A County Kerry Operatic Tenor
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County Kerry has many titles to fame apart from its famous natural and archæological beauties. Its famous men include O'Connell, a whole school of poets, of which O'Rahilly is the best known; scholars like Father Dineen, and at least one dramatist of genius, George Fitzmaurice. But we had no great singer in the European sense that we could boast of Catherine [p.438] Hayes , though a near neighbour, was not entirely ours, and the most famous of present-day Irish singers comes from the midlands. But even he was no operatic singer. I have heard MacCormack sing exquisitely in Don Giovanni, in Rigoletto, in Traviata, but he was no actor, and it was only when he took to singing Schubert and Cæsar Franck, when he accepted his limitations, that those who had followed his career with interest felt themselves justified. One wondered at the same time whether Ireland was always going to be incapable of producing an operatic singer of the first rank. Which was a depressing thought for anyone who liked opera — I often wished to the Lord I could be an operatic tenor myself! However, I need not have worried. For, as I discovered only recently, an Irish operatic tenor of the very first rank has been singing triumphantly in the most heroic roles in France and Italy since before the war. And he is a Kerryman. Except for occasional performances by the Elster Grime Company in Tralee it is probable that no opera was ever heard in County Kerry. And yet here is John Sullivan from Killarney having William Tell, which had to be laid aside for want of a tenor capable of singing it, revived for him at Naples for the first time since Tamagno last sang it in 1889.
Stendhal, in his life of Rossini, says that no man in the world of music had done the Napoleonic thing or achieved Napoleonic fame before the Pesaro composer. And, of course, of Rossini's operas, William Tell is the most Napoleonic and the tenor role of Arnold is the most Napoleonic he ever wrote. Sullivan has been singing the role during the present opera season here in Paris and the French press and the correspondents of the foreign press have been full of accounts of the astonishing feats that the composer asks his tenor to perform and the ease with which Sullivan performs them. I went to the first night of the revival when, not Sullivan, but a charming French light tenor tried to sing the part. But alas, this delightful Romeo, Alfredo, Don José, etc., merely hurt himself, and though the audience was kind and the most difficult parts were cut out, it was only too evident that he was very far from being Rossini's Arnold. The party I was with left before his aria in the fourth act, the famous Asile Hereditaire, for, as one of them remarked, "One doesn't want to see the poor fellow butchering himself for nothing." And, as a matter of fact, it is said that he had to go to bed for three weeks after. The next time the opera was sung Sullivan took the rôle of Arnold — and without cuts or transpositions. It is said to include heaven knows how many B flats and C naturals and actually two C sharps. But the extraordinary thing about Sullivan's taking of these notes was that he sang them without any sign of effort whatever, with full musical tone, and as if he could, if he chose, go as much higher as any Rossini that ever was, might want him to. There was no loss whatever of musical quality when he soared into these altitudes. I remember hearing Caruso in Aïda and, astonishing as the voice was, it was clear that he was making a tremendous effort in certain passages. One felt that the blood vessel that, in the end, did burst, might burst at any moment — and felt uncomfortable accordingly. Sullivan sings this terrifying role as easily as MacCormack sang Alfredo. Indeed the higher he went the stronger the voice became and the easier one felt. Small wonder if, after Asile Hereditaire the house shouted itself hoarse. I have been going to the Paris opera on occasion for nearly ten years and regularly for the last three years, and never in that time have I seen a singer carry that most sophisticated of audiences as completely away. There were a few Irishmen in the audience. Artists and poor scholars, not official people of course. In Ireland more than in most countries we are used to neglecting or abusing our artists while they are living and canonising them after they are dead. More than in most countries I say because in other countries even if officialdom be stupid an occasional rich person shows some signs of intelligence. If John Sullivan had been an ltalian the Italian ambassador would have been present and given a party at the embassy afterwards to which all the amateurs of Paris would have been invited and have it made clear to them that Italy was the only country in the world which could produce great tenors. And the Italian impressarios would have made it clear to the New York and Chicago opera authorities that this tenor must sing for them, but could not possibly sing for less than five thousand dollars a night. And the musical prestige of Italy would have gained accordingly. And quite right too. Our Irish naïvete in these matters has ceased to be charming, it is culpable. However, Parisian audiences are generous to foreigners and the Irish in the audience who included Mr. Padraic Colum and Mr. James Joyce — the latter knows as much about operatic singing as any man living and, if not a Kerryman, is a great-nephew of O'Connell — it was he who first told me about Sullivan and convinced me by putting the Sullivan record of the Esultate from Otello on the gramophone — the Irish, as they came out, could felicitate each other on having been able to sit back and enjoy a countryman's triumph. We did not have to applaud, the rest of the audience was doing more than our share for us. Indeed, as Irishmen, we felt as if part of the applause was for ourselves!
Paul Valéry gives what he recognises to be an inadequate definition of beauty as something that puts man "au dessus de sa nature," higher than himself. Certainly Rossini and Sullivan together go higher than themselves in every sense of the word in William Tell and they carried the Parisian audience with them. The opera itself, though, so extraordinarily difficult, is as full of melody as any of Rossini's operas. But it is a simpler, austerer, nobler melody than in his earlier works. And, of course, the subject is heroic. And Sullivan acts as heroically as he sings. If that national opera house of which Mr. Frank O'Connor and Mr. Diarmuid Foley have been writing in the Irish Statesman should ever materialise in the new Ireland no work would be so appropriate to inaugurate it with as William Tell . And since there is practically no other tenor living who can sing it, it is obvious that John Sullivan would have to be there too. Even if it be only Sir Thomas Beecham's British scheme that materialises for Dublin, subscribers ought to try to get the famous impressario to have Sullivan over to sing the role, to sing every heroic role whether it be in Otello , Aida or Les Huguenots — a preposterous opera but with a tenor part that is even more exhausting than the part of Arnold, and in which Sullivan had an even greater triumph than ever last Monday night. He is a fine Romeo, a fine Lohengrin, but it is not as a dreamy interpreter of romantic roles that his qualities show best. There is nothing twilight-ish, Celtic or Germanic about him, and it is in William Tell , that colossal opera on the subject of a people's political independence, that this Kerry tenor leaves even the best Italians who sing for dollars in America on a level as far below him as Verdi, for instance, is below Rossini.