Strength, grace and the hollow fake that passes for both

I have always equated singing with figure-skating. In the sport, it is very transparent that grace depends very much on strength, and the skillful management thereof. Skaters like Michelle Kwan and Brian Boitano are considered masters for all time. They embody the values of a sport that like opera has seen standards drop for the sake of audience consumption. Quadruple Axles are considered more important than the graceful footwork (figures) for which the sport was named. The difficult figures are not even part of competitive figure skating anymore. Perhaps very much like scales no longer form a part of the teaching of many teachers. A recent, entertaining New York Times article lampoons a voice teacher who has his students do scales and the unsuspecting neighbor who becomes unnerved by the incessant vocalizations and begs for a song to be sung all the way through. This reveals very much the poor understanding of not only the opera-going public, but also questions whether the teachers who are supposed to be the custodians of the technique of opera know any better or even care. Well some do. Many don’t.

The either/or simplicity of a world culture bent on fast foods and immediate gratification cannot conceive that an “and” ideology has the potential of greater entertainment value. It is perfectly possible to build a modern opera for consumption while preserving the values of tradition.

This is a pedagogical question because those who run the business of classical singing dictate for better or for worse (I think mostly for worse these days) the way teachers prepare their students. I am rather ideological with a practical bent, so I aim to prepare the students with traditional values in mind but fully prepared to meet the changing landscape of this complex field.

Consider the Metropolitan Opera! The bastion of operatic conservatism has loosened its dogmatic approach in the person of Peter Gelb, the new General Manager who has been a subject on opera forums as popular as President Obama is in the political forums. It has not been all good, but it is certainly not all bad. Personally, I am a proud subscriber of Met Player. With the same high standards that brought Met Titles, the Metropolitan Opera’s web designers have created a gorgeously high quality product that boasts the smoothest video streaming on the Internet. Customer Service at all levels of the Met is top notch. Yet the operatic product for which this house is known has been terribly compromised. Yes we have the beautiful triumvirate of German-rooted singers, Diana Damrau, Rene Pape and the Polish tenor Piotr Bezcala. Yes we have the mighty Stephanie Blythe who makes an opera singer proud to be American. Still, most of the performances I have attended at the Met recently left me completely cold, to such a point that I have had to leave after the first act of three performances after shelling over $100 for a ticket.

Why is the ratio of good to bad performances at the Met so dismally tipped to the bad?

Opera aficionados agree on the idea that the Met has become a business first and an art institution last. Consider this paradigm! The Met seats nearly 4000! On an average Saturday matinee it is probably full, but 4000 is probably peanuts compared to the numbers represented worldwide in movie theaters through a satellite simulcast. This strategy is fantastic on the one hand. Many more people are experiencing Met productions visually the way many of us did aurally through radio in generations past. On the other hand, are they really experiencing opera: that gladiator-art where singers take advantage of acoustic law to do battle with a 100-piece orchestra and win, all the while defying gravity with top notes that threaten to shatter crystal chandeliers and low notes that resonate in the chests of audience-members, and all the while dealing with philosophy and poetry and life at quite possibly the highest level possible in art? More than likely, not! With broadcast microphones turned up to rival the soundtrack of the latest X-Men flick in Dolby Sound Surround, the battle with the orchestra is no longer part of the equation. And the philosophy and poetry is too often not grasped by the people performing because the jaded operatic businessman and the sheepish artists who often follow think that the audience will not get it anyway.

This is the grave error that the opera business people (i.e. general managers, agents, directors, etc) are making. They seem to think that the defining qualities of opera are no longer relevant; that the only way to sell tickets in a visually stimulated world is to have size zero pseudo-divas whose frail forms can barely support their clothing let alone the rigors of singing a full-length opera. I have nothing against a size zero Carmen if I can hear her. I have no problem with a Don Giovanni with a ripped six-pack if his voice is authoritative enough to make me believe he can defy the elemental figure of a stone statue come to life.

Three years ago, I found myself in a touristy little bar in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin. I was enjoying my beer, when the bartender came out and said: “I heard you are an opera-singer!” I said yes! He said that they were having a Karaoke night and he wanted me to sing something. I told him I could not. There is nothing worse than a professional singer crashing a Karaoke party. It’s bad taste. He said he already announced that I would sing and that he would not serve me if I did not come down to the cellar where this was taking place. It was his way of being friendly, so I went expecting to find a Sinatra tune I would do. The list was rather thin, so I decided to sing a Neapolitan song a cappella, sans microphone (as any self-respecting opera singer would). The rowdy crowd was still talking when I broke into O paese d’o sole. Suddenly the place was dead silent and with a Toreador-like gesture a la Carreras-Domingo, I finished with the climactic top note. The place roared with approval. I was not even in good voice, but it is not so difficult for a trained singer to vibrate the walls of a relatively small room. Several genuinely stunned people told me they could not believe the human voice could make such a big sound (on a tangential note, it should have been the clue that I was in fact a tenor, for I sang the piece in the original key).

That experience in Kreuzberg was followed a couple of years later by a production of Macbeth, which I directed for the Berlin International Opera, a group of international singers who got together in Berlin to create singing opportunities for themselves. The production received wonderful reviews, even though our budget was probably 1/10000 that of the Metropolitan opera’s average for a production. The values were classic: great, resonant voices in a small space that truly stunned people; modern costumes (i.e. soldiers in modern German Army fatigues, etc), a witch ceremony during the overture, coupled with thunder and battle sounds to set the scene, a light show during the apparitions scene, and a loud gun-battle during the final battle music. Duncan was killed visibly on stage and we saw the reactions of Lady and Macbeth to the various sounds they heard, all of it created the basis for a variation during the sleepwalking scene. All the extraneous ballet music and some of the witches’ choruses that slowed the progress of the play were cut. As a result, the story was brought closer to the Shakespeare original.

