To the Four Season’s Centre last night to check out one of the COC’s adult education events. This time it was about the baritone voice in all its aspects and featured Liz Upchurch at the piano and, mostly, doing the talking with Ensemble Studio members Sam Chan and Bruno Roy plus ES graduate Neil Craighead back in Toronto to sing Ceprano (not soprano) in Rigoletto doing some singing.
Besides the singing, of which more later, I think there were two takeaways from the evening though it was not actually divided up that way. One, fascinating, dealt with the development of the voice and the sheer number of years it takes for bigger voices to more or less grow up. Also, how do you develop and stretch the voice while staying vocally healthy. Neil is 34 and his voice is really just beginning to get where one can see it going, which is likely big to very big. Sam and Bruno, much younger, are still going through the process of figuring out what Fach (see below) they really are. This seems to happen to everyone except maybe genuine basses, high sopranos and the really obvious tenors. It was pretty cool for instance to heat Bruno sing a tenor aria though not, of course, something like Pour mon âme.
<rant>The second theme that wasn’t dwelt on but kept cropping up was the absurdity of the modern Fach system with its insistence on classifying singers and roles into a vast number of, supposedly, exclusive categories. (Wikipedia indexes 31 Fachs in its article on the subject). It may make for administrative convenience but it doesn’t reflect what singers can do. The difference in range between a baritone and a tenor is only a few notes at top and bottom. Between soprano and mezzo it’s virtually non existent; which is why singers like Bartoli, and before her, Colbran or Malibran are impossible to pigeonhole. I keep coming back to the fact that in Mozart’s day there were sopranos and contraltos (invariably older singers) and tenors and basses (leaving aside castrati) and parts were written to take advantage of what a particular singer did best. Also, the Fach system in all its Teutonic splendour is all but useless when it comes to French music which has a whole different set of categories! What the Fach indeed!</rant>
Besides the well presented didacticism there was also some very decent singing from all three men ranging from a “Fury aria” from Handel’s Rinaldo, some bel canto and that Pierrot thing from Die Tote Stadt from Sam to heavier stuff from Neil; Banquo’s aria from Verdi’s Macbeth and a really lovely O du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhäuser. Ok it’s about as light as Wagner gets but it’s an indication of where his voice is headed. Bruno’ contribution was fascinating because, besides a real tenor aria, he also sang the Tower Scene from Pelléas and Mélisande and Pelléas is as good a role as any to illustrate the limitations of Fach (in some systems it has its very own classification, Baryton-Martin, go figure). Also some Papageno; a role written for what we might think of today as a Musical Theatre singer rather than an opera singer!
There’s a whole series of these events run by the COC and taking place either at The Four Seasons Centre or at the Front Street complex. Typically they are free but ticketed to allow for crowd control. There are more details at https://learn.coc.ca. I think anybody, from novice to knowledgeable amateur would have learned something from last night’s session. Glad I went.