I ran Charles a quite interesting documentary called The Art of Singing, compiled by a company called NVC Arts in 1996 and purporting to show the history of opera singing in the 20th century as documented on film —though it really only showed the first two-thirds of the 20th century: it came to a screeching halt in 1964 with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in a bit of Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. The film begins with a montage of famous singers’ faces set to Enrico Caruso’s 1907 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and then shows clips from one of the two feature films Caruso made. I’ve seen it referred to elsewhere simply as My Cousin but the NVC Arts people gave the title as My Italian Cousin, and it cast Caruso in a dual role: as a world-famous Metropolitan Opera tenor and his hayseed cousin from Italy who comes to the U.S. to see him. The finale features Caruso singing “Vesti la giubba” and the original director, Edward José, actually had Caruso lip-synch to his record of the aria as he shot the scene. The distributor, Paramount, instructed theatres to install a phonograph and play Caruso’s record while the scene unreeled so, in 1916 (a decade before the advent of talkies), audiences would get to see and hear the great tenor on screen. Unfortunately, the experiment fell victim to the two obvious problems — the difficulty in synchronizing sound and picture and the even greater difficulty, before electric amplification existed, of making the sound loud enough to fill the theatre. The makers of this documentary chose not to try to synchronize Caruso’s image with his record; instead they had a silent movie-style orchestra play an instrumental version of the aria. The next clip was actually a French short from 1913 using an experimental sound process to synchronize actors lip-synching to one of the recordings of the sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that featured Caruso.
Then we finally got into some recordings from the talkie era — which Caruso missed by about five years — including Vitaphone shorts of Giovanni Martinelli singing “Celeste Aïda” and the quasi-operatic pop song “Torna a Surriento.” Oddly, he was way too mincing in the Aïda aria — the fact that his costume made him look like the little teapot short and stout didn’t help, nor did his expansive, hammy hand gestures — but sang “Torna a Surriento” (in a set supposedly representing a gondola in Venice) with visceral power and authority. (If they wanted Martinelli in opera they should have run his first Vitaphone short, an overwhelming performance of — you guessed it — “Vesti la giubba” which was shown at the public debut of Vitaphone in New York on August 6, 1926; when Turner Classic Movies presented their reconstruction of this program I wrote, “Martinelli’s segment is by far the best of the opera scenes; his voice rings out beautifully and it’s clear he has some idea of what he’s doing dramatically — a pity they didn’t give him another aria to fill out his segment to a full reel!”) The next sequence was Martinelli’s great rival at the Met in the 1920’s, Beniamino Gigli (both had been signed after Caruso’s untimely death in 1921 left the Met management scrambling for a superstar tenor to replace him), in a stylish performance of “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse — the period-instrument fascists would probably have their little hissy-fits about what Gigli did to this piece (the source is probably one of his popular films from the late 1930’s and early 1940’s and the scene represents a radio broadcast; he’s backed by a chamber orchestra and a quite prominent, visually and audibly, organ) but he lavishes his honeyed lyricism on it and for once he’s restrained emotionally (in later opera arias he was great but tended to overact — in 1927 he did a Vitaphone short of the end of Cavalleria Rusticana and tore the music to tatters; 13 years later when he made his complete recording he was much more disciplined, though I suspect that was because composer Pietro Mascagni was conducting the recording himself and read Gigli the riot act.)
Next up was another lyric tenor, Tito Schipa, doing a lovely version of “M’appari” from Flotow’s Martha (a standard repertory opera in the first half of the 20th century before it almost completely disappeared, leaving behind only this aria and Flotow’s lovely setting of the folk song “The Last Rose of Summer). Afterwards we got our first non-tenor, baritone Giuseppe di Luca, in another surprisingly mincing performance of “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. I suspect the producers were constrained by what actually got filmed — di Luca’s signature role was Rigoletto and I’d much rather we had some of that on film (his records as the jester are overwhelming) — but he seemed miscast as Figaro even though he was in excellent voice and managed the staccato patter of the aria quite well. After di Luca we got a very strange clip that appears to be the only audio-visual record of soprano Luisa Tetrazzini; shot well after her retirement, she’s shown first listening to Caruso’s recording of “M’appari” from Martha and then singing along with it, an odd but quite moving tribute to her deceased colleague. Then there’s a clip from the quite interesting 1934 British musical Evensong, starring Evelyn Laye as a great soprano who makes it big and then stays too long at the top, continuing to sing even after her voice has got quite worn and her name no longer packs the box-office punch it once did. We don’t actually get to hear Laye sing on this compilation (even though she anticipated Jeanette MacDonald in being both a great singer and a quite good on-screen movie actor); instead we see her warming up for a production of Puccini’s La Bohème and having a diva hissy-fit over the fact that the mezzo singing Musetta is being billed right under her with her name in just as big letters. Then we hear the mezzo rehearsing Musetta’s waltz — and she’s the real-life Spanish mezzo Conchita Supervía, two years before her tragic death in childbirth, singing the hell out of the piece and making it clear just what Laye’s character is so worked up about. (When Charles and I watched Evensong complete I found myself wishing that Warner Bros. would have picked up the remake rights and shot a U.S. version; if they had found her a suitable voice double the lead role would have been quite good for Bette Davis.)
