Susannah Wapshott and David Stout - The history of the Baritone

Helensburgh Oratorio Choir

Winter Warmer Programme 2021

For our fifth offering in the series of 6 ‘Winter Warmers’ on Tuesday 16th March, we welcomed our own Musical Director, Susannah Wapshott and her professional Baritone husband, David Stout, to our screens. The title for the evening was ‘The history of the Baritone’.

Both musicians have made their mark on the world stage. We were delighted to discover last year that Susie had been successful in her application to the famous Hart Institute at the Dallas Opera!

The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute, launched in 2015, is the only program of its kind in the world and seeks to address the extreme gender imbalance of leadership on the podium in opera companies. Now in its sixth year, more than 500 women conductors from 40 nations have applied to be trained, advised, and supported by this extraordinary initiative.

Last year, a total of 72 applicants from seventeen countries applied by the May 1st 2020 deadline to take part either as conductors or administrators. The seven women selected as Conducting Fellows for the 2021 Dallas Opera Hart Institute are listed below:

  • Yeo Ryeong Ahn (South Korea)

  • Christine Brandes (USA)

  • Michelle Di Russo (Argentina)

  • Barbara Dragan (Poland)

  • Chelsea Gallo (USA)

  • Elinor Rufeizen (Israel)

  • Susannah Wapshott (UK)

This ground-breaking institute, which has changed the face of classical music by significantly advancing the careers of women in the most visible position in the orchestra, took place via a two-week virtual residency February 8-19, 2021 because of the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information look here:

David is internationally renowned for singing Oratorio, Opera and concert work. Both his parents were musical, indeed he told us his father could have sung professionally. Because of that, he felt that he was ‘coerced into singing’! So, at a very young age, he applied to choir school and following rejections from St John’s Cambridge and New College Oxford, he joined Westminster Abbey choir in September 1983 under the prestigious organist, Simon Preston. In 1987 he became Head Chorister and although many of his peers went on to sing professionally at that time, he decided that it wasn’t for him and went on to study Zoology at Durham University on a choral scholarship. He then studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama with Rudolf Piernay, where he won the Principal’s Prize. He has sung the title role in Le Nozze di Figaro in opera houses around Europe and in 2016 created the title role in Figaro Gets a Divorce with WNO. For more about David look here:

So to the history of the Baritone. In the late 15th Century, the Baritone voice appeared and by 17th Century Italy it was used to describe the average male voice. Through various arias, most ably accompanied by Susie, David was able to demonstrate the different types of Baritones and how their range was used to good effect in operatic roles.

For example:

The Bass-Baritone was used very dramatically to portray godlike characters we see in Monteverdi or the more lyrically, as in the aria by Gluck ‘O del mio dolce ardor’ which David sang and Susie accompanied beautifully.

Or in the ‘buffo’ roles we see in Mozart – Papageno or Leporello alongside the more dramatic Don Giovanni which can be sung by either Bass or Baritone. Mozart was already developing this light and shade in his opera characters. To illustrate this, David sang Leporello’s ‘Catalog aria’ from Don Giovanni, very much a patter song and compared that to the only Baritone role in Mozart which is not a Buffo role, the role of the Count Almaviva from Le Nozze di Figaro singing the aria, ‘Hai gia vinta la causa!"

As we move into the Romantic period, Baritones were beginning to be seen as more versatile than Tenors or Basses and composers, like Wagner were beginning to write roles specifically for these voices. E.g. Giants were Basses; Gods were Baritones and lead roles like Sigmund were usually tenors.

As more opera houses opened throughout the world and composers could choose the types of voice for their characters, so the FACH system began. The Vocal Fach System was developed in Germany at the end of the 19th Century for opera houses to create distinct categories for all the roles in an opera in order to aid auditions and casting. Fach means classification, speciality, category. Rossini, Verdi and Donizetti all contributed to the evolution of the operatic voice because as the orchestras moved to in front of the stage rather than under the stage, the singers had to adapt and we now come across the phrase Bel Canto to describe this sound using Legato to carry the sound out into the largest of opera houses nourished by vibrato.

Bel canto is Italian for 'beautiful singing.' From the mid-18th century through the early 19th century, Italian opera developed what is now known as a bel canto style. Composers began to write long, sustained vocal lines intended to show off the beauty of the voice. These melodies were often embellished with various ornaments such as trills, turns, and runs that demanded great vocal agility.

To support the singer's efforts, the orchestra was kept to a simple accompaniment. Strings and woodwinds were often used, and harmonies were basic chords. The composers didn't want to detract from the exquisite vocal lines. All other aspects of the music were to serve the melody itself instead of the whole production.

The most important composers of bel canto opera are Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Rossini. The aria ‘Casta Diva’ (for Soprano) from Norma is considered by many to be the epitome of bel canto writing. David performed ‘Bella siccome un angelo’ from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale to illustrate this.

As we moved forward into the 19th and 20th Centuries, a new form of opera was gaining ground and led away from Bel Canto to Verismo singing. Verismo composers consciously strove for the integration of the opera's underlying drama with its music. These composers abandoned the "recitative and set-piece structure" of earlier Italian opera. Instead, the operas were "through-composed," with few breaks in a seamlessly integrated sung text. While verismo operas may contain arias that can be sung as stand-alone pieces, they are generally written to arise naturally from their dramatic surroundings.

The most famous composers who created works in the verismo style were Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and Francesco Cilea. ‘Questa amore’ from Edgar is the only ‘stand-alone’ Baritone aria written by Puccini. It is emotional, from the heart and the very essence of verismo singing. Now Baritones can play the lover!

David was able to describe and beautifully demonstrate the different ranges and tones which can be brought with a Baritone voice, from the high lyrical Strauss operas to the dark Verdi roles. When studying a role, it can take up to 9 months as he has to learn a language e.g., learning Hungarian for his part in Bluebeard’s Castle. (His French, Italian and German are fantastic!)

It was such a privilege to listen to David and our audience wanted more! Here are some questions:

Which type of Baritone are you?

A versatile one!! (As he proved this evening)

Friends who were choristers with you – did they move to opera too?

Many friends who went straight into opera just didn’t make it or sustain the life. It was too much too soon. Especially with Baritones, you need time to develop. The voice needs time to develop and many of his colleagues come from many different backgrounds. He won’t be attempting Wagner until he is much older!!

Once again, we had many of our members tune in to a most enjoyable evening with two wonderful musicians. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. The feedback from our members was extremely appreciative. Thanks for that. See you next time for our final offering when we will be hearing from Lorna Anderson.

A Tindal

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