The Classical Voice: Finding Your Way In

How to explain the power that trained operatic voices hold over many of us? For me, the pull began days after I was born, when acoustic 78s of tenor Enrico Caruso and coloratura sopranos Amelita Galli-Curci and Luisa Tetrazzini played in the background. There was something about the way the dramatic-to-the-core Caruso sang, as if his life depended on it, while the high-flying coloraturas skipped lightly through impossible strings of notes. It moved me like little else.

The magic of classical vocal artistry revolves around the ability to seduce with sound while conveying a wide variety of human emotions through voice alone. Rare is the artist like Cecilia Bartoli who can sound joyful one minute, wracked with pain the next, and furious 20 bars later. Many singers can demonstrate multiple emotions in their facial expressions and body language, but relatively few possess the alchemical power to translate multiple emotional states into sound.

Singers allow us to eavesdrop as they explore what music means to them. They make the private public. The more of their personal language we hear, the more intimate and rewarding the experience. This is one reason why we are audiophiles: We yearn to get closer to the creative essence of the artists and composers we cherish.

How vocal music, especially in foreign languages, will touch your heart, I cannot determine. Reading translations while listening to recordings demands more attention than watching foreign films with subtitles. Videos with subtitles can provide a way forward, but some of the greatest recorded vocal performances—most of them, probably—are audio-only. The limited selection of historical recordings on YouTube lack the essential subtle shifts of color and dynamics captured in high-quality digital remasterings. The argument that because the original recordings were inherently limited in dynamics and bandwidth, carefully engineered high-resolution remasterings aren't worth the effort, does not hold water when you listen on a revealing audiophile system. Because the vast majority of LP transfers of shellac recordings were heavily filtered to reduce naturally occurring surface noise, post-1992 digital transfers are often preferable (footnote 1).

Repertoire from earlier generations continues to offer joy, beauty, and emotional truth, but much excellent, new English-language classical vocal music is being written, addressing issues central to our lives.

If you are one of the too many who have resisted opera, lieder, and other vocal music, it's time for a reassessment.


Looking back
Singers who began recording at the tail end of the 19th century were blessed with what one might call "singer's repertoire," ie, tuneful songs and airs (arias) that showcased their expressive power and technical facility. Even if you didn't understand the meaning of many of the words uttered by iconic singers of the first Golden Age of opera on record, you could sense when they were singing about love, hope, suffering, war, or retribution because you could hear it in their voices and in the musical line.

Those unique-voiced singers believed body and soul in what they were singing. Many of their interpretations reflected direct experience with the composers of the music they sang. If not, then they at least lived during the period of composition or had studied with someone with a direct link to the composer. Some of their performances bear such an unmistakable stamp of authenticity that, even in the face of newer and far more technically advanced recordings of the same repertoire, they remain indispensable.


If you want to know how Umberto Giordano hoped to hear his glorious short tenor aria, "Amor ti vieta" ("Love forbids you"), from his opera Fedora, turn to the 1902 recording in which he accompanies Caruso. For Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, listen to the soprano he begged to sing the role, the dramatically riveting Magda Olivero. Debussy? Put on singers he worked with or who were the first to record his music, including Maggie Teyte, Jane Bathori, Claire Croiza, and the magnificent-voiced Charles Panzéra. Panzéra and his French baritone successors are notable for their willingness to sing with tenderness and vulnerability as well as strength.


The 20th century saw any number of longtime composer/singer partnerships, including Poulenc with baritone Pierre Bernac and Britten with his partner, tenor Peter Pears. Britten was as committed to having the heartrendingly intimate contralto Kathleen Ferrier premiere The Rape of Lucretia, as Richard Strauss was to have Lotte Lehmann create three of his operatic roles and Elisabeth Schumann fill the long-spun lines of his glorious lieder (songs) with golden light. (To understand why Strauss had a lifelong love affair with the soprano voice, listen to these women, who sing directly from their souls.) Closer to the present, Samuel Barber composed his wonderful Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano Eleanor Steber; Kaija Saariaho wrote several pieces for the glowing directness of soprano Dawn Upshaw; Henri Dutilleux created his final song cycle, Le temps l'horloge, for Renée Fleming; and Jake Heggie conceived roles in his Dead Man Walking for the tear-inducing voices of Susan Graham and Frederica von Stade.


