What Makes A Performance Praiseworthy

The German magazine Der Spiegel has posted an interview with singer Thomas Quasthoff, in which he says many interesting and useful things. (Did you know that the company that made thalidomide, the drug responsible for his disability, once had the nerve to ask him to sing at their Christmas party?) But the one part of it that I’d like to talk about is this:

Quasthoff: There are differences between the singers I call “voice owners,” and the people who stand up there and do something that audiences are willing to buy as a performance. Although I do have to say that it’s still very easy to please audiences today, unfortunately.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Quasthoff: When I go to an opera performance and sit there while people are cheering and shouting “bravo,” I sometimes ask myself what exactly they’re cheering about. And I even see myself as an artist who also knows how to enjoy other people’s performances.

I may have understood him wrong but I’m going on the assumption that doing “something that audiences are willing to buy as a performance” is a positive thing. It’s certainly what I feel I have been doing my entire career, since I have never owned one of those amazing voices that everyone swoons over. It’s not big, it’s not rich or technically perfect. My strengths lie elsewhere, and without them — without the desire and ability to entertain an audience — I wouldn’t have a career at all.
That elusive quality that makes people cheer? Beats me. Sometimes people are moved by something unnameable. I once saw a “Pelleas and Mélisande” where the baritone was so understatedly perfect for that particular production, that I was half in love with him by the time the curtain fell. I can’t even remember how he sang.
Conversely, I have been bored stiff by people who sang beautifully, but who clearly were concentrating on their performance and their vocal production. Some colleagues enjoy critiquing/praising singers for the color in their voices or the speed of their vibrato or some such characteristic. This kind of thing rarely interests me.

As far as audiences being easily pleased — well, taste varies. For someone like me, who appears in all sorts of stage offerings, I admit to being stymied at times. One night a truly amazing, well-crafted, well sung work will bring decent applause. Then the next night’s musical — even off nights when it was not such a great performance overall — will have them standing and cheering at the curtain calls.

On one hand, sure, times are changing, even here in Europe, the center of the opera universe. Operettas are still beloved but, as Intendant Brigitta Fassbaender said in a recent interview, only one operetta production is offered up in a season these days, as its target audience ages out. But even I must admit that the operettas in circulation, even as they are deemed old fashioned, are very well written. The current audiences — the way I see it — don’t really have a discerning grasp yet of what makes a good musical. The “pop” sound is enough for some to think that this must be cool and hip and the thing to like. It could be that, even after all these years, the genre is just a little bit too new and unfamiliar.

That’s the optimistic view. The alternative view is, we’re doomed.

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