Kashudo (歌手道): Success and the Singer’s spirit: A question of faith for ourselves and for the art of opera

Whenever I speak of faith, I always have a need to modify it with “I am not religious”! I was raised Catholic but I had no patience for religion. Long before I thought about it seriously, in my youth I had an epiphany whereby I realized that religion was a conscious limitation of something that was so much greater. What is not universal did not interest me. A religion that did not value every human being, indeed every thing in the universe with reverance had no appeal to me. I have since met religious people and one Catholic in particular who within the limitations of their religions managed at least to respect every other. But “other” is the illusion that persists. Religion is not the central subject of this post but rather an awareness of the universe that does not acknowledge adversity as a separate force but as one created by ourselves; that indeed our states of dissatisfaction and “being stuck” is of our own making, and that we can with just a change of our way of thinking find the path to freedom.

It did not surprise me, but I found it uncanny that listening to the reknown spiritual leader, Dr. Wayne Dyer recently that every precept that he covered was already being practiced by me. I never thought of it as a belief system necessarily but a gradual education about the ways of the universe based on my own adversity and my ways of dealing with it.
This became further important when during a rather heated exchange on NFCS about the ills of the operatic system, I wrote the following:
I met her recently in Berlin and two days later heard a broadcast on French radio of her. She has substantial talent and “could” become a major singer if she does grow, if the business will let her grow.

I disagree with Pinonoir that it is not so dire! It is indeed extremely dire. The problem is that those of us who can survive in this business in some way shape or form protect it so much, even if we have to convince ourselves that “it is not so dire!”

It has been dire for years and years. We are just at the point that it is so dire that we are all willing to admit that there are problems.

Singers, pianists, conductors, etc need time to grow and become experts. Read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell! It takes some 10,000 hours of experience to become an expert at anything. Singers, coaches, conductors, directors–many (not all) working at the top of the field are incompetent. They do not know their fields well enough to propel it forward. We are stagnating; too many working people in our field are copying not creating. Tenors try to be the next Domingo and young divas fashion themselves after super models or the picture of some bona fide Diva on their college dormroom walls. Litte that is truly fresh remains fresh for long.

Excellent directors get upset because young singers get their “nature” coached out of them instead of being taught principles of good music making.

There is no lack of talent. But talent gets packaged before it is refined and we end up with promising singers who do not have the substance to last more than three years on the big stage when they get there.

I’m not saying anything new, but we need to stop propagating the lie that everything is fine. It is not fine. Too many unprepared singers get hired and so young singers coming up think it is ok to learn their music by wrote, to mimic their brilliant or just famous predecessors. No new infusion of creativity is being allowed to flourish. So we have a multitude of half-baked singers competing for the few spots that should belong to fully prepared singers who often get aged out of contention.

Opera has become a market place and it is about who gets to market first and whether the shoddy superficial product can be sold. Car industry, anyone?

Yet if we demand quality of others we must be responsible for finding that quality in ourselves, and not many are ready to do that. “Why practice if I can’t make them believe I’m good enough?”

What is happening in the operatic world is no more than another symptom of the laisser-faire attitude that has ruined our economic system and the environment. Companies have been excessive and downright decadent about how money is spent.

The paradigm is not working. Opera is not popular music and cannot be sold as such. The Bocellis of the world would have been laughed off the stage 30 years ago, but now for the sake of quick money he puts a product out there that makes young unsuspecting tenors with little development think they can make millions just by sounding opera-like.

When someone is brave enough at a major operatic institution to change the paradigm, we will have real opera.

We need singers whose talents have been developed long enough to solidly sing their repertoire, who care enough about their careers to shoot for longevity as opposed to quick millions, regardless of what forgettable product they leave behind.

And before someone thinks I am some bitter singer wishing he were one of the money-making superficial singers he criticises, there is nothing further from the truth. In fact I would kill myself before I became that kind of superficial.

What I am is a singer/teacher like so many out there who was not taught completely and who has taken it upon himself to become the singer he knows he can be. Whether the world wants finished singers or not is not up to me alone. But the only way to make my argument convincing is to build the kind of talent I am talking about. Then I can confidently put my talent and that of my students opposite those I am criticizing here.

