Tales from Bassland!
by Matt Scrivner
It’s always a sad thing to see your own voice type relegated to the wings, described as “boring” in favor of those voice types that have flashy singing with lots of coloratura technique or are perceived as having the “great drama.” If there’s anything harder for a bass than waiting ten years longer than everyone else for your instrument to be truly viable, it’s watching the other fachs be listed with as having all of the “great moments” in opera. So for a bit of your day, please join me in celebrating the glory that is the bass voice. All good talks need a definition, so I offer you the whimsical definition of Bass arrived at for my opera literature course:
Bass – The lowest male voice type, typically written between F2 and E4 though extensions to either end of the range are common. Chorally this voice serves as the foundation on which all other vocal action is built. In terms of opera characters basses are most often: the devil (or similar villain role), priests (who are sometimes the villain also), and old men (especially fathers who are stuck in their ways). Sometimes the bass gets to be a King – but the king might also be the villain.
Definitions established – let’s talk Bass. Basses are called upon to use extremes of their dramatic and vocal ranges in order for the character types listed above to become compelling and powerful individuals on-stage. Let’s consider one of the most famous of all role types for the bass – the Devil. There are many, many roles where a bass is called upon to play the King of Darkness in one guise or another including: Zameil in Weber’s Freischütz, Bertram in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, and Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust to name a few. There are a variety of amazing special affects associated with these roles, since nearly every characterization of Satan requires both a larger than life personality from the actor and magical effects on the stage. Take for example the aria Le veau d’or in Faust. The bass is required to leap around a village square and proclaim that the biblical golden calf still exists, and tempts modern people with the clink of gold coins. The version posted below has no village square, opting instead for a giant golden calf’s head that functions as a slot machine spitting money on the populace during the sections of the choral response where enraptured people wrestle one another to get closer to a charismatic Ruggiero Raimondi and his magic coins.
The only thing more fun than playing the devil, might be playing a prophet. In Verdi’s setting of the biblical story of Hebrew captivity in Babylon, it is the prophet Zachariah (Zaccaria) who really steals the show. Following directly after the famous “chorus of the Hebrew slaves” is the aria “O chi piange.” An extended prophecy in which Zaccaria calls upon the people of Israel to cease their crying and hold on to hope – for God will descend upon Babylon and destroy it. To carry off this scene the singer must have a powerful voice that will cut through not only a giant orchestra, but also the sizable chorus whose lines sometimes coincide with Zaccaria’s. They must also have an imposing physical presence – being a prophet with divine authority requires just as much stage-owning prowess as the heroic tenors and leading ladies, otherwise it’s just a countdown until those two come back. There are a number of great Zaccarias, but on youtube the best marriage of dramatic and vocal prowess I’ve found is Samuel Ramey singing in Paris in 1995.
Conventional wisdom states two things about being a monarch, first, “it’s good to be the king.” Second, “heavy the head that wears the crown.” While both of these statements are true, in opera it’s significantly more true that being the king really isn’t so great. Consider Philippo II in Don Carlos by Verdi. He has things pretty rough – a wife who is actually in love with his son, a son that thinks he’s a terrible ruler and wants to take the crown by force, and a nation that believes he is a tyrant. Behind the scenes, it is the Grand Inquisitor forcing Phillip to make many of his most unpopular decisions, and even that the king give up his only friend the Duke of Posa as a heretic. For your consideration I submit Paul Plishka and Jerome Hines singing at the Met in 1980.
So will basses wow you with their thrilling runs and astounding love songs? No, but they will entertain you with supernatural characters, lift your spirits as a prophet, frighten you as angry fathers, and make you sympathize with the villain (perhaps because another bass more villainous is present). So, are basses boring? Hopefully you agree the answer is no!
Bass-Baritone Matthew Scrivner is currently finishing the MM Musicology and MM Voice Performance degrees in the Conservatory at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he intends to start work on the DMA Voice Performance in the fall of 2011. Mainstage roles at the Conservatory have included Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni and Colline in La Bohéme. Outside of the Conservatory Matthew has been seen in the chorus of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and on the concert stage as bass soloist for the cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden and the Bethel College presentation of Verdi’s Requiem, also as bass soloist. He is currently finishing his musicology thesis concentrated on music concerning the events of the “Bleeding Kansas” border war of 1854-58.
*If you’re just feeling cheated that I didn’t talk about the famous Commendatore scene, just search for “Commendatore scene S. Ramey and K. Moll” on youtube. Anything I would have to say about it is summed up by that presentation.