Belcanto - The Tenors of the 78 Era
Director(s): Jan Schmidt-Garre
Cinematography: Wolfgang Aichholzer, Pascal Hoffmann, et al.
Editor: Gaby Kull-Neujahr
Co-produced by BR, NDR, ORB, SDR, SFB, SR, SWR and WDR
Supported by the Bavarian Film Funds FFF and MAP-TV, an Initiative of the MEDIA-Programme of the EU
John Ardoin, The Dallas Morning News, Nov. 3, 1997
Additional fuel was added to the tenor blaze recently with the is-suing of The Tenors of the 78 Era, 12 exceptional 30-minute, black-and-white films on four cassettes that were originally made for European television. Each program is in effect a mini-documentary that deals with a specific tenor and draws on exceptional archival film (both silent and with sound). The tapes also contain interviews with experts, family members and colleagues.
The tenors profiled are Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak, Joseph Schmidt, Jussi Bjoerling, Lauritz Melchior, Helge Rosvaenge, Georges Thill, John McCormack and Ivan Kozlovsky. Director Jan Schmidt-Garre has thrown his net in a wide arc and captured representatives of many different musical cultures and as many different styles of singing.
There is also a 13th program in the bargain — a quick survey of the history of the phonograph and its reflection of the tenor voice. Obviously, like so many opera fans, Mr. Schmidt-Garre is an addict when it comes to tenors, and his love led him to search out extraordinary film, mint-quality footage, most of it entirely new to even the most devout fan.
In addition to a biographical survey, interviews with many of the artists involved and discussions of their art and life by others, each tape contains one aria or song that is dissected in detail to show the particular properties or the uniqueness of a voice. This adds up to more than history; it is a feast of singing and a penetrating look at operatic traditions.
It is sad, of course, that we have no sound film of the tenor of tenors, Caruso, but the silent footage on the tape offers at least a glimpse of the man on and off stage. But by the time of Gigli, we have entered the age of the tenor as a media star, for Gigli, like the others represented in this series, made many movies.
This series not only brings to life the fabled singers and puts a face on their voices, it is a crash course in how acting and singing have evolved throughout this century. As all of these tenors were active primarily in the pre-World War II era, their dramatics range from semaphoric to very stylized. Some of them are merely rudimentary in their physical response to music, however sincere (Gigli, for example), while others (Kozlovsky) bring an almost poetic aura to the way in which they move and reflect the music they are singing.
The performance footage has been garnered not only from commercial films, but newsreels, home movies and television. For many, these films will be intriguing for what the tenors' former stage partners have to say — Magda Olivero and Anita Cerquetti on Gigli, Elisabeth Söderström on Bjoerling, Astrid Varnay on Melchior and Ivan Petrov on Kozlovsky, for example. The experts who testify to the artistry of the tenors (and at times criticize them as well) include Michael Scott, Robert Tuggle, Rodolfo Celletti, Stefan Zucker and Jürgen Kesting.
Though few record collectors or veteran operagoers will need reminding of the greatness and importance of Caruso or Bjoerling, this series is valuable in spotlighting such less-familiar but equally important singers as Austria's Leo Slezak, Germany's Joseph Schmidt, Denmark's Helge Rosvænge, Ireland's John McCormack, France's Georges Thill and Russia's Ivan Kozlovsky. Though they may not hold a place in the mind on a level with a Gigli or a Tauber, they were giants in their day, and these films offered eloquent testimony as to why.
Names missing from the series will raise an eyebrow or two, such as Giovanni Martinelli. And I personally regret that no American — Richard Crooks springs to mind — was included. But what there is, is pure gold.
Anne Rose Katz, Süddeutsche Zeitung, June 1, 1996
Mit ungeheurem Fleiß hat hier ein filmender Musikfreund bewegte Dokumente zusammengetragen über den Archetyp des singenden Künstlers. Sehenswert für Musikfreunde, das sprechende Detail einerseits (Caruso raucht, Caruso zeichnet, auch den alten Kaiser Wilhelm) und andererseits die Ideologie vom singenden Menschen, die bei Kesting in dem Stoßseufzer gipfelt: "Ein Glück".
Jürgen Kanold, Südwest-Presse Ulm, June 1, 1996
Eine aufwendige, millionenteure Kulturdokumentation im Hauptprogramm, koproduziert vom Bayerischen Rundfunk? Tatsächlich, das kommt noch vor. Regisseur Jan Schmidt-Garre weiß um die Gunst der Stunde: Die Masseneuphorie über die "Drei Tenöre" habe wohl Interesse geweckt an der Frage, was war davor? Vieles. Das Erstaunliche aber an dieser Reihe: Die Filme (jeweils 30 Minuten lang) gehen ins Detail, haben wissenschaftlichen Anspruch. Ein grandioser Einblick in vergangene Großzeiten des Gesangs.
Schmidt-Garre und sein Autor Georg-Albrecht Eckle haben nicht nur gewaltig Film- und Tonträger-Material ausgegraben und montiert, sie reisten um die Welt, drehten an Opernschauplätzen, spür-ten Zeitzeugen auf. So berichten uralte Herren in Little Italy in New York von ihren Kindheitserinnerungen an Caruso. Oder Sohn Ib Melchior gibt Auskunft über seinen Vater Lauritz, den begnadetsten Wagner-Tenor. Viel Musik naturgemäß, aber kein Kommentar aus dem Off, nur farbige Tafeln mit Biographischem im Schwarzweiß-Film. Schmidt-Garre erzählt keine bunten Lebensgeschichten, er geht zur Sache. In Interviews läßt er werten, erklären. Hauptstütze des Unternehmens ist der Kritiker Jürgen Kesting ("Die großen Sänger"), profiliertester Kenner seines Fachs.
Elke Landschoof, Abendzeitung München, June 1, 1996
Regisseur Jan Schmidt-Garre hat wahre Detektivarbeit geleistet und sogar bis dato unbekanntes Filmmaterial bei seinen Recherchen gefunden. Die gesamte Produktion ist dem historischen Material angepaßt und in Schwarzweiß gehalten. Dieser spannenden und informativen Dokumentation tut das jedoch keinen Abbruch - im Gegenteil.
Markus Vanhoefer, Münchner Merkur, June 4, 1996
Gelungenes Caruso-Porträt, modern montiert und aufbereitet, mit hohem Informations- und Unterhaltungswert.
Jürgen Holwein, Stuttgarter Zeitung, June 4, 1996
Nicht der Biographie wurde hinterhergehechelt - Experten analysierten die Kunst. Die Gleichzeitigkeit von Musikbeispiel, Kommentar, Textblock, Filmschnipsel: erhellend!
Stefan Bauer, Gong, 7.6.96
Weltweit wurden Archive durchforstet, Zeitzeugen ermittelt, Experten befragt. Das Ergebnis ist umwerfend: Wer hatte je die Chance, Richard Tauber zu sehen, wie er in einem Arbeiter-Overall englische Texte zur eigenen Klavierbegleitung schmettert, oder wie er - "They were like bread and butter" - Franz Lehár umarmt? Optisch eingelöst wird der hohe ästhetische Anspruch mit durchgestylten Schwarzweißbildern. Jede Folge hat ihre zentrale atmosphärische Szene, um die Interviews und Archivaufnahmen montiert sind.