And if it takes me a lifetime to accomplish that, is that not what artists should be doing?

It is dire, and people are often ridiculed when they say it is dire. The people in this forum I find most inspiring are those who have lived through the lie and are actively doing something to bring truth, whether teaching in a way that challenges their students to be substancial or themselves singing and coaching and conducting and directing beyond what is “acceptable” and “passable”.

I don’t believe in geniuses. I believe in 10,000 hours of experience. If more people in our field had put in the hours, so that we could have an intelligent, profound discussion about the dire state of affairs, we would all be better off.

Opera is a miraculous art form that needs to be dealt with seriously by serious people, not as a punchline by those who don’t get it. More in more that punchline is coming from within the field itself.

I was rather emotional when I wrote this, but oddly enough I found the stream of consciousness rather accurate relative to my thinkings. I quoted myself here so I would not waste time repeating what seemed like a personal outcry in a more polite manner. I was never one interested in the compromises that politics necessitate, nor indeed a wreckless rebel. There is a fierce need to wail when we are faced with “perceived helplessness.” And that was the freeing cry that made so clear that the success of each one of us as singers at any level and indeed the salvation of the operatic artform that so many of us love with such a passion are to be achieved not by blaming anyone, but our collective selves. These are some of the untruths that we all have bought into:
1. Opera is not as exciting as popular music!
False (I wonder who the frightened coward was that came up with that one!) Say that to Peter Hoffmann who made a career in both opera and rock music or to Freddy Mercury the lead singer of Queen who revered opera so much! Or indeed to the Three Tenors who proved that nonesense false when they performed their first concert (not the second or the third).

2. The vocal talent today is not as exciting as in the time of Caruso or Corelli or Price or Nilsson or Simonato or Kristoff (name your favorite)!
False! The talent is even more abundant. It is simply not respected and not developed! Not valued by the singers themselves because they have been taught to value lookism about substance. Not nurtured by the teachers who feel that their techniques may not be enough to prepare their singers in a world bent on commercialism of sex above art. Not developed by companies headed by unimaginative general directors (not all of course) who do not value the art form that they are hired to promote.
3. Opera is so expensive to produce that we cannot take chances with unveted talent no matter how exciting it is.
False! First opera is only expensive to produce when there is money to waste. Opera companies tighten their belts when money is scarce and unfailingly create better productions when imagination becomes a necessary commodity! And publicizing that an unknown new talent is about to take the stage and replace a star has always been the surest way to fill theaters. There are movies made about such stories. The difference is that the audience was sure that a new talent tossed in the spotlight like that was worth the risk! Thus people were willing to be curious and see what was happening. But when the replacement singers are all known regionally for being half-baked and half-prepared, it is no news!
4. Opera is a museum art and has nothing new to offer.
False! Only a lie conveniently chosen to give unremarkable directors and uncertain conductors an excuse for not finding the truth as they see it in the work! Music is a remarkably fluid language that makes sense in so many ways. Every new director/conductor team could bring a new vision to every opera if they trusted that they had something valuable to say (which they do, by the way) and were willing to do it uncompromisingly in their terms as opposed to create productions that they think people will accept. Regie Theater is a curse! Not because there is nothing good in it, but because everyone thinks they must come up with a substitute story line for the opera that modern audiences will appreciate more. It is a cop-out! All those stories are relevant! They need good story-tellers, period!
5. There are no new operas worth staging!
Partly false! There are great operas that have not been staged for a long time that need to be brought out. I am tired of yet another production of Barber of Seville even if it is thrilling! I want to see something else in between. There is plenty to chose from. As for new operas, this is by and large true because composers have been brainwashed to think that writing the music that moves them personally is incongruous with “new music”. There is no new music or old music. Only the music that the composer believes in! Furthermore, opera composers need to understand the medium. Mozart was a revolutionary, so were Verdi and Wagner (the triumverate considered the greatest opera composers of all time). The difference between them and today’s innovators is that they saw the value in what came before them. They learned from it and ultimately improved on it.

