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Great voices are treasures - and should be guarded

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Last Saturday night the New York Philharmonic was bringing culture to the commercial airwaves on NBC-TV's well-meaning ''Live From 8H.''

This time around, the stereo simulcast did not boast ''Mr. Opera,'' Luciano Pavarotti - something of a coup in itself - but rather, Pavarotti's ''rival,'' Placido Domingo, who is attempting to make himself as much of a celebrity superstar as Mr. Pavarotti has indisputably become. Unfortunately, Mr. Domingo was in very poor voice.

Was the problem nervousness? Perhaps. But all singers are subject to this and have been trained to work around it. When Mr. Pavarotti sang the landmark live solo recital telecast (with piano only - a grueling thing for opera singers used to sets, costumes, and an orchestra), nerves were subtly evident, though they did not affect the ability of the voice to pour out freely and generously.

No, the problem runs deeper. It is one that is affecting just about every important youngish singer in the opera world today - the placing of fame and fortune ahead of vocal self-awareness and self-preservation. In other words, many of our most important (or soon-to-be-important) singers are sacrificing vocal seasoning and longevity for short-term profit.

And let there be no doubt - the number of important rising or just-arrived singers in serious trouble swamps the small gathering of singers who have been wise and cautious. This season has already found Jose Carreras, Pavarotti, and Domingo all in diminished form. And the list is not limited to tenors. Katia Ricciarelli, Montserrat Caballe, Renata Scotto, and mezzo Tatiana Troyanos are all showing disturbing signs of the effects of repertoire too heavy for their voices. And these are the singers opera managements around the world are relying on to fill casts and rosters.

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