Mozart and Singers

Due to the nature of the music I’m studying in various classes right now, I seem to be on a bit of a classical kick.  Up this week is Mozart!

Mozart uses timbre in so many ways, but the one I want to focus on is how he thinks about timbre with regard to singers. Mozart understood that the human voice is a very unique instrument, and that vocal classifications are a complicated business. Singers are divided into categories based on range, tessitura (where it’s easy to sing), weight of the voice, brightness/darkness, and relative mobility. Sopranos, for example, can be divided into classifications including coloratura, dramatic coloratura, soubrette, light lyric, full lyric, spinto, dramatic, and Wagnerian! So when he wrote for voice, Mozart took into account that every singer was different, and he accommodated them accordingly.

Singers during Mozart’s time had a LOT more say about what they performed than they do today. If they didn’t like what a composer gave them, they could refuse to sing it, or ask the composer for a rewrite.  (Singers don’t usually risk that today, as they’re highly replaceable!) Mozart even composed a few arias for singers to be used in operas written by other composers, if the arias written by that composer did not sufficiently show off the singer’s voice. We still sing these arias today: they are usually referred to as Mozart “concert arias.” In fact, I included one such aria, “Vado, ma dove?” (“I go, but where?”) on my senior recital this year. This aria was originally written for the singer Luisa Villeneuve. Displeased with the current arias, she asked Mozart to write substitute arias for her role as Lucilla in Vicente Martin y Soler’s opera, Il burbero di buon cuore.   (If you’re so inclined, a bit of shameless self-promotion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2B2zLFk6FY)

Anyway, back to the point: Mozart was very interested in keeping his singers happy, and in writing music that specifically catered to their voices. This goes beyond specific voice parts singing specific roles: Mozart conceived roles for particular singers, and changed them with any casting changes. He knew exactly how he wanted his music to sound, and if one singer’s voice wasn’t exactly suited to the role, he rewrote it so that it was. An example of this can be found in his opera Le nozze di Figaro. This is one of my all-time favorite operas, both for the hilarious drama and the beautiful music.  Le nozze di Figaro had two premieres, first in Vienna and then in Prague. There was a different cast in each city and so Mozart altered the score to accommodate the new singers. This is very apparent in the lines of Susanna and the Countess, the two principal women. For many of the ensemble numbers, particularly in Acts II and IV, Susanna’s melodies have been switched with those of the Countess.  This was done because the Susanna in Prague did not have the high notes that Mozart was looking for, and they were better supplied by the singer playing the Countess. Because these two women sing in relatively the same range, nothing was disturbed contrapuntally by this swapping of lines. And the switch was probably not made because one of the women actually couldn’t sing those notes, they just probably didn’t sound as good, or didn’t have the sound Mozart was envisioning.

Interestingly, these changes have made it down to the manuscripts of this opera today: some scores have high notes for Susanna and others for the Countess. I think this requires that directors make a very careful choice when selecting singers and scores, because Mozart obviously really cared about this. If he was willing to rewrite his music to ensure it would be sung as beautifully as possible, the least we can do is attempt to cast his operas appropriately to come as close as possible to his intended sound.

Here’s an example of the Trio in Act II, one of the scenes affected by these changes.

 The actual trio starts at 2:19. In this version, the Prague score is being used, so the Countess has the higher notes. I wonder if Mozart would have left the parts this way for these specific voices. Kathleen Battle has a lighter and brighter voice than Carol Vaness, perfect for wafting the high notes, though the way it is, Vaness’s runs up to the high C sound beautiful.

Though I couldn’t find a good example of this, I honestly think the Viennese score is generally the more appropriate one to use today, because the Countess is almost exclusively cast as a heavier soprano voice. Allowing a lighter soprano the higher notes will ensure that all voices will be heard equally, as the higher notes will naturally cut through the texture. Otherwise, the Susanna may not be heard, if the Countess’s larger voice drowns her out! In any case, Figaro has a lot of really exquisite music, and I’ll end this post with a clip of the incredible Act II finale. Enjoy!

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3 thoughts on “Mozart and Singers

  1. Mozart single-handedly re-invented music. The striking thing is that his music is childishly simple and yet monumentally great all at the same time. I get the feeling he rarely hesitated over a single note. Some of his works, e.g. the Dissonance Quartet, give some idea of what might have been in store for us all had he not died at such a tragically young age (a few days short of his 37th birthday). I like the emphasis given in the post to the every-day process of music-making on a practical, down-to-Earth level. It wasn’t all blind inspiration, unfortunately.

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