Will Crutchfield made his name as a writer and musicologist in the mid-1980s, becoming the youngest music critic in the history of The New York Times.
By John Yohalem
He returned to his theater roots in the mid-1990s to conduct opera. He has held leading positions with the national operas of Bogota, Colombia, and Warsaw, Poland, and has been Director of Opera for the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah, New York, since 1997. At Caramoor, he has been noted for his revivals of unusual bel canto repertory as well as for re-examinations of familiar masterpieces. This summer, Caramoor’s offerings will include H.M.S. Pinafore, on June 25 and, in two performances, on July 9 and 15, each preceded by pre-opera lectures and related concerts, Rossini’s last opera, Guillaume Tell, given in the original French and starring Julianna Di Giacomo, Michael Spyres and Daniel Mobbs.
Crutchfield served on the faculties of all three New York conservatories (Juilliard, Manhattan and Mannes) and he continues to devote the summer months to extensive training programs at Caramoor. Some of the singers with whose debuts and early careers he has been associated include Vivica Genaux, Nancy Herrera, Marguerite Krull, Bruce Fowler, Daniel Mobbs, Georgia Jarman, Yegishe Manucharyan, Olga Makarina, Kate Aldrich and Alexandra Deshorties. An often-noted component of Crutchfield’s research, as of his practical work with singers, has been the recovery and development of the art of ornamental improvisation. His speaking voice is familiar to audiences from his frequent intermission broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. He is currently completing a book on performance practice in Italian opera.
John Yohalem: No doubt you’re sick of this question—
Will Crutchfiield: “What is bel canto?”
JY: Exactly, and every definition is different, but what would YOU say is bel canto?
WC: Bel canto refers to the entire tradition of Italian singing from before the dawn of opera down to Elliott Carter. It was felt that Italians were the ones who knew how to sing, who provided the method, the path for others to follow.
JY: And what characterizes a bel canto opera?
WC: The narrow meaning of the term is an opera composed for a vocal style of high virtuosity and highly trained voices, with a wide range of colors and expressivity. This happened to come together at the height of the romantic movement [in music, drama and art as well], to make a pretty potent mix. This style has lasted to the present day. In its heyday [c.1810-45], that music was probably the most popular art form on earth. It had a broader audience than any orchestral composer, writer, stage dramatist anywhere —when you think of how many opera houses there were and what works played there.
JY: How does the music of what is called the “bel canto” era differ from the era of Verdi or Verismo that followed? Why did the earlier style fall out of fashion?
WC: Did it ever fall out of fashion? We forget that it was most unusual in those days for music of an earlier time to be heard at all. Of opera—only Don Giovanni or, in Paris, some of Gluck’s operas or, in Germany, a few other Mozart operas, Figaro or Flute, remained in the repertory. Rossini’s Barbiere was extraordinary in becoming a classic instantly, in never being forgotten. Neither was Donizetti’s Lucia or Don Pasquale or L’Elisir d’amore—or Bellini’s Norma. That was remarkable right there—that five operas did survive. And for most of the century, far more than that were remembered, not as revivals but as repertory items: Sonnambula, Lucrezia Borgia, La Favorite, La Fille du Regiment, Semiramide, Rossini’s Otello, certainly Guillaume Tell. And these works led directly to Verdi—whose operas have never been out of the repertory.
JY: I’ve always loved bel canto and opera seria myself, but most such works were seldom given for a long time. Now they’ve come back into style, revived everywhere. What is their appeal for modern audiences? Why did they reappear when they did, after World War II?
WC: After the war, New Music was in crisis. Opera had an established audience for a certain sort of music, and there was a natural desire for novelty. The new composers did not wish to compose for anything like the traditional style of singing, and so the audience had to look elsewhere for satisfaction.
It didn’t have to happen the way it did. It would have been more logical for the audience for Italian opera to look back to the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti. When you look at what “revival” meant in the rest of the “Early Music” movement, the Italian style isn’t part of it at all, for a very long time. It was Germans, English, French, Dutch—they created the “Early Music” sound, and they weren’t looking at anything later than 1700—or at the Italian operatic style. They were looking at Machaut and Telemann. So “bel canto” opera was of no interest to them, and they wouldn’t have been able to perform it properly anyway. The way they did perform owed very little to the Italian traditions of those early periods.
