My first visit to Valencia confirmed something that has been clear to me for a long time. The world is full of fantastic voices and people who would love to sing on the operatic stage. Many are left disappointed when their dreams of singing on stage are not realized. Along those lines I often use the metaphor of “The Sun and the Lens.” Many children have used a lens against the light of the sun to create a makeshift laser, some to burn paper and some to burn ants. I was of the less cruel bunch, burning paper.
The angle that the lens is held must be relatively precise in order to create the laser effect. Thus it is with a career:
How precise must the voice be coordinated in order to create the “squillo” that makes a voice operatically viable? In this case the relationship is between the source tone (the sun) and the resonator (the lens).
How clear must the message be to capture the audience’s attention? In this case, the relationship is between the message (the sun) and the vehicle of transmition (the lens).
The instrument of transmission is much more than the voce squillante, it is also the singer’s looks, personal charm, acting ability, linguistic skills, worldliness, sense of humor, confidence, etc.
The message itself, in order to be viable, must be informed by history, poetic sensitivity, humanity, life experience, etc.
As opera singers, it is true that the voice is the most important determinent of the viability of the message in question. But a well-produced voice devoid of a message is only a sound, which becomes boring very soon if not infused with a message.
A clear message delivered through a well-produced voice may still be refused if the singer is badly dressed or looks otherwise unseemly, simply because such things could distract the listener.
The voices I heard here in Valencia were remarkably beautiful but not finished. A coloratura, with nice fluty high Fs singing the Queen, but lacking in the kind of support that gives the voice substance and authority. It took this very intelligent singer little time to work it out. Another coloratura afraid of her high notes, learned to use her breath to produce a solid and beautiful high G6. A baritone stopped darkening his voice slightly to produce the brilliant fold closer that was the last piece missing to produce his squillo. A fabulous, first rate dramatic baritone with a magnificent high A has been singing bass because he has good low notes. A tenor with a substantial spinto voice was encouraged to sing baritone. These easier choices can be the usolved dysfunctions that holds the singer back.
It took very little effort to get these very coordinated singers to create their best sounds. Will they take the principles to heart and work to accomplish consistency and a higher quality of singing? I believe they can. I also know that some will and some will not.
From my vantage point, the average working professional has not achieved a very high level of singing with respect to what they could accomplish. The expectation is the bare minimum. Competition in such an atmosphere can seem stiffling because there are so many singers of a mediocre level applying for the same jobs. In such a populous environment, looks, race, height and all other biases will play a role in the decision of an agent, casting director or conductor.
The strategy I recommend is like that of a marathoner. Raise the pace of the race to fast enough for the slower runners to fall back, out of contention. If we continue with the metaphor of marathoners, we should realize that the lives of average marathoners is a frustrating one. When a professional marathoner enters a race and is not among the top marathoners in the world, winning a race is a rare thing–Like a middle level singer who gets one job every year and cannot really live on his professional activities but must have a back-up job.
The difference however is that marathoners are competing with the fastest runners in the history of mankind. A middle level marathoner can find consolation in the fact that s/he is running with the very best in the world and that not winning a race makes sense. Honestly I cannot say we are better than our forerunners. Not because singers today do not have the potential to be such, but the rigors of training in the conservatories of the world have been relaxed substantially in the last 40 years, and the expectation of casting agents have also changed away from the performer’s substantive artistic abilities to their ability to make an interesting commercial poster or record cover.
Did Pavarotti wonder if he was good enough to be at the level of his hero, Di Stefano? I doubt it seriously! I think he was too busy figuring out how to become his best instead of wondering whether he could or could not top the current top singer. The inner intensity required to actively work on becoming one’s best is the same kind of will-power necessary for going to the gym every day to work out. That kind of instensity transfers into one’s daily life energy. Such a singer looks differently when s/he walks into an audition room. The confidence that comes from amazing preparation is priceless.
Every professional golf player is looking to beat Tiger Woods. Every professional Tennis player looks to beat Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Who do we have to better in our field? Most people cannot even agree on who is the best in their vocal category. I for one I am not worried about the competition because there is so much room at the top. The only obstacle is to have the will power to develop to that level.
This kind of idealism is not unrealistic. It is the only practical thing in my point of view. Why would I want to compete with thousands of mid-level singers for a small job? That seems painful. Accepting that is a far more disturbing proposition than to work hard to avoid that level.
Edit: I edit this post to clarify that this is not meant to belittle singers who do their very best to achieve top form every day. Many work really hard and lose hope of ever finding the key to opening their own doors to quality and freedom. Still singers of the past generations achieved greater vocal abilities. At least the singers who are allowed to walk the stage today compare negatively with their predecessors for the most part. There are exceptions. That the paradigm has changed to accomodate the visual at the expense of the aural is the error. It could very well be we are not hearing the finest singers because they do not fit the new paradigm in terms of the visual component. Great big voices rarely come in a size 2. If the singers with the great big voices are hiding in choruses, it is incumbent upon them to make themselves viable in the new paradigm. On the other side of the argument, casting directors should realize that opera is an aural art form first. I have said this before, I welcome a supermodel figure on stage. Providing he or she can also satisfy my ear as well a s/he can my eyes.