Vocal tradition has been a lofty, idealistic chain of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Of late, that chain seems to be in danger of disruption if not disintegration.
American singers in particular seem to come in from nowhere when they begin opera training, proudly proclaiming at the very least their ignorance of opera singers, if not their basic initial dislike of opera in general. I was in the Patelson Music House one day and heard a young soprano being told by a friend that a Kirsten Flagstad record was a waste of money, since the woman never knew how to sing. She settled instead for Helen Traubel, even though that woman was a problem, too, according to the ''expert.''
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is more common than one might realize. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was giving a master class at the Mannes School of Music last week, and in the middle of a session on Susanna's ''Dei vieni,'' from Mozart's ''Le Nozze di Figaro,'' she asked the young singer if she had ever heard a recording of the aria by Elisabeth Schumann or Irmgard Seefried. The student shook her head no, and Miss Schwarzkopf turned her palms upward, raised her eyebrows, and sighed ''Ah!''
The issue of how slavishly we should listen to records and absorb them as our only basis for standards is the subject for another column. Here I want to give a sense of what Miss Schwarzkopf was trying to communicate to these students. The finest singer of lieder of the past quarter-century (some would say the entire century), as well as one of the great Strauss and Mozart singers of all time, she has a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight to pass on to the younger generation.
Her most pertinent and persistent idea was that singers should sing from their intentions. The singer must always be thinking ahead: ''Think and feel it before, never while you're doing it, for then it is much too late,'' she admonished a soprano. Imagination is a key word for Miss Schwarzkopf, and she kept instructing the interpreters to glean the composer's intentions. It is not easy, she added, and ''that will take you a lifetime.''
In particular, she finds Mozart is oversung. The soprano having troubles achieving what Mme. Schwarzkopf was after was advised that ''you don't necessarily have to make it louder in order to get more expression into the voice - often quite to the contrary!'' For a tenor having trouble getting up to a high note quietly, she suggested that he ''visit it beforehand . . . don't just try to get up there any old way.''
She is not afraid of getting right down to the fundamentals of technique, while carefully striving not to offend these students' regular music teachers. Nevertheless, one could glean from her comments various weaknesses in each student's training and, more seriously, in the student's grasp of foreign languages.
Mme. Schwarzkopf cajoles, implores, admonishes, all with tact and some wit. She never demeans, though some of her asides are quite barbed. To a soprano trying to convey a resignation to suffering, and doing it with too much emoting, Mme. Schwarzkopf quipped, ''No, no, this isn't Cenerentola (Cinderella) - (this girl is) used to it!''
She constantly stopped her singers, sometimes after merely two notes, asking them to change an approach, a dynamic, to check their music to be sure they were giving each note full value. In short, she was expecting of these students what she used to demand of herself - a total picking apart of the music and the text, and a re-assemblage for maxiumum communication of the mood demanded, of the general style of the composer, even of the particular emotion the composer might have been going through when he wrote this or that song or aria.
It is, as she said, the pursuit of a lifetime. And whereas one could wish that she were passing this knowledge on to many of the singers currently in careers for which they are artistically insufficiently prepared, at least she is sharing it with singers that will one day (one fervently hopes) be putting it to practice. The Giulini touch
Happily, a youngish generation of singers is having a chance to pull a work apart under the guidance of a conductor who, in his way, has shared the same ethos as Mme. Schwarzkopf: Carlo Maria Giulini. Both artists have devoted their careers to musical truth. Mme. Schwarzkopf and maestro Giulini worked together on records, too, in ''Le Nozze di Figaro'' (Angel SCL-3608: three records), and ''Don Giovanni'' (Angel SCL-3605: three records) - two extraordinary sets that belong in every opera lover's collection.In Los Angeles, the work under scrutiny was Verdi's masterwork ''Falstaff,'' and the results, already discussed in these pages, were something of a revelation. Most of the singers involved gave performances that quite transcended their usual level of accomplishment - and that can be taken with all the implicit interpretations it embodies. For even the finest singing actors in the cast were asked to explore with maestro Giulini aspects of the roles they probably never conceived while preparing for the assignment.It was also the cleanest ''Falstaff,'' musically speaking, that one is apt to encounter in an opera house, given the intensity of the rehearsal period.But what proved most startling, apart from the slower tempos and the uncanny subtlety with which everything unfolded, was the believability of each singer's character, not just as a histrionic effort, but more crucially, as a vocal projection of personality as well. One hopes this experience will have funda mentally inspired all to a new way of viewing their tasks as interpreters of a composer's wishes, in the way Mme. Schwarzkopf tried to inspire her students.