Sunday, March 29, 2009

A tale of two singers

Jerome Hines died in 2003 while Regine Crespin died in 2007. Both of them sang at the Met. Both of them were outstanding opera singers.

Hines was arguably the greatest American bass, while Crespin was arguably the greatest French soprano.

Hines sang into his 70s, and there are YouTube clips which reveal a still imposing instrument. Crespin suffered a mid-career vocal crisis from which she never entirely recovered.

Hines had a huge voice. He was a force of nature. And he had excellent vocal technique.

His timber is a bit thick for my taste. I prefer the timber of Nicolai Ghiaurov. Hines’ favorite bass was Jose Mardones.

A number of sopranos have been blessed with gorgeous, womanly voices, viz. Sutherland, Price, Ponselle, Caballé, Milanov.

On rare occasion, a beautiful voice is situated in a beautiful woman, viz. Kiri Te Kanawa.

Visual beauty is a stereotypical feature of the feminine ideal. Yet aural beauty is no less a distinctive mark of the feminine ideal. Simply having a voice like Price or Sutherland or Caballé involves the projection of a feminine ideal.

Crespin also had a lovely, womanly timber. Yet she brought something extra to her singing. She could also project a very feminine persona. She had that feminine capacity to beautiful her surroundings by her radiant presence. To illuminate the text from within, like a candle inside colored glass.

She distinguished herself in the German and Italian repertoire. However, the competition in that repertoire is ferocious, so while she held her own with the best, she was not unrivaled. It’s in the French repertoire that she is peerless.

Mind you, I also enjoy some of Sutherland’s French recordings. But there’s a difference. With Sutherland, it’s a beautiful voice singing French; with Crespin, it’s a voice singing French beautifully.

However, my favorite recording by Crespin is Poulenc’s Stabat Mater–which is, of course, in Latin.

There are a number of lovely musical settings of the Stabat Mater. Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Haydn and Schubert come to mind. Each setting is a period piece.

Crespin doesn’t have a lot to do on this recording, but she’s one of those singers who makes every phrase unforgettable.

There’s a triste quality to her timber which, I expect, reflects her own life. Her mother was an alcoholic, and that left its mark on Crespin.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater is very much the sort of work you’d expect from a 20C Frenchmen. Full of yearning and disillusionment. And Crespin perfectly complements the mood of the piece.

I generally prefer Poulenc in the slower, quieter movements.

It’s a powerful piece of music, both emotionally and spiritually. Yet I listen to the recording with a sense of irony. For I know a little too much about the principals.

Poulenc was bisexual–if not homosexual. Crespin was a very worldly woman who had her share of affairs, with an abortion along the way, and pinned her hopes of immortality on reincarnation. Truly a lost soul. There was always a striking disjunction between the feminine ideal she projected onstage, and the offstage reality.

It’s odd to hear two unbelievers, two worldlings, express such intense religious longing. Worldly men and women with an otherworldly yearning.

That’s not surprising. God has planted eternity in the human heart (Eccl. 3:14), so even unbelievers feel the pull of something greater than the sensible world and something better than the fallen world.

There’s a sense in which great music is a religious experience. That’s because it utilizes the natural media which God has created and put at our disposal.

But it’s not, of itself, a redemptive experience. It’s a manufactured experience.

And the religious dimension doesn’t depend on the text or the creed. For one thing, instrumental music can have the same effect.

For another thing, great religious music transcends any particular denomination. I have a magnificent recording of Boris Christoff singing Orthodox chants.

Although it lacks the uniquely feminine appeal of Crespin, it is, in its own way, just as powerful. But in a completely different way. Poulenc’s Stabat Mater is the unmistakable expression of French Catholic piety while Strumski’s “Veliko slavoslovie” is the unmistakable expression of Slavonic Orthodoxy piety. They inhabit different worlds, each with a self-contained spirituality.

We could also compare this with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Or Negro spirituals. Or Wesleyan hymnody. While music can express a distinctive religious tradition, cannot attest a distinctive religious tradition.

For his part, Hines charted a very different course. A scientist by training, he was an unbeliever until God moved in his life in many miraculous ways.

I’ll conclude with one or two personal anecdotes. I once heard Hines sing at a soup kitchen in Seattle. He would have been in his mid-60’s at the time. He practically blew out the windows from the sheer volume. Here was a man who sang at all the world’s great opera houses, but took time to share his Christian witness with some bums in a no-account soup kitchen.

My late Aunt Dorothy was a long-time resident of Oklahoma City. She was also an opera buff. For some reason, Jerome Hines was in town. For some reason, my Aunt Dorothy and her brother were chauffeuring him around town.

Anyway, Hines asked if they were Christian. Her brother said no, or at least he wasn’t sure.

After hearing that answer, Hines spent the entire night in the car with her brother, persuading him to become a Christian.


  1. Make sure to let me know if you're ever passing thru the OKC area...

  2. Thanks, Steve. Jerome Hines gave a concert in a church maybe 25 years ago. I was there. He introduced a spiritual about Jonah by asking, "How many of you good Christians think that Jonah really swallowed that whale?" About 2/3 of the hands went up.

  3. That Jonah was a hungry dude :D

  4. As a classically trained singer (tenor) myself, I can relate to this particularly:

    "While music can express a distinctive religious tradition, cannot attest a distinctive religious tradition."

    My favorite singer of all time, Luciano Pavarotti, could express transcendent beauty through his instrument and artistry, but his life did not attest to the transcendent and transformative.

    God will accumulate glory to Himself through vessels of mercy...and vessels of wrath.

  5. oh, and thanks for the thought provoking post!