As I was in Europe for the first week of the Olympics this year, I was in the right time zone to catch a lot of the events on TV in between stops on our concert tour. Even though I’m not really a huge sports fan, I’ve been fascinated (like most of the world) with the Olympics since I was a kid. There is something utterly awe-inspiring watching the extraordinary feats a human body can accomplish. Whether it’s watching someone swimming or running faster than one can imagine, or doing the most intricate series of twists and backflips flying through the air after having jumped off a 10-meter platform into the water, watching what these athletes are able to do with their bodies never ceases to amaze me.
There is an element of this kind of athleticism and jaw-dropping physical virtuosity to opera, as well. All musicians at the highest levels train just as vigorously as these Olympic athletes do, we must in order to achieve the same level of mastery that these athletes must achieve in order to make it to the Olympic level of competition. I know that the stereotype about singers is that we are all fat ladies wearing breastplates and carrying spears. And, yes, in some cases, that stereotype holds true. But singers, just like all humans, come in all shapes and sizes, and just like these athletes, our bodies are our instruments. The physical demands required of any singer to project their voice over a 150 piece orchestra into a 2000 – 4000 seat theater without any amplification all while running around on stage are quite strenuous. So, like athletes, singers must train like athletes in order to perform the amazing feats that are performed on stages like the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and the Royal Opera House. I just can’t help but see the similarities when watching the Olympics, and I think that this is a large part of what makes going to the opera so exciting. I think of it as vocal figure skating or gymnastics – we watch people dressed up in costumes, moving around to music, waiting to see if they will land their vocal equivalent of a triple axle or double back flip.
One of the most “Olympic” singers alive today is Cecilia Bartoli. She is capable of doing the most amazing things with her voice. Her vocal range is extraordinary, allowing her to sing many soprano roles as well as lower mezzo-soprano roles. She jumps back and forth from the bottom to the top of her range with ease, has phenomenal breath control that allows her to sustain phrases seemingly endlessly, and perhaps can sing faster than anyone else on the planet. Here are a couple of videos that show case all of that – the first is her performing Fiordiligi’s first aria from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, and the second is her performing Cinderella’s final aria from Rossini’s telling of the familiar fairy tale. You’ll hear a lot of the virtuosic athleticism I’m talking about here – when I listen to her, I never cease to marvel “Wow…humans can do that…”
Watching the final of the Men’s Gymnastics High Bar competition the other day, I found that I was holding my breath as I watched the Dutch gymnast, Epke Zonderland, literally fly around the high bar as if he had been born to spin and float around the apparatus as he won the gold medal in that event.
As I watched, I strangely found myself thinking of this video of Cecilia Bartoli singing the Vivaldi aria, “Agitata da due venti.” Somehow, both make my jaw drop in the same way, and I continue to marvel “Wow…a human can do that…”
Nicholas is one of the featured soloists on “L’Olimpiade,” a new Baroque pastiche based on a libretto by Metastasio set during the ancient Greek Olympic Games, that was released in May of this year and is available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.