Beyond High C, High Technology
by William G. Honan in The New York Times
For the love of opera, Stefan Zucker trained to reach the upper limits of the tenor’s range.
For the love of opera, Stefan Zucker spent 12 years of Saturday nights as the host of “Opera Fanatic,” a radio show on WKCR-FM that featured rare recordings, interviews with performers and call-ins.
And for the love of opera, Stefan Zucker has reinvented himself as a techno geek.
Mr. Zucker, 55, has learned that the computer can be his friend. After Columbia University, the owner of WKCR-FM, dropped Mr. Zucker as the host of ‘Opera Fanatic’ in 1994, he turned his efforts to preserving early opera recordings and films through his nonprofit Bel Canto Society. There, at www.belcantosociety.org, fellow fanatics can hear his old radio programs and purchase his remastered CD’s, DVD’s and videos.
As a result, Mr. Zucker—cheerful and shaggy-bearded—says that when he is not listening to music, he likes nothing more than to curl up with a current issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.
“I started as a singer,” Mr. Zucker said, ” and soon became fascinated by the way in which singing had evolved.”
Recently, Mr. Zucker acquired for Bel Canto Society a live recording of a 1939 "Il Trovatore" performance starring Jussi Bjoerling and Gina Cigna. The original was made on a 78 r.p.m. recording marred by fluctuations in speed and audible clicks and pops.
Mr. Zucker said that it could take as much as three hours on a digital audio work station to delete just one of the 900-odd clicks or pops on the original without compromising the music. He also adjusted playback speed in 10th- and 20th-of-a-percent increments, making more than 500 corrections. “If you don’t get the speed right,” he explained, “ not only is the sound off pitch but it is also off in timbre, or sonority.” The remastering took five months.
“It took that long,” he said, “because you have to isolate the sounds you don’t want and then suppress them, and maybe restore some if you think you’ve gone too far. It’s a very delicate process. Bel Canto Society sells the two-disk CD set for $19.95, so you can see this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme.”
He goes to similar lengths for his film restorations. To restore “Carnegie Hall,” a 1947 film that includes performances in the hall by Jan Peerce, Fritz Reiner, Risë Stevens, Ezio Pinza, Bruno Walter, Lily Pons and a dozen others, Mr. Zucker struck a deal with a British collector who had a 35-millimeter print and wanted to trade it for a number of videos. Then Mr. Zucker kept searching for additional prints, eventually splicing together bits and pieces from 13 separate prints.
Why go to so much trouble? “Well,” Mr. Zucker said, “when people watch and listen to the finished product, I see them leap with joy.
“I’m also motivated by the fact that I’m in a race against time. I’m trying to preserve these films before they disintegrate and before the collectors die and the films get discarded.”
Mr. Zucker started off as a tenor, albeit a controversial one. In 1980, the Guinness Book of World Records called him “the world’s highest tenor” for having hit an A above high C and holding it for 3.8 seconds. That was at Town Hall on Sept. 12, 1972.
He was singing the role of Salvini in the world premiere of the fourth and final version (1829) of Bellini’s “Adelson e Salvini.”
Mr. Zucker’s voice shot up to a series of notes well above the usual tenor top of high C, evoking shouts, groans and hisses, as well as poor reviews. The high notes were like “the scratching of a fingernail on a blackboard,” the critic Donal Henahan wrote in The New York Times.
His years on the radio earned him many fans. Schuyler Chapin, a former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and former commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs who was also a guest on “Opera Fanatic,” said of Mr. Zucker: “His knowledge and passion about opera are exhilarating. He is the factual definition of an opera fanatic.
“The world today is much too bland,” Mr. Chapin continued, “and when you come across someone like Stefan Zucker, who cares so deeply about this art form, you know you have found something extraordinary.”
The tenor Franco Corelli, who was also a guest on Mr. Zucker’s radio show, agreed. Speaking from his home in Italy, Mr. Corelli said: “Zucker is important to music. He knows everything about opera.”
Since Mr. Zucker spends his days bringing old recordings back to life, it is no surprise that his favorite tenors are long gone. “Among the tenors who ravish my soul,” he said, “is Francesco Tamagno, who died in 1905. He had what the Italians call ‘fuoco sacro,’ which means sacred fire, or depth of feeling.”
