There has been a tremendous effort in opera of late to find a niche for young up-and-coming singers with terrific potential yet not enough polish -- but the obstacles can be big ones.
At the Metropolitan Opera, for instance, these singers are apt to tire or bore easily of singing minor roles and therefore flee to Europe. Or else they settle back and become professional character singers, often letting the voice go to seed because they feel the roles are less challenging.
Only now, with the presence of James Levine as the Met's music director, is there a semblance of finding young talent and guiding it appropriately. But even so, the tip of the iceberg has barely been exposed.
One might think the ideal place for this sort of nurturing would be the New York City Opera, particularly now that Beverly Sills is at the helm, with her hopes of creating a vital new young profile for the troupe. Of course, it is far too early to make any assessments of how Miss Sills will succeed since so many other problems need solving as well. But it is a path fraught with problems, not the least of which is that the State Theater is a cavernous expanse with less-than-ideal acoustics. (There are plans afoot to revamp the theater acoustically in 1982.)
Young singers should be cutting their teeth in less than 1,200-seat theaters. American opera finances mean there are not many companies (if any) that can afford to play in such small houses.
Young singers are also scarce. With the current drought of world-class singers, any voice with the slightest potential is sucked up by big artist managements, proclaimed and promoted as the newest singing wonder, and put on a career schedule that is, at least in most cases, 5 to 10 years ahead of the singer's actual potential. Everyone complains about this situation. No one -- concert managers, opera companies, artists themselves -- does anything about it.
The City Opera and the Met both offered young singers of enormous potential in important roles last spring. Ashley Putnam sang the title role of Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda" at the City, Catherine Malfitano took over the role of Violetta in the Met's new production of Verdi's "La Traviata."
Miss Malfitano possesses a voice of some solidity and recognizable timbre -- rare in young American sopranos today. She has vivid stage presence, and knows how to move on a stage. Her Violetta showed great promise -- far more than it did a few years ago in Houston or Washington.
But to this day, it is not a fully conceived role. There is little use of shading or vocal coloring, little sense of molding phrases, of awareness in the minutest detail of words, a sense that she has really gleaned from Verdi's tricky but magnificent score just exactly what the composer expected his Violettas to communicate.
It is an era slender on Violettas, and Miss Malfitano is hardly the worst Met Violetta of recent memory -- at least three others pop instantly to mind -- but here is not yet a full characterization, and for the Met stage, this is not as it should be.
As for Miss Putnam, she is as handsome a singer as has graced a stage in many a year, but she still rarely connects with the essence of the role she is singing. It is as if she were devoid of tradition or vocal style, or even of the basic musical tools one would have thought were the minimum for contracts the likes of which Miss Putnam has been getting. Her "Stuarda" was not particularly well sung, being quite uneven and thin in the top range, rather inelegant in her coloratura, and extremely colorless in projection. She is betraying her potential and has even retrograded somewhat technically as a singer.
Both singers have enourmous promise, and need to be cultivated property for that promise to bear fruit.