Bild & Funk, June 15/29, 1996
Caruso: Ein Auftakt nach Maß für die ARD-Reihe über die "Tenöre der Schellackzeit". Enrico Caruso, faszinierender Sänger und interessanter Mensch, von Jan Schmidt-Garre vielfarbig porträtiert. Ergiebige Interviews von heute, packende Rückblicke durch Dokumente in Ton und Bild und immer wieder die einmalige Stimme Carusos: dreißig TV-Minuten, die mich beeindruckten.
Tauber: Richard Tauber, der musikalischste Tenor, in gehaltvollen dreißig Minuten porträtiert. Wundervolle Musikaufnahmen aus den Dreißigern. Fast vergessenes Filmmaterial. Fesselnde Analysen von Experten. Ein Verzauberer unter dem Röntgenblick von Fachleuten. Meisterliche Dokumentation von Jan Schmidt-Garre. Bravo!
Peter Baier, Münchner Merkur, Dec. 22, 1997
Der Filmemacher Jan Schmidt-Garre, unter anderem hervorgetreten mit einem ausgezeichneten Dokumentarfilm über Sergiu Celibidache, hat die wichtigsten Tenöre der Schellackzeit, der Ära vor CD und Vinyl-Platte, in einer 13teiligen Serie für das Fernsehen porträtiert. Nun ist das Werk auch auf Video zu erhalten, in einer Box mit vier Cassetten und einem Begleitbuch. Der Regisseur legt eine profunde Analyse sowohl aus künstlerischer wie auch aus historischer Sicht vor. Gespräche mit Angehörigen und ehemaligen Kollegen einerseits sowie mit Sängern und Pädagogen der Gegenwart vermitteln eine gute Übersicht über die Bedeutung von Stars wie Enrico Caruso, Leo Slezak, Beniamino Gigli oder Tito Schipa. Bemerkenswert auch die Ausschnitte aus frühen Tonfilmen, darunter viele aus Privatarchiven.
Mario Gerteis, Tages-Anzeiger Zürich, Jan. 13, 1998
Der Ansatz bleibt konsequent hoch: Nicht nur Anekdoten werden erzählt, sondern Technik und Timbre werden analysiert. Dafür sind Fachleute wie John Steane, Stefan Zucker, Michael Scott und vor allem Jürgen Kesting, der Autor des deutschsprachigen Standardwerks "Die großen Sänger", zuständig.
Torbjörn Bergflödt, Zürichsee-Zeitung, June 22, 1998
Die tenorale Ahnenforschung bewegt sich auf höchstem Niveau. Tonaufnahmen, Analysen von Experten und anekdotisches Material formen sich, Mal für Mal, zum ergiebigen Porträt. Was die 13teilige Serie leistet, ist nicht zum wenigsten dieses: ein Tor aufzureißen zur Gesangskunst der Vergangenheit, eine Ahnung zu vermitteln davon, daß die Stars von heute Glieder sind in einer langen Vorfahrenkette.
Regisseur Jan Schmidt-Garre und Autor Georg-Albrecht Eckle haben die Halbstünder von "Belcanto" formal in einen Expositions-, Durchführungs- und Auflösungsteil gegliedert. Begonnen wird meist mit "O Paradiso!" aus Meyerbeers "L'Africaine", einer Art Auftrittsarie, mit der die jeweiligen Sänger schon mal einen vokalen Fingerabdruck hinterlassen, eine Visitenkarte abgeben. Es folgt ein erster Besuch in einer mit dem Porträtierten verknüpften atmosphärischen Szene, einem Ort, wo Verwandte und Freunde Erinnerungen austauschen. Fachleute wie Jürgen Kesting, Stefan Zucker, Michael Scott oder Rodolfo Celletti äußern ihre Meinungen. Stimmtimbre, Gesangstechnik und Ausdrucksmittel werden vertiefend analysiert mit Hilfe eines repräsentativen Aufnahmebeispiels. Laufend erscheinen Primärquellen: Mitschnitte von Konzerten und Operndarbietungen, Filmsequenzen oder Photos. Überblendete Kästchentexte spenden Basis- und Zusatzinformationen.
In solch mehrperspektivischem Geschehen finden Auratisches und nackte Information, schürfende Analyse und wehmütige Erinnerung, Kritik und Lob wunderbar zusammen. Gewiß erlaubt sich "Belcanto" kleine nostalgische Fluchten. Aber das zerfließt nicht im Kitsch und nicht im volkshochschulisch verleimten Ungefähr. Vielmehr wird man immer wieder zum bewußten Hinhören und Hinsehen, ja Mitdenken eingeladen. Die Palme gebührt dabei Jürgen Kesting für seine profunden Charakterisierungen und Detailbeobachtungen, die spürbar von einer Liebe zur Materie durchwärmt sind. Auch von Stefan Zucker ist kein leer dahingeplaudertes Wort zu hören.
Nicht genug loben ließe sich die Wahl von Schwarzweiß für alles, was neu gedreht worden ist. Die Übergänge zu den Originaldokumenten erscheinen so geradezu poetisch fließend, mit Sicherheit jedenfalls viel weicher als bei einem Aufeinanderprall von farbigen und schwarzweißen Bildern. Hervorragende Dienste, sei es zur Einstimmung, sei es zur Nachbereitung, leistet das Beibuch mit Wortzitaten aus den Filmen und weiteren Texten.
Wer sich unvermischt der Musik hingeben will, findet zahlreiche Nummern aus den Filmen integral in einer separat aufgelegten Doppel-CD. Auch diese Anthologie in 48 Tracks mag die Lust wecken, sich mit den Gesangskünstlern der Vergangenheit weiter zu beschäftigen.
