Thursday, June 29, 2006

La Stupenda or La Divina?

If you happen to be an opera buff, and you buy your recordings at, you’ll see, from customer reviews, that the Callas clique is alive and well.

I’m not exactly an opera buff. Most 19C opera music is second-rate at best. But I do have a soft spot for the female voice, and if you wish to hear great voices, opera is where you go to hear them.

Why is it that so many fans of Callas can’t stand Sutherland, while so many fans of Sutherland can’t stand Callas?

The same thing holds true for the Callas clique in relation to Renata Tebaldi.

What accounts for the emotional investment in a mere opera singer?

Callas has been dead since 1977. And she retired from the operatic stage in 1965. Tebaldi retired from the stage in 1973, while Sutherland retired in 1990.

At one level it’s a choice between passion and beauty. A choice between womanly passion or sexual passion, on the one hand, and a different sort of sexuality—the sensuous or sensual appeal of a lovely voice, on the other hand.

But it runs deeper than that. Each soprano projects a feminine ideal.

A beautiful soprano voice is, itself, a feminine ideal. It projects a distinctively feminine allure.

In addition, there is more than one feminine ideal. Early Sutherland had a girlish timber. Flagstad had a maternal tone. So does a contralto like Forrester.

Tebaldi had a womanly tone, while Sutherland later developed a more womanly timber as well.

Some opera buffs prefer Frida Leider to Kirsten Flagstad because Leider’s instrument was womanly without being matronly.

For many opera buffs, this is sufficient. A soprano needn’t be an expressive actress, as long as her voice is expressive as well as emblematic of certain feminine virtues.

But for others, that’s not enough. They want a voice that’s suffused with emotion. Given a choice, they prefer an emotive timber to a sensuous timber.

They also judge a soprano by the eye as well as the ear. Does she physically embody a feminine ideal?

Of course, voice lovers like beautiful women as well. But they don’t hold a soprano to that standard. If she happens to be nice on the eyes as well as the ears—like Te Kanawa—that’s a bonus point.

Beyond theatrically, they also judge a soprano by her star-power, her charisma—the glam factor.

In other words, they want a diva who personifies in real life what she impersonates on stage.

Callas was a soprano who projected another feminine ideal. Whether you like or hate her, or have mixed feelings, depends on whether the image she projected happens to correspond to your ideal of womanhood.

She was a fiery performer on-stage, with a fiery love-life offstage. Her exciting good looks complemented her electrifying stage-presence.

One of the ironies of this type of feminine ideal is that her personal and professional crises, rather than diminishing the appeal, augment the appeal.

Can you imagine Joan Sutherland having a fling with Aristotle Onassis? Leaving Richard Boning for the life of an international jet setter and socialite?

But, for her fans, the ill-fated affair with Onassis made Callas all the more compelling. So did her vocal crisis, which forced her into premature retirement. So did her death at the early age of 53.

For some people, tragedy and romanticism are intertwined. A life that is more intensive because it is less extensive. A shooting star. A life of highs and lows, rather than a happy mean.

This exemplifies the escapist version of the feminine ideal. Of those who risk all and lose all for a few moments of undiluted ecstasy.

At a still deeper level, there is another feminine ideal. The idea of the church as the bride of Christ.

Unlike any other religion, Christianity has an integral role for feminine and masculine virtues alike.

Feminine appeal has a theological grounding. God has encoded these universals in the human psyche, and when a woman (or a man) exemplifies the universal, this triggers a subliminal association with the theological fabric of the universe. For the material order is a metaphor for the moral order.

Callas represents the anti-heroine—the fallen woman. Delilah, as the flipside of the Church. The attraction of the candle to moth. Brilliant, but brief.


  1. Hm, wow, you bring up some pretty fascinating stuff. This is maybe only remotely related, but I wonder, if you have an opinion, what you make of CSL's picture of (unfallen) Adam and Eve in his Perelandra's Tor and Tinidril?

