The "Babbino" Bunch
The small and lovely Salt Marsh Opera will present Puccini's comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi on May 16 at the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT. You should go see it! The gorgeous aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" was written for this work, which premiered in 1918.
You've heard that song, right? Such a beautiful, simple yet elegant melody. Lush, emotional strings support the singer throughout. It's easy to dress it up with a few tasteful portamenti, and a fermata here and there. It's been used in commercials and in the opening credits of the movie of E.M. Forster's A Room With A View. My favorite version is by Kiri Te Kanawa. Her voice is rich and round, just perfect for this aria. Feel free to disagree, my eight blog readers. But I'm right. Anna Netrebko's pretty great, too. Kathleen Battle's voice is smaller (like mine) and her mouth does weird stuff (a source of much discussion among voice teachers), but it's a heartfelt, artistic statement.
The English translation is "Oh, My Beloved Daddy." Gianni Schicchi's daughter Lauretta is begging her father to let her marry Mr. Right. "O Mio Babbino Caro" was the second aria my voice teacher Prof. Hickfang ever gave me, and I loved it instantly. What soprano wouldn't? All those octave leaps from A flat to A flat, all those delicious long notes practically sighing off the page, all those threats of suicide if Daddy won't let her get married! I think my teacher assigned me the aria so I could work on my Italian diction, and get an introduction to grand opera style. The A flats were easy for me to sing. Of course my baby diva voice didn't have the fullness or richness of an actual Lauretta onstage. I sighed with despair when I heard Te Kanawa's version, figuring I'd never sound even half as good or half as loud. I never actually performed it or used it for an audition in high school or college; I was no Lauretta and it was just a study aria for me. (The first aria Prof. Hickfang assigned me was "The Black Swan" from Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, an aria I never really liked from an opera I never really understood. Feel free to agree.)
Through the glories of YouTube I found a "Babbino" by Maria Callas, using an amazing amount of chest voice, as she was wont to do. La Divina can get away with it. If the desperate maiden is pushing 50, chest voice is appropriate and adds a certain note of verismo.
It's trickier if the maiden is 9. "O Mio Babbino Caro" is now a staple for the Infant Diva who wants to audition for talent shows, but can't belt. (Dear Lord, it's like all talent shows are down to two acts: "Let It Go" and "O Mio Babbino Caro"!) The attractions of the aria remain the same: High notes, easy Italian, quick song. But most of the baby divas I've heard sing it on YouTube try to imitate Te Kanawa and other adult women in all the wrong ways -- they add chest voice to be able to hit the low notes, bunch up their tongues in the backs of their mouths, move their bent arms stiffly like mannequins, and add wobbly vibrato to try to sound more grown up. Some hear "The Voice Of An Angel" who is blooming early like an azalea; I hear a singer whose career will be over before she can drive.
Vocalists who have learned to sing without constriction and distortion will eclipse them. The only exception to this rule is Sarah Brightman, who commits all these vocal crimes and still seems to be able to put food on the table. I can't explain Sarah. I can't explain why the dinosaurs died, either, but as with Sarah's approach to Puccini, it was tragic.
I believe this is the fate that awaits Jackie Evancho, who sang the song she called 'O Mio Poppino Caro' on TV as a fourth grader. It might come even more swiftly for Amira Willinghagen, Holland's strangle-throated answer to Jackie, who was America's answer to Charlotte Church, who was England's answer to Deanna Durbin, who was singing the heroic tenor aria "Nessun Dorma" in English at age 22, on film. At least Deanna sang the hell out of it, and was wearing something larger than a training bra. She also had the good sense to retire in her mid-20s and live on as a legend until her death last year.
I've actually coached a nine year old who chose "O Mio Babbino Caro" for -- of course -- a talent show. Like Jackie, she had no idea where the song came from, who was actually singing it in the opera, or how old that character was. She had heard lots of versions of the aria on YouTube and was imitating Jackie's bad traits, and internalizing them. So, I did some reprogramming. I insisted on natural vibrato only, and only very light chest voice on the lowest notes. I kept encouraging a light, age-appropriate head voice and an unaffected presentation. She won second place.
I'm looking forward to Salt Marsh Opera's production, and enjoying the aria in context. I admit, there's something about Puccini that brings out the opera singer in everyone, and sometimes they just can't be stopped. Here, the maiden looks a lot like Chris Tucker and sings a perfectly fine amateur countertenor.
Oh gosh, that was funny. I loved the predictably fatuous pronouncements by the judges. I loved the ending. I loved that it was over.