Over the last week, I began a very intense yet light-hearted relationship with two rather exceptional singers. The people who heard their lessons would not think it an overstatement to say that I was teaching singers with talents comparable to two of the greatest singers of the last 50 years. Of course I was not teaching Domingo and Moser, but at certain times it felt like it. From physical energy and appearance and vocal quality these two singers have the quality of their predecessors and the musical and dramatic intelligence as well. They both speak more languages than the average singer finds possible and they are two extremely dedicated people.
Working with them is extremely intense yet at the same time very balanced. They are both experienced singers and have been around the block. So there is no euphoria from achieving a certain amount of technical advancement right away. They have well-developed voices, have worked hard to develop them and expect to work hard to reach higher levels.
I have been teaching long enough not to get euphoric about voices that enter my studio. (Of course when talents of this kind open their mouths, one cannot help but to show surprise). The reason I do not get euphoric is because I have had many singers with great voices who do not have the patience to work on details. They get distracted by their emotions and do not see how emotional intensity without awareness of technical balance causes them problems. They do not understand why learning to sing softly makes their louder singing more efficient and more beautiful. They can’t be bothered to stretch beyond their comfort zones.
The experience with these singers was different. They came to learn and their extraordinary vocal qualities gave them no reason to not want to discover what the next step was.
In the case of my new “Edda Moser” (I only use the pseudonym to give the reader an idea of the kind of voice. Every singer is individual), she has had success singing the Queen of the Night with a flute voice approach and had been offered Adina, which to her (and to me) made little sense. When she first opened her mouth to sing “Pace, pace mio dio…” I found it a little puzzling that she should sing the Queen (not because of the size of the voice but rather because of the strength in the lower tessitura). It was all very strong but for some reason lacking in intensity. The next day I wanted to hear her Queen and it was thrilling up until the Fs which went into this little flute voice (still pretty big coming from such a big voice). I encouraged her to support the higher range better and it did not take much for the Fs and all the fioratura to take on the same color as the rest of her voice. She said it felt so much more comfortable. She was never told she could use her complete vocal color in the top range.
In successive lessons we took on Abigaile (Nabucco), Elena (Vespri Siciliani), Leonora (Trovatore), Leonore (Fidelio) and Mozart’s Elettra (Idomeneo), Donn’Anna (Giovanni) plus continued refining the Queen. All these pieces were breathtakingly easy for her and she reveled in the high tessitura of those roles. She capped the Trovatore aria with a spontaneous top Eb and the Vespri aria with an E natural.
At the first lesson, she attempted “Dich Theure Halle” and it did not fit! The voice seemed to lack substance in the passaggio and she looked uncomfortable.
The reason I mention all of these details is that we do not hear voices like that very often, these days. Or better said, singers with big voices imagine that they were made to sing “big” repertoire “period”! But indeed there are different kinds of dramatic voices and a young dramatic coloratura is better served developing comfort in the top range to take on big “coloratura” roles as opposed to roles that tax the voice in unnatural ways.
Not too long ago, another student with a voice of this type was convinced by someone with the power to cast that she should take on straight spinto roles. It is an important distinction to make in teaching students with extraordinary voices. The advice of those with casting power or of agents who could open doors are not always sound. But singers hungry for work will take whatever comes their way and I can understand the pressure. Opera administrators blur the lines of vocal category to fill seats using recognized names rather than appropriate voices. Who is the young singer who will doubt their opinions?
It was important to have 5 lessons in one week. We got to know each other, there were many questions and answers provided and a level of trust achieved. More importantly, at the end of the period we were in total agreement about the repertoire I suggested and the technical approach was clear and immediately effective (only because the voice was already developed). There was a logic to it all. Mozart’s Queen, Donn’Anna and Elettra led perfectly into the early Verdi operas with their big coloratura demands. We discussed her Wagnerian future and decided we will let the voice tell us when it has gained the strength and maturity to sustain such volume in a slightly lower tessitura. Most people hearing that singer would want her to sing Brünnhilde tomorrow. But that would be a sad mistake!
After a week of work, the woman who was in tears because she did not understand why her career was not developing walked out with a clear vision of what her next steps would look like.
Now to my Domingo! A former baritone who was once told by Placido that he could be his son, discovered his tenor voice and it might as well be Placido. This wonderful man is a great cook and we conversed in and out of 5 languages. He has an extra-ordinary charm a grand physical presence and a fast energy that reminds me and others of the great Placido. There is subtle vocal work to be done but the voice and the personality are made to sing big tenor roles. On our third lesson, after we made good work of Canio, Lohengrin and Don José, I requested “una furtiva lagrima.” He thought he would not be able to sing it because it is one of the most challenging pieces to sing and it is not repertoire he will ever be hired to do. I insisted it was necessary and he sang it with incredible lyricism and inspired understanding. So what does such a terrific singer need?
Simply, this singer needed to know that he needs to do less…almost nothing! Breathe imagining the exact sound you wish to make, keep the feeling of the intake and “let your body/brain do it for you!” It is a simple thing to say but a very difficult thing to do when you are someone with a great passion and a amazing physical strength to boot. I rarely have to tell a singer to do less work, because most singers do not have good muscular development for singing and they have to work hard to produce a real operatic sound. This singer, very much like his predecessor, has the strength of 10 young bulls. Reigning someone like that in is not easy. It is important to celebrate the virtue of his strength by letting him go in balanced ways and then ask the most difficult thing. Do less…sing piano…do nothing…sing pianissimo…within the context of understanding what the pieces of vocal technique are and how they relate to each other. Our 5th out of six days we talked for two hours and the next day we did Tai Chi! That took a huge amount of trust that will bear out over the long hall.
This is a rare singer who will be heard soon I believe and who will do so only when he allows the calm of his inner person to guide him instead of the angst of the outside world.
Operatic singing is a “long game!” Those who understand that accomplish extra-ordinary things and people call them “exceptions,” “outliers.”
This exciting soprano could easily become just another loud singer! And this very rare tenor could easily become a victim of his emotions, like so many do. I have had my first round with them and if it continues the way I think it will, we might have much to celebrate together, but as with everything, there is no guarantee. However capable I may be in my knowledge (for which I work every day), the future of these singers, as always, is in their own hands.
Rocky needed his coach, Micky, to discover his full potential. But he was Rocky to begin with. More than talent, more than charm, more than intelligence, more than musicianship, a great singer needs a great heart that will persevere against all odds and obstacles to find the way of his/her uncompromising truth, the way of the warrior…The Way of the Singer.