Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & The Deep Voice Principle

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & The Deep Voice Principle
Note: Suitable baritones who fit the subject of this project were substantially more difficult to find than singers of previous voice types. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau fit the bill perfectly because of his experience in a variety of operatic repertoire and in art song, but few others did. I have written at length about Fischer-Dieskau and then addressed this problem itself.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

            In order to study Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau I used assorted recordings of art songs along with three recordings of longer works. The assorted recordings of art song were of pieces I had in my own collection as well as the seminal Erlkönig. I used a video recording of Winterreise in 1979 with Alfred Brendel at the piano, a recording of Rigoletto under the direction of Rafael Kubelik in 1964, and an opera film of Le nozze di Figaro under Karl Böhm in 1975. I was left with a picture of a superb, versatile artist who, despite the great breadth of his repertoire, excelled more in some areas than in others.

            I actually began my investigation by listening to Fischer-Dieskau in the title role of Rigoletto because I already had the CD on hand. The remarkable conclusion that I reached was that I was not thrilled with him in the role. To say he performed it poorly would be wrong. I think if I were to attend a performance with him in that role, especially opposite Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi, I would be very pleased indeed. Despite that, it felt like the voice lacked the components necessary to be truly successful in the heavy Verdi repertoire. The voice seemed fundamentally dark, lacking in the almost tenoral ring that I might customarily expect from a Verdi baritone. Fischer-Dieskau’s velvety voice felt appropriate in tender moments such as addresses to his daughter in the second act (of four, in this write-up), pleading in the second half of Cortigiani for the return of his daughter to him, or begging for her not to die in “V'ho ingannato, colpevole fui". In other places, however, such as the Act III duet “Sí vendetta,” the first half of “Cortigiani,” his mocking moments, or the two cries of “Maledizione,” the voice felt almost labored. It seemed as though Fischer-Dieskau relied on brute force rather than razor-sharp squillo to achieve the high Gs, Abs, and As required at the top of the Verdi baritone range. At times (many of the same moments) his singing even seemed a bit frayed, like velvet fringe instead of a shiny metallic-colored velvet cloth. One complaint that I think might go hand in hand with this, although it is more personal, is that Fischer-Dieskau emphasizes more the emotional stresses of the words he sings rather than carrying a legato line across the words. That is not to say that he does not sing legato throughout the course of the opera; he absolutely does when he is being tender. In Rigoletto’s despairing and vengeful moments, however, the interpretation becomes choppy and clipped. This might actually more accurately represent how we talk and feel at these moments, but Verdian line is important and I think some of the other vocal issues might have been resolved with more legato phrasing throughout. As a closing note, I am always disappointed not to hear the high A (or B if you’re Sherrill Milnes) at the finale. I would never judge a performance solely on this basis, but I thought I would throw it out there, especially since it is not clear from the studio recording how well the voice would have carried live in such a comparatively heavy role.

            I next listened to art song, particularly Winterreise. Getting to see this with video was a wonderful experience that I had not yet had. In many ways Fischer-Dieskau’s method of performing art song explains a lot about his operatic performances. His interpretative technique for recital performance was very classically reserved. Everything was communicated with the face with few or no gestures from the hands. He sometimes leaned forward, but the facial expressions, combined with musical expression, gave everything necessary to understand the music’s meaning and to be compelled by its emotional content. The singing itself demonstrated very similar expression to what I saw in Rigoletto, but without the imperative for soaring lines and ringing, squillando high range. The soft, caressing piano so appropriate for Fischer-Dieskau’s velvet voice was apparent at the outset in “Gute Nacht,” rising to insistent in pieces such as “Rast” and finally embodying a very different kind of piano by “Der Leiermann” at the end of the performance. Throughout, Fischer-Dieskau offered perhaps unparalleled vocal nuance. The number of shaded phrases either lighter or darker, crescendi, diminuendi, accents, colors, consonant decisions, vowel-shape decisions, tempo decisions, phrasing decisions, variation between staccato and legato etc., etc. is astounding and essentially consistent throughout (though there are moments that are also just legato and lushly sung). While Fischer-Dieskau’s career in opera, oratorio, and other repertoire is perhaps overlooked compared against his art song performances, particularly of Schubert, it is easy to understand how he won such acclaim in that repertoire, with perhaps more people agreeing he was “the best” at it than for any other singer performing any other given repertoire.