Three coloratura sopranos of the LP era—Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills—are responsible for reviving a huge amount of once-lost bel canto repertoire and adorning it with authentic embellishment that, as in jazz, was customarily left to the singer's discretion. Ditto for our current era's mezzo-soprano coloratura Cecilia Bartoli, whose repertoire spans the Baroque through the 20th century. While Sutherland was known mainly for her technical fluidity and brilliance, Callas, Sills, and Bartoli perform(ed) in dramatically convincing ways that reveal the emotional and visceral motivation for all their high-flying runs and trills.

Footnote 1: Take it from one who has shelves full of flat-sounding LP transfers of pre-1948 vocal recordings that have been bettered digitally.

Ortofan's picture

... Carlo Bergonzi.
So much for your credibility as a classical music reviewer, IMO.
Try this album of duets with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Then there's Richard Tucker. That's two strikes.
Try this album of duets with Robert Merrill.

tonykaz's picture

Brilliant commentary!

Over these recent years, a person might feel that Streophile was entirely populated by reviewing lovers of Rock&Roll reissues for Dark side of the Moon along with everything Rock from 1960 thru 1988ish. Jazz too gets mention ( as long as it's from one of the few all-time-favorites like Miles ). It's like a Queen, Stadium Rock & V8 Mustang mentality dominates.

On the other hand:

Your well written ( very well written ) singing voice histories took me back to my own Singing Mother serenading us children ( every morning ) before and during breakfast and as we left for School. Mother rehearsing, mother's performances and her various traveling performers stopping by for dinner and more Performance rehearsing. I never quite understood that there was something ( or anything ) special about living in a Opera Household until late in life and reading this wonderful piece that you share with us. Thank you

How did you end up at Stereophile, you seem Odd Shaped peg for a Sterophile shaped hole but then again, where else would a sensible person want to belong ?

You are outstanding in front of a camera ( I think ), and you can write brilliantly!

I'm an Engineer and can't quite see you as a technical reviewer or having peering insights into electronic circuit performances.

My mother favoured Marylin Horne as the most beautiful voice in her extensive memories. I favour Joan Sutherland.


Tony in Venice

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

As you may have noticed, I don't pretend to offer peering insights into electronic circuit performances. Rather, if I like a product, I hope to offer enticing invites to partake.


tonykaz's picture

I'd thought ( incorrectly ? ) that you were a technical note taker and ponder of technical aspects.

Anyway, you helped me notice that Stereophile isn't a Classical Group but a Rock & Roll sort. Of course, it should've always been obvious that Mr.JA is a Rock & Roll musician with a rather pronounced lean to British Working man music. ( and Jimmy Hendricks ). For me, Mr.JA is one of the few HiFi 'Higher-Authorities'!

My personal love is Classical, never having an interest or access to Jazz or Motown or Rock or Pop. The LS3/5a playing Butterfly ( in an English HiFi specialist Shop 1982ish ) was the Catalyst for my entry into the still exciting Audio Industry.

Thank you for writing back,

Tony in Venice

ps. the future is now and it's streaming. ( my considered opinion, of course )

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Both JA1 and JA2 frequently attend classical concerts and love classical music. There are, of course, many varieties of classical, from "pleasant classics" meant for unwinding to intense fare that takes you right to the center of humanity's love, foibles, and transgressions. And that doesn't even begin to address preferences for small scale or solo orchestral fare over or under solo piano, string quartets, opera, and art song. Ditto for rock, blues, country, and jazz. It's definitely a case of different strokes for different folks.

I want a high end system to do justice to it all.

tonykaz's picture

I think you achieved it, your gear can do anything well.

I live with music as a companion, something like the man I met at Walmart the other day, he had a leather purse with a real, live dog in it -- his life companion ( although he's married and his wife was with him at the store ). I don't think that they were friends as much as they shared their lives in some sort of harmony.

My headphone transducers are significantly better transducers than any Loudspeaker system I've owned. So, I've achieved sufficiently high levels of satisfaction.

I hadn't realised the JAs were Orchestra fans but it's easily available in NY, so, why not!

I was a frequent visitor to Manhattan when my Son lived on 59th & 9th ( Hells Kitchen area ). The place is horribly filthy and for some reason they smell up the street for the two days before Garbage Pick-up. A person has to live there a couple of years to not notice the whole of it. ( a luxury 1/2 bedroom 4th floor walkup only $2,100/mo., a view of the street ). Now I live in god's own Paradise with a Pool featuring weightless Nirvana at 89F, I'm never leaving ( I hope ).

