This post is almost thirty years in the making! Perhaps this more than any other article I write could represent a type of Kashu-do (歌手道) manifesto. Some twenty-eight years ago, a coach-accompanist and gifted teacher of young singers, named Glenn Parker, was coaching a young soprano in a masterclass. She had chosen the celebrated sacred aria “Alleluia” from Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate. The singer is expected to find many different ways of expressing the single word “Alleluia” as set in variations by Mozart. She had a lovely voice and sang all the notes, but it was static! We were not moved. When Parker got her to be more expressive, she protested that it was a sacred piece and she, a Christian, did not want to appear boastful, to which Parker replied: “Wouldn’t a Christian want to boast about God?” She seemed taken by surprise as if she did not expect this interpretation. He continued and said something I never forgot, which could have planted the seeds that became Kashu-do: “You must be humble enough to be grand if it is what the music demands!” In a sense, operatic music, always requires us to be grand–grand in the sense that we must open ourselves totally and express with all of our resources, whether the music requires us to sing softly or loudly. We must be grandly soft or grandly loud. In fact, soft singing requires us to give even more.
The grandest version of ourselves is the most natural version–unfiltered, without artifice. The problem is that the natural utterance, the primal scream that comes from a baby’s cry or a child’s unabashed laughter– the stuff of our vocal nature– is usually lost so early that when we are brought back to this sound, we think it shrill, unrefined and coarse. Yet outside of our conditioned inner ear, that raw sound reaches the innermost regions of the human psyche. It is as piercing as it is tender, as savage as it is elegant. It is the totality of a human being represented in sound, and its primal nature makes it immediately moving. That is the stuff of operatic voices, the Golden Fleece of vocal music, that can make stones weep according to the legend of Orpheus, which in turn inspired the first opera.
Sounds like that require strength not overexertion! They require balanced effort not strain! Too many teachers today are so afraid of strength and balanced effort that anything short of total physical passivity gives them cause for alarm. The appearance of effortlessness is based on developed strength. Indeed some singers are robust of body and have always used their voices in a natural primal manner. So they often are not even aware how strong they are innately. For such a singer, singing has always been an easy experience, and so they tend to further the idea that singing opera should not require effort. A natural misunderstanding based on that particular singer’s physical make-up and personal experience. Such a singer can only teach a singer who has a similar physical make-up and vocal manner.
Personally, one of my greatest struggles is to accept my dramatic tenor voice. Oddly enough, the best place to test this is by singing lyric repertoire and not back away from my dramatic nature. I am currently preparing “Una furtiva lagrima” and “Parigi o cara” for a small concert. In one practice I realized the easiest way to sing that aria musically and lyrically was to imagine it was the “Preislied” from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Singing “lyrically” that is without strain (as the phrase is used) is in essence to sing with one’s true voice. Forcing comes whether one tries to overexert and sing louder or with greater substance than is native to himself or one tries to reduce the voice against its nature. The common understanding is that forcing comes from overexerting! It takes extra energy to reduce the voice against its nature — A kind of energy that traps the voice in a functional process that is hindered and inflexible.
Accepting the greatest version of ourselves in singing could be 1) either respecting that the voice is of smaller substance and treat it according and in so doing release the most powerful resonance conditions that the voice has available to it or 2) committing the physical effort to a voice of great mass such that it has the appropriate physical support to sound fluid, flexible and yes “lyrical”.
The operatic field in recent decades has propagated an ideal of “less effort is better!” This works relatively well for lighter voices (although not always. Some light voices don’t function because they lack physical support). Thus, the field supports lyric voices until the singers get older and then they begin singing repertoire that is too taxing for the voices and they decay in quality like a bad vintage of wine. Those voices should flourish in appropriate repertoire that is no longer performed because the operatic machine only present operas, of which the common person in the street has heard the title. So a lyric soprano has little to fill a career. She must begin with coloratura repertoire that might be too taxing in the highest range and then do well in the lyric roles that are being perform and then grab on to Lady Macbeth since by Callas, it represents a star vehicle! But I digress!
It is not going to be the operatic machine that decides for us, and perhaps not even our voice teachers. In the studios I frequent in New York I hear great voices. There are very capable teachers out there! The question is whether the necessity of running a voice studio as a business in a large city, and only as a business (as opposed to an artistic endeavor as well) gives the teacher and the student the opportunity to develop the voice beyond mere function. Does a teacher in a large city have the opportunity to get to know the person behind the voice? How can one discover a singer’s true personality when only dealing with vocal tissue? For my part, as a teacher, I begin to do my best work when we have gone beyond fundamental function and start to deal with the singer’s personality. It often takes longer to get to that point than the average New York or big city singer is prepared for.
Opera is an old school art and like any great artistic pursuit, it demands the total person! Unless we go back to Old School principles (accompanied by New School technologies) Opera will be reduced to a mere curiosity and status symbol. Opera is about personality and vocal personality! Yet it is not about personality imposed from the outside! It is about liberating the person who is inside. It is about being brave enough to present the true self, unfettered, without judgment through the medium of the voice.
How many can really dare to be vocally and emotionally naked before the music and the audience? Being actually physically naked on the operatic stage is in fact a pretense for not being emotionally available. I have not yet seen nudity on the operatic stage that was not self-conscious and labored. I have seen nudity on the spoken theater stage that worked well. Operatic energy is sustained musical energy, which makes naturalistic usage of nudity banal and uninteresting. Indeed a poor substitute for the emotional and vocal honesty that is actually necessary!
For a voice to sound naked (truly honest and unfettered) it must be unfurled, open! A naked body that is collapsed, hiding all the private parts is not the same as full-frontal! How can we expect a singer who has always used the voice in a collapsed fashion to be truly open? We cannot! We must first rebalanced the muscles such that the voice may take its true natural form. Only then can the singer present the true voice! The naked voice (to borrow the title of Stephen Smith’s book)!
It takes a special kind of humility to release the true voice, which represents our grandest vocal self. That kind of humility also recognizes the work it takes to get to such a level. And not despair when the road gets tough. The road will get tough! For reasons we never expect. True Opera is not for pretenders and poseurs, of which the current stage is full. It is for the humble and the courageous inhabiting one skin; for the doubtful who confidently perseveres; the underdog who strives for the betterment of self and through it betters us all!