6. The failure of the operatic business is entirely the fault of General Music Directors and Agents!
Totally False! I bought into that too for a while. It is the fault of each of us who care about this art form. We simply sit back and take every thing that is offered up, even when most of us find it appalling. The director that offered up the little black dress that caused Deborah Voight all that nightmare should have been fired and she retained. The other singers in the production should have had the balls to stand by their able colleague and demand the dismissal of that director. The audience members at Covent Garden who found the whole business unacceptable should have asked for their money back. The conductor himself should have quit! Those would have been heroic acts that together would have shared the responsibility and fought sizism as a primary consideration against talent. I bet Ms. Voight would have been humbled by the support and work on her weight peacefully rather than feeling compelled to undergo a somewhat dangerous operation with no real record of lasting success.
I could list more examples, but I welcome you to do so. The important question however is whether we will remain all of us victims to our own fears and not speak out against what we find unacceptable. Some have told me that addressing issues such as this on my blog is just going to alienate the people that I want to work with someday! So far I have experienced the exact opposite. Yeah I am not singing at the Met or Scala yet. But logic would suggest that the friends I have made through speaking out has expanded my network of important business contacts rather than diminished it.
Constructive criticism based on a well thought-out argument in pursuit of betterment of our condition is never perceived as self-serving. Of course some, out of fear for themselves, would resist being partly responsible for the condition of our beloved art form and chose to caution me or reprimand me or chastise me for writing such things. And as I hold myself partly responsible for our collective plight, I am not asking anyone to do what I am not prepared to do myself. I have chosen to live my life in pursuit of betterment of this artform that I chose to be a part of.
Yet constructive criticism is not enough. Action is what counts. Little actions every day.
For my part, every lesson I teach makes the singer responsible for his/her own success, makes the singer face his/her shortcomings and better yet acknowledge the beauty and sacred nature of their limitless talent.
For my part, I try to find a way every day to end my own practice session in a way that propells my own progress forward. Yesterday I was tired, so I could not sing through full-length arias after two big teaching days and talking and practicing. So on that day, rather than end defeated, I sang three high Cs. The first time in my life I have ever sung three one after the other. They were in tune on a German piano tuned at A4= 444. Yes I am proud of it. And that was the point. High C has been a barrier. Now it is just another note like Bb or Bnatural that I had to learn to sustain, that I had to build the strength and coordination for. It is one more testimony of seeing beyond the limitations for I, a human being like any other, have to fight the doubting statements of well-meaning friends and jealous ones to continue on my path. I need encouragement, both subjective and objective. After not seeing one of my tenor students for a month, after our first lesson he said to me: “Wow, your high notes are sounding really good!” That had been said by another student of mine who had not heard me in a few weeks! Same from a baritone student who gave me a curious look when I sang a falsetto-like high C for another tenor in a lesson. I did not think much of that high C, but his reaction told me that even my flute-voice high C was developing in substance.
Why all this? Because I am just as frail as the next singer, just as attacked by fear. But I refuse to be a victim to that fear. It is more empowering to find the little light that makes the day a success rather than a failure, the little light that shows the path to success rather than to the wall of opposition! For us singers, and for us conductors and for us directors, and for us agents and for us GMDs, is it not better to require our superiors to make a real choice, even if that choice is against us? I can be proud of this if not anything else: When I present myself at an audition I want the casting director to say to me unequivocally, “I chose the other singer because he is better than you” or “I chose you because you compell me to!” I will not show up unprepared and make his/her choice easy. S/he must chose! And if s/he choses against me for reasons that are unfair, then s/he will have to walk around with the weight of that choice as well.
Just the same I honor the tenors I know who show up and with their wonderful voices make it clear that I have a lot of work to do. They inspire me to go further, simply because giving up is not an option that I can accept! Hubris? Foolhardiness? Courage?
You decide! But really decide!
© 08/19/2009

7 thoughts on “Kashudo (歌手道): Success and the Singer’s spirit: A question of faith for ourselves and for the art of opera

  1. Wow!! This post is beautiful. Ten thousand hours does seem to be the magic number in almost any serious endeavor, doesn't it?

