Kashu-do (歌手道): The Olympics of Opera Singing: The Power of the East at the Tchaikovsky Competition 2015

It is no secret, by name alone, that Kashu-do has its roots in Eastern philosophy.  But not all Eastern philosophies are the same.  What Korea, Russia, China, Ukraine and now Mongolia have in common is an adherence to “Old School” principles and a traditional definition of what an operatic sound actually is.  While these countries have strong popular music styles and a very vibrant pop markets, it would seem, as evident by the strong contestants representing these countries in the last Tchaikovsky Competition, that they do not confuse popular styles with Operatic values.

At the Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, last August, the most common comment I received from audiences was: “I did not know an operatic voice sounded that extraordinary!”  One person said it was like hearing X-Men whose superpower was an overwhelming resonant voice.  Operatic singing is as mind-boggling to a listener as it is to watching basketball legend, Michael Jordan fly to the basket or Ussain Bolt break world records in the 100m dash.  It feels “superhuman!” And it does not matter if it is a light coloratura shooting out rapid-fire fioratura or a dramatic baritone singing Scarpia’s first entrance.  The way the fully-developed operatic voice vibrates the surrounding air is a magical experience.

The live experience of a fully resonant operatic voice singing great music with compelling understanding does not need preamble.  We do not need to make excuses for opera as an art form but rather give the live audience what it comes for:  great vocal power, great emotion, great music and great story telling.  Opera thrives in the Eastern countries because they have embraced the Operatic genre for what it is and they more than any other continue to produce great voices.  If one goes to the Opera in Russia or China or Korea, one expects to hear great voices and they are in abundance.  Listeners in those countries make the difference between a pop singer attempting to croon an operatic aria and the true Opera singer delivering a bona fide performance.  In the West, Opera in the Movies is the new norm, which means that it is enough to look good on screen while crooning an aria that sounds resonant on the movie screen (boosted by microphones) and inaudible in the live hall.

The Easterners prove that there is no shortage of voices and interesting stage personalities, very evident in the Tchaikovsky Competition (admittedly the only vocal competition I trust to be fair anymore).  Fully resonant voices are more rare in the West.  To control dynamics and be refined with a fully developed large voice requires extraordinary breath management.  When the developing singer shows signs of difficulty because the breath mechanism is not yet fully developed, Western teachers are more likely to have them “reduce everything” to produce a “pretty” tone, even if the tone is inaudible.  I must say I have not gone to one international competition where I heard Koreans and Russians and Chinese singers reduce themselves.  When they sing a “piano” it is an event!  Because it sounds like it requires the balance of a tight-rope-walker to maintain it.  And it does!  This leaves the audience spellbound, intrigued, speechless. And when that same voice turns on the volume, it is like waves of warm sound passing right through one’s body and we feel changed.

The East is just as effected by modern consumerism and immediate gratification as the West. But somehow they make room for both the superficial entertainment of Pop-Opera and the ennobling, profoundly life-changing  experience of Grand Opera.  I am not suggesting that we give up Opera at the Movies.  However, if we hope for that audience to come to the Opera House and enjoy the experience, we will need real voices to do the job!

The Winner of the Tchaikovsky Voice Competition 2015 was also the Grand Prize Winner (overall winner) was Mongolian baritone, Ariunbaatar Gunbaatar, one among a large number of Mongolian singers who took part in the competition.  Many of them who did not make it past the first round will probably end up having world class careers.

Here he is demonstrating a cantilena from a large voice, an almost lost art today as truly large voiced singers tend to sing lower voice parts instead of learning to control their large voices in the appropriate tessitura.

This young singer with a mighty voice is not only well-trained but singing Largo al factotum for the Winners Concert reveal a real concept of traditional voice building.  Reminds of the great Bastianini singing this great baritone aria, which is no longer considered territory for full-voiced baritones.

It is no secret that the great secret of developing voices in the East is a true adherence to tradition!  More coming on this discussion.

© 10/20/2015