Is Genius in The Creation or in The Performance?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011 - 12:00 AM

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)

More in:

Comments [5]

Michael Meltzer

We each have our favorite musical artists, who can be counted on to bring something special and unexpected to even the most tired warhorses and thrill us anew every time. That's not an issue, the issue is what to call it.
We are bombarded in the marketplace with superlatives that keep robbing everyday language of its original meaning. Go to buy canned olives, the smallest size is "large," and as you go up the scale, you find "giant," "mammoth," and "colossal." Small, medium, large and extra-large just won't do any more.
We tend now to use the word "talented" for any student able to learn and perform a piece of music of noticeable difficulty. However, we notice that many formerly "talented" students seem to "lose it" as they grow older and drift away from their teachers. If they have advanced far enough to reach professional status, this can be very sad.
The Russians have a useful definition, once explained to me by Georgian pianist Eteri Andjaparidze: "Talent is any ability, either so unique or so advanced, that is cannot be explained by any known educational process." That gets rid of a lot of "talented" folk right away.
If we do insist on using "talented" for any accomplishment of any kind, then we don't have many words left for accomplishment that is really creative or special. "Genius" becomes a handy descriptive. When I grew up, Einstein, Isaac Newton, Bach and Mozart Rembrandt and Salvador Dali were geniuses.
Now there is a genius around every corner, and standing ovations are the order of the day. I had a gifted high school English teacher who suggested, "Genius is an intellect which has totally mastered the language that has gone before it, then gone ahead to create a new language." Over the years I have found that definition to be limiting enough to actually be useful.
I think that the words "gifted" and "creative" are perfectly complimentary and usually serve the purpose very well, and would like to see our wonderful English language keep a sense of proportion.

Sep. 12 2011 01:32 AM
dennis monk from Annapolis

Different parts of the brain are involved in creating and performing, so we have a false dichotomy. The perception of genius is a matter of opinion, not fact.

Sep. 11 2011 12:06 PM
Adam Smith! from The Matrix

This is my first time commenting, but I would like to leave a little anecdote that may not be classical in nature, but it's appropriate none the less.

Michael Jackson was the singer on the Thriller album and everyone remembers him as the person who made that album. Little do people know that Quincy Jones was the man behind all that music which let Michael Jackson become famous for what he is. If it wasn't for Quincy Jones, the music for the Thriller album would not exist, but Michael Jackson's vocals added that extra layer of brilliance. I believe it's the chicken and egg argument. A composer can write a symphony, but it's the performers who bring it to life and every subsequent performer has to add their personal touch to it. You posted a blog about how four different performers handle the madness scene in Lucia Di Lammermoor. They all had their different interpretations as to do that scene. And to bring it back to the modern era. Quincy Jones will never get the credit he deserves for a lot of the stuff he did like The Italian Job and Sanford and Son, but the music is great nonetheless. You can stand in awe of the creation of such music, but it still requires you, as a performer, to bring it to life in any way you like. Some people may not like the way you do it, but your personal touch is always the way in which you see the music. Trent Reznor did an adaptation of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" in the way he knew how to do it and in this way he added an extra dimension in which he made it his own.

There's a lot to be said for the composers work, but anyone can interpret it anyway they like. Beethoven did it to Mozart. Mahler orchestrated Schumann. Reznor did to Grieg. It's all in the way you perform it.

Sep. 07 2011 10:38 PM

I think Arthur Schopenhauer's quote fits this discussion:....."Talent hits a target that no one else can hit; genius hits a target that no one else can see" -To that thought, I might add what Cilea imagined as Adriana Lecouvreur's perception as "the humble servant of the Genius". ...It seems that the ability of a composer to create wholly original work holds the possibility for genius in a way that a performer might not have. Mirella Freni's performance is emotive and creative in a different way and certainly without the talent of gifted artists who are able to see, understand and interpret a composer's vision, (in a way that no one else can), we would not hear that voice of genius. The ability to bring life to the notes and move us with the power of the human voice is thrilling and still amazes me, but I might reserve the word genius for another category of intellectual invention.

With that said, "genius" is a word without a definitive definition- so who am I to limit the field...I'm still open to other ideas-a topic to ponder.......I'm just happy that Adriana's voice is a breath which will now live another day on You Tube.

Sep. 07 2011 04:09 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

The genius of Cilea in creating that scene!

His Adriana is a great artist of the spoken theater . . . and a perfectionist. As we meet her, she is searching for just the right pacing and inflection for her spoken phrase "Tutti uscite! e ogni soglia sia chiusa all'audace," -- and there is, to be sure, gentle irony in that "Tutti uscite!" (from Adriana's place on the stage) as she delivers this heightened recitativo. We see that she works, hard, with her mind to achieve her end effects as a speaking actress . . .. and then what do we witness this speaking actress do? We witness her cast an irresistible, mesmerizing spell as she sings of her humility, and the ephemerality of her voice. Just *how* did this spoken word actress who, as we've seen, must work hard on her spoken lines, manage to seduce us with an aria prepared seemingly without effort and exquisitely sung? The soprano absolutely must match Cilea's genius with her own, or the scene is lost in performance. In my umile opinion, the genius of the scene is not wholly perceptible when the aria is excerpted out of it and sung, however prettily.

Sep. 06 2011 10:46 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Operavore


Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore