Confessions of a lapsed soprano, to ornament or not to ornament…. and who gives a shit anymore

There comes a time in every musicians life when you sit down and ask yourself, “Self, do you really enjoy doing this?”

To say I’ve asked this question of myself one time would be an outright lie. I ask it daily, sometimes twice a day, sometimes five to ten times in the span of a rehearsal….

So I’m singing this gig this week at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie. I’m peforming Sesto’s aria from Graun’s Guilio Cesare… It’s kind of German influenced French Baroque music….but in Italian. In layman’s terms, it sounds like Handel’s French period, but not NEARLY as harmonically interesting. It’s a lot of high singing with wiggles and squiggles in the right place.

My aria is pretty, it’s slow and not to range-y. It’s about pity and your Mom,(not kidding) and it’s kinda sad. So I go in to the orchestral run through last night with a good understanding of the text, and enough subtle ornaments to pass off the B section with a -hey-just-you-wait- sense of forboding for the return to the A. Nice, pretty, claps all around, Melly goes home.

Today we run the three opera choruses and arias in between. Right before my aria is a flashy little number for Cleopatra, sung by a wonderful soprano in the ensemble. I love this girl, and she is a PHENOMENAL singer, more control than anyone I know. She works her ass off, has a great teacher, never parties, wraps her head in scarves as she exits bars so the smoke doesn’t damage her chords, etc. She’s always inspiring to watch, but to say she’s intense is an understatement. Today right before her aria, she was drinking soup out of one of those take-out containers.

I thought I would make casual conversation and so asked her what kind of soup it was. It wasn’t soup, it was Chinese Herbs, and it kinda smelled like shit. She then proceeded to stand up and sing her face off in this aria…it was amazing. Not one, not two, but THREE cadenzas. Cadenzas for everyone!! The more the merrier, I always say.

I admit, the thought of getting a review for this concert did come across my mind…. However, with Suzie-Q singing high Q-flats every two seconds, my lack-luster pathetique lament was not going to bring anything home….. So I totally caved, and improvised a different cadenza on the spot and worked a high A into a lament….let me say that again, a high A into a LAMENT… I mean, that’s just trashy. And of course, everyone oooh’d and aaaaah’d, and violin bows were tapped on stands, etc. Score one for Sesto, and still like, a zillion points for Cleopatra.

It made me laugh, because what I had done was so HIP, as in the delivery of a Historically Informed Practice, that of being a bitch. See, back in Graun’s day it was totally acceptable to take a cadenza that you liked and stick it in wherever you wanted it, even if it was from a different aria, or written by someone else, and let me tell you, that didn’t always go over so well.

In my Yale studies in Performance Practice I came across this 18th Century set of instructions for singers on How to be a Diva. It entailed that during performances it was highly encouraged to take breaks for snuff, or brandy, to primp and preen with a mirror decorated with exotic ostrich feathers, and there was something about a dancing bear. A singer always wore scarves and drank tea, and carried their own set of cadenzas in a special locked wooden box that was carried with their other fine costumes.

So, when Handel was in his operatic heya-day, he wrote for two sopranos.
Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. They hated each other, and fought, literally clawing at each other on one occasion, pulling off wigs and calling each other Bitch and Whore on stage. It was this cat fight that closed Handel’s theater early, in mid-season, and contributed to the final curtain falling in 1728. Cuzzoni and Bordoni’s voices were quite different, but Handel knew their strengths and wrote specifically for them. You’ll notice in his operatic writings that there are usually two soprano roles, one higher with lighter more agile coloratura, (I call it chirpy-shit, that’s Cuzzoni) and one in lower tessatura with the more pathetic airs, and the occassional rage aria…..that’s more my fac, I’m a Bordoni soprano.

When Handel’s opera house folded Cuzzoni went back to England, Bordoni went to find more operatic work in Venice, and married and had children. Cuzzoni died penny-less making buttons in prison. Waa-Waa.

My long-winded point is coming, I promise. I’m not writing this because I’m totally Bordoni, and the other soprano today is Cuzzoni. My point is that we both fell victim to the Early Music Chop show-off. If you follow Handel’s Oratorio writing, you’ll know that his Messiah was his first time writing for English singers. The tenor vocal writing in the opening aria, Comfort Ye, which segues into Every Valley sings like an ornamented aria…. ummmmm, that’s because it IS an ornamented aria. All the wiggles and squiggles are already in there because he was working with singers who were not trained in improvising cadenzas on the spot.

The point! Here’s my big beef with the early music scene lately: it’s a total ME-mi-mi show. Early Music geeks take so many classes in what is appropriate that when one gets up to sing, it’s like vocal diarrhea, everything’s just gotta come out.

You have five minutes to convey an emotional idea through the musical vehicle provided for you….well, usually two emotional ideas and one revisited in Da Capo form, as in:
A. I hate him
B. God damn he’s good in the sack
A. Alas, sigh, I hate him

The emotional idea is what is supposed to prevail, that’s why it’s an ARIA and not a violin solo. We have an articulator, aka, the tongue, that allows for the expression of text. Everything else, wiggles and squiggles is in addition to, not excluding, THE TEXT. Five minutes to get an idea across, not arrpegiate a triad from your lowest possible note to your high Q flat, stop on it, rearticulate it ten times, trill on it, gliss down from it, and land (hopefully) back on tonic. In most cases, you don’t need to do anything to the aria to make it beautiful, the composer already did it for you.

The secret’s in the sauce, if you will.

That is all.