Aging Singers

Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 01:53 PM

Long live Placido Domingo! Last season, I got to hear him do Simon Boccanegra at the Met, which was a great lesson for singers one-third his age. My colleague Nimet Habachy, who heard him last week, said he still sings rings around most people.

It’s not unusual for instrumentalists to perform into their 70s and 80s (pianist Artur Rubinstein gave his last concert in public when he was 89!). But singers can rarely expect their careers to last that long. As a singer, your body is your instrument, but unlike a Steinway or a Stradivarius, it doesn’t improve with age. Through a combination of good genes and career choices, some singers (like Domingo) are the Energizer Bunnies of their profession; others crash and burn far too young (think Rolando Villazón).

One of the greatest musical experiences of my life was the Avery Fisher Hall recital that Victoria de los Angeles sang in 1985, celebrating the 40th anniversary of her debut. She was 61 at the time. And I heard tenor Hugues Cuénod make his debut at the Met as the Old Emperor in Turandot at the age of 85.

Knowing when to retire has to be the hardest thing for a singer to face. Beverly Sills stopped performing when she was 50, still at the top of her game, and went on to a whole new career as an arts advocate and administrator. But how many of us have gone to a performance by an aging diva/divo, only to emerge from it wishing that we had lived with our memories?


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Comments [19]

young opera lover

Gruberova and Devia are still singing. I really wish they'd retire.

Nov. 01 2014 08:22 AM
Michael Meltzer

Alumni of the New York Choral Society from 30 years ago remember Edgar LaMance as a popular assistant conductor, and I'm sure we'd all like to know where he's been, since.
Ed, if you read this, google "New York Choral Society Alumni" and link up with Judy Rubin for her newsletter. Be well.

Feb. 26 2011 04:18 PM
Douglas Berry

I remember when i saw the jazz singer Alberta Hunter in '79 i think it was, making a comeback tour after not singing for 25 years or so, she was in her seventies and was absolutely wonderful, still roaring out "my name's Alberta and i was born in a lion's den" . . .

Feb. 26 2011 03:24 PM
Edgar LaMance from Manhattan

We must remember the unique talents of Erna Berger (my favorite Gilda, with Warren and Peerce) Her sweet youthful soprano lasted into her 60s.

Feb. 26 2011 02:25 PM
Edward from Conn.

Check out classic Warner Brothers
cartoon from late 1940's, "Rhapsody in
Rivets"-choreographs construction of
"Umpire State Building" to Liszt's
Hungarian Rhapsody #2. The project manager with flowing white hair stands at a podium with "blueprints" (score) and conducts this wonderful musical cartoon.

Feb. 26 2011 09:10 AM

Just three comments: Alfredo Kraus, Alfredo Kraus and . . . Alfredo Kraus

Feb. 23 2011 11:56 AM
jake from Teterboro, NJ

you forgot to mention (or did I miss it) that the Prokofiev song was used by Sting in his song Russians (see:

Feb. 22 2011 04:14 PM
Phyllis Sharpe

My range was lyric soprano. E flat was a given. But since I wasn't professional and had 4 kids, singing was not my main focus. But retiring from a soprano in the choir was really tough. Alto was better. I finally heard the tenor and bass parts. But then at 60 my husband died and I have not sung since then except to my grandchildren. But music remains a joy, hearing becomes a gift.

Feb. 21 2011 07:47 PM
Cindy from Union Square

As I write these words, Placido Domingo is singing a romantic ballad, one originally popularized by the great singer/songwriter Carlos Gardel (who, some say practically invented the tango by himself). My love for Domingo (one my Mexican born husband shares with me) is grounded not only in his extraordinary craft and gifts, but in something else: he possesses an almost magical ability to 'shape shift', traveling the world, moving from singing to concerts, conducting to master classes, language to language, taking obvious delight in whatever he does. Not every musical performer can boast this. And, so...maybe staying stuck in one place, creatively can lead to hardening of the arteries, music-wise. Placido, to the contrary just stretches out and moves along. Bravo, maestro. Getting older? Pshaw! The old violins make the most exquisite music. Especially if the violin is a Domingo.

