1998 – Following the warm reception to Aretha Franklin’s impromptu performance of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” at 1998’s Grammy Awards, Arista Records releases her version of the opera song as the B-side to her current single, “Here We Go Again.”
IN 1998 Luciano Pavarotti canceled an appearance at the Grammy Awards at the last minute, and Aretha Franklin stepped in to perform the famous tenor aria “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot.” A friend of mine, a pop music writer, was agog at the feat. “Isn’t this a very difficult aria to sing?” he asked. “Isn’t it amazing that she could do it?”
I didn’t know how to answer. What does it mean for a tune to be “difficult”? If you know how it goes, you can hum “Nessun dorma” on the street without special training, provided you find a key that is comfortable for you. (Ms. Franklin took it in Mr. Pavarotti’s tenor range, which carried her into the depths of the female voice.) What’s hard is to sing it the way Mr. Pavarotti does, with the support, the flow of sound, the ability to hit the high notes. Or for that matter, the way Ms. Franklin did; she has kept the aria in her repertory.
The question raised the whole vexing issue of voice type in opera: Who can and should sing which roles? It’s known in the business as “Fach.”
The German word Fach covers a range of meanings, including “specialty” and “compartment.” In opera it denotes a system of accepted ideas, now codified, about what kinds of voices should sing which parts. The German opera system distinguishes among some 25 voice types, from lyric coloratura soprano to basso profundo.
This kind of compartmentalization never fully works. Not all voices lie squarely in one realm or another. The soprano Anna Netrebko said in an interview in December that from the time she had started to study, her voice had always lain between two Fachs, coloratura and lyric soprano. “My teacher couldn’t understand who I am,” she said. At the Metropolitan Opera this season she sang both Mimi in Puccini’s “Bohème,” a lyric role, and the coloratura showpiece Elvira in Bellini’s “Puritani.”
Because compartmentalization can be seen as limiting and restrictive, an idea seems to have formed that it is narrow-minded and that one should do one’s best to subvert it. Why should the plums of the repertory be restricted to certain singers? Maria Callas, after all, laid claim to the title of “soprano assoluta,” one who can sing any role, from coloratura to Wagner, ignoring limitations of Fach. Herbert von Karajan was well known for recording operas with voices that were traditionally held to be too light for given roles.
The horror-stricken warnings of opera purists about the perils of singing roles too large for one’s voice may make nonaficionados only more eager to stir things up. To them it may appear that purists are saying there is only one right way to sing a role. Why not try a different interpretation?
And there is nothing wrong with Ms. Franklin singing “Nessun dorma.” Rules exist to be broken. But the urge to bend, rather than break, them can start to undermine something important about singing. However often Ms. Franklin sings “Nessun dorma,” nobody will cast her as Calaf in “Turandot.” But the desire of singers to be all things to all people and the tendency to view some operatic roles as benchmarks to be reached can lead to subtler forms of miscasting.
If you are a wonderful lyric Mozart tenor like Francisco Araiza, you may run into difficulties singing Walther in Wagner’s “Meistersinger,” a role requiring a lot more power (as Mr. Araiza learned the hard way). If you are a lyric soprano like Mirella Freni, your voice may not bloom as Aida.
Note that Fach is not about straitjacketing a singer; it’s more like finding the right clothing size. Within it there is plenty of room for individual variation. Olga Borodina and Dolora Zajick are both dramatic mezzo-sopranos who sing Verdi roles, but Ms. Zajick has said she will never again sing Saint-Saëns’s Dalila, a role that fits Ms. Borodina like a glove. Ms. Zajick can undoubtedly hit all the notes; she just doesn’t feel that the role flatters her.
The question of whether it is difficult to sing something not in your Fach is almost beside the point. Certainly it is difficult to pump out enough sound to get through a role that is too big for you or doesn’t quite fit, but if the corollary is to see the whole exercise merely as an athletic feat and praise a singer for limping across the finish line, something has been lost in the endeavor. For at bottom the Fach system, rigid though it may seem, is predicated on something right: the attempt to find and cultivate a distinctive musical identity.
Ms. Franklin gets that. Whatever it is that she does with “Nessun dorma,” it’s real. (Check it out on YouTube if you dare.) Finding that realness is the part that’s difficult. The rest is, far too often, only notes.