One of the most rewarding parts of my life is my work at Juilliard. There I have met some extraordinary artists and given them projects that let them shine. NYFOS audiences have been lucky enough to hear many of these beautiful singers over the years—Paul Appleby, Julia Bullock, Theo Hoffman, Miles Mykkanen, Sasha Cooke—a dazzling list that goes on and on. This year I am working with an especially gifted crop of students. Among them is Erik van Heyningen, a wonderful baritone, smart as a whip, and (like me) fascinated by the history of singing. He has taken to labeling himself a bass-baritone just so that he doesn’t get lumped in with the brighter, higher voices who simply label themselves “baritone” and sing a lighter repertoire. Erik has a deep, sturdy timbre, but also a killer upper range. Given the dark, burly quality of his voice lower down, his thrilling interpolated high Ab in the “William Tell” aria always takes me by surprise. As, no doubt, it is intended to.
I do my best to educate this very sophisticated guy. Like all young artists, he’s caught between trying to fit into the conventional operatic mold, and trying to forge his own voice, his own art. The other day he asked me about other baritones who sounded like him. I thought for a bit and came up with a few names, including the French singer Ernest Blanc. I’ve known Blanc’s voice a long time because he is the Escamillo on Victoria de los Angeles’ Carmen, which I bought when I was 12. I love the perfect combination of bite and mellowness in Blanc’s timbre, always the critical pH of vocal beauty for me. (Ring vs. color, projection vs. richness—these are some other ways of describing the same thing.) Blanc’s voice reminds me, appropriately enough, of a French horn. Concentrated and penetrating, but cushioned. Lots of ring at the top, and lots of sexy warmth lower down in the range.
I didn’t know how a 24-year old singer would react to this old-fashioned sound. But I knew Erik would listen when I sent him a link to the Ernest Blanc retrospective CD on Spotify (that motherlode of treasures for people obsessed with singing). I needn’t have worried. He went nuts for it—finally, a voice he could identify with, someone who sang with class, musicianship, a legato line from heaven, and diction so clear you can take dictation from it. “This is GORGEOUS singing,” he wrote me. I breathed a sigh of relief, as if I’d passed a test.
Here is Ernest Blanc’s 1961 recording of the aria from Lakmé, “Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile.” Technically immaculate, tonally opulent, musically impeccable.
And if you’re not into Delibes’ music, here’s the Toreador Song from 1959 from that famous Carmen recording. I like it too—very much—and am only disturbed by the fact that at the end of the second verse, when the women interrupt his song with their come-ons, “L’amour-l’amour-l’amour,” his first two responses are seriously out of tune. I can only imagine all the voice coaches who must have pounded those notes over and over again, to no avail. A tiny and somehow lovable blemish on an artist I admire.