Kashu-do (歌手道): Table Wine Is Not Chateauneuf du Pape or Honor To the Art.

So many influences contribute to this post. I have been busy the past couple of weeks, staging a short opera, traveling a lot to teach and teaching a lot.  I have much to write about sensory feedback and the language of the old Italian School.  However, each night I sit down at the computer to write a technical post, I find myself distracted by one event or another than have led me to the current post.

The opera forums are buzzing with the news of opera theaters closing. Even in Germany where subsidized opera seems relatively safe, established theaters are threatening to close because they are becoming bankrupt, and others are planning to combine with neighboring theaters to reduce cost, etc.  A recent Vanity Fair article calls the Metropolitan Opera under the new General Manager, Peter Gelb, a “…Grand Gamble,” that may not pan out.

Meanwhile I have been blessed to teach some very special singers, who are defying the odds. Two that I taught today got news of important auditions and engagements. One very special singer who, by current wisdom, would be judged too old to get back in the game has been taken on by a very powerful agent who is already sending her out to important auditions. One ex-mezzo who only recently begin calling herself a soprano sent me a clip of Dove Sono, that I cannot stop listening to because of its sheer beauty. My little band of Tenors who Formally Sang as Baritones, inspire secret tears when I hear that they are no longer baritones at all but full-fledged tenors singing stentorian high Bs that would be the envy of many a working tenor today. My own process is satisfying more and more and I am beginning to think I may begin auditioning in the fall for real.

I juxtapose my little world with the wider operatic world for a reason.  It comes down to respecting quality, living by a philosophy of quality rather than quantity, fostering quality and simply not accepting mediocrity. This requires a constant re-analysis of self.  A week ago, I decided to stop drinking alcohol altogether. It is not a moral decision at all, but rather respecting a decision that my body made by itself. In a sense, that decision, brought on by an experience in Sweden in the beginning of the month inspired the title of this post.

At the beginning of the month, I made my long-desired pilgrimage to the land of Gedda, Björling, Svetholm and Nilsson.  I have loved Swedish singers for a long time and often wondered why they sing so beautifully. After teaching a dozen or so of them, I realize it is not by accident that there are so many great Swedish singers and so consistently at the highest levels of the operatic art.  During my visit to Göteborg, something unexpected happened beyond the discovery that Sweden is indeed populated with many great singers. My student Erik took me to Björns Bar, a smaller extension of the celebrated restaurant Kock och Vin (Chef and Wine), written officially Kock & Vin and pronounced like the famous French dish coq au vin–A very refined play on words. Not only was my Boeuf Bourgignon of the most exquisite quality and cuisson, Bjorns Bar boasts the No. 1 sommelier (wine steward) in Sweden, who recommended two most exquisite wines, one to accompany my delectable main course and the other to accompany the assortment of fine cheeses that came after.  The last time I had such an excellent wine with an unforgettable meal was in the mountains of Umbria when as a member of the Westminster Choir, I sang at the Spoleto Festival. A local bartender, who now owns his own bar in Montefalco, took me to a restaurant outside of the tourist-infested main street of Spoleto. Alessandro Miecchi remains a dear friend, with whom I still communicate today. 

In the Spoleto days, wine was not consumed by so many Americans. In fact it was not available as easily as it is today. There were not wine specialty stores on every sprawled corner, and wines were not being made in every state in the union (I nearly became ill at a wine festival in Pennsylvania two years ago). The democratization of all things fine, from wine, to specialty coffees to opera sought the pockets of the upper middle class and then the lower middle class and then anyone who cared to join in in habits that gave them the air of refinement even where actual refinement may have lacked. In the last decade, wine production in the American state of Washington increased by 400%. Wine exports from Australia since my unforgettable dinner in Spoleto in 1986 increased to 10,000% as of 2006. Similar rises can be found for South American (e.g. Chile, Argentina) and South Africa.  New and significant wine producers are now coming out of North Africa, particularly in parts of the Middle East. Although all of these new wine-producing regions (i.e. South America, Australia and South Africa) have produced excellent wines, the situation begs the question: “How many of these wines are simply indigestible?” What is worse, many of these bad wines will use names associated with opera.  With  bottles labeled with a beautiful graphic design, the new faux-wine connoisseur who lacks the schooled palate will fall victim to a bad wine every time, and even if his sense of taste tells him that he should throw away the bottle, he may keep drinking it until he is convinced that it is good.

I am sure you have caught on by now that I am making a parallel with the so-called democratization of opera.  Like wines, opera has become a status symbol for anyone who mentions that they go to the opera. Like the new wine connoisseurs whose palates, ruined by wine boxes, can no longer distinguish between a bad table wine and Chateauneuf du Pape, many of the new opera aficionados cannot distinguish the libretto from the programs they receive at the door; nor can they distinguish between Piotr Beczala and Andrea Bocelli. As I have said here often, The Three Tenors (and they have earn the distinction to be called such) gave the opera business an unexpected gift at the 1990 Football World Cup. With the many copy-cats that came afterward (some worthy and some disrespectful) the businessmen of opera failed to make the distinction between opera-light and opera at its fundamental core.  From the Corsican, Tino Rossi in the 1920s and 30s to Mario Lanza in the 1940s and 50s, opera light has always existed.  Whereas in the past, the stars of opera light encouraged the masses to go to the opera house and learn about opera, the non-artistic administrators more adept at public relations than distinguishing between true talent and superficiality, made the error in thinking that they could water-down opera to the superficial tastes of the masses.  Those of us who work in opera and do the trench work with the devoted artists who sweat blood for this art form, we predicted at least a decade ago on opera forums that this bubble, like the Dot-com bubble before it, would eventually burst. 

