I feel a need at this crucial time in Opera’s impending demise to define what we at Kashu-do stand for! We are sometimes called “cultish” by our detractors. Yes when we are gathering steam and are beginning to make an impact on the field, those who are afraid in some way of losing their status will attempt to define us for their benefit! That is totally normal and expected. And since in the last post, I encourage singers to define Opera and not let it be defined by those who do not believe in it, I became inspired in the process to talk about what we are.
Kashu-do (歌手道): The way of the Singer: I have always been interested in the martial arts, because
of the discipline, dedication and philosophy involved. The martial arts, like singing at its best, is about
lifelong self-development, aspiring to be the best that we can possibly be. Like Karate-Do,
The Way of the Empty Hand or Ju-Do, The Gentle Way, I adopted Kashu-Do to represent a philosophy
based on the most noble principles of the art of singing:
1. Lifelong Self-development:
WE STRIVE FOR PERFECTION KNOWING THAT WE WILL FALL SHORT. IT IS A VERY DIFFERENT THING TO STRIVE FOR LESS BECAUSE WE CANNOT ACHIEVE PERFECTION. THE FORMER IS NOBLE THE LATTER IS COMMON. AN ARTIST UNDERSTANDS THIS DIFFERENCE AND LIVES BY THE FORMER. – Kashu-do Principles
The Americans have a simpler version of this: “Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars.” – Les Brown
Performing is a very “naked” vulnerable experience and singers need confidence, the way a boxer before a fight or an athlete before a big event. Sometimes you need to convince yourself you are unbeatable. We go further! We develop a philosophy of “Yes We Can!” But we are always aware of our potential to fall short but persevere with a calm trust in our abilities to meet the challenge because we prepare for it. Being an artist is the noblest of pursuit and our world needs to recognize how very much it needs the arts. We are the ones to carry the torch! And how can we do that if we are ashamed of admitting what we are and what we stand for. At Kashu-do we are proud to be artists and what it means at the core to be one.
Is That Cultish
No, it is just artistic! This philosophy is not new. It is what artists of all stripes believed and lived by for centuries! Modern media has done a great job of countering this with a destructive philosophy of immediate gratification at every level: fast food, fast money, egocentric self-aggrandizement at the cost of long-term sustainability of the common good. A few singers make millions in the name of the art, contributing to its peril, because they have no responsibility to the art’s future. A few that I know at the top of the field tried their best to contribute the way they can, whether by taking little fees to promote a new work, or taking time to talk to young singers about where the field is now. Unfortunately, those many who think they are contributing are just buying in into the popularization of Opera bent on abandoning core values for a quick buck!
2. Advocacy for the Art of Opera:
We just are among those with our heads out of the sand, realizing that our art form has been compromised beyond repair at the hands of those who do not believe in its intrinsic great qualities. We believe opera can be successful in terms of what it actually is and not what it is forced to pose as. Pseudo-pop!
There are great singers, conductors, regisseurs, stage designers, instrumentalists, agents and casting directors who understand and love opera at its core. Our mission is to gather as many of these people as possible in the common cause of reclaiming the path of our art.
No we are not reactionary! We do not believe that operas need to be produced in period costumes and settings. But we much prefer that to the kind of desecration of the art form that poses as innovation these days! Singers don’t like it, audiences boo it, but they persist because those of us who care are afraid to become outcasts for speaking out against a conscious destruction of the art form. Well guess what? Those who really love opera as opera are already outcasts. So what have we to lose, except the cancer that is eating at the heart of our beloved art?
3. Wholistic Artistic Development:
Kashu-do began with a mission of common sense vocal pedagogy based on modern empirical information buttressed by traditional values. Our mission has expanded to instructing our singers about the core values of the art of opera: top level vocal technique, superlative musicianship, solid language skills, solid stagecraft worthy of a professional stage actor, self-confidence based on reliable skills and a sense of purpose, a well-rounded education and awareness of the world we live in, which in turn instructs our relevance as artists and our responsibility to the art form.
4. Instruction at all levels:
We have developed instruction tracks for Professionals, Aspiring Professionals and Dedicated Amateurs, as well as development strategies for Voice Teachers, Coach-Pianists and Stage Directors. We are looking for opportunities to develop Conductor Training and Artist Advocates (too many so-called agents only provide a company name for their singers and do not actively help them progress in the field while taking money for jobs the singers often find for themselves).
In short it is our mission to infiltrate the field in every way possible so to have an impact on the development of the field. We would like to be part of a community of antibodies that eliminate the cancer that has infected the art of opera. If it sounds extreme, it is because we care that much!
5. Meaningful Jobs for Singers in Development:
It is our goal to develop opportunities for singers to do work for the betterment of opera that allows them to pay their basic sustainability, without being so tired at the end of the day that they cannot practice. As we grow, we will be able to provide these opportunities. This is a central premise of our mission. An artist cannot grow when worried about paying the rent. We are addressing this problem as part of our company’s development strategy.
6. A philosophy of Inclusion against Co-dependence:
This past summer we put our money where our mouth is and developed Kashu-do Teacher Training. We invited teachers including several of our professional singers who are also gifted teachers, and spent a week developing. For the first three days we spent 10 hours a day discussing, anatomy, acoustics and empirical vocal functions, as well as vocal health and fitness and disorders. After each topic, each teacher contributed, based on their experience, how they approached each issue.
The information we presented as a core structure on the first days helped each teacher feel comfortable to offer his or her own experience into the bigger picture. So no one felt that they were being guided to teach a certain way.
