San Francisco — ``I can't tell you how happy I am that I am not a young person having to try to make a career under the circumstances that exist today,'' says Wagnerian opera star Thomas Stewart. ``The competition is unbelievable.'' Mr. Stewart, who is appearing at Carnegie Hall tomorrow night with his wife, soprano Evelyn Lear, in a concert version of Strauss's ``Capriccio,'' is acknowledged as one of America's finest Wagnerian singing actors.
He is not by nature a grumbler. But in his long career he has watched colleagues come and go, seen talent of great promise pushed too quickly, and observed the entire art form of opera change from one where love of singing was valued to one where money, profits, and a fundamental lack of respect for the singer's art are at the fore. It's seen, he explains, in the type of entertainment popular today.
``I'm firmly convinced that we, as human beings, in every facet of our lives, are being desensitized so horribly. Anything that requires you to have a fine touch, or a fine ear, or to be aware of something happening inside of you -- those things are being manhandled. That is the reason the world has become so violent. All forms of entertainment . . . look for the startling, the shocking. It's screamed at you.''
In opera houses all over the world, he observes, singing that verges on screaming -- with young or small voices pushed into heavy roles -- is becoming a regular experience.
Stewart says he and Miss Lear cut their operatic teeth at a time when young singers were still nurtured, not exploited. Yet when young singers seek him out for guidance, he doesn't dwell on the good old days. ``The other times are gone,'' he says.
``My advice to young singers today? If you are not blessed [with a legendary voice], a singer has got to be sharp, to know how to move around the stage; has got to know what it means to say something to an audience, not just as a singer but as a performer; has got to learn, in addition to his vocal talents, theatrical talent.''
Both Stewart and Lear established themselves quickly as impressive singers and actors at a time when operatic histrionics were still limited to a few select gestures and expressively bent elbows.
Stewart, with a year at Juilliard (where he met Lear), won a prestigious contract with the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1954; but he wasn't up to the demands, he concedes, and was not asked back. Ironically, it was a trip to Europe in 1958 -- a last stab at performing, intended to round out their r'esum'es for teaching positions they sought -- that ignited their careers.
The couple was chosen to open a new opera at the new German Opera House in West Berlin. The work was soon forgotten, but the performers were not. Within a few seasons, both careers were flourishing in Europe, with Stewart doing all the standard baritone roles, from Don Giovanni to Rigoletto.
One night, conductor Herbert von Karajan heard him sing Iago in Verdi's ``Otello'' and invited him to the play Wotan in Richard Wagner's ``Ring of the Nibelung,'' which von Karajan was undertaking at the Salzburg Festival. From there, Stewart went on to become the most sought-after Wagnerian baritone of the day, singing the ``Ring'' cycle at Bayreuth (where he has done most of the major and some lesser roles), in Vienna, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He has recorded the ``Walk"ure'' and ``Siegfried'' Wotans; Dutchman; Amfortas (``Parsifal''); Telramund (``Lohengrin''); and song recitals.
Today Stewart is delivering the sort of performances that come only from experience and maturity. Last June, he triumphed as the wanderer Wotan in Wagner's ``Siegfried'' in the San Francisco Opera's acclaimed new ``Ring'' cycle. Last fall, the same company offered Aribert Reimann's ``Lear'' with Stewart repeating the role he created in the United States four seasons earlier.
``I never worked on anything so hard in my 30 years in this profession -- and at that late point in my career!'' he says. ``If you take a lot of the junk I did in Berlin in the early years -- one role more uninteresting than the next -- `Lear' is the only one that really stands out.''
He recently finished playing Hans Sachs in Wagner's ``Die Meistersinger'' with the Lyric Opera in Chicago. And he and Miss Lear just finished a series of recitals in California.
Lear, Sachs, Falstaff, and Golaud in Debussy's ``Pell'eas et M'elisande'' are his cherished roles. ``I probably would be put in a big crisis again if somebody asked me to do [Golaud] somewhere, because I would want to -- and probably would, even though I've promised myself not to sing so much, to take it easy, not to drive as much as I used to.'' He notes that the opera is not done as often as it should be, because today's audiences expect more obvious situations than the ethereal shadows of Debussy's opera.
Why, he is asked, are today's young singers not giving more thought to vocal longevity, to taking care of their instruments?
``They don't have time to think about these things,'' Stewart says. ``The pressures are so great, so quick; the competition is so strong, you look for any way to get to where you want to get in a hurry, because you know you've got to get there before the next guy, who's right behind you -- and the 10 others right behind him.
Should institutions somehow learn to become responsible for the proper use of young talent? ``The idea is wonderful, but how are you going to know that the people in those institutions know what they're doing?''
And what about the voice teachers today? ``Every day, more and more charlatans prey on the insecurities of every singer . . . . Because of the education system we have in this country, where you go through a university, you can get a bachelor-of-music degree. You don't have to have any talent at all to get it.
``It's easy to set yourself up as a voice teacher,'' he continues with a note of frustration and sadness. ``You can't make a voice. You can destroy it; you can make it more beautiful; you can make it more effective, by learning other things. But you cannot make a voice. . . . You are either a good singer, or a lousy singer. And if you are a lousy singer, you can maybe, if you are bright enough, and smart enough, and shrewd enough . . . make people not aware of your shortcomings as a singer. And a lot of times you will become a great performer and you will please the people listening to you.
His advice to young singers? ``Trust your instincts. Get to know them and become intimate with them. That's the only thing that will help you.''