Commentary Magazine


A Tale of Two Mezzos

There was a time when a New York debut could be the most important moment in a musician’s life. Leonard Bernstein, Jascha Heifetz, Kirsten Flagstad, Yehudi Menuhin, and any number of other artists whose names are now bywords became famous overnight thanks to this one event. Today, however, many careers are shaped less by noteworthy public appearances, in New York or elsewhere, than by the marketing strategies of record companies, working in tandem with public-relations firms.

To be sure, no record company has yet succeeded in using promotional techniques to turn a nonentity into a star, and even an up-and-coming musician can definitely be hurt by a bad public performance. The reputation of Roberto Alagna, aggressively touted by EMI as “the tenor of our generation,” will not soon recover from his disastrous Metropolitan Opera debut this past season. Moreover, even if there are far fewer bona-fide stars today than in the 1960’s, there is still no shortage of classical artists whom music-lovers will pay to hear. But there is also no getting around the fact that the culture of classical music has been altered by postmodern methods of marketing, and that some of the changes are clearly for the worse.

The nature of these changes can be seen by looking at the careers of two mezzo-sopranos who recently appeared in New York, the Italian Cecilia Bartoli and the Swedish Anne Sofie von Otter. In April, Bartoli sang her first Carnegie Hall recital, having made her Metropolitan Opera debut two months earlier as Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte; also in April, von Otter had her New York recital debut at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

These performances were widely noticed in the New York press, and were the subject of much talk among opera buffs, both face to face and in cyberspace. But they did not make stars out of either singer. At twenty-nine, Bartoli is already a star—her top-selling albums for Decca/London have made her the most successful classical singer of her generation—while the forty-one-year-old von Otter, though she rarely performs in this country, is well known, here as in Europe, for her recordings of German, French, and Scandinavian art songs. These two singers thus appear, at first glance, to have much in common (besides their voice type): both are highly talented performers who spend more time singing recitals than appearing in opera, and their international reputations are based more on recordings than on public appearances.

But the resemblances stop there, and the differences—starting with the ways in which they have been promoted by their respective record labels—are far more revealing.

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Born in Rome in 1966, Cecilia Bartoli began studying singing with her mother at sixteen, and made her professional debut at nineteen. Shortly thereafter, she came to the attention of the conductor Herbert von Karajan, who told key figures in the music business about her. Decca/London soon signed Bartoli to an exclusive contract, and released her first CD, a collection of Rossini arias, in 1989.1

At this point, Bartoli’s stage career was limited, and (because her voice was modest in size) it was uncertain how much success she could hope to have in large-house opera. Even so, she was regarded as highly marketable to record buyers, not only on account of her talent but also because she was young and beautiful, the latter two qualities being prerequisites of today’s youth-oriented marketing campaigns. She therefore spent the next few years concentrating mainly on recitals and concert appearances, and on her CD’s, which were heavily promoted by Decca/London. Photographers created a sultry look for the singer, reminiscent of Italian film stars of the 50’s, and the label produced a TV “documentary” based on one of her recitals which received, and continues to receive, worldwide circulation. Her CD’s soon became top sellers, and by 1993 her recital fee had reportedly reached $35,000 a night.

It was Bartoli’s success as a recording artist that made her a valuable operatic property. Indeed, by the time of her Metropolitan Opera debut this year, she had become a potent box-office draw. Although her Met debut was an auspicious occasion on several grounds—the company presented her in a new production of Così fan tutte, directed by Lesley Koenig, and surrounded her with a prestigious cast—the mezzo-soprano was the unquestioned star of the show. Così has never been a popular opera, but every performance this year was reportedly sold out well in advance.

As Bartoli’s New York appearances showed, she is an artist of exceptional gifts. The smoky timbre of her voice is immediately recognizable, and she sings with an unselfconscious enthusiasm that is irresistible. Moreover, her ability to characterize what she sings is unparalleled in its clarity and immediacy: she is a true singing actress. As Despina in Così, she also proved that she is capable of fully expressing her personality within the tightly controlled context of an operatic production.

But Bartoli is by no means beyond reproach. Her much-praised coloratura, for example, has little in common with true bel canto style, in which legato, smoothness of tonal emission, is paramount. Indeed, Bartoli appears at times unable to sing legato at all—she invariably raps out her runs in a detached, staccato manner instead of “bowing” them like a violinist—and her low notes are forced. These habits are both tiring to the ear and vocally unhealthy, and may eventually do lasting physical damage.