            Moving back to opera, the 1975 film version of Le nozze di Figaro was terrible. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, however, was not terrible as Almaviva. The production itself was absurd, with costuming that was intended to be period but influenced outrageously by the era in which it was filmed. The music was also recorded and dubbed over the film, but it was awfully out of sync. Also, a convention was used of having singers not actually mime when they were supposed to be thinking internally, which was interesting but confusing. Finally, much of the acting was far too over the top for my taste, even in a riotous comedy (albeit perhaps with some more serious undertones). It is exactly this that inclined me to Fischer-Dieskau as Almaviva. The Count has a great deal of recitative and fewer sung-through moments in arias, duets, etc. compared with Figaro. It is in this recitative, however, that Fischer-Dieskau shines. In a cast of ridiculous troublemakers, Fischer-Dieskau’s Count remained refined and always reserved in his comportment. This only increased the dichotomy between him and those going behind his back, heightening the comedy. Fischer-Dieskau was able to make the recitative, so often boring and merely a means to an end, interesting in itself through his subtle yet comedic facial expressions, his physical acting which remained aristocratic yet somehow also amusing, and the same kind of careful expression of each word apparent in his lieder singing. Nevertheless, Almaviva does indeed have some “true” singing to do. The opening of Act III combining “Crudel, perché finora” and “Hai già vinta la causa” demonstrates this first in ensemble and then alone, though the Count certainly sings in some of the larger ensemble moments and in shorter solo moments, as well. What was great about Fischer-Dieskau’s singing as Almaviva is that it occupied a middle ground between Winterreise and Rigoletto. The singing was robust and at times very declamatory and even angry (as in “Hai già vinta la causa”) but it did not have the feeling of requiring vocal sacrifices in favor of interpretation the way Rigoletto did. Everything felt well within Fischer-Dieskau’s capabilities. He could sing full out, use the dark timbre of his voice to good effect yet keep a sort of silvery after-tone to help it carry and prevent it from sounding labored. Meanwhile, he could still take care to represent the words, differentiate between staccato and legato, accent certain places, and vary dynamics greatly. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the role seems so ideal for him compared to heavier selections given his general designation as a lyric baritone.

            In trying to synthesize the experiences I had listening to Fischer-Dieskau I have some thoughts of my own that are generally borne out by reviews and supplemental information. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice seems to be fairly sizable, and critics concur that it was indeed audible in such Verdian roles as Macbeth. It was perhaps not, however, comparable in size to the baritone voices most associated with kavalierbaritone or Verdi baritones. It seems appropriate, therefore, that he was considered as a lyric baritone. Despite, the voice possessed the dark velvety timbre (I have used the term “velvet” repeatedly, but it is a term many, including Fischer-Dieskau himself, employed to describe his instrument). In some ways this seems to be a strange middle ground. The voice distinctly contrasts with the overall lightness of many other lyric baritone voices and yet does not have the squillo expected in dramatic voices to balance out the weightier, more robust sound. One thing I noted is that Fischer-Dieskau apparently was a smoker throughout his career. It is hard to wheedle out how much of an influence this had, but it seems to potentially account for his unique timbre. It is intriguing that while reviewers never criticized his vocal timbre, they also never seemed to praise it in particular, focusing instead on his interpretive abilities. He is lauded in roles as diverse as Verdi, Wagner, and Mozart for his superbly keen acting, incredibly clear diction and shading of words, and superb vocal interpretation but even in roles where the sheer beauty of a voice and sweep of the singing itself can be important, these things go unnoticed. I am not suggesting the voice is not attractive, it is, but subtly so, allowing Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation to be his claim to fame. It is unsurprising therefore, that singing that emphasizes interpretation, such as Almaviva or art song, is what I found most appealing. Though I did not find a review of Fischer-Dieskau as Almaviva, every single review of his art song performances was glowing, no matter the specific repertoire. Whatever his particular forte, however, Fischer-Dieskau’s art song recitals are a microcosm of his career as a whole. Across most of the languages used in classical singing, whether familiar like German or unfamiliar like Hungarian, in beloved repertoire like Winterreise or often-frowned-upon like Webern, and on any stage, Fischer-Dieskau made audiences love his art song recitals. Similarly, while not every opera role may have been ideal for his voice, he made every role appreciable.