    But I still believe that some people's hardware precludes learning certain things well enough to succeed at this level. I have spent far more than 10,000 hours on mathematics and probably only a quarter of that on ballet. Nevertheless, the anatomy of my feet and my non-standard (some say absent) sense of rhythm were unbreachable blocks.

  2. I agree 100% with everything you've written. When I see that people working in the upper ranks of the singing business are dealing with the same issues I deal with here at whatever level I am, I think I'm pretty lucky. I'm busy trying to inspire beginning and early intermediate singers to practice diligently and intelligently. I'm busy trying to convince them that there is a basic way of singing that should serve as a foundation for whatever singing they endeavor to do. I'm busy trying to cajole and entertain them into doing a tiny bit of work, reading, listening to others (to whom they might not otherwise listen), so they can share the excitement of discovery. I'm busy trying to help a younger generation develop an interest in this art that, in its finest form, teeters on the brink of disappearing altogether.(I really think it does.) At least in my arena, there is hope. And, at the very least, I may be able to develop an audience … if there will be anything left for them to see and hear.

    Some years back, a young man came to me all excited over hearing Nessun dorma, recorded by a non-opera singer who was all the rage at the time. I played that version for him. Then, I played either Pavarotti or Domingo singing it. I can't recall, now. I saw the young man's face light up in recognition of a true operatic voice. Then I saw a cute hint of embarrassment. At the finish, he commented, “'Nuf said.”

    Keep fighting the brave fight. Turn, turn, turn. Perhaps a brave collection of souls with power and influence will help us to return to the glory days. It's not much to hang our collective hats on. But, at least there's hope… and lots of hard work for you to do!!

  3. Courage! No doubt.

    As for examples, I blogged about one a while back:

    In my professional life (in the software industry), I've experienced many situations where decision makers haven't dared citing the real reasons behind their decisions, and instead spilling some pseudo-technical dung that only insults those who know anything about the issue. But as you say, the fault doesn't just lie with them.

    Once, when asked for advice on a Software Architect course being prepared, about what is the most important quality they should strive for, I suggested 'courage'. The courage to express your opinion and fight for it if necessary, even if it's not the opportune thing to do.

    Your articles serve as moral support for those who think like you, and perhaps feel like it's them against the whole world. Keep it coming!


  4. I love your passion! That was a wonderful post.

    I don't know what will save opera. I suspect that opera will always be there and if it falters a little in this country in 100 years it will rise again. Popular music is very much just the current moment but opera generally possesses a polish that pop lacks and transcends.

    I don't think there is one problem here but a multitude that you hint at.

    I like your comment about 10000 hours and I agree (at least in spirit) that it is necessary for mastery of any profession. I have a very IQ and in my own personal career (which is not anything musical), I am very good. However, even though I had the skills to do the job I do know when I was little, I still spent tens of thousands of years polishing those skills before I ever decided to enter the workplace and even with all that polish, I often defer to the experience of those who have been in the industry longer (unless they prove themselves blatantly incompetent). In my job, every day I have to balance pleasant social relations with my coworkers with my drive for perfection.

    I have decided I want to sing. I don't expect to be able to sing well for about 5 years. I have muscular tension dysphonia and other problems that make it very hard for me to learn to sing. I realize that every sound I utter for the first year is going to be utter garbage. By the second year, I may sound ok and I might like my voice. But I know that if I can weather the issues and make it through the first 5 years that I will probably have a better voice than some people with natural talent who never had to struggle to be good (assuming I have good instruction and don't let someone teach me to sing in a way that hurts or is not natural to my instrument). I think that passion over time means more in any industry than the luck of having inborn talent. I run from people who do not care about what they do. I prefer the people who never have anything good to say but care deeply to those who always have good things to say but don't care at all.

    Life is about conquering adversity. It is not about saying that you can't do something. It is about saying that I am going to throw my heart at something and if it never materializes, it never does but at least I didn't leave a door unopened. If I love to sing and I list off reasons why I can't and then never try then I am doing myself a great disservice.

