Recently, an article by Will Crutchfield from the 80s has been making the rounds on Facebook. It is a thinly veiled restatement of a common theme: The lament for an age now gone.
While the article purports to be about the tendency toward burnout and not about any lack of talent; it nevertheless seems to sing the same old song of praising a previous Golden Age and acknowledging a lack of “the right stuff” in our present singers.
I don’t want to suggest that this isn’t a valid line of inquiry. Is it wrong, after all, to assess the talent pool? To be attentive to the state of things? No. And any profession is naturally subject to the numbers of people interested balanced against talent. Suppose Medicine as a field became very unpopular, low-paying as a result, and had fewer takers. Over time, it might find it had fewer bright and brilliant minds attracted to it. Such things are subject to the whims of societal mood. Even so….
Crutchfield seems to think that the generations prior to this one demonstrated generally greater discipline, and greater proficiency than those at present. And yet, Francesco Lamperti, writing an hundred years (give or take) before Crutchfield said much the same thing about the very singers that Crutchfield is holding up as beacons of technical supremacy. Are we to believe that if we go back in time each century’s singers will just be exponentially better than the one later?
He even suggests giving a listen back to the older recordings. Well, perhaps we should. But what we find is that for every lovely Caruso “Com’e gentil”, you will find a Battistini “Largo” where he and his pianist can’t seem to find each other, for every charming lied by Lilli Lehmann, the occasional straight-toned and effortful (albeit clarion) note from Giovanni Martinelli. And no, Mr. Crutchfield, they do not all sing in tune.
Overall, I think the true insight of Crutchfield’s article is that regarding such valid factors as general trending toward impatience in society and young singers, the increase in travel, flights, busier schedules, long-advance contracts, etc. and the potential effects of these on singers. But the suggestion that our present generation has so far proven more negatively effected, or is somehow less up to combatting these factors, is simply not borne out in my opinion.
It is my sense that in each generation one is able to see the many singers who simply drop out of the game for various reasons. But those who went by the wayside in previous generations are not well known about in those generations that follow. So we are left only with the memory of those who lasted, those who thrived, those who made an indelible mark. This gives the false impression of a “Golden Age”. But here is another reality- Today’s vocal world would actually be hard pressed to provide fewer capable vocalists. After all, the generations to which Crutchfield refers are primarily culled from the Western world. Today, the field is full of wonderful artists from East Asia, India, South Africa, the Latin American countries, and many other places besides. There are so many singers that the sheer numbers suggest that we have vastly outnumbered the population of any previous “Golden Age”. And still, the cream always rises to the top, and we have a wonderful generation with us and coming. Someone would be hard pressed to convince me, for example, that Matthew Polenzani doesn’t sing as well or better than Ferruccio Tagliavini. One or more of Mozart’s sopranos, and Jenny Lind as well, had to take time off to retool their famous vocalism. I’ve never heard the same said of the reliable and lovely Hei-Kyung Hong.
All told, I am firmly of the opinion that each generation is subject to the same bad days, bouts with illness, bad choices and repercussions that have been the challenge of singers always. And nothing has shown me yet that this present generation somehow demonstrates less consistency or discipline. Not yet anyway. Frankly, I’d say that there are at least a handful out there that may be treating this music to the best vocalism it has ever enjoyed. The amazing Rossini of Lawrence Brownlee, the sweeping Strauss of Christine Brewer, the spectacular longevity and career rebirth of Gregory Kunde all come to mind. So to all you active singers- I, for one, thank you. Happy singing, and keep up the good work!!