Stephan Mösch, Opernwelt
Jan Schmidt-Garres Dokumentarfilmreihe über die großen Tenöre der ersten Jahrhunderthälfte fand bei der Kritik meist enthusiastische Zustimmung und ist inzwischen auch beim Columbus Film Festival ausgezeichnet worden. Auch im Opernwelt-Jahrbuch 1996 wurde sie mehrfach als herausragende Filmleistung genannt. Unmittelbar in Folge betrachtet zeichnen die Filme weit mehr als in der TV-Aufteilung ein faszinierendes Porträt einzelner Künstler zwischen Schipa, Melchior und Björling. Es geht auch um Varianten von vokalem Künstlertum insgesamt, um künstlerische Ethik und Selbstverständnis, um Metamorphosen von Stil, Geschmack und Aufführungspraxis. Daß das via Film überhaupt funktioniert und daß es keineswegs in nostalgische Verklärung mündet, dafür sorgen Geschmack und Schnittechnik des Teams um Jan Schmidt-Garre. Die drei Ebenen von historischem Material, kommentierender Analyse und je einer aktuellen "Szene" werden immer wieder anders verzahnt. Wobei es in diesen "Szenen" mit Kollegen und Verwandten gelingt, das spezifische Umfeld der porträtierten Tenöre wenigstens zu skizzieren. Eine Stimme wächst nicht aus dem Nichts oder im Überaum. Sie hat mit Muttersprache, Landschaft, Menschen und Zeitströmungen zu tun. Deshalb wirkt es so lebendig, wenn da Greise und Enkel nicht nur mit Bildern ihre Erinnerungen auffrischen, sondern auch kommentieren, in längst Vergessenem graben, streiten und sich ergänzen. Das Caruso-Bild entsteht so aus der Welt von New Yorks "Little Italy". Das Porträt von Georges Thill lebt nicht zuletzt von den Dreharbeiten auf seinem Weingut in der Provence. Andererseits verweisen Ausschnitte aus Propaganda-Filmen mit Gigli und Koslowsky auch auf die moralischen und menschlichen Gefährdungen der Zeit.
Javier Pérez Senz, El País, Madrid, MAR 3, 1998
Schwarzweiße Juwelen aus dem goldenen Zeitalter des Gesangs: fasznierend!
Stefan Zucker, Belcanto Society
No other video about opera singers matches the depth and breadth of "The Tenors of the 78 Era", no other was produced so lavishly. Originally made in 1995-96 for German TV, in this series critics, family and colleagues present and analyze the art of 12 tenors. They are heard in recordings. Above all, they are shown in rare footage taken from films and newsreels, much of it never before released on video. This is a series to enjoy, study and watch repeatedly. Beautifully photographed, it makes a stupendous gift.
Melvin Jahn, Tower Records Guide
A brilliant thirteen part series about twelve great tenors of the first half of the 20th century, the programs are wonderfully put together and delightfully informative! For me the Schipa and Kozlovsky programs were worth the entire set — though the Caruso program did contain a substantial amount of footage from his silent film My Cousin, including the singer making up for Canio and singing 'Vesti la giubba' on stage.
Robert Levine, Classical Pulse
Originally produced for German TV, this is the first of a four-volume set devoted to the great tenors of the 78 era (although one tenor, Björling, recorded into the LP era). We get, in each volume, valuable film and audio clips in addition to commentary by relatives, teachers, fellow singers (Olivero, Simionato, Cerquetti, etc.), scholars and critics, among them the remarkably insightful Jürgen Kesting and the staggering Stefan Zucker. Each tenor gets 30 minutes (Volume Four’s last half-hour is devoted to the gramophone and is equally fascinating). The second volume features Tauber, Slezak and Schmidt; the third stars Björling, Melchior and Rosvaenge, and four gives us McCormack, Thill and Kozlovsky. Each is a real treat — for you or as a gift. Winners all.
Awards at Columbus International Film Festival and at Classique en images. Prizes at the Columbus Interantional Film Festival and at Classique en Images.
Belcanto – Soundtrack1997 CD - Pars Media - Jan Schmidt-Garre
A gathering of Jussi Björling’s former colleagues at the Café of the Stockholm Opera, where Björling gave 642 performances. Collaboration with Björling was the pivotal influence on their musical development.
Meyerbeer, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Schubert, Nordqvist
analysis: Ingemisco (Messa da requiem, Verdi), 1939
Quotes from the film's exposition...
I cannot think of any other voice than Björling's that was better placed, more exactly focused or better centered. (Kesting) Standing next to him, you adapted the same way of breathing: this fantastic, natural way of singing that he had. You really sang better than you had done in all your life. (Söderström)
...from its development...
David, my grandfather, started to teach him singing right at the beginning. My father had his first lessons at the age of four. When the fourth son was born, Carl, their mother died and David was left alone with his boys. Those were difficult times and they started to give concerts and were very successful. (Lars Björling) I remember a jubilee concert with Jussi. In the middle of the encore he said: "Come on, let's go back-stage and drink a whisky!" He took me with him to the box, and everybody thought he was leaving because the jubilee concert had moved him. The audience clapped and cheered like mad. Jussi said to me: "Come on, let's start again from the beginning." Everything had happened, and I was the only one who knew what we had done during this interval. (Bokstedt)
...and from its resolution
Jussi Björling's character was so Swedish: hering and young potatoes and dill and linguan silt and bright nights. Jenny Lind tried to describe her voice and the Swedish voices. "Our voices are an imagination of the bright nights in June. They have a scent of pinetrees." (Söderström) I regard him as the classical tenor after Caruso. (Kesting) It was an honour to work with him. It was the best thing I could have imagined in my life. Never forget it - just be grateful, very grateful. (Bokstedt)
The New Virgin Convent in Moscow. Ivan Kozlovsky’s grand-daughter Anna meets Svetlana Sobinova, the daughter of Kozlovsky’s great predecessor at the Bolshoi Theatre, Leonid Sobinov.
Wagner, Rachmaninow, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Lyssenko, Mussorgsky, Ukrainian folk-songs
analysis: È il sol dell’anima (Rigoletto, Verdi), ca. 1948
There are plenty of good singers. There are far few singers who are also good actors. But good singers who are also good actors and artists - they are very rare indeed. Only one is born every hundred years. Kozlovsky was first and foremost an artist. (Pitchugin)
Many of singers in the role of Lensky screamed out the sentence: "You are an unprincipled seducer!" Lensky was an aristocrat, though. Kozlovsky whispered these words. But they could still hear this whisper back in the fifth row of the Bolshoy Theatre because the whole audience lived the role with him. Kozlovsky kept to the principle: "The more you scream the less you sing." (Malakhova) More than any other tenor in this century, he followed on from Fernando De Lucia. He maintained the Belcanto tradition in certain formal elements. He used long diminuendi, he used the messa di voce, the upward and downward swelling of the voice. The residual effect of the Belcanto school apparently survived in the Tsarist court theatre long after it had ceased to exist in Italy. (Kesting) I don't know what Kozlovsky thought of Stalin. I once saw a certificate on the wall in his home. In it, Stalin thanked Kozlovsky very much for donating a big sum of money for the construction of an army tank. It was signed: I. Stalin. (Pitchugin) Stalin once said to him: "You can ask for anything you want from me. But I will not allow you to travel abroad." (Pitchugin)
He departed this life on 21st December 1993. He gave great light, and now his light is extinguished. May his name be praised. From the chalice of life he drank immortality. (Baboreko) If I have anything good in me, even just a little goodness, I mainly have Kozlovsky to thank for it. Nothing raises and enhances the spirit so much as music and singing. (Pitchugin)
New West End Synagogue in London. Cantor Alan Bilgora demonstrates the technique of florid singing that Joseph Schmidt learned as a young cantor.
Meyerbeer, Buzzi-Peccia, Flotow, Halévy, Tagliaferri, songs, an Aramaic prayer
analysis: Recha, als Gott dich einst (La Juive, Halévy), 1931
Quotes from the film's exposition...
