Franco Corelli, an Italian, sang the role of Don Jose in the opera Carmen Don Jose is Spanish; the opera is in French.
When considering “blind auditions” for orchestras I began to wish opera companies were forced to cast their operas based on blind auditions. A blind audition means the auditors do not know anything about the musician auditioning. They don’t know what school the musician went to, they don’t know the name, gender, or ethnicity, and the musician performs behind a screen. Everything is based on how well they perform.
Leontyne Price in Aida by Verdi
Opera farewell "O patria mia"
How I wish operas were cast solely on how well a singer sings. Opera is a theatrical art form based on the voice so, in my opinion, a singer’s ability to effectively sing the role is the primary concern. If the singer happens to look appropriate in the role, that helps.
It could be argued that no one sang the role of Aida better than Leontyne Price. Price is arguably the greatest American opera singer of all time. Leontyne Price sang many roles in her career, Aida was the only role for which she had the right “look.”
If there had been blind auditions, I am convinced that Leontyne Price would have been cast as Aida based on only her vocal abilities. Aida is a sub-Saharan African which means Leontyne Price, an African-American, looked the part more than almost every soprano who has ever sung that role.
Over the course of her career, Price was cast as several different ethnicities and nationalities. Every great opera singer is.
For decades, opera singers were hired based primarily on their vocal abilities. No one cared if Franco Corelli, an Italian, sang the role of Don Jose in the opera Carmen. Don Jose is Spanish but the opera is in French, and Corelli’s French diction sounds quite Italian. However, his vocal ability to sing the role is head and shoulders above most other singers who have lived.
For the record, Corelli was on a recording of Carmen opposite Leontyne Price who was in the title role. Carmen is a Spaniard, Leontyne Price is an American. An Austrian, Herbert von Karajan conducted. The remaining principal cast was filled out by an Italian soprano, Mirella Freni, and an American baritone, Robert Merril. The chorus and orchestra are from the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic.
There isn’t a French or Spanish artist to be found anywhere on this legendary recording. Why? Because once upon a time, opera was primarily concerned with vocal greatness.
Was opera only concerned with vocal greatness? Of course not. Opera has the same sordid past as any and all entertainment industries. However, it was the one place where a singer could get work based on the voice and not physical appearance.
The great opera singers of the past were a mixed bag when it came to having “good looks.” The one thing they had in common was the ability to sing their roles with artistry and authority.
In the past 20 years or so, it seems as though the majority of opera singers have become attractive people. In that same time period, the voice has become less and less important.
Remember, opera is a theatrical art form based on the voice. When the voice becomes less important, it erodes the foundation of opera and turns it toward the bizarre mish-mash of post-modernism that it is today.
Could blind auditions work in opera? Of course not. It’s too easy to recognize a singer’s voice.
The other side of this issue is the ability of singers to connect with donors who might underwrite a production featuring their favorite opera singer. That’s nothing new. That one has been going on for at least 400 years.