers on notice as to who was (and still is) running the show.
(By the way, an “edgy” production of Tosca with “modern scenery” and having the end of Act II include the so-called “critical edition” where Scarpia and Tosca roll around on the floor for “8 deleted bars of music”, isn’t what Callas meant. She meant doing operas like Cherubini’s Medea – and other opera’s outside of the of the “tried and true” revenue making chestnuts.)
Here is the same scene again. . . No gimmicks, no chainsaw massacre, just the end of the second act of Tosca performed by two legends, Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi.
Give the singers a chance to create art – and the audiences will follow.