From a technical point of view Schmidt's voice is very difficult to analyze, because it is by nature a voice that didn't have problems, where most tenors do. (Bilgora) It was one of these voices which bore a touch of death, and suffering. It contained an inner complaint. (Kesting) He was so kind-hearted, it made you want to put your arms round him and comfort him. Although he never cried. (Lindbergh-Salomon)
...from its development...
The synagogue tradition preserved florid singing into the 1950's and 60's. Just as Yiddish embodies - to a degree - medieval German, so orthodox cantorial practice embodies certain things that were done in the opera houses in the 18th and early 19th centuries. So, Schmidt is giving us a glimpse of the kind of florid singing that florished in Italy in Rossini's day. (Zucker) There is a wonderful quotation from Schubert: "I do not know any cheerful music". Joseph Schmidt sometimes sings happy, carefree attractive, charming songs but never any "cheerful music". (Kesting) On April 1st 1933 Hitler's regime made it impossible for Schmidt to continue because of a law banning Jews from working for the government. He returned to Berlin in connection with the opening of his film 'Ein Lied geht um die Welt'. Goebbels was in the audience. So enthusiastic was he, that he wanted to declare Schmidt an honorary Arian. Much of the rest of Schmidt's life involved flight from the Nazis. (Zucker)
...and from its resolution
One has to grow so very old with all these memories. Just imagine. It's comical, isn't it? Almost comical. (Lindbergh-Salomon)
A family party at the Rosvænge’s house near Copenhagen. Even though Rosvænge spent his formative years in Berlin and Vienna, he regarded himself throughout his life as a Dane.
Meyerbeer, Puccini, Hugo Wolf, Beethoven, Leoncavallo, (Rosvænge), Wagner (Max Lorenz)
analysis: Der Feuerreiter (Hugo Wolf), 1938
When you saw him, you forgot you were in the theatre. It sometimes made your hair stand on end. (Luther) Rosvænge is always particularly good in the very roles that do not demand decoration, or ornamentation, or a singer's elegance or subtlety. He could present a figure boldly, straightforwardly, rhetorically. (Kesting)
In Berlin and Dresden at about this time, Fritz Busch, Leo Blech, and others had already started the so-called German Verdi Renaissance. Fritz Busch brought the fiery, dramatic espressivo style to Germany which Toscanini had developed. Helge Rosvænge's voice qualities made him the ideal protagonist of this style. (Kesting) He was enormously economical in breathing. He could sing a very long phrase without using much breath. The art lies not in breathing but in breathing out. (Gougaloff) You see someone in the street you haven't seen for ages. "Hi!" - that's enough for a whole phrase. You don't have to breath any more than that. Too much breath has to come out, and it spoils your note. The note must come out on its own. (Luther) Most of Rosvænge's potential lay in the declamato and not in the agreeable cantabile of Italian singing. He had a kind of flaming energy. His espressivo was part of the theatrical diction of those years. Perhaps it was also the diction of politics. This could have been the origin or the basis. (Kesting)
I can hear a hero who is really broken. I think this is brilliantly presented by the breathing, by the great opening of the note, immediately dropped again. I have never heard any other singer who could do this. (Eckle) And with the change-over to more declamatory singing. (Fischer) It provided a lesson to Fischer-Dieskau and Gerhard Hüsch. Incredibly, it leads to a new form of aesthetics. (Eckle) Getting away from the 'heroic tenor'. (Fischer) And getting away from singing as such. (Eckle) As Mahler said: "All singing is over." (Fischer)
A wine festival in Recanati, the town in which Beniamino Gigli was born. The regular guests in a bar are discussing Gigli, who over the course of his career continually returned to give benefit concerts in his home town.
Meyerbeer, Mascagni, Zandonai, Puccini, songs
analysis: Apri la tua finestra (Iris, Mascagni), 1921
When I hear him sing, I am filled by a special feeling. A cold chill goes down my back. We call it "goose-pimples". (Pagliarini) When you hear records of the very young Gigli you hear the genuine, original Italian tenore di grazia. It is a very soft, gentle voice, totally pure and clear. It does not have the fullness and energy of Caruso's voice but it is called in Italian dolcezza - very sweet, but not sweetish. (Kesting)
I sang for Hitler. I sang a concert with my father and then Hitler received me and my father and complimented us very much. We didn't really have anything to do with that. (Rina Gigli) The accusations made against Gigli came from Anglo-Saxon critics and from a few German critics. The Germans were perhaps criticising an under-tone which could have been heard in the 1930s and 1940s not only in artistic performances but also in political speeches. Flattering, giving orders, complaining, shouting, exaltation. All the elements you can hear in the political spectrum from Goebbels and Hitler to Mussolini. Gigli is a fascinating example of the impression made by the political currents of the day on artistic performances. (Kesting) He had a fabulous voice, and a natural gift. But he did not have very much taste. He tended to imitate Caruso. He sobbed, because Caruso had tears in his voice. In Gigli's case, the tears were rather artificial. (Celletti) The sobs flowed out of his response to words and music and they did not disrupt the music's flow. He integrated the sobbing into the dynamic curve of the phrases. (Zucker) It helped to breathe, in order to bring the phrase to an end. It was a technical trick which he used as means of expression. I liked it. (Simionato)
I have sung so close to him, for instance in the 'Dream' scene in Manon. It was magnificent, to follow his notes from so close up. These pianissimi, which rise on the breath. It was a great pleasure for me because I could hear how well he breathed. The lovely, gentle notes - his technique was fantastic. (Olivero) Even if he did not have a particularly dark voice he could still do everything with it. He used it in whichever way he wanted. You realize that I'm an admirer of Gigli, don't you? (Cerquetti)
A wine-growing estate in Lorgues in the South of France. After the early conclusion of his career Georges Thill retired to Provence, where his wife still lives, to teach and grow wine.
Meyerbeer, Charpentier, Wagner, Gounod, Canteloube, Chansons
analysis: Salut, demeure (Faust, Gounod), 1930
He had taken a noble singing style from the tradition of De Lucia but became a very puristic, linear singer. He was a contemporary of Toscanini and had adopted the same strict style which gripped all Europe at the time. (Kesting) Georges Thill was a painter in singing. When you hear him, you realize that voice production gave him sensual pleasure. He colours the vowels like a gourmet who can identify each kind of fruit, fish, or vintage wine. (Reiss)
Georges Thill was an extraordinary vocal technician. He had developed his voice and morphology to perfection. A singer's morphology is very important. Most singers have a very broad face, and plenty of space for resonance. (Reiss) I would not condemn anyone to a tenor's life! One feels happy if one has given pleasure to the audience. Then you can say to yourself: "I've made it!" But getting there is misery! Your digestion is ruined, you can never sleep. It is either too hot or too cold. Exhaustion from beginning to end. De Lucia said: "You are only good once a year." (Georges Thill, 1977) When an Italian sings 'amore' he can stretch the 'o' out for ever and the 'r' is only a tiny bridge leading to the 'e'. If I sing 'chaste et pure' in French I must form a number of consonants perfectly and then I cannot create so much tonal pressure. I therefore have to sing everything more lightly. (Kesting)
He will always be the greatest example of a French tenor and of the interpretation of the French repertoire. But he is a regional product like crêpes or marmelade or olive oil. (Reiss)
A gathering of Tito Schipa’s colleagues in the Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires. As a Southern Italian, Schipa had a particular affinity to spanish culture and music and considered the Teatro Colon as his second home.