Thanks again for writing,

Tony in Venice listening to Tracy Chapman's: Fast Car

John Atkinson's picture
Jason Victor Serinus wrote:
Both JA1 and JA2 frequently attend classical concerts and love classical music. . .

To address Tony's description of me as "a Rock & Roll musician with a rather pronounced lean to British Working man music," while bass guitar was indeed my instrument when I was a professional musician, I started off playing violin in school and youth orchestras, and later played viola da gamba and recorders in classical early music ensembles.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Poor Audiophile's picture

"It's definitely a case of different strokes for different folks."
So true! I like different types of music.Rock doesn't appeal to me anymore. I've tried listening to Opera,but it doesn't appeal to me.That was decades ago, so perhaps I'll try again after reading this article. I'm not a music "expert" of any kind. I can't even read the notes! But,I know what I like to listen to.

"I want a high end system to do justice to it all." That's key right there. I want the "best" system I can afford, which isn't much, hence my name here! Thanks again, Larry

Ortofan's picture

... studying a copy of this book:

Anton's picture

Did you notice his piece was an introductory column in a Hi Fi gear magazine, not a doctoral thesis?

I suggest you toss him a pile of cash and ask for a 25,000 word follow up with more detail.

JVS: your piece was absolutely the perfect invitation.

Jim Austin's picture

I learned electronics from that book way back in the 1980s. Here's hoping they found a proper editor since then: It was the worst-written textbook I ever encountered, in any subject.

Jim Austin, Editor

pbarach's picture

This was the best article about **music** that I have ever seen in Stereophile. I particularly like your invitation to readers to listen to older recordings as well as newer ones.

Poor Audiophile's picture

"This is one reason why we are audiophiles: We yearn to get closer to the creative essence of the artists and composers we cherish."
YES!! The gear is great, but this is what it's about IMHO.

James Romeyn's picture

I played most of the music JVS mentioned in the subject review. The Hunt Lieberson music is heavenly, as JVS would say, transporting the listener to another place. Both audio quality and musical impact are exemplary, beyond my usual faire.

Jason, some of the music in your Essence review is saved in one of my playlists. Consider this an invitation to hear those songs if you attend an audio show with an AudioKinesis exhibit room.

I look forward to hearing the music JVS listed in this current piece. IMO Jason's play lists alone justify the Stereophile subscription price.

Beyond his wonderful music, you have to love someone like Jason (and award winning reporter Glenn Greenwald) who loves and cares for dogs rescued from terrible circumstances.

Lars Bo's picture

Nice. Thanks, Jason.

My first gripping experience into the classical voice music was Franco Corelli singing E lucevan le stelle. Still grips.

Last year, I took my teenage son to Tosca (in Copenhagen). He had his first "wow" with opera and an early start.

While I probably do listen more to rock and jazz music, classical, and opera, is important to me as well. One thing though: I have yet to love Wagner's operas, with the singing parts that is. Without those, it's some of my favorite music. Please don't be angry.

I am not really angry - just dissappointed - about your comments on a suffering "Golden analog age".

Thanks again.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Since I didn't mention a suffering "Golden analog age" - I referred to the first Golden Age of opera on record, which roughly extended from 1902 through the early 1920s and coincided with the era of acoustic analog recordings - I'm not sure what you're referring to. As for Wagner, if the first act of Die Walküre, especially the second half once Hunding is drugged, as recorded by Bruno Walter, Lotte Lehmann, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, Emmanuel Liszt in 1935 doesn't get you, nothing will. When I visited one of the Mad King Ludwig's castles and heard Lehmann singing that music in the reconstructed fantasy Hunding's Hut, I almost broke into tears. The Naxos transfer is by far the best on CD, although there may also be a superior file version at Pristine Audio, remastered by a different engineer.

Lars Bo's picture

I referred, in misunderstanding and in a failed attempt to joke with all the anger in matters of personal preferences it would seem ;-), to the Golden analog age you comment on when writing of Callas, Sutherland and Solti.

I know the legendary Walter recording you mention. I'll give it some more listening, but fear I will respond as I generally do to Wagner's opera music.

Again, Jason, thanks - I think your article is a very informative and enjoyable read.

