Opera wouldn’t be influential if it wasn’t for the role of the ‘diva’ (Italian for ‘goddess’) or the ‘prima donna’. Its voices: the magnificent sopranos, tender contraltos, and mellifluous mezzo-sopranos, are huge driving forces that foster our love for opera.
Opera is the one of the few artistic genres that elevates the status of women. Since the time of Handel and Mozart, opera’s trouser-roles have also played an effective part. They were specifically made for women to cross-dress as men, manly fighters and despairing boy-like lovers.
To celebrate Women’s Day, I want to share my favourite women in opera from voice to characterisation.
Nina Stemme as Isolde from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
Wagner’s 1865 opera requires a strong, large and loud voice to explain the doomed nature of the love between the Cornish knight and the Irish princess. The drama begins from a love potion that causes them to fall in love but since it is an opera it is complicated (which we love!) She is forced to marry Tristan’s uncle and it ends tragically with a wounded Tristan who promises to reunite with Isolde in heaven.
Wagner wrote long extended vocal phrases, and took out pauses, which require breathe control (big exhales) skills. He wrote the music in a variety of keys. For bold Wagnerian sopranos this means singing confidently at a high volume without being distracting by the orchestra’s music, which is often different from Isolde’s music.
Isolde is a mythical character with her own heart-wrenching music of love and Swedish Wagnerian soprano Nina Stemme has evoked Isolde’s character numerous times. She is known by many as the greatest Wagnerian soprano of our era. Telegraph critic, Rupert Christiansen, said Stemme is ‘the greatest dramatic soprano of our day at the peak of her powers.’
I saw her perform the challenging role at the Royal Opera House last year (here’s my review) and saw her sing the saucy role of Salóme, which rocked the Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms. (Here’s my review for her performance.)
Anna Netrebko as Violetta from Verdi’s La Traviata
The tragedy lies in the loose lifestyle of a demi-monde, Parisian party girl, and high-class courtesan who falls in love with a young nobleman. But she is denied life by a deadly disease: consumption. Verdi’s opera, based on the heroine of Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, is one of the greatest dramatic roles in all of opera. It has been the inspiration behind blockbuster movies including Pretty Women and Moulin Rouge.
It is said that the any soprano that sings the role of our ‘fallen woman’, Violetta, must possess the agility for speed and flexibility – that is, they must be a coloratura soprano. The vocal technique of its sopranos require the ability to reach high notes as well as the lighter more lyrical notes. The bel canto aria ‘Sempre libera’ is an example that incorporates the versatility of Violetta’s music. It moves in and out from melodious to excitement and sends the soprano’s voice to the stratosphere. It is Violetta’s gorgeous soaring music that makes us pity her and ultimately makes us cry at the same time.
Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko is one of my favourite opera singers. We see her sing as Violetta here at the 2005 Salzburg Festival. Her voice is incredibly strong and not only is she a great operatic singer, she is a great stage actress. I haven’t seen her sing the role live yet but shall see her as Mími in Puccini’s La Bohéme at the Royal Opera House this year.
Jessye Norman as Carmen from Bizet’s Carmen
Typically Carmen is sung by a mezzo-soprano, yet the seductive and fierce female characterisation of Carmen has called upon sopranos to sing the role as well. The Parisians detested the opera on its first night at the Opéra-Comique in 1875. One reason for this was Carmen’s female characterisation, which was socially unacceptable at the time – a woman of free and liberal values. She is a Spanish gypsy (but the opera is sung entirely in French by the way,) who doesn’t want to commit or be held down by a man. She is the exception from opera’s usual long-suffering heroine, which we usually associate with opera. She enjoys the company of criminals and doesn’t think of the deeper implications of asking Don José to leave his job for her.
Women who sing as Carmen must have the energy, charm and enthusiasm to sing the playful and mischievous gypsy. Carmen’s drifter and mystic attributes are demonstrated in the singer’s vocal technique, which tends to encompass a thicker and heavier tone. Yet it has to match the same gravitas as singing higher notes. The arias that are sung at a lower register are some of most memorable and are sung towards the bottom of the musical staff.
African-American Grammy award-winning opera singer and recitalist, Jessye Mae Norman, is another favourite singer of mine. She has a majestic voice, which soars with beauty over music. Her expansive vocal range is just one of the many reasons why she is a masterful and highly respected singer. Although she has stopped performing ensemble operas, only concerts and recitals, there are a variety of DVDs and Youtube clips that show her ‘doing her stuff’ and singing on stage.
Some may argue that I’ve chosen the wrong feminine opera role to assign her vocal talents to as she is often associated with Wagnerian operas including the roles of Sieglinde and Strauss’ Ariadne, but I’d respond by reminding readers of my objective to hone in on notable feminine characters within opera repertoire.
Maria Callas, “La Divina”
I would like to add to the mix of female figures in opera the American-Greek soprano, Maria Callas. She is regarded as “La Divina” (the divine one) in operatic circles and recognised as the most famous diva of the 20th century. Her expertise, attention to musical detail and love for bel canto operas, including Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini, has made her an emotive soprano and historical operatic icon.
One could argue that her life was a living opera considering the torment and life struggles she had to endure from a hard upbringing, close-to wartime poverty, career pressures, rivalry with Renata Tebaldi and scandalous relationship with Aristotle Onassis.
I have choosen the aria ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut to touch on the breadth and calibre of Callas’ voice. It depicts a desperate girl, Manon, who is in love but knows that she is going to die. The song’s lyrics lament over her life and the consequences of her past actions, which have sealed by her tragic fate.
I have written a review of Manon Lescaut from last year’s performance by Kristine Opolais at the Royal Opera House. You can read it here.