Feb. 21 2011 01:18 PM
Vincent Calabro

Sunday night while listening to From The Top, I was thoroughly enjoying a young couple who performed together, (They live in Hudson Valley, & he brews beer) the young lady sang and the young man played, I thought I recognized something about the tune/poem, then after the show it came to me.............Chuck Mangione - Land of Make Believe. Check it Out! Their performance was great, but the only thing different were the lyrics.

Feb. 20 2011 07:27 PM
Ted from Show Low, AZ

If they know how take care of their voices, they can sing forever. I saw Tito Schipa's farewell concert at Carnegie hall in 1962. He was 74. He had a light tenor voice and never forced. Gigli sounded great at 50 and was still singing opera well after that. Then there was Di Stefano, with a great voice for about ten years. He smoked, didn't cover his notes, sang questionable parts and did not take care of himself. What a terrible waste, but for those ten years, he was really something!

Feb. 19 2011 05:02 PM
Michael Meltzer

It isn't just stamina or fitness, some people experience with age a problem in their perception of intonation in the high register, and that's neurological. Their pitch way up there starts to drift. It happened to a soprano I know, and it happened to one of my favorite piano tuners. As John C. points out, a singer can still teach. A piano tuner is out of luck.

Feb. 19 2011 03:57 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

One of the problems of many classical singers, and opera singers in particular, is the lack of physical workout in gyms and running and power walking and yoga activities. Look at Ben Heppner, way way out of shape, unable to manage his breathing support. If one has the appropriate level of vocal technique for the repertoire one sings and uses common sense, one can sing beautifully under control with style and the maturity of experience that takes time to achieve. Timbre, the voice quality, IS the single most unique factor that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary.

Feb. 18 2011 07:31 PM
Lowe from New York

I think it is more about expectation than reality. If one goes to a concert to hear a 70 year old singer and expect to hear her/him sing as if still in their 30's we do a great dis service to the singer and the listener. A great musician always has someting to bring to the performance. If the top is tight or the bottom thin, too many breaths or the articulaion not what it once was there must be a reason this person is still singing. What is now there that was not when he/she was at the so called top of his game? Style, depth, understanding of the music may replace the perfect sound. Why was Schnable a beloved interperter of Beethoven yet he was not the perfect pianist?

Feb. 18 2011 08:51 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Yes, singers do age. But through a combination of proper coaching, the right selections and a small dose of reality from time to time, they can extend their carreers gracefully and still be sought after and well received.

But what about teaching? What I wouldn't give to attend vocal classes taught by a Domingo, Carreras or Alagna!!!!!

Feb. 18 2011 07:54 AM

I have the misfortune of remembering a beloved soprano at the Met back in the 80s. She was only in her early 50s, but she had the voice of an 90-year-old church lady who can't give up the choir ...

Feb. 18 2011 05:55 AM
mrs newman

Having come to serious opera listening in the '70s I was fortunate enough to have heard Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras live (as well as Bergonzi, Vickers and others). As time has gone by and I reflect on the past I laugh to myself remembering the number of times I heard, "Domingo is done! He should never have sung...fill in the blank..."

He's been my favorite tenor for 40 years and, please God, 40 more!

Feb. 17 2011 05:10 PM
Arden Anderson-Broecking from Connecticut

Naomi, I say three cheers for Maestro Domingo! I am a singer who made the decision to stop performing when, "as a very famous singer said,when asked why she retired,"it didn't feel right." Physical stamina plays a large part in how long a singer can continue, especially when it comes to sustaining an opera role. Even if the vocal technique is solid, and the voice is well-trained, sometimes you just have to know when to stop. I think this happens more frequently to the higher voices, both male and female. I "bought" several extra years because I was physically able to sing without losing the necessary strength and energy required to produce the sound. Performing is glorious, but it is stressful! In the later years, I have become a published music critic, and it is very painful to note in print, however gently, that perhaps it is time for a singer to stop, or to make radical changes of repertoire. I highly recommend dance training, particularly the Graham technique to my voice students as a way to build the body strength and the breathing mechanism that will help that person to work longer. Yoga is also a way to stay strong and master any breathing problems. All that being said, dear friends, there still comes that moment when we have to say to ourselves (preferably before someone else does,) "Well done, take your laurels and rest on them!"

Feb. 17 2011 03:21 PM

Aging singers are like aging DJs....( they just get better with time) Do you ever feel like an energizer Bunny Naomi?

Feb. 17 2011 02:58 PM

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