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The most serious obstacle facing Bartoli is the smallness of her voice: at her Met debut, the conductor James Levine clearly had to go to some trouble to keep the orchestra from drowning her out. Though her Despina received deservedly excellent notices, it is unclear whether she will be able effectively to perform her signature Rossini roles (including Rosina in The Barber of Seville) in a Met-sized house. And while she has expressed interest in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen, it is hard to see how she could sing so demanding a role in the theater without putting her voice at risk—or resorting to amplification.

Bartoli’s recital programs are also problematic, though for a different reason: they are unadventurous even for an opera singer. This is due partly to the fact that she performs almost exclusively in Italian (in which there is no significant art-song literature), and partly to the fact that she has been slow to expand her repertoire. A case in point was her April recital at Carnegie Hall, where she was accompanied by the concert pianist András Schiff.

The program, drawn from Bartoli’s CD’s, consisted of a group of second-rate songs by Beethoven and Schubert, which she sings solely because they happen to be in Italian; a half-dozen Rossini songs, all familiar from earlier recitals; and a solo cantata by Haydn, “Arianna a Naxos,” which was of interest chiefly as a vehicle for her mercurial stage presence.2 Although anyone who had never before seen or heard Bartoli might well have found this recital remarkable, even revelatory, it broke no new ground for her, and certainly posed no challenges for Schiff, a superb musician whose formidable abilities were largely wasted as a result.

In the end, the key to understanding Bartoli’s career lies in the fact that she began recording at the age of twenty-two, when her voice was not yet mature, and when most twenty-two-year-old American singers (by way of contrast) have just begun graduate study or, in rare cases, have entered apprenticeship programs with opera companies. This explains virtually everything about Bartoli, from her eccentric technique to her restricted recital repertoire: she went before the public too soon, and has thus been forced to grapple, in public and under high pressure, with the ordinary problems of inexperience. Aggravating matters still further is the fact that she is under contract to a record label whose marketing model is Luciano Pavarotti, a fine tenor who has long handled himself less as an artist than as a salable commodity.

It is possible, of course, that Bartoli will surmount the obstacles created by her premature stardom, and ripen into the truly great singer she has it in her to become. But it is unlikely that in the meantime her handlers will encourage her to do anything inconsistent with the short-term goal of selling her services to the largest possible paying audiences, whether or not that goal is itself consistent with her best artistic interests.

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That there continue to be roads to success in classical music other than the one chosen by Cecilia Bartoli is shown by the career of Anne Sofie von Otter.

Born in 1955, von Otter graduated from the Stockholm College of Music in 1979, and spent a further period of study at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama before making her opera-house debut. She signed a recording contract with DGG in 1987, and her first solo CD, a recital of songs by Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler, was released to critical acclaim in 1989—around the same time as Cecilia Bartoli’s debut CD for Decca/London, though von Otter was then eleven years older.3

Like Bartoli, von Otter is equally comfortable in opera and recital. Her 1995 Metropolitan Opera performances as Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier rank among the most vivid and memorable pieces of comic operatic acting I have seen.4(In this respect, she is reminiscent of the American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who also has a flair for comedy unexpected in a singer whose voice is essentially “serious” in timbre.) And her Alice Tully Hall recital, in which she sang art songs by Schubert, Strauss, Grieg, and a group of Swedish composers, left no doubt whatsoever that she is a singing actress of the first rank, fully worthy of comparison not merely with her younger counterpart but with such great recitalists of the recent past as the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; the Schubert group in particular was miraculously varied in dramatic expression.

Unlike Bartoli, however, von Otter is an able linguist—in addition to her native Swedish, she sings in German, French, Italian, English, Russian, Finnish, and Norwegian—and her repertoire is vast. She is also one of the most technically finished singers of the last quarter-century. Her smooth-textured lyric mezzo voice is produced with unusual evenness, and while she does not specialize in coloratura roles, her work in that mode, which can be heard in a 1989 recording of the French-language version of Gluck’s opera Orfeo et Euridice, is impressively secure.5

Moreover, von Otter has deliberately chosen not to ride the fast track to stardom. Though she has sung at most of the major opera houses, she is particular about the conditions under which she works, and will only commit herself to well rehearsed productions. Just as important, her fastidious career choices are fully supported by her record label.