  2. Also, a lot of religions seem to have been founded or at least come to incorporate the worship of an idealized female figure or goddess -- e.g., modern Roman Catholicism's veneration of the Virgin Mary. Do you think there's something in fallen man's nature that nevertheless seeks to perhaps revere or somehow connect with the feminine? (And, since I'm not female, I wonder what women make of this idolatrous worship of the feminine?) Perhaps it's a corruption or perversion of true masculinity/femininity how fallen mankind worships the female?

  3. Interesting points. There’s no denying opera seems to be the genre with the most passionate music-less arguments. I wonder, though, what criteria we might use to distinguish “womanly” from “matronly” or “girlish” voices. Given that they are all sopranos, and all sing with the operatic chest voice that tends to obscure natural vocal differences, what is it that precisely that causes one voice or another to be perceived as more or less feminine in rendering the same musical material? It strikes me that we may be venturing into more subjective territory – “I know a womanly voice when I hear one.” Or are we speaking in terms of physical qualities of sound: inflections that come from a nasal or throat obstruction, for example? To a non-opera listener, all operatic voices sound comically distorted or exaggerated, especially women’s voices (watch the reaction of children the first time they hear it).

    Speaking in terms of instruments, a french horn tone, for instance, could be described as brilliant, dark, warm, noble, etc. with some degree of objectivity, since we’re speaking of nuances in sound that are in some way measurable and can be described in some precision. Such nuances may even be explicitly called for in the musical notation. Nevertheless, such terms are not artificial. But on the other hand, I have a hard time imagining a french horn sounding “feminine”, even if I were watching it played by a beautiful woman. And I don’t believe this has to do with the range of the instrument – it doesn’t begin to sound feminine the higher it goes.

    Certainly I agree with your comment about feminine appeal having a biblical basis. But on what biblical grounds do we judge feminine opera voices?

  4. Dude, you're crazy.

    Kirsten Flagstad. She had pipes.

  5. In answer to Patrick, I think that the Eve figure in Perelandra is a valid interpretation.

    As to goddess worship, we need to distinguish between the sociological function of a mother goddess (e.g. Gaia) and the sociological function of a sex goddess (e.g. Venus, Ishtar).

    One of the problems with Mariolatry is the failure to see that the church is already, archetypally feminine, so that we don't need to elevate Mary to an archetypal role.

    And, yes, I do think these heresies and idolatries represent a twisted half-truth.

  6. BTW, I didn't realize that Patrick was a fan of Andy Warhol.

  7. Hehe, yeah, I probably should've gone with a more, um, "traditional" picture of myself! :-)

    I actually took the photo with a Macintosh computer in the Apple Store in Pasadena, Calif. using an application called Photo Booth. Macs are of course known for their aesthetic appeal, for instance among graphic artists; and Pasadena might be described as a pretty artsy fartsy town. And no one need be reminded about the kookiness that is California in general. With so much stacked against me, what else could I do? If you can't beat 'em...! And when in Rome...!

    (If this doesn't work, I have a slew of other lame excuses to justify my poor taste in art!) ;-)

  8. Russell S said...

    Interesting points. There’s no denying opera seems to be the genre with the most passionate music-less arguments. I wonder, though, what criteria we might use to distinguish “womanly” from “matronly” or “girlish” voices. Given that they are all sopranos, and all sing with the operatic chest voice that tends to obscure natural vocal differences, what is it that precisely that causes one voice or another to be perceived as more or less feminine in rendering the same musical material? It strikes me that we may be venturing into more subjective territory – “I know a womanly voice when I hear one.”


    That’s an interesting question:

    1.One doesn’t need a criterion to register certain subjective impressions. I can recognize a friend’s voice over the phone without having a conscious criterion at my disposal.

    2.It is true that associations of “womanly,” “matronly,” or “girlish” are, in a sense, subjective.

    Yet these associations are fairly universal. There’s a reason that operatic composers almost invariably cast tenors and sopranos and the heroes as heroines, baritones as friends or enemies, mezzos and contraltos as maids, mothers or bad girls, and bassos as kings, fathers, devils, or other authority-figures.

