WTF: What’s the Fach?

Okay, okay, I admit I’m having fun with headlines.  I’m still convalescing, while the continent convulses (or as my friend Trevor said “earthquakes to the west of me, hurricanes to the east, here I am, stuck in the middle with you”), hoping the electricity doesn’t go off.   I also considered calling this “anti-gravitas”, and a few others even less funny than that. I am expanding upon a review i wrote Thursday night

While I did not see opening night of Freischütz (who needs the machinations of an evil huntsman such as Samiel, when there are flu viruses to possess you?), I have been thinking through my experience.  Critics are often the easiest people to freak out, disoriented because we have expectations and assumptions built upon academic classifications.

Alastair Fowler, writing in Kinds of Literature, said “in reality genre is much less of a pigeonhole than a pigeon.”  This is a very fertile image when we’re talking about revisiting Der Freischütz, an opera hinging upon the moment a marksman shoots a dove.  Dove or pigeon? Aha, there’s another question of class.

Even more important to me –and fundamental—than the question of genre—is the question of “Fach”.  Don’t be afraid of this word (one that young opera singers usually embrace with special glee, enjoying the way it freaks their parents out), a Fach is simply a vocal classification, and the equivalent of a pigeonhole.

With genre and Fach, we’re faced with a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem (sorry I can’t seem to get my mind off of birds & poultry…I suppose that after being sick my brain is still scrambled… oh no a bad yoke… oh no, I cracked another one.  OM-letting you down again and again, sigh…).

But as I was saying, we wonder which comes first, and how do we know one without the other…?  Do I know music-drama, such as Strauss & Wagner wrote, from the requirements he places upon the voices –the heldentenors, dramatische sopranos, and so forth—OR is it the other way around: that we define the voices by saying they are the kind of voices used in music-drama?

The problem is, however, that’s exactly what does happen.  It’s circular to say the least, and pays no heed to history.

Or maybe we have to look at the question another way, using a four-dimensional model, that sees the fach as evolving over time.  Any or all of these factors play into the changing ways singers approach their careers & their roles:

  • Changes in repertoire
  • shared learning / pedagogy
  • changes in the business such as
    • specialization, more standard sound, less local/regional voice, more international uniformity
    • the many enormous opera houses in parts of the world that required big massive voices; has this trend changed? (ie Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, instead of Sony Centre)
    • TV,  DVDs & high definition broadcasts changing the rules (does physical beauty trump vocal prowess?)
  • conventional wisdom (for better or worse) about how to sing, how to run an opera company

There are reasons to question the fach system of voices.  If Leonore in Fidelio is now understood to be a dramatic soprano –which is to say, a role sung by the same sort of singer as would undertake Elektra, Turandot or Brunnhilde—how did the role fare in those years when it was effectively the only role of its kind?  The question can probably be answered by looking closely at the lives of key singers and the roles they undertook.

Anne Milder

Anne Milder, the first Leonore

Wikipedia tells me that a soprano named Anna Milder was the first Leonore in Fidelio, both in its early version (1805) and in its later revision as Fidelio (1814), a year after Wagner was born, but long before either Puccini or Strauss arrived on the scene.

With no Turandots or Elektras or Isoldes or Brunnhildes, Milder was not at a loss.  She was famous for singing the title role in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, a role Susan Graham sang last year here in Toronto. Graham is a mezzo-soprano, known for roles such as Marguérite in La Damnation de Faust or Didon in Les Troyens.

I put that out there to suggest that we approach this subject with caution.  Our assumptions are influenced by what we’ve heard, by what we understand as the “right” way to create a particular style of music.  An operatic genre is intimately connected to such assumptions which include performance conventions.

One of the things I love –and when I say love, think of pink cherubs grinning when I say this —is the way period performance scrambles our usual understanding.  I don’t care if the music doesn’t sound “right”.  I love the sense of the new & the unknown, and am profoundly sceptical of any orthodoxy.  I was enthralled listening to a new approach to Bizet’s Carmen in its 2005 film adaptation U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, incorporating South African music, and a happy disregard of operatic convention.

