Pilates and Opera Singing

Motivation for all of us to keep up our pilates workouts…This photo is taken from the February 1951 issue of Life:  Trainer Joseph Pilates balancing on soprano Roberta Peter’s belly!

Soprano Kiera Duffy

I met soprano Kiera Duffy for lunch yesterday at Six Feet Under to talk about her career and current role in The Atlanta Opera’s production of  Cosi fan tutte.  You can find the interview in an upcoming issue of Classical Singer. 

Duffy was featured in the Susan Froemke documentary The Audition, a film which revealed the behind-the-scenes experiences of 12 finalists at the the 2007 Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions.

Duffy is a lyric coloratura soprano who has the technique and musicianship to pull off challenging new music.  One such example –  a performance of Unsuk Chin’s ‘Cantatrix Sopranica” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic given immediately before her arrival in Atlanta.  Here’s the link to the LA Phil site for more information on this work:  http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/piece-detail.cfm?id=1846


The Ordinariness of Opera

“Opera’s been deformed by some sort of belief that it has to be extraordinary.  And I think that what is extraordinary about the great works of art is their ordinariness.”

-Jonathan Miller, British theatre and opera director, in a scene from Diva Diaries

Who is Mary Costa?

Recently I’ve been studying the score of Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte and chose my companion to be a 1954 EMI recording, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  I love Maestro Karajan’s recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies and knew that this particular Cosi is regarded as one of his most successful Mozart endeavors on record.  The cast includes Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nan Merriman, Rolando Panerai, Leopold Simoneau, Lisa Otto, and Sesto Bruscantini.

Today, while driving, I had just listened to the Fiordiligi-Dorabella duet, “Ah, guarda, sorella”  when my two-year-old requested Sleeping Beauty.  I reluctantly switched out CDs, trading my opera for a compilation CD of “Disney’s Greatest” and fast-forwarded to track fourteen:  “Once Upon a Dream.”  

I immediately realized the similarity in operatic style to the Elisabeth Schwartkopf singing I had just heard.  (Perhaps my toddler heard it too which prompted her to request “Once Upon a Dream?”) Perusing the record jacket, I learned that Disney produced his classic movie, Sleeping Beauty, in 1959 and that Mary Costa sang the part of Princess Aurora.  But who was Mary Costa?

Google knew. 

As it turns out, Mary Costa was an internationally acclaimed soprano who studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory in the late 1940s and began her career singing and doing commercials on radio.  Walt Disney himself discovered Costa, but soon after her Sleeping Beauty gig she replaced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for a gala concert at the Hollywood Bowl and went on to sing leading roles in major opera houses all over the world.  She toured with Leonard Bernstein as his Candide.  She sang leading roles in Manon, La Traviata, La Boheme, Vanessa, The Rake’s Progress, and Faust.  She made her Met debut in 1964 and sang there many times throughout a long career that included appearances at the Glyndebourne Festival, the Bolshoi Theatre, and the San Francisco Opera. 

Costa cantored at John F. Kennedy’s memorial service at the invitation of Jaqueline Kennedy. 

Sleeping Beauty was a fine singer, to say the least.  Mary Costa ultimately left the stage in 1984 to care for her aging mother, but continued a portfolio career that included adjudication, speaking engagements, arts activism, and television appearances.

Here’s a clip of the radiant Mary Costa singing the Jewel Song from Faust in 1962.

Two Vocal Styles, the Same Singer

Here I’ve included two videos of soprano Renee Fleming.  The first is Fleming singing Liu’s aria from Puccini’s Turandot and the second is a clip from her new Indie record, Dark Hope.   These recordings highlight a distinctive difference in vocal styles. 

What are the characteristics of classical singing as opposed to a pop sound?  To quote pedagogue Richard Miller,  “Classical vocalism, as practiced in the international historic school of singing, is based on freedom of production and on certain acoustic properties of the singing voice associated  with functional efficiency.”  (On the Art of Singing, page 100)  In the first clip of the aria “Tu che di gel sei cinta” you’ll hear Fleming use a range of colors and dynamic levels and a consistent vibrato throughout.  You’ll hear legato – one note bound to the next in a contiguous fashion – and a wide vocal range from very high to very low pitches.  Fleming can project her voice in a large theatre for several hours without the aid of a microphone. 

In the second clip from Fleming’s Indie record there is a very limited collection of pitches sung in a low range and very little vibrato.  Which sound do you prefer and why would an internationally acclaimed opera diva venture into the world of pop music?

Luciano Pavarotti is unarguably the most recognizable opera figure these days, even a year or so after his death.  Here the famous tenor sings an aria from Puccini’s Turandot, “Nessun Dorma.”