Great Singers Who Have Influenced Composers

The theatre going public is well acquainted with the modern practice of having a play tailored for some celebrated dramatic star. As a matter of fact the practice is as old as masks and wigs. Even in the earliest dramas the writers did not think it beneath themselves to take into account the peculiar talents of some of the performers at their disposal. Moliere made his dramatic clothing to fit himself, and who ever wrote the Shakespeare plays certainly had the histrionic measure of one Richard Burbage, actor, manager and painter who was so great in his day that he frequently felt warranted in stepping out of his roles and addressing the audience as Richard himself.

Few, however, have any idea how singers have inspired the composers of operas. When Handel was waging his famous opera war in London the potency of the singer was very clearly shown. Many of Handel’s roles were quite obviously written for Senesino and Carestini, male sopranos who were very popular at that time. Handel fared finely in his ventrues until the coming of the famous male soprano, Farinelli, whose art cured Philip V of Spain of melancholy and thereby won the singer an annual income of 50,000 francs. Farinelli was so exceptionally popular that, despite the fact that the operas of Handel were admittedly better than those of his rivals, Handel lost miserably.

Wagner was too “masterful” a composer to be seriously affected by either the talents or the limitations of a singer. While he was not altogether oblivious to them his scores were the despair of singers unaccustomed to his methods. However, few other composers have been able to write without having some successful interpreter in mind. Verdi certainly was influenced by the great art of Tamagno when he wrote Othello, and it is said that he frequently considered the talents of singers before the public in making other parts.

Massenet, however, openly declared many of his roles written for his favorite singers. Calve is said to have inspired him to write La Navarraise and Sapho, while Thais and Esclarmonde are supposed to have been written to fit the talents of the lovely Californian singer of the past generation, Sibyl Sanderson. Just how much the singers of the present day are affecting the opera composers is difficult to estimate. Certainly no singer can claim a special composer devoting the better part of his attention to her peculiar talents as for instance Sir James Barrie has apparently attended to the needs of our inimitable Maude Adams.