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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 11, No. 5

Mozart and Singing

by Joseph So / February 21, 2006

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"I believe in God, Mozart, and Beethoven," Richard Wagner is reputed to have said. Schubert, another musical giant, writes in his diary, "O immortal Mozart, how many inspired suggestions of a better life have you left in our souls." For countless millions of music lovers, January 27th of this year marks a special day, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Salzburg, his birth city, is bracing for a deluge of tourists on a musical pilgrimage, eager to snap up pricey souvenirs and concert tickets costing a king's ransom. Except for a few jaundiced nay-sayers music critic Norman Lebrecht among them who bemoan the crass commercialism of this massive birthdaybash and warn of the danger of an overdose of Mozart mit schlag, most welcome the occasion to commemorate and reflect on the great composer. Last month, opera houses, concert halls and airwaves resounded with his music.

Perhaps no musicians hold Mozart more dearly to their collective heart than singers. The wonderful Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager was recently quoted as saying Mozart "is a gift from God; his work purifies not only the voice but the soul." What makes his music so special? First of all, it is supremely accessible few composers write such 'hummable' melodies. Mozart himself considered melody the essence of music, stating that "even in situations of the greatest horror, (music) should never be painful to the ear, but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music." To many, Mozart is the ultimate 'feel-good music' that lifts the spirit like no others. Even the great Antonin Dvorak called it "a ray of sunshine."

To be sure, there is a sincerity and directness of communication in Mozart's musical language that touches the heart. His operas, particularly the Da Ponte Trilogy, remain remarkably fresh two and a half centuries later, which may explain why many stage directors, from Peter Sellers to Sir Kenneth Branagh, cannot resist an attempt at updating, with varying degrees of success. "Mozart's characters are timeless," baritone Gerald Finley says. "In Le nozze di Figaro, you have the whole political thing; the relationship between servant and master, the haves and have-nots. The ideas of romantic love, power, social position these are completely contemporary, really timeless issues. And with the wonderful pulsating energy and an anguished lyricism to his music, each time I sing it, it feels like the first time." Finley speaks from experience. A singer of great artistic range, from Bach and Handel to John Adams and Sariaaho, he is also a quintessential Mozartean, his Don Giovanni from the Metropolitan Opera last season, a tour de force of vocal and dramatic veracity. On his 2006 calendar is a reprise of the Count for Covent Garden, plus the title role in a new production of Don Giovanni in Vienna, and several appearances as baritone soloist in the Mozart Requiem.

It is often said that Mozart writes gratefully for the voice. "He writes for the voice like nobody else," explains soprano Nathalie Paulin, who has delighted audiences as Susanna, Despina and Zerlina, and is about to tackle her first Pamina. " His melodies, once learned, are great exercises for the voice." Mozart may appear deceptively 'easy' to sing, but part of the trick is to be able to meet the technical demands so well that the singing comes across as effortless. Purity of tone, clarity of diction, smooth, even scale and long breath line are just some of the requirements in Mozart. The Countess's 'Porgi amor' demands a mezza voce of resolute beauty and steadiness, seamless legato and sureness of pitch, tricks of the trade common in the arsenal of the Mozart singer. The daunting coloratura in Queen of the Night's two arias requires great flexibility up to a high F, but also a certain dramatic expression few light sopranos possess.

Is Mozart's music "balm for the voice", like some singers claim? "Only if you sing it correctly," Finley replies. "If your technique is not in shape, you collapse in Mozart. He demands long lines and good breath control, together with a certain purity and clarity." Suffice to say the technical facility has to be in place before a singer is free to express the emotions inherent in the music. Unlike Puccini and other verismo composers, the classical style does not lend itself to histrionics. Even buffo Leporello and Monostatos should be sung rather than mugged. A lot of the expressions are already written into Mozart's vocal line and in the orchestration, and if the singer is faithful to the composer, the emotions will come through. Best is to let the music speak. Paulin agrees: "I love his soubrettes the ones I have sung all have strong personalities. Susanna is one of the greatest roles, quite long and a little low for a soprano, but so fulfilling and challenging! Zerlina is another strong headed girl she falls for Don Giovanni for a moment, but she is nevertheless so much in love with her Masetto. And I would dearly love to sing Elvira, that neurotic bag! (laughs) All these characters have flaws. That's what I love about Mozart's roles. They all make good and bad decisions because they are really human!"


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