A song recital programme is not merely a handful of songs; a programme takes into account balances, contrasts, relatedness, durations, atmospheres... Recitals have their own rhythm; for instance, the most beginner singer knows that there are non-suitable songs to open the concert because the audience won't be ready to listen to them yet. A well-structured programme can do a lot for the success of a concert, although we aren't usually fully aware of it.
Odd things begin when opera slips into song programmes. Opera is out of place at song recitals, as well song is out of place at opera concerts. They are different genres with different codes and different characters: I apologize for my simplification, opera is "outward" and song is "inward". Singing an opera aria between songs would spoil the atmosphere. Probably that's why some years ago, when opera was performed at song recitals, first part was for song and the second one for opera; somehow, they were like two-in-one concerts. Eventually programmes became odd, with song and opera mixed (yes, as they used to be in late 19th century) and nobody was satisfied. If you like opera but don't like song, things are not going well. If you like song but not opera, either. If you like both, we've seen that's not the best format. So why to give concerts with odd programmes?
At this moment a little devil on my shoulder is telling me: "What are you talking about? Those recitals with odd programmes are usually sold out!" I know, my dear devil, I know. But I'm pretty sure that most people don't go because of the programme but despite the programme. I would say that most members of the audience are voice lovers, ie, they are especially interested in listening to the singer beyond what he sings. Or, taking it to extremes, they are people affected by the "La bien pagá" syndrome (you know, we're all affected by it one time or another). And I wonder: if the singers who give such concerts are mostly opera singers that occasionally perform song and voice lovers are also mostly opera lovers, why not to give an opera recital?
It occurs to me that it's precisely because of the format. It's difficult for promoters that can afford an opera concert comme il faut, with orchestra, to justify opera with piano, a format that should be reserved for very particular circumstances. A first-rate singer giving an opera recital with piano is an anomaly; few days ago a friend told me quite certain about a concert whose programme isn't known yet: "it's with piano, it will be a song recital". So, is that possible that songs in odd programmes are a kind of alibi to justify the piano being present? And the little devil on my shoulder tells me: "Relax! Don't you see that these recitals have great public success? If you are interested, go; if not, stay at home, and we're all perfectly happy with that!"
Maybe the reason for those odd programmes is simply that singers feel like performing just that and promoters agree, but whatever the reason is, I can't help being uneasy. Lately, we have been talking a lot about decline of art song and I thing that those concerts do more harm that good. Let's go back to the beginning: art song and opera are different genres, have different nature, are performed differently and are appreciated in a different way. If an opera aria is included in a song recital, somehow the sent message is that song is not enough to perform a good recital or to succeed. If the programme is an odd one, songs will go unnoticed (and later we'll listen to the common "they were of use to warm up the singer's voice") and it's natural, because both singer and audience are specialized in opera. Those people among the audience that still think that art song is a minor genre, will leave the concert hall even more convinced. Maybe someone could fall in love with a song but the environment isn't the most suitable for falling in love... I think I am not mistaken when I say that the question that inspired this post, why some singers, when they have a reputation that allows them to do what they want, do "that", was asked with some sort of sorrow in it.
And now, which song could we listen to illustrate this post? What about a touch of humor? I hate music! is a song cycle by Leonard Bernstein, whose third song is also called I hate music!. We're listening to that song performed by Jennie Tourel, who premiere the cycle in 1943, accompanied by the composer, who also wrote the lyrics.
I hate music but I like to sing,
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
But that's not music,
Not what I call music, no sir.
Music is a lot of men and a lot of tails
Making lots of noise like a lot of females,
Music is a lot of folks in a big dark hall
Where they really don't want to be at all,
With a lot of chairs and a lot of heirs
And a lot of furs and diamonds
Music is silly,
I hate music but I like to sing,
La, la, la, la, la