Over the following four days, we took turns singing while 14 other teachers made comments from their individual perspectives. Each of us made visible progress in our half hour in front of the group. Because we had three days to develop a sense of what the bigger picture looks like, no one was afraid to put themselves in a position of having their singing analyzed and bettered by our colleagues.
We went further! Our teachers taught at the Academy and sang in a master class taught by 81-year old, legendary tenor, George Shirley, who rejected the title of “Master Teacher” in favor of “Eternal Student!” That is Kashu-do in a nutshell!
We believe at our core that NO TEACHER HAS ALL THE INFORMATION. NONE! So in a sense it is cultish to promote the idea that you have the only key to developing a student’s singing. In our studios we promote open lessons, unless the student needs privacy in their development. There are many occasions when the singer needs to be alone with his/her teacher (e.g. first lessons, working out a particularly difficult problem, those days when one is emotionally or psychologically a little down, professionals who need their work private, etc.)
Kashu-do Singers are free to have lessons with whoever they want, whenever they want. The singer owns his/her destiny. We teachers are only guides. Students come back to us because they believe they are progressing! No one teacher is the single solution for any singer. Developing a singer is developing an artistic person. For that we need a team that is appropriate for each individual singer. Cults seek to imprison their members into an ideology of exclusivity. We free singers to find their individual paths.
We teach Tai-Chi and Kung Fu as part of our core curriculum because they are proven techniques to help the singer in developing mental focus and self-confidence as well as total physical fitness. But we do not force anyone into this. We encourage it! We promote Yoga, Pilates, and any form of fitness and mental focus exercise.
We continue to maintain our core values at every level. Our Partner Institution, Härnösands Folkhögskola
in Northern Sweden has adopted our philosophy in their curriculum. Young students get the opportunity to develop musical, vocal, linguistic, theatrical skills in an environment that promotes teamwork, competition in a way that encourages each other to improvement as opposed to tearing each other down. We alternate Tai Chi and Kung Fu daily and our students are physically more fit, more flexible, and more daring in general. Their confidence after a few months is visibly improved. We can see their gradual transformation into committed artists.
I, Jean-Ronald LaFond, developed Kashu-do. It became a reality through my transformation from baritone to tenor. I went to top schools, worked with top teachers and began a professional career only to find out in the middle of it that I was in fact a dramatic tenor not a baritone. It was not discovered because by that point, most of the schools in the West (North America and Europe) had prescribed a style of singing based on non-invasive caution, dealing with the superficial adjustments of the voice. A teacher who would have called me a dramatic tenor at 19 or 20 might have been labeled a quack or dangerous in the safe pedagogy of modern University settings. But it is my believe that having a larger voice is genetic. However, that one has the genetic material does not mean that one has developed it. I had to go through my experience to understand this fact and many others. The vocal material is given but it’s development is environmental and based on traditions and training.
I will have been teaching for 30 years as of this coming Spring. Great pedagogy comes from the experience of teaching thousands of voices over a long time. That and a constant curiosity to understand further, and the humility that I can always learn more even from my least experienced student lead to Kashu-do. I love the art of Opera more than my own personal need to be onstage. I did not think that would be the case because I love what I do. I am a singer first. However to do the kind of singing that I want to do, there must be a system that values it. Who is going to heal the operatic world?
I start by healing my own voice, with my own knowledge and the help of those I trust to guide me. Every singer needs a teacher or a few. If all singers heal their relationship to this art form, we might be strong enough together to heal the whole thing. Conductors and directors and agents and casting directors need to look themselves in the mirror too. But we cannot have an impact on them before we make sense of our own house as a singer community!
My Team: I am surrounded by great pedagogues, successful students, and some wonderful colleagues and friends in the business that have a similar vision of Opera. We combine our efforts to grow an ever expanding network of professionals to provide an alternative to egocentric, self-serving visions of the world. We would like to see the great works old and new performed for centuries and for that to happen, we must stop the bleeding of operatic values that is currently happening. The hemorrhage is dangerous and Opera as a sustainable art form needs emergency help. No one person is going to heal Opera. But serious people who care about this art form can come together and do the job, even if it means challenging the establishment. Most likely it will.
We are not a cult! We challenge the cultish nature of the current opera establishment. We call attention to facts and we respect the hard work it takes to produce an opera. We dare to be Quixotic. We dream big and we envision a world where opera singers can make a living doing what they love, not what others who don’t like the art twist it to become.
This afternoon I watched the dress rehearsal of a fascinating, very modern treatment of Rossini’s Viaggio a Reims at Härnösands Folkhögskola, a difficult opera sung by young singers in their early 20s. It is a magnificent production and a testament to the fact that modern treatments of operas can be highly artistic, entertaining, totally updated without violating the essence of the piece. The singing is at the center of this genius interpretation on a very low budget. If you don’t know the name Märit Bergvall, you should! If it is the last thing I do, I will make sure the world knows this genius regisseur! I have seen four productions by this magnificent woman and it would be a crime if the world does not get to experience her magic. Too many fakes in the opera world desecrating opera because they are unmusical, unimaginative and plainly boring. This woman is another Katharina Thalbach or Christoph Loy or Stefan Herheim! This is to say, the world of opera is not without genius directors and great conductors and great singers. It is simply that some other agenda is obstructing their good work and forcing them down a path that is neither worthy of their talents nor of our art form. This must end and it begins with each one of us who cares. No more whining: “Oh, the opera world is being destroyed and I can’t get a job!” Well, if you really care, let’s go to war!