The Deep Voice Principle

            My voice teacher at Lawrence University, Professor John T. Gates, mentioned to me that in European ensemble houses for basses like him its harder than for tenors like me because while tenors have such a wide range of roles to suit their varying sorts of voices, basses are always preferred to have the biggest, richest voices possible – there are not light bass roles (perhaps with the exception of basso buffo roles that can fit those voices a bit better). The case of baritones is not so severe as basses, but I think the same principle applies. Intriguingly, that same principle seems to apply to a much lesser extent to mezzo-sopranos. Essentially it seems to be that the principle is that as women’s voices descend there is less versatility, and as men’s voices descend there is less versatility even than for women.

            For women, the division into three voices is less involved than for men. Sopranos, of course, dominate the distribution of voices. Sopranos have soubrette roles, light Baroque or Mozartian soprano roles, wild coloratura roles that often range into the dramatic, spinto and dramatic roles, and a variety of others. The kinds of characters sopranos play range in varying frequency across the entire possible spectrum. Mezzo-sopranos are not entirely hemmed in and indeed vary from trouser roles that tend to be on the lighter side, lighter lyric roles in their own right, coloratura roles, and more dramatic roles. The voice types are still more limited, however, and the characters tend to be more centered on the roles of temptress, maternal figure, or young boy. Contraltos fill a variety of roles, but seem, like basses, to fit in a bigger-is-better aesthetic and are definitely limited in their role types compared to sopranos and compared to mezzo-sopranos in the sense that many cases where composers might have cast contraltos they chose mezzo-sopranos instead. The crossover that I saw between sopranos and mezzo-sopranos was therefore intriguing because it demonstrated a different kind of flexibility than intra-fach crossover.

            Tenors might have a little bit narrower range of vocal types available to them than do sopranos. In general, however, I think the same range of voice types is accessible to tenors, with the possible exception of dramatic coloratura. The kinds of characters tenors play are probably a better candidate for being more constrained than sopranos. Baritones seem to fill a wider variety of kinds of roles than do mezzo-sopranos, but have fewer accessible voice types. I wanted to look at Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Tito Tobbi, Titta Ruffo, and all of these sorts of baritones, many of whom succeeded in heavy Verdi roles and also in some of Rossini’s famous baritone roles. For tenors, these roles would likely be undertaken by different voice types or at least voices at different stages of careers. For baritones, however, they are handled by the same impressive, large voices with access to range. Still, the characters baritones play have some versatility from fathers to ancillary townspeople to villains to noblemen. Finally, basses offer probably less versatility, often being old father figures, elder statesmen, or occasionally also villains. Where they are truly hemmed in, however, is the need for their voices to be large, robust, and rich no matter which of their archetypes they might be fulfilling. As I go forward for this project I will have to wrestle with these issues as I deal with baritones and basses. I do anticipate, however, that one solution might be to revisit tenor-baritone crossovers and to also look at the nebulous bass-baritone zone. This experience has certainly demonstrated that, with the exception of tenors, there seem to be more instances of crossover between voice types rather than fächer, which defies intuition and what I would have expected since I am most familiar with tenors and they do move extensively between fächer and only rarely between voice types entirely.


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