Just about everything in the Art of Singing compilation up to this point seems like a warmup once we come to the next two clips, the “Habañera” and “Chanson bohème” from Bizet’s Carmen (annoyingly shown in reverse order) as sung by Rosa Ponselle with piano accompaniment in a 1936 screen test she shot for MGM. One wonders why they didn’t sign her — probably because she was 40 years old, a problematic age to continue a movie career and a virtually impossible one for a woman to start one; also they had Jeanette MacDonald under contract and the year before she had rocketed to superstardom in Naughty Marietta, her first film with baritone Nelson Eddy — because she’s utterly overwhelming on screen. The two bits are separated by an interview with Ponselle in which she says she particularly liked the part of Carmen because she got to be wild, and for the first time in this documentary we’re seeing a singer not only giving her all on screen but showing off the charisma and dramatic power that must have wowed audiences who got to see her live. Since it was only a test (though they got a brilliant cinematographer to shoot it — William Daniels, Garbo’s favorite) Ponselle got the rare privilege of actually being able to sing on camera instead of having to pre-record her vocal and then lip-synch to it on screen. Mad magazine once lampooned the whole idea of pre-recording in their parody of The Sound of Music, which opened with Julie Andrews dancing around the mountaintop and rows of monitor speakers all around her, and the words of her song were, “I’m not singing now, I am pre-recorded/I’m just mouthing words I have sung before/And how does it feel to be singing nothing?/It’s an awful bore.”
There’s a later sequence of Risë Stevens singing “My heart at thy sweet voice” from Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Delilah, from the 1941 MGM musical The Chocolate Soldier (in which she was tried out as an alternate partner for Nelson Eddy), and she recalled that though she made the pre-recording at score pitch, on camera she was instructed to sing it an octave lower so the motions of the face while singing wouldn’t contort her looks and she’d be as glamorous as possible — and what the sheer act of singing can do to distort an otherwise good-looking person became all too obvious in a later clip of Leontyne Price performing, what else, “O patria mia” from her signature role, Verdi’s Aïda. After Ponselle’s overwhelming performance we get a clip of Richard Tauber singing Schubert’s “Serenade,” a quite lovely performance (though there’s some distortion in the sound quality) shot to make it look like he was accompanying himself even though he almost certainly wasn’t (he was probably miming to a pre-recording he’d made with a professional pianist). Then there are a couple of clips of Feodor Chaliapin, one from a silent movie he made in Russia based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Maid of Pskov and one from his film of Don Quixote, made in France in the 1930’s with German expat G. W. Pabst directing and songs specially written for the movie by Jacques Ibert. After that we get to see the (in)famous film clip from the Paramount musical The Big Broadcast of 1938 featuring Kirsten Flagstad on a papier-maché mountain crag, waving a spear around like a baseball bat and singing Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry from Act II of Wagner’s Die Walküre — introduced by, of all people, Bob Hope in his film debut. Flagstad is in absolutely spectacular voice — later she’d have trouble with her upper register, but it was clear and amazing here — but the clip is emblematic of the way opera singers got thrown into popular entertainments then. In some ways that’s better than the way they’re treated now, firmly ghettoized into their own teeny-tiny chunk of the entertainment industry (unless someone like Luciano Pavarotti breaks out of the ghetto and becomes a full-fledged member of the celebriati); at least in the 1930’s the big record companies and movie studios gave enough exposure and publicity to classical music that it communicated the message that if you wanted to be a well-rounded person you should like this!