The person who changed everything was Maria Callas. She had the old-fashioned skills to perform things as they should be done, and she did it with utter seriousness. Anything that goes out of fashion but lingers comes to seem comic, parodistic—can no longer be taken quite seriously. If you want to make a parody of a coloratura, a cartoon of the Bell Song, say, then Lily Pons, great as she was, would be perfect for the part. But Callas did not need to wink or nod. She had the correct interpretation and the integrity to stand before the musical world of the 1950s and say, “This can speak to you the way Glenn Gould’s Bach speaks to you, or Furtwangler’s Beethoven speaks to you.” This influenced so many people, convinced them it was valid: Horne, Sills, Caballé, Sutherland. And scholars like Philip Gossett said, “There’s no scholarly edition of these scores! It’s never been done! There’s a doctoral thesis here!”
What the 21st century needs is more cohesion between the style of Pavarotti and Freni and the current non-Italian and non-operatic training that’s inevitably incomplete. You might say Verismo singers could no longer do justice to the ornamental traditions, singers of the revival can’t do legato outpourings of sheer physical sound, the luxurious beauty of sound and that way of carrying elemental truth combined with looking at the old rule books. We listen to the singers of the early twentieth century as they sing far older music, the “arie antiche,” and we turn up our noses at their affectations—but they knew certain things, they remembered certain traditions that were still valued then.
We’ve got the toolkit. We need individual performers who absorb and immerse themselves in this amalgamation, making music and giving it meaning. No sound means anything on paper—it only means something if there’s someone able to expound it to the audience and have the audience get it.
JY: What qualities do you look for in voices for the Caramoor bel canto program?
WC: Number 1. Voice 2. Enough technical preparation so that they’re not flummoxed by the demands of bel canto. 3. A communicative impulse—a desire to take what they have and pass it to an audience.
JY: What neglected operas seem to you especially worthy of revival, for your own program and on the opera stage?
WC: We started out doing mostly rarities, but we decided there were a lot of not-so-rare works that deserved a new, a closer look, and now about half the things we do are rarities, the others—not so rare.
My wish list includes Lucia—which I think is worthy of more study, a fresh look. Then, I think Handel belongs to the mainstream of the bel canto tradition. We tried to do a series of Handel operas at the Manhattan School, but it got in the way of their vocal department’s other projects—they weren’t going to just turn the whole department over to the study of Handel, and they shouldn’t, so we got in each other’s way and that didn’t work out.
Then I want to do Auber’s La Muette de Portici—a very strong piece—and Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, a score that may well be his best. I love Les Huguenots, it’s a wonderful opera, but Botstein did it very well at Bard two years back, so it’s not unfamiliar to New York.
Then there are Verdi’s operas composed in French, for Paris—major operas of Verdi that have never been performed in the proper language in New York. Don Carlos is a French opera. People think he composed it for Paris and then wrote it again in Italian, but that’s not true—the version we usually hear is just a clumsy translation; it’s not the opera Verdi composed, which is a masterpiece and New York has never heard it.
JY: How about the bel canto operas of Mercadante or Pacini?
WC: The only operas of Mercadante that I might do—that appeal to me at all—are La Vestale and I Briganti. But I’m not exactly passionate about him. I like to feel as close as possible to an unreserved love for any opera I’m doing. If I do Don Pasquale, I know it’s not as great a score as Falstaff is—but I like to feel completely in love with Don Pasquale while I’m conducting it—which is an easy thing to be.
I don’t listen to recordings much—unless I have the score in front of me, I’m not sure what it is I’m hearing. I think, “Shouldn’t that note be higher?” or “It would have been better if they’d done that.” I only listen to new records if there’s a voice I want to learn about, their capabilities. I like Jonas Kaufmann’s recordings very much.
Old recordings have a great deal to teach. They open our ears to something we don’t expect, to a way of doing things unlike the style we have accepted as the “right” style, perhaps to an older tradition, older ways of doing certain things.
JY: You have spoken of your great love of Wagner, and we know Wagner loved Bellini—I certainly hear Bellinian melody in Wagner’s music. Why do you think he was not as fond of Donizetti or Verdi?
WC: Bellini had something special to offer Wagner, rather like what Wagner got from Bach, Beethoven and Weber. What Wagner got from Bellini was the long, sustained melodic line, and what for that time was a fairly novel use of dissonance. In Bellini, unique in that time, more of the music is on dissonant notes, sustaining tension. That wasn’t new, but it was new in opera. In Wagner, the method is enjoying the irresolution, while waiting always for resolution, musically and dramatically.
For Wagner’s purposes, Donizetti was hasty, formulaic—and he was, of course, though I love him. Donizetti was focused on tightening things up, on immediate thrust—which leads directly into Verdi. Neither of them had anything to offer Wagner.