    I think the problem is always that to the dreamers the dream is everything no matter what that dream is (opera, etc.) The problem is always how to get others to experience that dream and share in it. Sometimes it just takes making something immediate, close, and tangible. Everything becomes a commodity when people become figures and the hopes and dreams of people aren't known. I think the best way for people to support opera is to share their love of the form perhaps especially if they are not directly involved. Perhaps it as simple as talking about an opera you just saw and some of the singers you admired to your coworkers rather than having vapid conversation. I think everyone who loves something must advocate it and conspire to make it real to others. Paradoxically, I think the best way to make your dreams known to others is by willing to embrace and understand their dreams. If I love a book, I share it. If I love an art form, all may enjoy it. If I find a good restaurant, I will take my friends there. Love must not be a wall but an embrace.

    By the way, three high Cs from a dramatic tenor who will sing them “full voice” (and one day PERFORM them) is epic. Congrats!

  5. Dear Pagan,

    It is logical to think that we are limited, but it is an illusion too. That is more a mystical point of view. But my own life in singing is a good example. I started with many deficiencies but still made it to a higher level of performance than many who were thought to be more talented than me.

    I believe your passion for mathematics trumped that for Ballet. A mathematical mind has all the necessary qualities to become rhythmically brilliant. That deficiency can be overcome now.

    Science proves that our thoughts can alter even genetic programing. The thought of being limited creates the limitations.

    Quite often the thoughts come to us before we are aware, at a very young age.

    Dear Shaun,

    Thanks for a well thought out post. You seem just as passionate.

    First, nothing you sing is crap! In the early stages of development we sing sounds that do not sound like the final product. But they are necessary on the way to perfect balance. You must see those sounds in that light. Only then will they influence positive results. This was crucial in my journey toward singing 3 high Cs in a row. They are not absolutely beautiful yet, but I can rejoice in them. Rejoicing in them encourages my practice and my vision for a better vocal day tomorrow and the day after.

    Envision living your dream. That alone puts the energies of the universe in motion to get you there. Think about what you can do today to help your cause, whether seeking and finding your teacher, making a practice regimen, etc…

    Second, popular music does not transcend polish. Our collective acceptance of noise as singing, and a world bent on immediate gratification throws polish to the side. When the average person hears the voice of an opera singer up close, they are always blown away.

    We opera singers need to do more to educate the average person, by just singing in situations that are particularly informal. We must give the opera going public an opportunity to hear great singing whenever possible. That way, they can judge for themselves when they hear a bad singer and know it. We have to bring great singing to the masses so that they are lulled out of their apathy. It is just as important to recognize noise as noise as it is to appreciate beautiful sound.

    Finally, if you love singing, make of it a love affair, not one of frustration. You speak about your singing as crap, as a dream that may never be achieved. You are already setting the wheels in motion for defeat and frustration. It does not cost anything to imagine yourself singing fabulously with a beautiful orchestra. Keep imagining it until it happens one day.

  6. JRL,
    You wrote:
    “First, nothing you sing is crap! In the early stages of development we sing sounds that do not sound like the final product. But they are necessary on the way to perfect balance.”

    It is interesting how the defects associated with taking shortcuts to the “finished product” are accepted, as we are so used to hearing them, whereas the defects of a budding chiaroscuro voice are not. I had reason to experience and ponder this as I struggled to come to terms with my own prejudice during my re-training.

    Obviously this is an acquired taste. Nowadays, I thoroughly enjoy the raw voices that hold the promise of greatness, whereas I get bored with 'polished' voices that are limited in their expressive range. My hearing/perception has been transformed through my vocal training.

  7. Dear Ulf,

    Thank you for the excellent commentary. On the last comment you sent, I find occassionally what is called “polished” is not so much polished as it is “safely one-sided”. Usually a light voice relying on the falsetto mechanism to make a pretty sound that is not substantial.

    That is one of the reasons I find Gedda so fantastic. The last of that kind of refined voice is probably Edita Gruberova. Lighter voice, yes, but always substantial.

    I too prefer the struggling substantial voices who are gradually finding balance. If only they were encouraged to go all the way and not stop as soon as they have a high C that they can sing every other Sunday.

    I appreciate your encouraging words. It seems there is a lot of hope in Sweden. At least so far, the Swedes I have met give me reason to hope!

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