“Also in contention for the title of “greatest,” he said, “is Fernando de Lucia, who died in 1925. He used rubato—the lengthening and shortening of notes—for tremendous effect.”
“I also have to include Giovanni Martinelli, who died in 1969,” Mr. Zucker said. “Martinelli served the composer.” The final entry in his pantheon of tenors is Tito Schipa, who died in 1965. Mr. Zucker studied with Schipa in the years just before his death. “He had, in a way, the most lyrical sensibility of them all, the most elegiac, sublime and endearing.”
But ask about Enrico Caruso and be ready to duck.
“What I deplore is not Caruso’s voice, which was opulent,” he said, “but that he had relatively little musical nuance and variety of dynamics. In short, Caruso lacked musical imagination.”
“We must ask why Caruso was booed when singing ‘L’Elisir d’Amore’ at Naples in 1901,” Mr. Zucker said. “It was because the audience thought he had forsaken nuance and delicacy. And they were right.”
By Steve Cohen, in the Delaware Voice
Stefan Zucker is known to some as a radio personality, to some as a musicologist, and to others as a singer. Zucker is one of the few performers who is also a respected scholar, critic and musicologist. (There are some conductors who may claim the same, but no other singer that I know of.)
Zucker's name is probably best known because of his citation in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world's highest tenor.” Here's how that came about.
Zucker is the son of a painter and a singer. His mother had a career under her maiden name of Rosina Wolf.
Stefan and his mother both learned the techniques of 19th-century Italian singing, where the emphasis was on tone and phrasing and ornamentation rather than power. He was particularly interested in learning the performance practices of the period from 1810 to 1843. He studied orchestra scores and the writings of old-time musicians.
Stefan graduated from Columbia University and went on to study and teach one of his other loves, philosophy. He became President of the NYU Philosophy Association and completed most of his doctoral work at NYU until his competing interest in music led to an offer from RCA Records that he could not refuse. (Though he now says that he should have refused it.)
At NYU between 1968 and 1972, Zucker ran an opera company that gave live performances that tried to reproduce faithfully what he had learned from his research. With grants from NYU and from the City of New York, he and his colleagues gave educational performances of early 19th-century Italian operas for children, community groups and colleges. A head of RCA Records, R. Peter Munves, heard Zucker and told him to give up the academic world.Munves said, “We want you for benevolent exploitation.”
The promise of money and fame from RCA and then from ABC Television lured Zucker away from NYU just before completing his doctoral dissertation. He was billed as “the world's highest tenor” because he did, in fact, sing high F's and high G's [and B-flats] above high C. But that distinction obscured his greater talents.
Because he doesn't push his voice to sound muscular or weighty, he's able to concentrate on achieving an emission that allows him to sing expressively and beautifully, with long spun-out phrases and free-sounding high notes. Unfortunately, because of his notoriety, some people who came to his concerts viewed him as one would view a freak at a carnival.
In the 1980s he began hosting radio programs of discussion and music on WKCR, New York. In 1986 he began publishing a magazine called Opera Fanatic which includes gossip alongside erudite dissertations about music history. This magazine has created more controversy, as some critics call it scandalous and disrespectful. I've read several issues and find that it's informative and fun.
Most of Zucker's time these days is spent collecting audio and video recordings that demonstrate the history of music, and selling copies of them to the public. In his typically thorough and scholarly way, he uses the best techniques for enchancing the recordings and copying them. His videotapes of great conductors and singers from the past are more vivid than you would imagine possible.
Finally, I must report on the most interesting of all the performances that Zucker has preserved and published: his own. After reading about his notoriety, I was most anxious to hear the Bel Canto recording of Zucker's own singing.
I have played it over and over and can't help marveling at the beauty of the singing. I had expected screeching or feminine-sounding falsetto. That's not what we hear, and we shouldn't be surprised. After all, how could this music ever have become popular if that was how it sounded? Instead, Zucker sings with a high floating sound that seems to have no top limit. He sings with passion that makes the old tunes by Donizetti and Bellini sound up-to-date and vital.
There's the educational value, of course. But above and beyond that, there's great sensual pleasure and excitement.
Please use this link for the New York Times article on WKCR's decision to end Opera Fanatic.
And click here for Stefan's followup letter to the New York Times.