Puccini, Padilla, Flotow, Tosti, Massenet, Donizetti, Tangos
analysis: Ah! Non mi ridestar (Werther, Massenet), 1925
He had a way of phrasing and a fabulous diction. He sang like an open book. You could understand everything. (Pasini) His voice is like a ray of sunshine penetrating the mist. As the sun rises, the rays shine through more strongly. (Kesting)
Schipa's small voice was big enough to fill an auditorium like the Teatro Colon, which seats 3,500 to 4,000 people. Even his pianissimi were a gentle whisper which reached the whole theatre. (Turro) For him, singing was a form of conversation. He said the music. (Zucker) The note floats away. It is like breathing out but almost without losing any air. The singer makes a fiato - draws breath only for an instant. The amount of air does not matter. He has to convert all the air he has breathed in into sound. (Kesting) As a young man he had been very good-looking. I think he was the best-looking of all the tenors. The ladies of course worshipped him. They all flocked to him. (Brodsky) So great was his magic that he was able to get away with shortcomings that would have ruined any other tenor. The problem for us, those who studied with him, was that we began to develop his vocal shortcomings but did not have his magic to compensate. You felt it. You could come into the room and not see him but sense, there was Schipa over there behind the door. It was amazing. The presence was that palpable. (Zucker)
Everybody went to hear his "Una furtiva lagrima". The scene in which he is about to drink the love-potion is one of incredible unpretentiousness. As Nemorino, he was such an innocent, simple farmer that he brought him to life. It was simply something very special. (Sala)
ro-Cathedral in Dublin. Oliver O’Brien, son of Vincent O’Brien, the man who discovered and taught John McCormack, tells the youths in the Palestrina Choir, the group in which McCormack debuted in 1902, about their famous predecessor.
Donizetti, Franck, Mozart, Brahms, Irish ballads
analysis: Il mio tesoro (Don Giovanni, Mozart), 1916
Quotes from the film's exposition...
McCormack has often been criticized worldwide for singing what musicians would consider second-rate ballads and music and yes, he did. But McCormack never descended to second-rate music. If he sang a ballad that was trash he would raise it up to his standards. (Oliver O'Brien) McCormack was not an exciting singer, but he was exquisite. He was a touching singer, but not a deeply moving one. An affectionate singer, a caressing singer, a loving and lovely one. He can make you cry through nostalgia and melancholy. (Zucker)
...from its development...
It was a performance of Don Giovanni that Furtwängler was conducting: when John sang the "Il mio tesoro" Furtwängler put down his baton and led the applause. (Oliver O'Brien) One should be cautious with the word 'perfection', but that really was perfect. I cannot think of any recording to match it. Others sing this piece magnificently, but this performance was hewn from marble. (Kesting) McCormack had the ease of emission that is associated with 19th century tenors and had one of the most masterful breathing techniques. Sometimes you can't tell when he takes breath. When I began to study singing he was my idol because of his technical perfection. (Zucker) McCormack had a good vocal technique all his life. But he gave up opera young, he wasn't 39. That was because he was totally independent financially. In one year alone he would make 300.000 Dollars which was huge. He was the Pavarotti of his time. (Smith)
...and from its resolution
He had brought so much joy to all of us. Please God, I hope for the next generation, maybe they wake up that there was such a wonderful man in Ireland who sang all these beautiful songs. (Mary Breene)
A meadow above Lake Tegern, where Slezak spent his vacations. The Bavarian farmers still remember theit former neighbour.
Meyerbeer, Millöcker, Rossini, Verdi, Raimund, Hugo Wolf, Robert Stolz
analysis: Ora per sempre addio (Otello, Verdi), 1912
We remember him as a film comedian, a humorous writer, and generally as a man with great sense of humour - but that was only in the last phase of his life. The heroic singer, the giant of a man, his Manrico, Lohengrin, Radames - they all tend to be forgotten. (Höslinger) He is a heroic tenor without the slightest shadow of baritone. A singer with no influence from Caruso, who darkened the voice and made it sort of masculine. (Kesting)
Slezak swings up into the greatest heights with no effort at all, in a way that has remained unique to the present day. Not even Pavarotti could sing at this height in such a relaxed way. We can hear that Slezak hardly needs to exert any effort at all to rise to these regions, and for a tenor these are the glaciers or the Himalayas. (Kesting) Many singers will end up emphasizing resolutions of dissonances, notes that occur on weak beats. You don't find that with Slezak. Once the dissonance is passed he will make a diminuendo, and thereby he reflects in the vocal line what is happening harmonically. He mirrors the harmonic structure. (Zucker) He beguiles you, he wooes you, he caresses you, he makes love to the song. The song sung by just about anybody else would be trivial, would be kitsch. When he does it, it becomes delicious art. (Zucker)
These songs bring out the kind of person he really was - a deeply sensitive person. Slezak suffered terribly as a result of the changes in our century. For him almost the whole world disappeared with the collapse of the monarchy. In all the years after 1918 he never found what used to exist. (Höslinger) I sent him this card on his 70th birthday, and he answered at once. (Schlesinger) "Dear Lady, I must thank you most sincerely for your kind thoughts and the lovely painting with all my roles. I was deeply touched. May God grant that we may soon return to life. I kiss your hand most humbly - Slezak."
Lauritz Melchior's Danish-American son, Ib, in pursuit of childhood memories in Chossewitz, East Germany, where the family lived in the 1930s.
Meyerbeer, Wagner, Verdi, Grieg, Leoncavallo, Schlager songs
analysis: Gott warum hast du gehäuft dies Elend (Otello, Verdi), 1930
Near the end of his life, Wagner wrote in desperation to a singer: "Why on earth did I give all the demanding roles to a tenor?" He never found him. The first and maybe last singer to define Wagner's heldentenor was Lauritz Melchior. (Kesting) He could entice all the talent out of me that I had. (Varnay) In Parsifal there are long stretches where Parsifal hasn't got to be on stage. He then used to go off stage and have a drink. But who wouldn't prefer a recording with him singing Parsifal than to have to listen to the average tenor? (Scott)
This is the Tristan score my father bought in 1912. He listed every occasion on which he ever sang Tristan. He sang Tristan more than two hundred times. (Ib Melchior) Melchior started some performance tired and ended fresh. He could have sung Siegfried twice in succession, he said. (Kesting) He had a brillant voice, but remained a natural lad. He moved in the way he thought Siegfried would have moved if Siegfried's name had been Melchior. (Varnay)
There has never been a heroic tenor to equal Melchior. Which is amazing if one considers that today everyone has got orange juice and cod liver oil from the earliest days. Everybody has got the physical strength to survive an endless regime of Wagner tenor roles. The reason is quite simply just because opera singers no longer think in terms of thinking out to the back of the hall. It's the gallery's people which you have to affect. (Scott)
Debate about Richard Tauber at the ‘Recorded Vocal Art Society’ in London, the city to which Tauber had to flee during the Third Reich.
