Faith Puleston is a person who has recently become a follower of this blog. When I emailed her to thank her for doing so, I discovered that Faith had a career as an opera singer for many years from the 1960s to the 1990s, mainly in Germany. If you follow this link, you’ll see some great photos of her taking the lead in some pretty impressive roles (Amneris from ‘Aida’ at Covent Garden; Waltraute in ‘Gotterdammerung’; Octavian in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’):
I’ve loved opera all my life, and the voices that are required to sing opera (and Liede) are still my favourite kinds of voices (note to reader and bluegrass fan Ted Dawson: Sorry, Ted). Whenever anyone in the art world talks excitedly about multimedia art as if it’s the great new frontier, I always point out that opera was the first and is still the greatest multimedia art, combining singing, instrumental playing, acting (sort of), and all the arts of staged theatre. And almost all of it is the product of the human hands and lungs (though audio-visual projections are increasingly used in contemporary productions).
Faith talking about ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ prompted me to think about how, despite my long-standing devotion to opera, I only came to Richard Strauss’ music in the last six years. But as a composer for the human voice, particularly the female voice, I think Strauss is the equal of his near-contemporary Puccini. No doubt this was in part because he was married to a highly-regarded soprano, for whom he wrote many of his exquisite songs. Strauss has this way in his writing of taking these harmonic sidesteps away from the main key of the melody, and then arriving back on the tonic or dominant in a way that combines surprise and affirmation. The sound and the musical line can be as big and long as Wagner, but without the mythic pomposity of Herr Richard. And there can be no better example of Strauss’ slightly hilarious obscenity, superb writing for the voice, dramatic sense, and all-round operatic brilliance than the climax (in every sense of the word) of ‘Salome’, from the following clip with Teresa Stratas. Salome sings a demented love aria to the severed head of John the Baptist ("I kissed your mouth, Jokanaan/There was a bitter taste on your lips./Was that the taste of blood?/Or was that the taste of love?"). It gets seriously bonkers about 6 minutes in :