“He expects to find the woman singer at least passably good-looking, graceful in bearing, well gowned, and generally attractive. The fat, ill-dressed, phlegmatic prima donna of the early sixties, who had a good voice and a pure trill, is no longer tolerated. (. . .) too many opera goers have learned to admire a new sort of prima donna, a person who has a robust voice and an exceedingly robustious style, who rushes energetically from one side of the stage to the other, who pants and puffs from the violence of her exertions, but who projects passionate temperament into the atmosphere much as a fire engine squirts water from a hose. This sort of prima donna is typical in Germany, where she is worshiped with an adoration quite blind to the fact that she knows no more about the laws of singing than a bull-finch does the rules of mathematics.”
An opera fan who reads this passage might assume that it came from the vicious commentariat of Parterre Box or, perhaps the frustratingly narrow minded horde who frequent this Facebook page throwing shade at yet another “eurotrash” opera production. So you might be surprised to learn that it is from W.J. Henderson’s introduction to Ten Singing Lessons, by renowned pedagogue Mathilde Marchesi, published in 1901.
It seems that there always has been and always will be cause to lament the dying art of high-quality bel canto singing. It keeps dying, and dying, and yet it still isn’t dead.