Timbo in Oz's picture

Thanks Jason,

I became a Cathedral Chorister in 1960, the year my father died from war causes I turned 9! ? High Church Anglican. In Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia!

Quite soon after (1961/2) I was introduced to hi-fi audio, and the sound of the choir as recorded R2R in simple stereo - in the Cathedral - by 'our ABC' (~= BBC?). This by one of the baritone/tenors and his wife. Big stone early-19C 2-storey house, high ceilings. BIG floor to ceiling corner enclosures with an 18"? and a Tannoy DC (Red?). Two-box bespoke Valve pre - BIG valve power amps, two R2Rs, two TTs one for 78s. And two Tuners one AM (broad audio BW) and one Mono FM tuner for the test broadcasts, by ... the ABC. Ortofon and Decca heads.

Another experience was caused by the shut-down and rebuild of the main BIG Organ. We were lent a tall chamber organ, a tracker action type & 18C build. That led to Newcastle getting a baroque society orchestra which performed in the Cathedral, always with us!

An early introduction to that other form of fidelity - to what the composer expected - AKA HIPerformance. Hunt Liebeson's work in that area is beyond criticism.

Oh yes, *vibrato-less* singing, which was in any case long a part of the Anglican choral tradition. Especially for soloists, which I soon was.

I became a Leader at 11 under Royal School of Church Music rules having passed the courses and exams.

For me Opera is something to watch on a big screen HT system or live on a stage. The sound on its own is just NOT enough. LBNL I prefer operas of the classical era. And only a few from the early romantic period. I have a few modern era boxed sets, one/two by Britten.

Why? Shrill & *wobbly* sopranos and mezzos! ;-) Let alone way too many silly plots.

Bizet's Carmen - done as a film - is an exception, I suppose.

I agree with you about Wagner, magnificent music, but - mostly horrible plots, driven by a vicious personal world-view!

Two stations you might like to try via their web-pages are.

They are free-to-air.

The second one uses just a little more compression.

Ortofan's picture

... the visual component - is something that I experienced on many a Saturday afternoon when growing up since my Dad always tuned into the live Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts.

Talos2000's picture

Since you mentioned Solti's Ring Cycle, I'm wondering whether you have heard the Esoteric Remaster, released exclusively in an SACD box set about 10 or so years ago? It's pretty amazing.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

that I haven't. There is so much that I haven't heard, actually. I keep dreaming of that desert island where all there is to do is eat fruit that drops from the trees and listen listen listen to that multi-million dollar system that somehow washed ashore intact at the same time as I, and that was attached to remarkable 100% waterproof solar power sound system.

volvic's picture

There are quite a few on eBay right now prices range from $1,500 for a near mint box set to $100,000 for a new sealed one. I'd love to have it but not paying $1,500, even though it is a fair price.

Herb Reichert's picture

are like $15-25 in NM/EX condition (and they sound like Wilkinson intended)


volvic's picture

Already have them and the Karajan box set as well. Always amazed how these box sets consistently are in stellar condition, as if they have never been played. On the lookout for the Bohm live version as well.

Talos2000's picture

Two ways to ask the same question:
If you had a near mint box set, would you sell it for $1,500?
If you had $1,500, would you buy a near-mint box set with it?

Aye, there's the rub....

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

if you have a good Blu-ray player, especially one with a digital output to an excellent DAC, you can play the 24/48 (or perhaps it's 24/44.1) Blu-ray that UMG derived from the original master tapes. You can also find the Ring in 24/44.1 MQA on Tidal and 24/44.1 on Qobuz.

The next question would be how the Esoteric SACDs compare to the MQA versions. The only proper way to compare them, IMHO, would be to use both an SACD and file player from the same company. One example would be the dCS Rossini CD/SACD transport into the MQA-equipped Rossini DAC, but there are many possibilities. You'd also need to ascertain that the company's SACD and file playback are on the same sonic footing. Many products excel in one playback medium over others.

And then, of course, there are the original LPs. Have fun with that one. No fair comparing the sound of the LPs on a six figure turntable to the Blu-ray on an Oppo.

Whatever you do, never lose sight of the fact that it all comes to naught in the end when Valhalla burns to a crisp and only the music remains.

volvic's picture

Nein Talos2000, on both counts. So much vinyl can be had for $1,500. More bang for the buck.