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5/29/08
Money Notes
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In the singing biz, they talk about money notes—the notes a singer hits that make your spine tingle, the ones that often get a singer hired in the first place. Are the first “money notes” you think of high notes? They’re pretty hard to ignore—this season at the Met, Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez have been wowing audiences with their high-note pyrotechnics. For me, the first money notes I think of are probably from “Sempre libera” (soprano high E-flat) and “Nessun dorma” (tenor high B).

But let’s talk for a moment about rich, juicy, resonant low notes—these are the money notes for basses and contraltos (and the occasional mezzo or baritone). I got thinking about this while happily anticipating René Pape’s three Met roles for the 2008-09 season (King Marke, Tristan; Hunding, Walkure; Fasolt, Rheingold) and Ewa Podles’s three U.S. appearances over the next nine months (Polinesso, Ariodante, San Francisco Opera; La Cieca, La Gioconda, Met; Azucena, Atlanta). You’ll want to beg, borrow, or steal to get tickets to any of these.

Low voices are great for communicating evil—which you can sample by listening to Iago’s “Credo” aria from Otello, sung by young baritone Ryan Kinsella. Low voices are also terrific for crazy or maniacal (Azucena, Jezibaba), or for adding a spiritual dimension, like Marfa in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, a mezzo role. I’ve also been listening to Sara Mingardo’s new Naïve aria CD of Monteverdi and Handel. Mingardo is billed as an alto, and in fact she sounds a lot like many countertenors who sing Baroque repertoire—a comparison that probably would not have occurred to me to make fifteen years ago. (The point of reference then might have been Marilyn Horne, though Mingardo’s more introverted personality and less brassy sound are nothing like Horne’s.) In fact, nature bestows a range like Mingardo’s on a small minority of female singers, and for that reason it can be an almost physical pleasure to let these sounds wrap around you. When Mingardo sings a Handel aria like “Pensier crudele,” the note that really gets your attention is the fruity C-sharp in the phrase “ch’il mio bel Tirsi”—not a high C-sharp, but the C-sharp just above middle C.

One of my all-time favorite CDs is a 1999 release called Basso Profondo, with the Orthodox Singers male choir, a Russian a cappella group with “oktavists”: super-low basses who sing an octave below the regular bass line in a program of Russian liturgical pieces like Chesnokov’s chiaroscuro tenors-versus-basses “Blessed is the man”; the recording also includes “God Save the Tsar” (yes, that tune you know from the 1812 Overture), with a few other up-tempo crowd-pleasers thrown in for good measure. The physical pleasure of hearing these astonishingly low notes goes beyond hearing them—you can actually feel them in your rib cage, the way you can when the lowest organ pipes are played.

The Chesnokov piece mentioned above I enjoy pretty much like a hit single (track 5, FYI). But I think the track that has been set most often on “repeat” on my iPod is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s “As With Rosy Steps the Morn,” from her 2004 Handel CD. It’s not ribcage-rattling, like many of the cuts on the Basso Profondo CD; this is more of a quiet, devotional prayer. There are many money notes for me in this aria, but if I had to pick just one it would be the last low F-sharp on “endless” in the phrase “Raise Thou our hopes of endless light,” as definitive a declaration of hope and faith as any I’ve ever heard.

So, what are your favorite money notes? High, low, or somewhere in between?

  • Tom Reingold

    I’m a bass and can sing most of those nearly-impossible notes. You have no idea how pleasurable it is to sing them with an ensemble and feel your body resonate. I don’t think there’s a way for anyone else to experience this exactly as a bass singer does.

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