Bizet, Leoncavallo, Schubert, Mozart, Offenbach, Tauber, Srauß (overture to “Fledermaus” conducted by Tauber), songs
analysis: Es war einmal am Hof von Eisenack ( Les contes d’Hoffmann, Offenbach), 1928
Tauber could attune his voice to the orchestral sound and to the instruments. Only great singers who can sing from the organic essence of the composition have this gift. (Kesting) That particular charme, that particular thing he had… In the films, it's the women who are swooning. He hit a certain tone, a certain pitch that turned them into rubber. (Castle)
One of the most remarkable things about Tauber was his musicianship. When he sings an aria like the legend of Kleinzack, you can here this when he changes from major to minor key. He changes the key on a note befor the orchestra does. This requires the most subtle musical sensitivity. (Scott) Nobody has ever conducted a Strauss waltz like Tauber doing "Tales from Vienna Woods". The conductor's triangles were no equal triangles. There were accents which one never dreamed of. I shall never forget the freedom, the extraordinary musicality of Tauber's conducting a Strauss waltz. (Aprahamian)
The first time I saw him I disliked him intensely. He was singing Goethe in a musical by Lehár which I could not stand. Then I heard him singing Ottavio. That cured me. I have never heard anyone, before or since, who could sing Mozart so purely and beautifully. (Bergner)
music lessons with Peter Feuchtwanger in London, who applies the principles of bel canto to piano playing.
Meyerbeer (de Lucia, Bonci), Chopin (Carol Cooper), Schipa (Tito Schipa), Verdi (Caruso, De Lucia), Donizetti (Joseph Schmidt, Stefan Zucker), Wagner (Melchior), Bach-Gounod (Moreschi), Strauß (Schwarz/Tauber), Leoncavallo (Lieban)
analysis: Alessandro Moreschi (the last castrato): Ave Maria (Bach-Gounod), 1904
The record is a wonderful invention, it repeats something which cannot be repeated. Miracles can only happen once. (Feuchtwanger) The gramophone created a new relationship with the musical time. When a singer holds a top note I forget time. If I hear the same note many times over on a record the effect is totally different. (Kesting)
'Belcanto' - it's so vague that I sometimes think the term should be banned. Its principle use is a kind of negative one. We know what isn't belcanto and it's useful in that respect. In a real belcanto singer it's not simply a matter of a smoothness and flexibility, but an element of phantasy enters as well. The obvious example is the Neapolitan Fernando de Lucia. He takes all sorts of liberties which wouldn't be allowed by any conductor today. But when you listen to him your first instinct is to say, "how poetic". 'Poetic' is almost as vague as 'belcanto' itself, yet you do mean something by it. That the imagination of the singer has taken flight. That these are no longer notes on paper. (Steane) De Lucia still understood the Latin of singing. It was still a living language in those days. (Kesting) Decorations of the sort that De Lucia has used were absolutely common to Italian singing as far back as we can trace it in history. These little quick notes remained an essential part of Italian singing until it was stemed out in our century. (Crutchfield)
Gramophone records had an enormous levelling effect on singing. Singers had to learn to produce a model performance. (Kesting) The only ideal moment is the here and now. The unique value of the moment is its irreproducibility. (Splett)
A gathering of older New York Italians in Luigi Rossi’s store, Grand Street, Litle Italy. Caruso had become the figure of identification for Italian immigrants in New York at the beginning of the century.
Meyerbeer, Verdi, Donizetti, Cardillo, Halévy, Leoncavallo
analysis: Una furtiva lagrima (L’Elisir d’amore, Donizetti), 1904
Quotes from the film's exposition...
Caruso was trained in the old school of belcanto, singing on the breath. He used that technique even up to his last recordings but fused it with the expressive gestures of verismo. Aesthetically, it was bold - but brillantly bold. (Kesting)
Caruso was critisized in Naples for being in essence a vulgar singer because he did not do the diminuendos of, say, Fernando de Lucia. Caruso provides many thrills. But on balance his effect on singing was to make it less expressive, less interesting certainly from a musical point of view because Caruso tended to sing at full volume most of the time. (Zucker)
...from its confrontation...
Fred Gaisberg travelled to the Continent to record great singers. In Milan, "Caruso poured the liquid gold of his voice onto the wax cylinders which we couldn't change as fast as he sang". He sang ten arias in half an hour and picked up hundred pounds. Three months later the company had made 15.000 pounds. (Kesting) Once he came to the Met this was his opera company. If you think in terms of todays singers - they don't devote themselves to one company. They fly everywhere. Caruso came to New York in October, usually, he stayed until the end of April and he averaged more than fifty performances a season. (Tuggle)
...and from its resolution
The great success of Caruso led the tenor voice to become a media phenomenon, as René Leibowitz once wrote. So Caruso, who had had such extraordinary success on stage and had outshone all his contemporaries, was the singer to imitate. In the Twenties, Caruso's Canio aria was imitated for the Caruso sob, not for his phrasing. (Kesting) Caruso is the archetype tenor. (Scott) When you were in the audience you became part of Caruso. You felt that you were inside his body. It was a subnormal voice. It would open up after you thought it was finished. That was Caruso's voice. (Sisca)
- Peter Feuchtwanger: Bel Canto on a Percussion Instrument?
- Jan Schmidt-Garre: Bel Canto – An Idea Comes of Age
- Interview on “Belcanto”
Peter Feuchtwanger: Bel Canto on a Percussion Instrument?
Pianists and piano teachers all too often hear experts say that the piano is a percussion instrument, and that it does not matter whether the key is depressed by a pencil or by a finger, whether it is a construction worker or a pianist who strikes the note, since the quality of the tone depends merely and entirely on the speed of the action. However, most of us suffer when the piano is being tuned and the tuner hammers out every note con furore. Pianists try to produce a beautiful tone without consciously thinking how quickly or how slowly the key must be depressed. The great difference between a construction worker and a sensitive pianist is, after all, contained in the capacity of imagining the sound beforehand – if this is not considered as the first priority, music making should be given up altogether.
Why is it that the pianists of the past were much more concerned with beauty of tone than so many pianists of the present day? Perhaps because we live in a noisy world, we often play in larger concert halls, which makes us believe that we have to force the tone. We also allow ourselves to indulge in ugly body movements at the piano, movements that interfere with the tone production and which would have been unthinkable a few generations ago. Above all, I think, we ought to search for the reason in the fact that the art of singing, the art of bel canto has been lost. The singing of today has little to do with the past achievements in this field – and the pianist has lost the ideal example of bel canto from its Golden Age.
