November 26, 1993

A Cracked Note

Critics are like eunuch in a harem: they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.

Brendan Behan

I once read about a fine opera singer who was performing before an Italian audience. They called him back for twenty encores. On the twentieth encore, he cracked a note and they booed him off the stage. I didn't believe that story until I saw a 60 Minutes segment about the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. He cracked a note in an aria and some people in the Milan audience booed him at the end.

It wasn't as if he had, as I once heard the baritone John Charles Thomas do, sung the opera as if he had lost his sense of hearing; Pavarotti almost imperceptibly cracked a note. Most people wouldn't have noticed it and those who did would treat it as if someone had a single twitch in his eye. But not these people. They reminded me of the saying that nature has only one imbalance: there are always more horses asses than there are horses. It would serve the people in Milan right if fine singers refused to perform there. Anyone who would reject a slightly imperfect gift doesn't deserve to ever get a gift again --and hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing is a gift to any opera lover.

Every now and then, a fine performer sings something to perfection; even beyond his own greatest expectations. I heard one such performance a long time ago on a Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Soprano Licia Albanese sang the Jewel Song in the opera Faust. The composer would have had tears in his eyes if he could have heard it. The New York Times critic praised the performance, but pointed out that it was in spite of the fact that she had cracked a note. I wish that I had had the means to record that performance, so that I could hear it again. The critic was a jackass.

What is a cracked note? It is something that you hear often in adolescent boys whose voices are changing. It is when one small muscle in the larynx momentarily overpowers another. It is a laryngeal twitch. The probability of it happening to a highly trained skilled singer increases with his stage fright and with an audience like that Milan one, the probability of stage fright increases to the point where his terror could approach that of a schoolchild's first performance in front of an audience. As a comedian once said, "This isn't an audience, this is a jury." While some performance anxiety colors the voice and makes it better, severe stage fright can be a disaster. A skilled singer can crack notes that he never knew were crackable --believe me, I know. By booing a singer, the audience actually impairs that singer's performances. Any artist will perform better for a friendly audience than he would before a hypercritical one. This principle also holds true with regard to the interaction with children, of parents and teachers.

To me, booing Pavarotti is the equivalent of spray painting a Rembrandt --it is vandalism. If I were Pavarotti, I would never perform there again. Life is just too short to go through something like that. He certainly doesn't need the money. There are opera lovers all over the world, as knowledgeable as the Milanese, who would love to hear him even when he has a bad night, as every performer does; because Pavarotti at his worst is the equivalent of most singers at their best.

To those boors who had the crudeness to boo Pavarotti, I send a malediction: may you all have lockjaw and sea sickness at the same time.

As for Luciano, whose voice has deepened and mellowed with age like a fine wine, and whose acting and musicianship has grown with the years, may you go on singing forever to the delight of all who hear you. You can leave those flashy high Cs to the youngsters. Marvelous as they are, there's much more to singing than that.

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