Songs may sound simple, but are probably harder to sing than opera arias

There are no sets or costumes, just a bare stage, a piano, and an expectant audience when a singer walks out to sing an art song.

Out of a series of musical phrases and vowels, he or she needs to conjure a whole world of meaning, down to the smallest gasp and breath and blink of an eye.

When a master like Susan Graham does it, as she did so magnificently at Koerner Hall last Saturday, it all looks so effortless, so natural. Yet there’s nothing natural or easy about it.

That is the height of the great art of the singer.

I was reminded of it this afternoon, as I listened to two talented young singers presenting pale versions of art song in recital.

I was also reminded of a chat I had with Renée Fleming a couple of years ago, where she talked about how the singer’s art — the ability to truly and fully express what their ears would like to hear — moves forward at a seeming snail’s pace over the years.

It’s often only at the point where the voice is just past its peak that the artist begins to feel like they really have a handle on this delicate craft.

I can’t think of a better example of what I’m talking about than a snippet from series of masterclasses given in 1961 by the legendary Lotte Lehmann, who retired in 1951, and died in 1976, at the age of 88.

Here is “Sonntag” by Johannes Brahms. The young singer is Jeannine Wagner (still a member of the Dominant Club of musicians in Los Angeles). For details on the VAI DVDs of Lehmann’s masterclasses, click here.

John Terauds


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