The human voice is without doubt the most beautiful of all instruments, and as an instrument the voice has not changed throughout the centuries. What did change however, is the tone production and the training of the voice. In comparison to the singers of the Golden Age, the singer of today does not have the correct vocal training to create the dificult rôles of the bel canto. In difficult passages we often do not hear the notes, but an approximation of these notes, most of the time drowned by the orchestra anyway. But even in simple passages the voice is wrongly placed, the intonation is faulty and the so-called sliding up to a high note (not to be confused with a genuine portamento) has become an everyday mannerism.
Today we are very lucky, to be have the opportunity to listen to the last exponents of the genuine Italian bel canto, since a vast number of original recordings have been transfered onto CD’s. Alas, only a few of today's pianists take advantage of this privilege, although pianists are the ones for whom it would be of the outmost importance to hear these recordings, time and time again. Only in this way it is possible to develop true understanding for the piano music of the 18th and 19th century. Vladimir Horowitz never stopped talking about bel canto singers, especially Bonci and Battistini, and Arthur Rubinstein recalled how he was moved to tears by the singing of Kathleen Ferrier.
We, pianists have the disadvantage – some people may call it an advantage – that our tone is ready-made, waiting for us in the form of a key on the keyboard, whereas singers or string players have to create their own tone. But, if the pianist does not hear his tone before he plays it, for instance: if he does not hear the leading note B urging towards C differently from the B which comes from C and descends to A, if he cannot hear this difference and if he plays both B’s in the same manner, then an essential aspect of music-making is lost.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote in the introduction to his Inventions about the singing (cantabile) manner of playing: "Above all" the Inventions should teach "a cantabile manner in the playing." His keyboard music is very much influenced by the voice and emphasizes the vocal element. It is all the more incomprehensible that most pianists play Bach's music so aggressively, and mechanically. (Bach himself played so calmly that one could barely see his fingers move.)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach advised pianists to listen to good singers, and to sing their instrumental parts in order to develop the right understanding for the correct execution. Mendelssohn said: "To be able to express genuine emotions in piano music, one must listen to good singers. One learns from them much more than from any instrumentalists." In his letters from London we find valuable mention of singers like Maria Malibran, Henriette Sonntag or Giuditta Pasta. His friendship with Jenny Lind and his admiration for her influenced many of his works. Schumann said: "Never miss an opportunity to hear a good opera," and recommended pianists to sing in choirs. Clementi’s mature style changed radically by having listened attentively to great singers. Many opera paraphrases and lied transcriptions bear testimony to the fascination that singing held for Liszt, Czerny, Thalberg and their contemporaries.
We know from the writings of Chopins’s pupil Wilhelm von Lenz, that Chopin spent a considerable time in order to make him grasp how to descend from G in bar 2 to C in bar 3 – in the C minor Nocturne op. 48 No. 1. The G was either too long or too short. Chopin was never satisfied. While teaching, he would often refer to Giuditta Pasta and to how she would sing a certain phrase. Let us reflect when playing these two notes, whether the singer would make a portamento between them. It can help us to imagine a word and contemplate whether it would be appropriate for the two notes to be sung on two syllables or just one, whether the word would start with a vowel or with a consonant, or whether perhaps the C would start with a new word… All of these problems are much easier solved by studying the arias of Bellini, who so greatly influenced Chopin. Even on his deathbed, he wished to hear once again his favourite aria "Ah, non credea mirarti" from La Sonnambula.
It is incredible and awe inspiring, how vast the number of singers, male and female was at the beginning of the 20th century. Thousands of records bear witness to their phenomenal skill although the decline of bel canto had already set in and the verismo style caused many singers to force the voice with exaggerated expression. Manuel Garcia, brother of Maria Malibran, one of the most important teachers of bel canto, said that one should never use one's resources to the utmost, as this would always lead to self-ruin and, in the case of singers, to the ruin of the voice. Pianists can learn from this statement, that moderation is not only a virtue but a necessity. Only discipline and reflection can lead us back to the great ideal of bel canto.
(Peter Feuchtwanger contributed to "Belcanto" and to "Chopin at the Opera".)
Jan Schmidt-Garre: Bel Canto – An Idea Comes of Age
When we were looking for a common denominator, a name, for our project, one word soon forced its way to the forefront: Bel canto. This term seemed to be the best one to unite all the tenors of the first half of this century, whom we planned to present in twelve portraits and to bring back to life with a huge quantity of historical documents. They all served this ideal of beautiful singing in which the main stress was always on perfect intonation, beautiful sound, and the perfect balance of the voice. In this sense, Bel canto ought to be our ideal as well to the extent that we are concerned here with an artform, singing, and not primarily with biographical material, anecdotes, or attempts to conjure up a vanished age. For this reason, each portrait centres on the critical analysis of one particularly informative recording, explained in advance by Jürgen Kesting. The second component that we developed for each film was a scene charged with the appropriate atmosphere to present the environment and the world in which the singer lived, in the most tangible possible form, as this was the historical background of his singing.
The many discussions we held during the course of this work with music historians specialising in singers, experts on the voice, and present-day singers gradually changed the superficial, almost slangy concept of beautiful singing that had guided us up to then. The historical phenomenon of Bel canto pressed its way into the foreground and pushed the synonym for successful singing aside. We realised that music historians had defined Bel canto as nothing more than the stylistic requirements and the necessary vocal skills of the Italian repertoire in the early 19th century, as composed by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and had indeed only seen these works as a derivative of the original Bel canto composed in the 18th century by Handel and Scarlatti. The break-through of the rugged, positivistic 19th century into this world, dominated as it was by the canto fiorito – artificially decorated singing – of the castrati singers, was marked by the virile high C with chest resonance. It was heard for the first time in 1831 in the opera house of Lucca.
Under the impact of this historical redefinition of Bel canto, our interest turned first to the tenor who represents a stylistic bridge to the early 19th century: Fernando De Lucia. In a thirteenth programme we devoted as much time to him as ever an optical medium allows, considering that no moving pictures of him exist. As John Steane said in discussion with us, "In a real Bel canto singer it’s not simply a matter of smoothness and flexibility but an element of phantasy enters as well. When you listen to Fernando De Lucia your first instinct is to say, ‘how poetic.’ ‘Poetic’ is almost as vague as ‘Bel canto’ itself, yet you do mean something by it: that the imagination of the singer has taken flight, that these are no longer notes on paper." With De Lucia’s singing still echoing in our ears, we then listened to Gigli’s serenade from Iris or Björling’s Ingemisco from Verdi’s Requiem as testimony to a new age, one that had nothing to do with the historical Bel canto in which De Lucia had grown up. And indeed, our tenors of the 78 era no longer learnt the "Latin of singing," as Jürgen Kesting called it; they sing contemporary music, verismo music, and then only gradually start turning to older works such as a little Mozart, Verdi, a Gluck aria or two, and perhaps a few comic roles by Rossini. Historical Bel canto plays no essential part in the repertoire of our protagonists.