After the Flagstad clip, Lawrence Tibbett was shown in a clip of the “Toreador Song” from Carmen, taken from his 1935 musical Metropolitan — the first official release from 20th Century-Fox and a box-office disappointment, though the clip is absolutely galvanic and Tibbett looks considerably sexier than he did in Cuban Love Song five years earlier (in which he looked like James Cagney had suddenly developed a first-rate baritone voice). It was the first clip since Ponselle’s that actually gave the experience of the intensity and charisma the performer must have projected on stage, and it makes one wish (I promised Charles I wouldn’t do too many what-if’s in connection with this movie, but here’s one I can’t resist) that some enterprising studio had filmed Carmen complete with Ponselle in the title role, Charles Kullmann as Don José, Tibbett as Escamillo and the fine, underrated soprano Marion Talley as Micaëla. In case you’re wondering why I picked only American singers for my dream cast, it’s because my fantasy includes doing Carmen in the original Opéra-Comique version with spoken dialogue, and persuading the studio “suits” there’d be a market for it by doing it in English translation. “That way it’s just a musical — only with fantastic music!” I can imagine the producer saying to get it green-lighted. After Tibbett’s incredible Toreador Song, there was a short scene from the 1942 MGM short We Must Have Music — which has been shown several times on Turner Classic Movies, mainly because Judy Garland sings its opening song (though that part of it wasn’t included here) — as a lead-in to the clip of Risë Stevens singing the Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila aria “Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” and explaining that she was obliged to sing it a full octave down on set when she was synchronizing to her pre-recording of the aria so she would still look glamorous and her face wouldn’t get those contortions that are inevitable when one sings, especially when one sings those thrilling high notes that are one of the big appeals of opera. After that there was another excerpt from an MGM musical, Luxury Liner (1947), with Lauritz Melchior singing “Winterstürme” from Wagner’s Die Walküre to piano accompaniment (and, like the Tauber clip, it was made to look like Melchior was accompanying himself even though he pretty clearly wasn’t), with soprano Marina “Nina” Koshetz looking on — elsewhere in the movie they do the big soprano-tenor duet from Act III of Aïda but it was obvious the makers of The Art of Singing wanted to showcase Melchior’s unparalled chops as a Wagnerian. (This was also noteworthy as the first clip in the entire show that was in color.)
Then there was another color clip, from the Sol Hurok biopic Tonight We Sing, featuring Ezio Pinza playing Feodor Chaliapin singing the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov — and, much to my surprise, singing it in the original Russian instead of Italian, the language the Met traditionally gave Boris in ever since Toscanini conducted the U.S. premiere there in 1913. (Pinza’s surviving Met broadcasts of Boris are in Italian, as is his album of excerpts from Boris on Columbia.) Perhaps because he was playing Chaliapin, he learned at least that scene in the original — quite possibly phonetically (according to Irving Kolodin’s book The Opera Omnibus, Pinza never learned to read music; instead he memorized all his parts by ear). Then there came 12 minutes or so of sheer transcendence: Charles Laughton hosting an NBC program called Producer’s Showcase and introducing Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling in Act I of Puccini’s La Bohème from “Che gelida manina” on, leaving out the outbursts from the other Bohemians between the two big arias and the final duet but otherwise giving us three of the most emotionally charged “numbers” in all opera with two of the greatest voices of all time. Björling wasn’t much to look at — he was yet another tenor built like a fire hydrant — but once he opened his mouth he created the romantic spell Puccini expected this music to cast, and Tebaldi was every bit his equal, her voice radiant with young love and both of them restraining the music, working their way to the big climaxes instead of starting at 11 and telling the audience, “You see how loud I can belt it out?” The final bars of “O soave fanciulla” were a bit disappointing — NBC’s sound engineers decided to create the diminuendo artificially by putting an echo on Tebaldi’s and Björling’s voices instead of letting the singers do it on their own, which they would have been perfectly capable of doing — but that didn’t lessen the magic. Indeed, this 60-year-old clip (though its date wasn’t specified) not only flashed us back to the days when the major media companies still thought they had a public-service obligation to put something other than tiresome but profitable banality on the air, it also showed (in comparison to the earlier clips from movies) how much visual representations of opera gain when the singers are actually performing in real time instead of lip-synching to pre-recordings.
Just about anything after that extraordinary (and quite long!) Bohème sequence might have seemed an anticlimax, and what did come next was Victoria de los Angeles singing a Spanish song by Manuel de Falla from her BBC-TV debut in 1962. (Ironically, it was de los Angeles, not Tebaldi, who was Björling’s partner on the 1956 complete Bohème, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, which is one of my two all-time favorite recordings of this much-recorded opera; the 1974 Karajan version from Vienna with Pavarotti and Freni is the other.) Afterwards came Joan Sutherland in a spectacular rendition of the Queen’s cabaletta “O beau pays” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots — and as uneven as Meyerbeer’s operas (especially his last three, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète and L’Africaine) are, with passages of surpassing beauty alternating with pieces that sound like movie music for Cecil B. DeMille, it still seems a pity that Mendelssohn’s reputation has recovered from Wagner’s anti-Semitic assaults on him while Meyerbeer’s hasn’t. Then came the clip of Leontyne Price singing “O patria mia” from Aïda, which became her signature role because she was the first African-American singer to become a star singing leads (Marian Anderson was a contralto and therefore doomed to supporting parts — and she was more interested in a career as a concert singer anyway — and two quite good Black singers preceded Price in leading soprano roles in mainstream operas, Mattiwilda Dobbs and Gloria Davy, but they never made it to superstardom and Price did) and therefore a lot of opera company directors figured, “She’s Black, Aïda’s Ethiopian, let’s cast Price as Aïda!” (Price got fed up with being typecast that way but she accepted it with enough grace that when she retired from opera in 1985, she chose Aïda for her farewell performance at the Met.) The clip shows off Price’s star quality; I remember seeing her in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in San Francisco in 1977 and she dominated the stage even though the staging required her to make her entrance with her back to the audience. That is stardom.
