Is Genius in The Creation or in The Performance?

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Just when Facebook seemed to be not much more than videos of cute cats, dogs and babies, or rants against stupid politicians, its true worth was revealed. I had posted a fascinating interview with Ian McKellen and it seems that the excellent singer Susanne Mentzer read it and posted a quotation from it. That led to a conversation on Facebook about McKellen’s comment as to who is the real creator is in the performing arts. Susanne (who will figure prominently in a blog post in a couple of months), Margaret Lattimore and I got into a rich discussion to which other people chimed in.

If you read my blog with any consistency, you know it is my preference to say that singers can be born with a pretty voice, face or personality, but that is not enough to make an opera singer. The gifts I mentioned certainly help (especially the voice) but I am looking for an opera singer who is an artist. Both Lattimore and Mentzer are artists who also take time now to teach the fundamentals of singing and, I would expect, do what they can to convey the artistry they find within themselves. Here are highlights from our discussion:

Susanne Mentzer: Sir Ian McKellen: ..."But I'm only an actor. I'm not a writer. I'm not going to leave any legacy." He pauses. "All I've ever done is learn the lines and say them." Like singers...

Fred Plotkin: Susanne, when I read McKellen's comments I thought how much pleasure, insight and meaning I have gotten from actors and singers who take material that was written and made it something. This from someone (me) who faces the blank piece of paper or computer screen every day of my life with the same challenges. I know from my speaking career that there is a thrill to appearing live before audiences that cannot come from writing. But the writing, for better or worse, is there forever. Such a conundrum.

Margaret Kerrins Lattimore: There is something to this though Fred. As singers we always get to work with brilliant material that ALREADY exists. No matter how well we could ever sing Strauss...WE DIDN'T WRITE IT. This is wonderfully humbling and something I remind myself and my students of daily. My teacher often said, "Yeah, as a great singer maybe you'll get a dessert or chicken dish named after you....all in all, I'd rather be Mozart."

Fred Plotkin: Margaret, The challenge of creating "great material" is daunting. I won't say that I always have, but I am aware when I have done something that nails it. It does not come around very often and it might be something that gets absolutely no feedback or recognition, while something more commercial, mainstream or easily achieved might become popular. I learned a long time ago to never write with the notion that it will be successful but simply "bleeding on the page" as we writers gruesomely say. And then rewriting and rewriting what we have written.

Writing is rewriting. And if we are creating words to be spoken or sung by others, it is often stunning how different (and often better) they sound when rendered by someone who has that talent. So a Strauss, Mozart or Verdi, with active creativity and a high level of achievement, are astonishing. They had an opposite problem to what I posit: what they heard as they wrote the music may sometimes have not been up to snuff when performed. Take Verdi's first Violetta, for example.

Margaret Kerrins Lattimore: So true Fred, but that you create something from nothing is still is so amazing to me. As the daughter of an English professor, I write articles and essays often just for myself and even then I write and rewrite and no one will even read it but me! LOL. When I read a great book, study a Renoir or sing an incredible piece of music I just marvel at how from a blank page someone toiled and yes "bled" on the page to make something so amazing. The opening of the Bach B Minor NEVER fails to leave me in absolute awe!

Susanne Mentzer: when singers took themselves too seriously I always have I thought, heck, we did not have to invent the material. I am in awe of those who create and it is our duty as artists to only interpret but do what they took painstaking time to put on the page -- both composers and librettists/poets.

Margaret Kerrins Lattimore: That's why as a young singer whenever I took myself too seriously or got a bit full of myself my teacher was there always to gently remind me, "Hey, honey get over yourself. You didn't write it." She was always and continues to be so wonderfully humbled by the music and I am so grateful that I was taught that kind of reverence at a young age. It's that respect for composers and their genius that completely informs my approach to the work and something I try desperately to pass on. I am constantly saying, "This is the road map they left us and we HAVE to follow it. You can't do YOUR version of that word. You have to sing the word! They did not set this text randomly ya know???"

Margaret Kerrins Lattimore: ...I do feel a distinct lack of respect or reverence for tradition and composers in young people these days. It all seems to be about star-making and image and it does make me more than a little sad.

[Others weigh in at this point]

Charles Ward: From the viewpoint of a listener, I am very grateful for all the struggles, inflations, deflations, dead ends and more that people who create 'art' go through to provide the rest of us such aural pleasure, emotional stirrings, intellectual challenges, etc. 

John Trout: Let's not forget, it depends on musicians to make these glorious works exist. Without us, all the wonderful masterpieces of opera, song, chamber music and symphony would be only notes on a page, and no more "music" than a blueprint of a house is a home.


I was about to post a link to an aria I thought might address the question of the moment when Phyllis Treigle wrote from New Orleans and simply said, “Io son l’umile ancella del Genio creator...” We both had the same idea. This aria, from Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, has the title character (a grand actress) explaining that she is but a hand-maiden to high art, to the genius creator.

Here are the Italian lyrics and English translation (from a Web site called Opera Cat’s Journal) with a few tweaks of mine:

Io son l’umile ancella
I am the humble servant

del Genio creator:
of the Genius that creates:

ei m’offre la favella,
it offers me speech,

io la diffondo ai cor . . .
I spread it to your hearts . . .

Del verso io son l’accento,
I am the intonation of the verse,

l’eco del dramma uman,
the echo of the human drama,

il fragile strumento,
the fragile instrument,

vassallo della man . . .
vassal of the hand . . .

Mite, gioconda, atroce,
Gentle, joyous, terrible,

mi chiamo Fedeltà,
my name is Faithfulness,

un soffio è la mia voce,
my voice is a breath,

che al nuovo dì morrà.
which will die with the new day.

In the video you will see and hear Mirella Freni. I must wonder whether the genius you will experience came in the person who created this exquisite aria or also in the person who is able to use all of her talents and inner life to make it so much more than words you music? You decide: 

Having read this post and listened to this performance, weigh in as to whether creative genius resides exclusively in those who write words and music, or also in those who speak or sing these words and music. And are there different types of genius? What defines each?

Photo credits: Harry Helliotis (Margaret Lattimore), Marty Umans (Susanne Mentzer)