And so, as we listen to the great recordings by Tauber, McCormack, Gigli, or Björling, we know that they are something new – but can still pick up a trace in them, an echo, of the old school. Suddenly we rediscover our original intuition of that which Bel canto could have been. In Tauber’s unique ability to anticipate with his voice the modulation the orchestra was about to make, in McCormack’s perfect intonation, or the unearthly beauty of sound in the voice of Beniamino Gigli, we can see the traces of the great Bel canto ideal about which singing teachers of the 18th and 19th century wrote. Although the historical Bel canto has vanished, the aesthetic principle of Bel canto is coming back to life; it has survived, and is making its mark in the really great, revitalising recordings. Bel canto appears here to have been turned into something nobody had expected, into a universal principle of art: the imperative of discretion, the economy of resources, the unsentimental objectivity, the free, spontaneous ability to let things evolve.
("Belcanto – The Tenors of the 78 Era")
Interview on “Belcanto”
Author Georg-Albrecht Eckle and director Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Rebecca Fajnschnitt, December 1996
The Tenors of the 78 Era – the title indicates that the films address the ear more than the eye.
Schmidt-Garre: They adress the eye as well. During our research we were surprised by the amount of film material that exists of the great singers from the first half of the century. Producers’ euphoria about the invention of sound film at the end of the 1920’s led to search for subject matter that would demonstrate its value. Films about music were the ideal topic. And you also shouldn’t forget the star status that these great singers, above all the tenors, enjoyed at the time. The distinction between opera and popular singers only developed over time, stimulated by another revolutionary invention – the microphone. Singers such as Richard Tauber, Beniamino Gigli, Joseph Schmidt represented a combination of Pavarotti and Michael Jackson. McCormack sold 4 1/2 million 78 recordings of "I Hear You Calling Me"! And that was a very delicate, introverted song, sung with the most beautiful intonation and phrasing, without the least bit of compromise for so-called popular fashion. Alone in the 1930’s in Europe there were at least 200 films made about singers which contain wonderful examples of the art of singing.
Despite the large quantity of film material from this time, you also use purely audio recordings, which are often even more interesting.
Eckle: That is what is perhaps new in this experiment; a significant accent was placed on seeing the act of listening. We listen to a recorded document and see someone knowledgeable who provides a ‘running commentary’ about the characteristics of the voice and the interpretation; the viewer can thus listen attentively while receiving analytical insights both optically and acoustically. I think that is crucial for today; we have forgotten how to listen deliberately, knowingly and with focus due to the all-pervasive presence of music wherever you go. Moreover, viewers will experience and remember singers in a completely different manner when based on criteria that go beyond ‘beautiful’ and ‘not beautiful’. We were surprised again and again, especially given the amount of undiscovered film material, by how seeing can make something heard. That is, we listen differently, understand differently, comprehend on the basis of subtle differences transmitted more through the personality than in the purely auditory process.
The films seem to do without many of the common techniques employed in documentaries. There is no commentary, no documentary material such as still photographs, no pictures of important places, etc.
Schmidt-Garre: We wanted to bring the historical material to life, to give it the same vitality that the voices have for us. Photographs, e.g., are employed, but not as lifeless pictures that are merely blended in. They are presented in a situation, e.g., in the hands of a person who had a special relationship to the protagonist, perhaps through family ties or friendship. This is also the case with the original locations such as opera houses; they are not merely pictured but are employed as scenes for what we filmed. We also treat quotations of the protagonists in this manner; they don’t sound off-stage but are read by the people we interviewed as they appear in the film. And we have already spoken about the most important documents, the historical recordings. They do not merely sound, but they are listened to and commented by experts, most often Jürgen Kesting, in front of the camera, that is, as if together with the viewer. And then there are those parts of the project which we describe as scenes which convey an atmosphere. We have tried to create a scene for every singer that directly conveys the atmosphere of his world and his art. We had a bit of luck with the very first episode about Caruso. We were wondering what location we could choose. It didn’t make any sense to try to recount his whole life’s history in just thirty minutes. We therefore had to set a point of focus. We found an old grocery store in Little Italy in New York which had preserved the atmosphere from the beginning of the century when a hundred thousand Italians set off to discover their luck in New York. Caruso was the man who bound these Italian immigrants together, he was their idol. We thus decided to add a scene to the film with old New York Italians in Mr. Rossi’s Grocery Store. Based on this experience, we searched for a specific color for each following episode, and it is interesting to note in hindsight how closely the color of each of these scenes corresponds to the singer featured. The world of these strong individuals lives on in the ambiance and in the personalities of their family and friends in a mysterious and telling fashion – their good as well as their bad sides.
The use of historical audio and film material raises the question of the adaption to contemporary standards. What guidelines did you employ?
Schmidt-Garre: A severe modernization is avoided nowadays when making the transfer from old 78 recordings; instead, the typical sound of the recording is preserved. The film material was much more of a challenge. Nearly every old film is played too quickly in television. In the case of music films, this leads to the music sounding a half tone higher. And what is even worse in the case of singers, not only is the pitch altered, but also the timbre of their voice. We were able to calculate the correct speed of the film material, so that all the music is heard the way it sounded in the studio at that time. Gigli, for example, had transposed the aria "O Paradiso" down a half step because he had trouble with the high register – thus the aria, which opens every episode of the series, sounds a half step lower in the Gigli episode. Another problem was the proportions of the picture frame; old films employed an almost square format. When these films are transferred to contemporary standards without any special correction, then you get the cut-off heads that are often seen in television. This does not take place in our films.
The preoccupation with historical recordings often leads to a transfiguration of the past. Are you nostalgic by nature?
Schmidt-Garre: Everyone who critically deals with history will at first make the discovery that things that appear natural today actually have a historical development. The high C sung from the chest, e.g., was an invention in the 19th century that had a shocking effect on Rossini and his contemporaries. Or that the purist style of singing that conductors such as Levine or Muti assert to be the only thinkable one arose only at the beginning of this century as a reaction to the Art Nouveau style of singing, such as Fernando De Lucia. Our series will hopefully lead to something other than nostalgia, i.e., to a historical consciousness. Every musician has to solve the contradiction between historical relativity and absolute aesthetic ideals for himself.
Eckle: If we are not able to discern critically what the art of singing was beginning with the earliest recordings of Fernando De Lucia, then we will never be able to establish a personal art of singing that is. And that is what this is about. There is good singing nowadays, but very few good singers. A few titans at the end of their careers form the exception. Music is often sung well, precisely, often more precisely than before, but rarely does it convey a personality. But compositions were written with a progressively subjective character with the appearance of the verismo, the repertoire which is still popular today. What to do? Can you learn to have a personality? The series will also show that the courage to have a subjective personality must be developed, just as bel canto techniques must be practiced in their objectivity. Our goal was to promote progress rather than to convey nostalgia with this film.
("Belcanto – The Tenors of the 78 Era")