JY: Guillaume Tell was a new sort of opera for Rossini, as well as his last operatic creation. What carries over from his traditional method? What are the novelties and where did he find them? Did the new style exhaust his desire to continue composing?
WC: Guillaume Tell was both a continuation and a departure. The earlier opera to which it owes the most is La Donna del Lago. Tell goes further, trying things he’d already been hinting at, stepping away from the virtuosity of Italian opera and opening up to the spaciousness of Parisian grand opera. In Paris, the operas of Gluck—at least Alceste and the two Iphigénies—were still in the repertory. Berlioz speaks of cleaning them up thirty years later. Of course Rossini never heard them till he arrived in Paris, in 1824.
As for his exhaustion—I think Rossini suffered some kind of breakdown after Tell. We always think of him as the grand old man and bon vivant in Paris, but that was later—after 1850. In 1829, when he wrote Tell, he was 37 and had been composing constantly for nearly twenty years, with extraordinary success. Something happened. I don’t think it was the challenge of the “grand” new style—I think that inspired him. It might have been that his marriage was going bad—he had married his longtime lover and leading lady, Isabella Colbran, and she lost her voice and—they agreed to live apart. There was no divorce then, of course. Too, he demanded a pension from the French government, and won it, and might have been looking forward to a secure existence—but then came the revolution of 1830, and the new government did not wish to continue his pension. He had to fight for it, and he was successful in the end, but he was a nervous wreck. And when you’ve been as energetic as that for so long, and it’s all flowed out of you so easily, and the energy begins to fail in early middle age, it can be devastating. You’re just not the man you were. He was not enjoying life. All this is guesswork—he wasn’t the sort to commit things to paper, or confide in friends. But it was a long time before he became the grand old man of anecdote.
But Tell was a great success—it was in the repertory for ages.
JY: Every new management that takes over a major opera house, at least in this country, seems to say “We’re going to do something revolutionary; we’re going to have the singers act.” And yet opera has always been theater. Opera was composed to be acted, but in a certain, rather formal way, with a lot of time to express sentiments slowly, in accordance with the musical structure—a style not unlike the theater acting of its day. Can that musical style be combined with the sort of naturalistic acting everyone is familiar with today, and that many audiences seem to expect on the opera stage?
WC: Opera was always theater and taken seriously as theater. The acting qualities of the singers were discussed and taken seriously. The attitude that it’s untheatrical comes from a combination of ignorance and arrogance.
Opera, being a form dominated by music, may often tend to be twenty to forty years behind the times—so the idea that opera has a need to follow current trends is always going to be awkward. The style of theater developed by Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw emerged around the time Puccini was basing operas on Sardou and Belasco. But in just a few years, you had the operas of Debussy, Janacek, Berg, Prokofiev, operas intended for a more modern acting style. So response does happen—operas are receptive to the change in styles, over time. Twenty to forty years, say.
Opera today has become mostly a matter of reviving old works. There are some fine new operas—I loved Nixon in China and St. François d’Assise and, going back a few years, Peter Grimes and Les Dialogues des Carmelites. But the recent record is—sparse.
Probably the biggest reason for opera’s decline is the cinema. Movies achieved for audiences what opera had given them before—the involvement with another world, larger than life, being taken out of yourself, being part of an audience enjoying this. I don’t think it’s an accident that the last opera to enter the popular repertory was Puccini’s Turandot—just before the Talkies came in. Richard Strauss, too—all his popular works date from before that point; everything he composed afterwards is a footnote. The movies displaced opera as a public spectacle, and the microphone displaced the kind of vocalism that had made opera possible. That sort of training had been necessary, not only for opera but for politicians, preachers, for actors and singers on Broadway, for anyone who had to fill a room and be understood. This only began to seem unnatural when the natural voice was replaced by the amplified or recorded voice. An industry based on recorded sound and untrained voices, which had not seemed natural before, now became the only acceptable sound, the only thing that sounded “natural” —as singers like Ruth Etting and Billie Holliday learned what you could do with a microphone.
Opera is old-fashioned in so many ways that when we tap a director from movies or modern theater, we’re asking them to rescue opera from what it is. And they don’t know opera; they just listen to a CD or something and think they know it. They create a picture to which the music is the soundtrack. But in opera, music is not a soundtrack—it is doing its job; this is how the thing ticks. It’s like performing ballet to suit the orchestra conductor’s vision. You can’t run a car by putting water in the gas tank; if you have a manual typewriter, you can’t put in a USB port. Modernism isn’t bad in itself—but it’s not the way this machine works, so it is bound to be frustrating.