What I especially admire about the Opera Atelier Freischütz is the way it problematizes so many of our assumptions.  David Fallis’s conducting & music-direction boldly refused to do the usual things with this opera, and instead boldly linked it back towards its implicit forebears.  As a result it suggests new pathways for exploration:

  • is Max perhaps not quite as helden as we’ve assumed? Can we be so sure, then about Florestan, Leonore’s counterpart & consort in precedence?  A transitional role such as Erik in Fliegende Holländer –with its echoes of Max—may also be lighter if the orchestra is handled as gently as Fallis handled Tafelmusik on this occasion.  Kresimir Spicer’s Max also takes me back to Mozart; his Tito is at times very dramatic, a role that I believe is heavier than other Mozart roles.
  • Is Agathe, then maybe also lighter? It makes me want to question our understanding of such roles as Donna Anna (which Meghan Lindsay sang wonderfully in Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni last year), and of course Leonore: a role that one would approach differently if the orchestra were played lighter as well.
  • The genre question?  I wish it were a question but to my knowledge no one seems concerned –yet—that our assumptions may be off the mark.  I was struck by a phrase John Terauds used in his positive review of Freischütz;  which he called “a riotous mishmash.”  I think the same could be said of Mozart’s Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio.  All three mix high and low, incorporate dialogue & melodrama, and I think we’ve especially lost our way in surrendering to Wagner’s influence.  Wagner never told us how to watch these operas, but his own essays & later works argue for something called Gesamtkunstwerk, or the “total art work”.  Wagner came along at a time when it was still a new concept to unify all elements towards a single goal.  Theatrical works with variety that call attention to their mechanisms are anti-wagnerian by definition.  I share Terauds’ taste for a good mishmash, but doubt there will ever be a pigeonhole with that charming word above it.

I am reminded of the instructions women receive during labour, to resist the urge to push, until the very end.  Pushing at the wrong time is not good for the baby, nor the mother.  Is something similar at work with the Wolf’s Glen Scene?  Opera is orchestra plus singers in a theatre.  One can seek to make the orchestra as loud & scary as possible, and then challenge the singers to somehow be heard; or one scales it back, and engages the imagination of the audience.  I believe that once one has heard such a scene done without restraint –possibly in a style remote from the composer’s time—it’s hard to turn back the clock to a more authentic & restrained approach.  Once we surrender to the physical impulse to push—which may be unhealthy both for the voices & our appreciation of the work—it’s hard to stop.  Commercial pressures, competition between performers, and experimentation all have in various ways goaded performers, as if a coach were shouting in the singers’ collective ears: “Push! Push!  PUSH!”

And we know that’s not healthy.

In the message from the Opera Atelier co-artistic directors, we read the following bold statement (after speaking of their first period performance of Magic Flute 20 years ago: the first period performance of Magic Flute in North America).

This evening we are taking what is perhaps an even more thrilling leap into uncharted territory.  Our production of the first Romantic opera—Weber’s Der Freischütz –boldly redefines the very parameters of what constitutes period performance.  We are not merely drawing a line in the sand; we are stepping past the line in saying all periods are fair game to be reinterpreted in historically informed productions.  Our hearts are still firmly grounded in Baroque repertoire, and this will be reflected in our programming in the years to come, but we also look forward to the potential of re-examining masterpieces by composers such as Debussy, Bizet and even Wagner.

How apt that the chosen metaphor is of a step being taken.  Whatever it looks like or sounds like, however well it coheres or fragments, I welcome their provocative and courageous experiments.  I look forward to the ensuing chapters of this story, even if one could also say ”the subsequent acts of this ballet”.

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1 Response to WTF?

  1. Pingback: Time is a funny thing | operaramblings

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