Last summer I was in Quebec City, and one day as I happened along the Grand Allée Ouest I came upon an old church with the doors open and a Big Mama Thornton record wailing away at high volume. Intrigued, I went in for a closer look and discovered that in fact the church had been converted into a record shop and used book store.
I browsed through some boxes and found records by Caruso, Bjoerling, Pavarotti, Tozzi, and on and on. I didn’t even own a record player, but I purchased about $45 worth of vinyl at about $5 per record, and so began my latest obsession.
Some records you buy because you know they’re good. Pretty much anything with Pav in it is going to be awesome. But some records you take a chance on, or get for a great deal as part of a larger lot. And listening to these records has become one of my favourite pastimes. I listen to a lot of music that you just don’t hear on the radio these days, or really at all. Some records, you listen to one song and then toss it in the reject pile, others are worth flipping over for the B side, and some are absolute diamonds in the rough. I’d like to share a few of those with you.
I won’t claim to be the most knowledgeable singer when it comes to the history of my profession or the singers who came before me. But I’m not completely ignorant either. I’ve been singing opera for over a decade and I’ve been exposed to many great singers and their work. So what follows are people I was not overly familiar with. Maybe I’d heard the name in passing but I couldn’t describe their voice or their career. But these are singers whom I consider to be of the highest calibre, and for whatever reason, history has left their names behind. Perhaps you know them, lucky you! And perhaps I’ll introduce you to your next voice crush. You’re welcome. I’ll provide some YouTube links so you can do your own ear test.
For someone who had a 30+ year career at the Metropolitan Opera, you’d think Dorothy Kirsten would be more of a household name. Her operatic career started at age 30 but she sang at an elite level well into her later years.
In this video of Charpentier’s Louise she is 71 (!?!) years old and singing with beautiful control, legato, zero wobble and just an easy beautiful sound, and this is two years after her final Met performance. According to liner notes, she met and worked with Charpentier and he gifted her the original manuscript. I find she has a lovely easy tone and great intonation. It’s very easy on the ears and relaxing to listen to. A particular favourite on this album is her duet from the end of Thaïs with Robert Merrill.
The story of Joseph Schmidt is not a happy one. The Jewish tenor was born in Davideny (then Austria-Hungary, later Romania, now Ukraine). His short stature (4’11”) prevented him from having a stage career, though he enjoyed a very successful concert and recording career. In the 1930’s the rising Nazi government in Germany began to block Jewish performers so Schmidt toured extensively in the US and Western Europe. In 1939 he returned to visit his mother and was trapped in France at the outbreak of WWII. He died in a refugee camp in Switzerland of Heart Failure at age 38.
Schmidt was a master of languages and is said to have spoken at least six. His voice is sweet and light, clear and unforced at the top. Most comfortable in lighter German operetta (such as this Martha above) and bel canto, but also capable of what we consider heavier repertoire today, such as Calaf and some Verdi roles. His “Di quella pira” is worth a listen (that chorus is sooooo slow though). IMHO, he is one of the greatest German language tenors of all time. Right up there with Fritz. And sadly they share the same fate of an early death which robbed the world of their talents far too soon.
I was first introduced to Nicola Ghiuselev a few years ago when I mentioned to a friend that I was a big fan of another great Bulgarian bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov. If you like Ghiaurov, there’s a good chance you’ll like Ghiuselev as well, and that’s because they both studied under Hristo Brambarov at the Bulgarian State Conservatory and their sound is remarkably similar. Their careers actually follow much the same path with both becoming standouts in Italian and Russian repertoire, they even performed the great bass duet in Don Carlo together.
While Ghiaurov went on to great fame, married Mirella Freni and produced some of the greatest recordings of all time for Decca with Sutherland and Pavarotti, Ghiuselev seems to have been somewhat forgotten. This album of excerpts from Boris Godunov (above) is a spectacular display of Russian singing style. The fullness of the sound, growly cutting edge and even power from top to bottom are what attract me to his sound. He was also a notable painter; his self-portrait is on the cover of his biography La Voce che Dipinge. If Verdi is more your style, check out his Fiesco below.
I feel like mezzo-sopranos are the neglected voice type when it comes to famous singers and recordings. There are probably dozens of outstanding mezzos who we have forgotten about. Have you seen the 1978 Zeffirelli production of Carmen with a heavily bronzed Domingo, or the 1982 Cavalleria Rusticana? Well, then you actually know the voice of Elena Obraztsova already, if not her name.
She is a powerhouse singer with fierce chest voice that melds smoothly into the upper registers. I find her sound exciting, full, but with a control to match the heft that some others lack. I particularly enjoy the long lines in her Dalila. I think some folks will be shocked that I include her here, but I think to many, she will be a revelation.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this. Perhaps you are familiar with all of these singers and I’ve merely reacquainted you with an old friend, or perhaps these are all new to you and I’ve filled your playlists with some fodder. I love YouTube and the resource which it provides us as fans of classical singing. I’ll keep an eye out for more diamonds…
By Neil Craighead. Republished with permission from Schmopera.
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