    3.In terms of the chest register, there’s quite difference between a dramatic soprano like Rosa Ponselle or Helen Traubel and a high soprano like Lily Pons or Kathleen Battle.

  9. Regarding point #1 – But this subjective impression-making is being extended to biblical judgments. Followed to its logical conclusion, wouldn’t you eventually be saying, “This singer has a more biblically feminine voice than another,” given two virtuoso performances of the same material? At some point, biblical justification needs to be given for the physical assessment of a voice one way or another.

    Certainly the morality of one’s life may be assessed (ie, Callas). For some the lack thereof may be a plus in a diva. But this assessment is not subjective. The universal opera roles are not necessarily equivalent to the God-encoded universals in the human psyche.

    Point #2 - A problem for me is the medium of opera itself, which is not particularly good for subtleties of character. The universal roles you listed are caricatures necessitated by the fact that the medium supports little else. Stereotypical roles are not universally accepted in literature, plays, even film (at least in their “high” form) – because those mediums are better suited for character development. Great actors aren’t burdened with having to be virtuoso musicians. Opera singers, being given the handicap of relatively shallow, traditional roles, aren’t burdened with having to be virtuoso actors. And given that an opera singer is pretty much restricted to a particular repertoire by the range of their voice, they’re stuck with being a hero/heroine, or maid/mother/bad girl, etc. unless they take up smoking or hormone supplements.

    Point #3 – Yes, but that’s not really the same “voice”, even though they’re both called sopranos. Very few sing repertoire for both. Besides, let’s face it: without a libretto or supertitles, we wouldn’t even have any idea what they’re singing, even in English. A human being can’t belt it out, and sing in tune, wearing a viking costume, in an acoustic nightmare of a hall, and be heard clearly, even with perfect diction. Honestly, I don’t think vocal clarity is much of a concern to most singers or audiences. Opera just isn’t good for singing words.

  10. As one who owns every major Wagner opera (Flying Dutchman on) and a large classical musical collection, I thought this was a brilliant analysis.

    I only regret that you don't seem to use one-hundredth as many of your brain cells and interpretive, analytical prowess when it comes to Catholicism.

    A clear (but unfortunately, quite common) case where emotional hostility completely overwhelms sense and rationality . . .

    That somneone can be out tro sea on one topic and profound regarding another is a phenomenon I have long noted and marveled at.

    I have many links to papers by James White on the Muslims, Mormons, Da Vinci Code, etc. I also link to a series by Jasopn Engwer on "Christmas apologetics."

    Ironically, White was recently lamenting the fact that he can't get together with a rival "anti-Calvinist") in matters of outreach to Muslims, where they have a common interest beyond their disputes over soteriology.

    Sad indeed, Yet when it comes to me, White has not (in ten years) ever acknowledged that I write anything of value where we could agree. And there is plenty: I have debated Mormons and Muslims as well, and liberals, and homosexuals, and pro-abortion advocates.

    But the man's personal hostility towards me will not allow him to see or acknowledge that I do anything besides oppose anti-Catholics like himself. Even that isn't true anymore: for a year-and-a-half now I have resolved to cease trying to dialogue with anti-Catholics, for the sheer futility of it.

    On a final humorous note, White confidently predicted at that time that my blog would falter and collapse without the fodder of dealing with irrational anti-Catholics to keep it prospering. I was receiving about 300 hits a day at that time. Last time I checked, I was at 677.

    I've never been primarily about opposing Protestant anti-Catholics. I've done relatively little of that, considered against my entire output of apologetic materials. It just seemed like a lot because my volume is high altogether, and I have debated most of the major anti-Catholics out there today.

    In Him,

    Dave Armstrong

  11. I do commend you, by the way, for allowing comments.

    I was just banned from Tim Enloe's website (he removed three of my comments in rapid succession: the last consisting of one word: "test"). I've also been effectively banned from "Reformed"

    For all your manifest shortcomings of argument and reason and with regard to charity, at least you do appear to believe in free speech, and possess confidence enough to suffer opposing viewpoints. I always appreciate that.

    Good for you.

