The Swan on the Spit

About Carmina Burana, New Year’s 2014, great Festspielhaus, Salzburg

“You spend half of your life waiting for nothing.” This saying of one of my colleagues at the Tyrol Festival in Erl, 2012, has stayed with me every time I think of Carmina Burana.

In operas, as in concerts, some tenor parts are an enormous challenge because of their shortness. One example is the ‘singer’ in Strauss’ ‘Rosenkavalier’; another is Carmina Burana’s ‘swan’. To begin with, you sit on the stage for an hour and a half listening to your busy soloist colleagues, the soprano and the baritone. You have already been observed by the curious audience asking themselves either: “What is he doing there?” or “How will he manage this part?” Finally, you get up and sing for two short minutes. You start in one of the highest range of pitches for a Mozart tenor part, but then you have to go even higher, to high D, without any chance of hiding behind the sizzling noise of the orchestra. This is the school of ‘life in the present’ for tenors.

Orff may have composed this part so highly pitched intentionally, hoping that the tenor would struggle and, therefore, sound despicable. After all, the swan describes how he will be grilled on the spit and served to a snarling pack of teeth. But nobody wants to embarrass themself and sing as horribly as would be necessary to sound this despicable, and instead takes the trouble to hit the tones in grand style. Without knowing it you might even become Orff’s partner in crime, who could have counted on the vanity of tenors to give this miserable creature a beautiful and elegant voice.

My thanks go to Elisabeth Fuchs and all participants for two wonderful concerts in the great concert hall in Salzburg.

Addendum: My beloved and wonderful colleague, Valda Wilson, pointed out to me that the soprano has to wait even longer than the swan for her entry, but considering her grace and beauty I think nobody in the audience questions her presence.