That is the reason I brought up my studio.  For better or for worse, I aspire to an ideal that maybe out of step with the times.  I expect my students (and myself) to build up their voices like athletes build up their bodies for competition. Furthermore I encourage them to be exceptional musicians (I seem to attract the brainy type), linguists, actors and philosophers.  Better said, I encourage the philosophers in them. My 27-year old ex-baritone began his journey to tenor some nine months ago. F4 was a terribly difficult note for him. Now he sings it every day as if it never was a problem. He knows the frustration he went through to own that note. He can sing a beautiful high B now. Perhaps he does not own it quite yet, but he knows it is just a matter of time. Their is a logic to his process and he trusts it.  I am now in the fortunate place to see the final product in some of these singers and to see many of them close behind and to have the confidence that those who are not there yet will soon be rejoicing as well.  After some 30 years since I had my first voice lesson and after some 25 years of unbroken teaching (I was encouraged to teach since I finished my undergrad voice pedagogy class), although there is always more to learn, the process of learning to sing makes clear sense to me.

Yet, humility before the art is the greatest gift in all of this. False modesty is a waste of time. Indeed there is a difference.  One of my most accomplished students called me “Guru” today. I cringe to hear the word because a former colleague of mine recently insinuated that he does not like gurus, a cloaked criticism of my teaching philosophy.  When I laughed she said that she “bowed to my knowledge” in the way the Indian musicians respect their teachers, and indeed the way I respect my Kung Fu teacher. When I told her I could not have any illusions of grandeur since half of my students sing much better than I do at this point. She said: “What does that have to do with anything?” Ten minutes later, an accomplished baritone student called me to ask me if he should accept two roles that were just offered him. He precised that he would say no if I did not think he could do them. This reverence I believe I have earned as these students have earned my respect. We are accomplices in this process and I will be proud to stand by them on good days and bad days.

I disagree with my honorable student though. It does matter to me that many of my students sing better than I do. I am not in competition with them certainly, but my goal is to get my own voice to the highest level. That way I too can represent them in a way that makes them proud of their teacher. I can now demonstrate much of what I teach. Some things I cannot do yet, because I have to retrain to erase the many errors I made singing the wrong repertoire for 20 years. Yet I am a long way from two years ago when I began my own retraining.  As I listen to these fine vocal wines emerging from the studio and seeing them defy age and other preconceptions to become confident and to have faith in their unique gifts, I feel empowered to write a blog post like this.

It is from those of us who are 100% committed to the development of this complex art form that yet another renaissance of opera will begin. I am not one of those doomsday types who believe that opera is done. When the money is gone and all the superficial nonsense has gone away, the real singers (the committed ones), the real directors and conductors will be there to pick up the pieces and inspire new generations of true opera-lovers.  It takes profound, developed talent to excite the average person to become an opera fan.  Profound talent is like deep tissue massage, it gets at the very essence of the person who is being massaged and probably at the essence of the masseur as well.  The teacher is masseur to the singer, and the singer become masseur to his/her listener.

And so back to why my body decided to give up alcohol.  The day after the magnificent meal and wine at Björns Bar, I woke up and did my Kung Fu exercises and did not think much of it. It felt like any other day. A couple of weeks ago in Berlin, I had a couple of glasses of wine with some friends at dinner and the next day I felt very weak. My Kung Fu exercises were next to impossible. Also singing was more difficult on that day. I felt dry and inflexible.  I spend my day with a group of amazingly inspired people who make my life vibrant and full of purpose. Every part of me now craves quality. I desire the physical strength and flexibility that Kung Fu provides. I wish to feel physically vibrant and healthy and lucid and energetic. My students, and indeed I, deserve no less. And so, I reserve the right to buy a quality bottle of wine once in a long while and savor it, perhaps at the suggestion of a world-class sommelier. Such a wine will do me good. And since such a pleasure would come only at very wide intervals, there would be no danger of polluting myself with mediocre wines on a regular basis.  That can be said for coffee, food and even relationships.

I am not a snob for desiring quality.  To be a snob is to deny the average person the same quality that I desire. It would be a great world if the average person had the opportunity to learn to appreciate true opera and a real fine wine, instead of watering down Chateauneuf du Pape because we think that the average person could not handle the bold taste of that wine.  What has the opera business done these past twenty years if not attempting to water down opera to a bland version that the average person supposedly can digest?

I will finish with current news. The New York Times hails the new cast of the Met Tosca (Patricia Racette, Jonas Kaufman and Bryn Terfel) in the Luc Bondy production that was booed last Fall at opening night.  If anyone thinks that this vindicates the ill-conceived Bondy experiment, he or she would be sorely mistaken.  Having seen these three singers live, I can understand why they inspired fevered bravos this week. And yes I got one of the last $20 tickets available for next Tuesday. I want to be inspired too and will bring field glasses if necessary. Whatever their errors, these singers are experienced, inspired artists who have done the trench work to get where they are. They are big personalities who are able to channel their powerful psyches through great voices. They would make the Met audience roar even if the stage was bare.  Great productions enhance the music rather than thinking of it as a Hollywood-style soundtrack.  As a great conductor once said to me just before the dress rehearsal of an  ill-conceived production of Die Zauberflöte: “Let’s think of it as a concert version!”

© 04/10/2010