The art of song will always be the sameonly, nowadays, much less must be learned than heretofore, and of this fact the singers of the period make good use. And, unfortunately, I must confess that Wagner has unconsciously exercised a great influence upon incapables (Nichtskonner). In former times, particularly when Mozart was concerned, and, indeed, all the old Italian mastersIiellini, Donizetti, and Verdi (the latter in his early works )it was required that every voice, whether soprano, alto, bass, or tenor, should be of extensive range, have good execution, a trill, etc. Wagner has, happily. swept away all these needs from the opera; but the fact that now that each syllable has a note the music is easier to sing, fosters the belief that, to sing Wagner’s music well, one has only to enunciate distinctly. Why should one practise fioriture and trills? Many dramatic songstresses, in-deed, regard it as a shame to make a simple mordente :to do this might make people believe they were coloratura vocalists.
I, on the contrary, consider that one cannot sing Wagner well without singing Mozart well, and vice versa. True it is that Wagner makes great demands upon the voice; but possessing his sunken orchestra, he could take much license, and that his intentions are not heeded everywhere is certainly no fault of his. If all his piano and pianissimo signs were observed by conductors, orchestra, and singers, the public would marvel how singable Wagner can be. I shall cite here, in support of my assertion, only one instance, the “Death Announcement” (Die Todesverkiindigung) in “Die Walkure.” For the Valkyr herself, the scene is conceived as a vision, her answers to Siegmund being marked pp. for the orchestra. And what occurs habitually? The orchestra blares forth as though it were trumpeting on the day of judgment.
I do not share, as to Wagner, the views of extremists, and every reasonable artist must reject them: Every genius has its incomparable sparks from above, but even geniuses are only men, and perfection is not of this world. Why should I exalt to heaven one man in particular, where so many exist, and so much that is great has been achieved? There is room for all, but the place of each must be won and held, which last is often the most difficult of accomplishment. What is really great and sublime remains; what is small, or made imposing by artificiality, is borne away by the unceasing flight of time.
Shall we go back to the past? We shall always go back to the ancient traditions as long as these are left us. Every art, call it what we will, has rested for thousands of years upon a firm basis, which none that lay claim to artistic worth may disregard. Painting and sculpture have in this respect an advantage : their creations remain, everlasting, visible exemplars and incentives to effort. The singer, unhappily, creates but for the moment; little that he does so impresses as to extend its influence over years. We learn of it only by narration; we cannot hear it more. The art of song exerts its spell at once, and can stir the heart to the depths, but in the other respect it is in truth ill-favored.
As in every branch of art, there are now, in the art of song, but few distinguished personalities. Only born coloratura songstresses can sing Mozart. How few learn to sing his music, how few teach it; and so it goes! Through the advancement of wretched beginners, brought forward by conscienceless agents and ignorant managers who have the good will of the critics, the public is educated in stupidity. The public feels that this is good, and that bad; and yet it in-voluntarily asks if what it readsexactly the reverse of its own right feelingmust not be more accurate because set down by a critic; and it requires all the energy of one’s character to hold to one’s opinion or to defend it. In ten different newspapers one can read, concerning the same person or work, the most varying opinions; a comparison compels merriment. The critics, too, seek to earn their bread, especially in Germany. How many can write an ordinary critique? Most of them cannot sing a note; they depend upon their divine infallibility; works, performances representing years of activity, industry, and pains, are judged according to good or ill humor, and often dismissed with a sorry jest, while the tentatively interesting critic exalts a wretched production to the skies. This endures not, for what is beautiful and worthy re-mains victorious; but the judgment of the public is made no better. I have learned that among the critics are artists and unprejudiced menparticularly in America. There critics have publicly thanked artists e.g.. Niemannfor what the artist taught them; this has inspired me with profound respect for the writer in question. But how seldom is the public taught to judge, how seldom the artist amiably enlightened!