DGG is as committed to modern promotional techniques as any other record company, but it is also known for the care it takes in adding artists—especially younger ones—to its roster, and for its willingness to record them in non-frivolous repertoire. And while von Otter is a strikingly handsome woman, DGG has never sought to market her as the Swedish equivalent of an Italian sex kitten: in ads she is always pictured as an artist of high seriousness.

This approach has allowed von Otter to grow at her own pace, and in the process to create a body of recorded work that has won the near-universal admiration of critics and colleagues. While she will probably never become a “superstar”—the technical perfection of her singing, and the emotional restraint characteristic of her recorded performances, are not qualities that tend to inspire hysterical adulation among opera buffs—she is now generally regarded as one of the world’s finest classical singers, and the warm audience response at her New York recital suggested that wider popularity may yet be within her grasp.

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To say that Anne Sofie von Otter is a “better” singer than Cecilia Bartoli is to make a meaningless comparison. Both women are greatly gifted, and have done much with their gifts. But von Otter has made the wiser choices, and her long-term prospects consequently seem far more secure. She is likely to have another two decades or so of first-rate singing ahead of her, and it is no less likely that her artistry will continue to deepen with the passage of time; Bartoli’s career, by contrast, could easily be cut short by a vocal crisis, or descend into the kind of marketing-driven triviality she has so far managed, for the most part, to avoid.

Of course it would be unfair to blame Bartoli’s situation wholly, or even primarily, on her record label. She signed with Decca/London of her own free will, and her failure to expand her repertoire, or restudy her vocal technique, is nobody’s fault but her own. But when a young singer yields to temptation, a certain portion of blame properly attaches to the tempter: one can only expect so much sense out of a twenty-two-year-old. And finally, whether talented young people, be they Italian mezzo-sopranos, basketball-playing ghetto teenagers, or seven-year-old airplane “pilots,” make the right choices in life also depends in large part on the priorities of the larger culture they inhabit.

Therein lies the moral of this tale of two mezzos: if the career of Cecilia Bartoli is any indication, the priorities of the postmodern culture of classical music are seriously askew. For it is Bartoli’s career, not von Otter’s, that is increasingly the preferred paradigm for the “development” of young classical artists. The marketing of Roberto Alagna, for example, was demonstrably modeled on that of Bartoli, and many instrumentalists—most recently the violinists Sarah Chang and Leila Josefowicz and the pianist Evgeny Kissin—are also being put before the public at younger and younger ages. Not coincidentally, much the same thing is happening to the current generation of young jazz musicians, with similar results.

There have always been, and will always be, prodigies. But “too much, too soon” means something very different in 1996 from what it did in 1927, when the eleven-year-old Yehudi Menuhin made his New York Philharmonic debut. As it was, Menuhin barely survived his days as the most celebrated prodigy of the pre-TV era. Today, the effects of a musical career prematurely launched in the full glare of the modern media spotlight are potentially more devastating than ever before.


Footnotes

1 London 425 43 0-2 LH.

2 “Arianna a Naxos” and the Beethoven and Schubert songs are available on The Impatient Lover, recorded with Schiff in 1992 (London 440 297-2DH); the Rossini songs can be heard on Rossini Recital (London 430 518-2LH), recorded in 1990.

3 DGG 423 666-2GH. Von Otter's other recital CD's for DGG, all of which are accompanied by the pianist Bengt Forsberg, her regular recital partner, include discs devoted to songs by Brahms (429 727-2GH), Schumann (445 881-2GH), and Grieg (437 521-2GH); Love's Twilight, a collection of songs by Alban Berg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Richard Strauss (437 515-2GH); and the newly released Wings in the Night, a collection of songs by Swedish composers (449 189-2GH). Also noteworthy are Speak Low: Songs by Kurt Weill, in which von Otter gives a performance of the Brecht-Weill “Seven Deadly Sins” that is both convincingly idiomatic and refreshing in its lack of exaggeration (439 894-2GH); and Anne Sofie von Otter Sings Berlioz, which includes the best modern recording of the orchestral song cycle Les Nuits d'été (445 823-2GH).

4 Von Otter's Octavian can be both seen and heard in a televised version of a 1994 Vienna Staatsoper production conducted by Carlos Kleiber (DGG 440 072 543-3GVK, two videocassettes).

5 EMI CDCB 49834 (two CD's).

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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