Some Facts About Operatic and Concert Singing by Armando Cesari
Note from Derek McGovern: This essay by Armando Cesari, operatic authority and author of Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, was inspired by a 2012 article in the Mario Lanza Society of New York's Legacy of Mario Lanza newsletter by fellow Lanza biographer Derek Mannering. In his article, Mr. Mannering opines on the reasons for Mario Lanza's absence from the operatic stage during the last eleven years of his life. Armando Cesari's essay constitutes a response to what he sees as Mannering's fundamental misunderstanding of those reasons—and of the demands of operatic singing itself.
“Nothing Is So Firmly Believed As That Which Is Least Known.” [Francis Jeffrey, 1773-1850]
Outside the opera world, and among the general public, there has always existed an air of mystery—one could also call it ignorance—regarding the actual procedure and amount of time involved in learning an operatic role.
The public in general is not aware that preparing an operatic role in order to perform it either on the stage or for the purpose of recording it differs considerably from the work of singers active in other musical spheres.
Opera singers have a number of roles, also known as repertoire, which they perform regularly in a number of theatres. It’s of the utmost importance that they study a role thoroughly in order to become familiar with its various aspects—vocally, musically and histrionically, but particularly vocally—until, to use a singer’s terminology, the role is well and truly “in the voice.”
The standard practice is to learn a role with a repetiteur (or coach) that will go over the part on the piano with the singer in question.
Depending on the length of the role, as well as the singer’s ability to memorise the score, the time span can vary considerably, and can take anything from a few weeks for a relatively short part to many months for a more demanding one.
Once the singer has mastered the various intricacies of the score, there will follow a number of piano rehearsals with a repetiteur or conductor and the rest of the cast and, finally, rehearsals with cast, conductor and full orchestra.
Preparing for the Operatic Role
The reason for this long preamble, in case you are wondering, is that I was astounded to read the following in an article by Derek Mannering that was published in the April 2012 edition of The Legacy of Mario Lanza newsletter. In it Mannering states, “I spoke with Richard Mohr (RCA A&R producer) and asked him why RCA chose not to record Lanza in full-length operas.” According to Mannering, Mohr seemed genuinely surprised by the question, as he no doubt would have been!
You see, what someone should have told Mr. Mannering a long time ago is that even though you may have learned a role years before, in order to either sing it or record it, it’s necessary to go over it again and work on it step by step first with a repetiteur and then with cast, conductor and orchestra, as I’ve just explained.
Why did RCA use Tucker, Björling and Valetti instead of Lanza? Mannering asks. The answer is because they were recording operas that they had sung numerous times, knew well and in most cases formed part of their repertoire. Usually, the singers in question required only a minimum amount of rehearsal prior to the actual recording sessions.
On the other hand, for Lanza to record any of the roles he had learned in the past would have meant re-studying them again, entailing months of work.
Does Mannering really think Lanza could have accomplished this while based in Hollywood making movies? After all, Lanza had cancelled the planned Traviata scheduled in New Orleans in 1949 precisely because he didn’t have the necessary time to learn the role of Alfredo.