Opera is not rocket science. It has intrinsic values that are spine-tingling, hair-raising, tear-jerking and heart-warming. One does not need to do traditional productions in the sense of period costumes, but one can bring clarity, a new perspective, and yes absolute relevance by understanding the impact of a logical musical phrase, especially when produced by a healthy strong human voice with a clear understanding of the language of music.

Strong is a tenor singing a full-bodied (not just full-throated) high C. It is a completely different thing when that high C is crooned in some reinforced falsetto called head-voice by those who have never sung an unamplified note with a large orchestra. Strong is a ballet dancer balancing on her toes, and the male partner who carries her seemingly effortlessly over his head. Strong is Diana Damrau sustaining a full-voice high Eb (not a flute-voice faux top note). It is Johann Botha singing the prize song and making that punishing tessitura sound easy, while every audience member feels his very bones vibrate in sympathy because the sound is that visceral and primal. It is James Morris even at his advance age singing the Villains in Hoffmann with thundering sound and acting mastery. It is Stephanie Blythe making Orfeo relevant again, because such a voice would make any opera worth hearing. It is Kim Begley making Herod a lead role as opposed to a mere character part because his secure, beautiful voice reflects the strengthening that comes with years of proper singing. It is not about big voices or small voices, but rather about substantial, supported voices coupled with musical and dramatic intelligence.

Yesterday, in a German opera house, I met a 30-something lyric baritone who sings in the chorus. He approached me about a voice lesson because he had to sing Carmina Burana solos soon. He was gifted with a beautiful voice, was musically impeccable (even singing the baritone solos from memory) and a handsome lad besides. We worked to help him support his voice more completely and suddenly with a little tweaking he was the equal of some of his leading colleagues at the opera house. I know because I heard them. The voices are not lacking. As a lyric baritone, that excellent singer would have been viable in our current system 10 years ago before he knows how to support his voice. Now more than likely, some other baritone 10 years his junior who cannot yet support his voice but cuts a dashing figure will fill the requirements for some coveted young artist program at a major A-house, and will have fulfilled his worth, which is to fill small roles that are less expensive when done by a young artist rather than a bona fide character singer. Then five years from now, most likely we will not hear about this young singer because he could not move forward for lack of a viable technique. Then fully supported lyrical voices will undertake dramatic roles because no one wants to wait for real dramatic voices to develop and more lyric voices will bite the dust before their 40th birthdays. We all know the story.

Opera is the vocal equivalent of ballet and of figure-skating. Grace and poetry require strength and intelligence and above all the patience to learn how. I remember one rare moment of original wisdom: a young colleague was disappointed when all the attention was given to another singer who had a naturally strong voice, although she had the intelligence and grace of a porcupine. On that wonderful spring day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I told her to uproot one blade of grass. She accomplished it on her first try. Then I told her to try to uproot three blades of grass simultaneously. She failed four times in a row. I then told her that the first task was what her colleague had accomplished—a one-dimensional challenge. Then I told her that she had failed at what she was attempting to accomplish (i.e. a combination of vocal balance, conscious musicianship, linguistic mastery and professional stagecraft), which requires patience, skill, balanced strength and faith. Just as the young pianist who gets attention is the trained monkey who can play all the notes too fast, the young singer who gets attention is often the one that has a level of strength and coordination that came from accidently being brought up in a good speaking environment and around someone who recognized the vocal potential. The establishment believes that this basic muscular coordination constitutes a potential artist. In truth it is rather the musically sensitive, intelligent singer who has the potential to become the great artist. Intelligence and musical sensitivity must be fostered early on to become substantially viable. That means a house where music of high quality and variety is at least listened to if not actively performed, whether it be a father singing his daughter to sleep or a grandmother humming a simple tune with feeling and perfect intonation.

Without this accidental or consciously prepared environment the seed of musical sensitivity might not be sewn. Hence, there is no guarantee that the vocal or pianistic monkey will graduate to become an artist. YET, THE VOCAL INSTRUMENT CAN BE COORDINATED AND STRENGTHENED TO PROFESSIONAL QUALITY AT ANY TIME PROVIDED THERE IS A TEACHER WHO UNDERSTANDS HOW TO GET IT FROM POINT ZERO TO POINT PERFECT AND A STUDENT WHO IS NOT AFRAID TO SWEAT.

At very least there was a time when the vocal monkey had chops. A voice that thrilled right away with its power! Now the acceptable vocal show-monkey only needs to sound pretty and even. Pretty is not operatic! Beautiful is operatic. And beauty requires substance. Beauty is strong and primal and elemental. Beauty grips one with power. Pretty simply does not offend, and that is not enough! Leontyne Price sang a visceral pianissimo that vibrated the heart itself. I was fortunate enough to hear that pianissimo live in 1989 at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nowadays singers are being taught to release a flute voice sound or a falsetto and it is considered singing. And the impresarios do not really care, as long as tickets are being sold. And thus I conclude with this thought: the audience may not know when it is not being thrilled, but it certainly knows when it is being thrilled. I recommend that we custodians of the art form aim for the noble pursuits of the latter situation rather than bank on the ignorant precepts of the former. In order to do that we must cherish the intrinsic value of our art form and not apologize for it.

Most of all, it seems every one involved is playing the victim, saying that opera is moving in a new direction and there is nothing we can do about it. Opera in the movies is not going to rival The Fast and the Furious. Opera can thrive if it is sold for what it is and not what it appears to be superficially.

© 06/13/2009