Then there was the next extended performance in the show, a U.S. TV debut for Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff — who must have sorted out his immigration problems by then (because he was from a socialist-bloc country the U.S. immigration authorities had rejected his visa application when Rudolf Bing tried to hire him to sing Philip II in the Met’s 1950 Don Carlos — plus ça change, plus ça même chose) — singing the final scene from Boris Godunov with Nicola Moscona as Pimen and, praise be, a real boy instead of a superannuated mezzo in drag playing his pre-pubescent son and heir, Fyodor. I’ve never cared that much for Christoff; he was a great singer but he way overacted (so did Chaliapin, but he was sui generis — still, my favorite Borises are the subtler ones like Alexander Kipnis, Mark Reizen and Martti Talvela). Next up was Magda Olivero’s “Vissi d’arte” and the Act III duet (with an unidentified tenor) from Puccini’s Tosca — Olivero was interviewed at several points in the program about other singers’ careers as well as her own, but unfortunately the version we were watching contained neither subtitles nor voice-overs for her Italian-language comments; and a narrator in English talking about how remarkable it was that she made her Met debut without giving the non-cognoscenti a hint about just what was so remarkable about it: she made it at age 65 after an up-and-down career in which she had made a big splash in Italy in the late 1930’s, made a few recordings (including singing Liù in the first commercial recording of Puccini’s Turandot), retired in 1941 to get married and came back in 1950 after the death of her husband and at the behest of the composer Francesco Cilèa, who wanted to hear her sing the title role of his opera Adriana Lecouvreur one last time before he died. In the 1950’s she rebuilt her reputation in Europe and by the late 1960’s she was being hailed as the last exemplar of the true verismo singing style; she continued to perform live until 1981 and she’s still alive today at age 103. (In the degrees-of-separation department: Harvey Milk’s last public appearance was at the San Francisco Opera to watch Olivero in Tosca in November, 1978 — two days before Milk was killed. I was at that performance too, and it was a night to remember even without that macabre aftermath.)
They first showed newsreel or TV footage of her arriving in Lisbon in March 1958 to sing the famous “Lisbon Traviata”; then they showed what was described as “newly discovered footage” of the Lisbon Traviata itself (the “Parigi, o cara” sequence, synched to the broadcast recording released in 1980, obviously shot by someone who smuggled a home movie camera into the theatre and did the best s/he could) and finally a clip from the famous complete Act II of Tosca with Callas and Tito Gobbi filmed for the BBC in February 1964. It remains one of the most intense performances of this music ever given — though the narration for The Art of Singing mentions neither Gobbi nor Alfredo Kraus, Callas’s partner in the Lisbon Traviata excerpt (a pity since they too were among the major voices of the 20th century!) — but I’d fault the producers of this film for excerpting “Vissi d’arte” and the dialogue with Scarpia immediately preceding it because the aria shows all too clearly Callas’s vocal weaknesses this late in her career, especially those notoriously wobbly high notes that her detractors seized on and her admirers felt they had to apologize for. Frankly, the high point of this performance (which I have on an EMI DVD release) is the very ending — the final confrontation between Tosca and Scarpia, her murder of him and her contemptuous dismissal, “È avanti lui tremava tutta Roma” (“Before that all Rome trembled”). As I wrote about that film when I screened it “complete,” “Most singers — even Callas on some of her surviving recordings — scream this out like Anna Magnani, who actually played Tosca in a 1948 film, or rather played an opera singer at once singing and living the opera’s plot during the Nazi occupation of Rome in the latter part of World War II; here Callas tosses off the line with a kind of breezy contempt that works better than the usual melodramatics.” That is what we Callas fans (and I definitely count myself as a Callasophile, not a Callasophobe, though that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the lovely, radiant singing Renata Tebaldi did in her clip on this show; just as jazz fans can like both Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, why can’t opera fans like both Callas and Tebaldi?) love about her: her questing spirit, her willingness to look at every moment of every role afresh and look for the dramatic truth behind the music instead of just singing it the way the divas of a previous generation did (though there were singing actresses of Callas’s stature well before her: to name three of whom we have enough records to support their reputations, Geraldine Farrar — who I’m rather startled to see was not represented here since she became a major star in silent films! — Mary Garden and Rosa Ponselle). It’s a bit disappointing that the show cuts off here in 1964 — though one can readily imagine both how nightmarish and how expensive the negotiations would have been for the rights to include the superstars of the most recent past, including Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras, whose “Three Tenors” mega-concerts were game-changers in restoring the popular appeal of opera and its practitioners.