It would be difficult for me to express myself briefly on the subject of instruction in the art of song; the theme appeals to me so strongly that I fear I should be carried too far in my utterances. I will touch on but a few points. Most people have a wrong conception of method. Some claim that the Italian is the best, others the German. Both schools, when good, rest on the same ‘basis; they are in fact one and the same. Perhaps some people understand, nowadays.by the “German school,” Wagner singing; by the “Italian,” the ornate style. The layman may hold these different conceptions; to the artist, whether German or Italian, these schools have no separate existence. A good songstress must be mistress of both. This mastery is attainable through industry, endeavor, and thought, and, in my opinion, whoever does not attain it can lay no claim to the title of artist. I make no exceptions; this applies to singers as well as to songstresses. The sole difference between the old and the new methods of instruction is that formerly eight years were devoted to the study of song and acting, while now a pupil is brought out in a twelve-month. Scarcely anything can be accomplished in this length of time.
I remember Rossi’s telling me that he studied Hamlet eight years before essaying the part on the boards. Others attempt it in four weeks, and the result is and remains a failure, unless a God-gifted genius atones for much by the divine spark. A real genius, however, begins his study only when he apprehends the defects of a conception and is not satisfied to obey the momentary impulse of feeling. To create a role, to breathe life into it, to master it physically, to grow with it, to sing one’s self into it, requires years; and when one has filled it a hundred times, one still smoothes down roughnesses, striving all the while to maintain proportion, greatness, dignity. How many heed all this at present?
The study of difficult exercises, the sustaining of tones, long breathing exercises, are gone out of fashion. and the scales, they say, tax the strength too severely. Yet whoever sings the scales well can sing everything easily, and therein lies the secret of keeping one’s voice young and fresh to an advanced age. My mother often told me: “No one will give you a penny merely to sing in tune and by heart. When you have sung through a great role you should be fresh enough to begin anew. The practice of scales will never weary you; on the contrary, they are as needful to good singing as is the air to breathing.” I noted all this. “A singer, too,” she said, “should always have one upper and one lower tone more at her command than she requires.”
As the study of song is difficult and exacting, the mind and body of the singer require much repose. Much speech should be avoided, for nothing injures the voice in the same degree. Two hours’ conscientious daily practice is sufficient. Social functions should be avoided; a regular life led; abundant out-of-door exercise taken, and early hours for retiring kept to. Good, solid food should be partaken of in moderation; moderation and limitation are words made for the life and work of an artist.
The term artist is much abused. I am often pained for others, as well as for myself, when I see men and women that have had a long artistic career and have risen far above their contemporaries by genius and toil, named in the same breath with those barely out of school, to say nothing of having accomplished any-thing in art. This should not be. The title “artist” should be held sacred by the public and the critics, a title of honor, to be obtained only by years of service : then would greater efforts be put forth to acquire it. and many a youth wear a humbler mien. At sixteen no one, however extraordinary one’s talent, can be an artist. A man must have struggled with destiny, and striven as man and artist, to become conscious of his highest aims. How shall love, grief, hatred, revenge, or compassion be depicted by him that has not known these feelings ? Genius can accomplish much, but will discover this to be unattainable; then the artist must work diligently to make good his shortcomings. We must ourselves behold and experience, ere we, dignified in tone, word, bearing, and expression, give back from the stage sentiments and emotions. But our managers want artists of sixteen summers. They will never find them; body and mind are at that age alike immature, and will never meet the demands of an intelligent audience. No songstress until she is thirty, no singer until he is thirty-five years of age, can achieve any-thing potent.
What do I like to sing? Everything that is noble and beautiful. Among my roles I like most Fidelio, Donna Anna, and Isolde. Isolde enfolds all that isknown as womanly feeling; for me she most em-bodies woman, although sinning woman. I can merge myself in her feeling, and that is the highest that an artist can claim for tier creative power. lsolde is not a part: she is a complete being, cin ganzer Mensch. What would I not do for Mozart? I love him as one loves the sunbeams that warm, that one inhales with rapture. Wagner often cleaves my heart in twain; his is the life of a great man, with its heights and its depths. Yet it seems to me that we are indebted to Wagner not only for his works, but also for a far better understanding of Beethoven, and even more of Gluck, who is as yet not nearly comprehended.
It is not a very gracious task to give advice to young artists; one may give one’s best, and not be heeded. Above all things. I should counsel industry, industry, and again industry. With this, and voice, talent, endurance, capability in all directions, a sound body, and boundless aptitude, the student in time may accomplish something.