A famous soprano recently posted on her Facebook page her concerns about how the age limit of 35, often set as the cut-off date for entering vocal competitions, is prejudicial towards singers who mature late in their vocal development. Below follows a short list of ten great singers – five mezzo-sopranos, five basses all of which made their professional debut before the age of 30.

Mezzo-sopranos: Rise Stevens – Born 1913. Debut: 1936, Age 23; Giulietta Simionato – Born: 1910. Debut: 1928, Age 18; Fedora Barbieri – Born: 1920. Debut: 1940, Age 20; Fiorenza Cossotto – Born: 1935. Debut: 1957, Age 22; Marilyn Horne – Born: 1934. Debut: 1956, Age 22.

Basses: Feodor Chaliapin – Born: 1873. Debut: 1894, Age 21; Hans Hotter – Born: 1909. Debut: 1947, Age 28; Italo Tajo – Born: 1915. Debut: 1935, Age 20; Jerome Hines – Born: 1921. Debut: 1926, Age 21; Cesare Siepi – Born: 1923. Debut: 1941, Age 28.

In our day a young singer of 24 or 25, having gone through the rigors of a BM degree in a major conservatory, most often followed by a Master’s program in which he or she gets stage experience and intensive vocal training, has a good shot at an operatic career by joining one of the many young artist programs that exist in the United States.

Most of these programs will not welcome with open arms a singer in his 30’s, and yet, a singer over the age of 30 should not be shut out of a vocal competition if his or her voice and talent merit his or her participation. But voice competitions are not always examples of fairness and infallibility on the part of their organizers and judges.

It’s interesting to note that none of the ten singers listed below, all having made their debuts earlier than 1957 and as early as 1894, went through the current journey of Bachelor of Music, Master of Music, and often even Artist Diploma. Each one of them basically got their start in Europe (except Jerome Hines) and most started singing in their birth countries, apart from Jerome Hines who had a matured bass voice in his teens, and Marilyn Horne who – after training with William Vennard (voice teacher) and Ernest St. John Metz (coach), began her career singing soprano roles in small houses in Germany.

But today the Opera business is an entirely different one from the one of the 1950’s through the 1970’s. While fifty years ago, the way to have a career in Opera was to move to Germany and enter the audition circuit, hoping to land a contract, today there are many other ways to start a career in Opera.

Some of the friends whom I knew as we were all starting our journeys in the music business followed different paths. Tenor Henry Price worked hard and was patient. When he got his first major professional break at the New York City Opera at age thirty, he was more than ready for the wonderful career that followed. By contrast, baritone Allan Titus began singing professionally at age 25, but by the time he got his first assignments at City Opera, six years of singing too much too soon had taken their toll.

Others, like soprano Barbara Daniels (who was a wonderful lyric mezzo-soprano while at CCM in the late 1960’s) sang a steady diet of soprano roles – some lyric (Musetta), some heavier (Minnie) not ever settling into a repertoire ideally suited to her voice. By contrast, the peerless mezzo-soprano D’Anna Fortunato knew from the very start of her career than she had the ideal voice for Handel and Bach and for the trouser roles of Mozart. Adding to that her enormous gifts for the song repertoire, she enjoyed a great four-decade American career.

Each of the singers mentioned took a different career path, and each achieved different results.

The good news is that a great many voice teachers of my acquaintance – Amy Johnson, Daniel Weeks, Kenneth Shaw, Quinn Patrick Ankrum, Elliot Madore, Karen Lykes, Gwenn Coleman, and Stuart Skelton have been in the business of singing for quite some time and know with certainty how to guide their students in the right direction. And that – a good teacher – is the best safety net there is to help young hopefuls get the right start on their journeys.

Rafael de Acha © 2022

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