    Your brother in Christ & His Church,

    Dave Armstrong

  12. ME: "White has not (in ten years) ever acknowledged that I write anything of value where we could agree."

    Oops, I forgot. White did mention once that I was a good historian of the Beatles. But he didn't say whether he liked them or not. :-)

    In Him,

    Dave Armstrong

  13. Regarding point #1 – There are truths of natural revelation as well as special revelation.

    And we also apply the general norms of Scripture to the concrete particulars of human experience.

    I don’t need Biblical justification for the physical assessment of a voice. The Biblical justification lies at a higher level of abstraction.

    My argument was more complex than the claim that “universal opera roles are not necessarily equivalent to the God-encoded universals in the human psyche.”

    Rather, certain social/dramatic roles almost invariably select for certain vocal categories.

    Moreover, what some opera buffs like in soprano A, and dislike in soprano B, runs deeper than taste. It goes to the fact that a different style of vocalism may project a different feminine ideal. And we see these social archetypes in Scripture itself.

    Regarding point #2 – My comparison wasn’t limited to stereotypical roles, but to the assignment of certain categories to certain roles. The stereotypical correlation between a stock character and a given vocal category.

    And this can also occur within vocal categories, viz. lyric soprano, dramatic soprano.

    You also have my analysis backwards. Given that certain roles are written for certain vocal categories, it’s true that the role will select for the singer.

    But that a posteriori fact doesn’t account for why the roles were written that way in the first place.

    To say that librettists retail in stock characters does not account for the appeal of stock characters.

    Stock characters aren’t limited to opera libretti. Stock characters are also the basis of great literature and drama.

    Now, a great novelist or playwright will do more to individualize the character. But the basic social roles remain the same.

    The action still revolves around parents and children, friends, siblings, and lovers cast in the role of heroic protagonist, as over against the villain, the tempter or temptress, the tyrannical father or the wicked stepmother, the traitor, sibling rivals, &c.

    And you find these archetypal social roles in Scripture, too. Cf. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.

    You also find the same basic storylines in Scripture, melodrama, and high drama, viz. the quest, the journey, boy-meets-girl, coming of age, initiation, temptation, betrayal, deliverance, the tragic downfall, the redemptive upturn.

    Yes, Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Racine handle this will a lot more nuance than Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. But they’re all working with the same thematic materials and dramatic polarities.

    At one level, this is so because it mirrors the lifecycle.

    But it goes deeper. The Trinity is the exemplar of masculine role-modeling in the Father/Son relation while the church is the exemplar of feminine role-modeling in the bride/bridegroom relation.

    Conversely, the whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation is the archetypal anti-heroine, while the church is the archetypal heroine.

    Likewise, the Antichrist is the archetypal antihero while Christ is the archetypal hero.

    This is why secular Hollywood can’t resist churning out good and bad Antichrist movies.

    Yes, there are certain conventions in opera. And there are certain differences between opera and the stage.

    In Verdi’s Otello, the male lead is cast as a tenor because the male lead is always cast as a tenor, just as the female lead is always cast as a soprano.

    Yet it’s not a lyric tenor, but a dramatic tenor, best played by a singer with a baritonal timber like Domingo.

    And that’s in part because the character of Otello is not a hero, but a tragic figure. He’s not a youthful lover, played by a lyric tenor.

    And if we shift to the stage, there’s a reason that Laurence Oliver, a natural tenor, retrained for the part so that he’d sounded like a basso profundo.

    There’s a reason that William Marshall, James Earl Jones, and Paul Robeson have play the part of Othello on stage.

    It isn’t just because they’re black actors. Rather, it’s because they sound right as well as look right for the part.

    Can you imagine Paul Robeson as Hamlet? No, for that role you’d want some Oscar Werner type.

    But Othello is a general. And so he’s best played by an actor with a commanding vocal presence.

    The bass voice is naturally associated with authority figures.

    Regarding point #3 – yes, you can say it’s just a matter of convention that we classify Kathleen Battle and Helen Traubel as belonging to the same category.

    But I was answering you on your own grounds, and you are now shifting ground.