When I began writing this blog more than 11 years ago, it was the first of its kind. It was members of the original NFCS forum that suggested I put my thoughts on technique in blog form. But much has happened in technology since then and blogging as a medium, has become almost uninteresting to much of the operatic audience. I am a teacher at heart and whether consciously or unconsciously, I am always in teaching mode. I have a great desire for young opera singers coming up to be informed, educated. More than ever, young singers cannot count on any single person to give them information. The operatic field has become like the Wild West. It is less about fully-formed professionals and more about who is brave enough to throw themselves in the fire and hope to survive. It’s less like the gold prospectors of old, who would spend a lifetime searching, hoping to find that one nugget that makes them rich. It is more like the gambler, who will risk everything, including his home, at the poker table, hoping to score on that perfect hand. Our singers are no longer royal flushes, where all parts are strong. A pair of twos is enough sometimes when the competition is one ace as a high card.
This is not a criticism of singers! From me, it is a criticism of the system from colleges and conservatories to the opera houses themselves and many of us who play in that system. We teachers and coaches are frustrated because our work is rendered invalid when quality is not what is rewarded. Young singers are more interested in a coach who says “phrase it like Callas did,” instead of the one who says “learn the harmonic language and understand why you should phrase this way!” Which of these coaches would Callas hire?
Physical attributes and charisma are rewarded even where fundamental vocal technique and musicianship severely lack! Why would a singer return to a teacher to work on legato when all they care about is “making it through this aria!” Twenty years ago, teachers who offer quick fixes were labeled charlatans. Today they are rewarded with titles like “genius” for enabling their fundamentally untrained singers’ emotional fragility. That is until those singers (even the most celebrated ones) come crashing and burning. Self-immolation!
We hear of singers routinely depending on beta-blockers and even cocaine to either bring them down or up in preparation of a performance. Operatic Singing is difficult! Those that truly master themselves to become consistently great at it were always few. In that regard, there are enough jobs for the people who are committed to doing this. But the system as it stands no longer gets to interact with the majority of the most dedicated and yes talented young singers, especially those with fuller voices who require time to develop. Instead, the system lowers competition age limits until fuller voiced singers age out before they are ready. The bar is lowered (first by opera theaters and subsequently by schools) for vocal technique and musicianship, the two criteria that most importantly define opera singers. They are replaced by big breasts and and 6-packs and the ability to look good on camera. Voice and musicianship are incidental! The winners for competitions are already picked before competitions begin and all of this in plain sight. There is no accountability! The singers who suffer most will not complain because they are afraid they will be blacklisted. The coaches and conductors who know better will not rock the boat for fear of being also blacklisted. There is plenty of willing mediocrity to replace any concerned professional.
But even though there is a place for a blog like mine, the audience that is most important to me, the young singers, is not interested in dissertation-like arguments like the ones I present here.
The young singers of today are best served by the Youtube personality, This is Opera!, who goes after opera’s modern incarnation with the straightforwardness of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, if lacking her eloquence! I don’t mean to diss the Unknown Crusader. Quite the opposite! His binary approach speaks to the average emotional young singer out there. With rare exception (the ones who are really committed to the art form), today’s average young singer is more interested in the fast lane before they even learn to drive. And they are rewarded by agents, many who have lost their souls, for being committed to success! But then they are dropped as soon as they falter. The majority of young singers are not going to listen to nuanced arguments. They respond to shock treatment, whether in lessons by teachers who alternate between: “you are the best thing since Callas!” and “Is it possible for you to suck more?!” Maybe it’s the times we are in. Our Youtube Vigilante (I’m giving him quite a few monikers) is exactly what the young generation responds to. I have received many messages and emails from young singers asking what I think of This is Opera!.
I make it a point of treating active singers fairly on this blog. Whatever my feelings may be about whether a singer is ready for professional work or not, the system put these singers out there and they have to fend as best as they can. In most cases, these singers are trying their best to deal with uncertainty and they do not need someone like me raking them over the coals. I hate the system we are in because I love singing and the singers. But those same singers need to hear the ugly truth, that operatic readiness requires time, which singers are not given, which conductors and even coaches are no longer given and that stage-directors on the whole are not given. The field has been rotting from within for generations (if it sounds like our politics worldwide, that is no coincidence). Theaters for the most part do not present Opera. They present an Idea of Opera–A symbol that affluent people can experience just to have a sense of status and that masses now go to the movies for, just to remind themselves of the larger-than-life experience that their parents told them they experienced with Pavarotti and Price. What their parents experienced in live sounds, they experience in blown up pictures. Opera is for the ears first! When I go to the opera and a gorgeous woman walks on stage and takes my breath away, if the sound she emits is weak, she loses all sex appeal. It is often said, that on the operatic stage, the moment someone opens their mouth, we forget what they look like. This cut both ways! They are either a prince or a frog, a femme fatale or a bag lady, depending on the sound that comes out of their mouths. On the movie screen, however, it’s all jumbled up since microphones can make up for a fundamentally weak voice.
Opera at its best demands the best of us! I will not die if I never see a stage again. But my soul will die if I don’t strive to sing as well as I possibly can! Pursuing the art of opera, like anything taken to its zenith, challenges us to our very core. It brings out the best in us and even if we never quite get to where we wanted, walking that path changes us, ennobles us, enriches us and indeed everyone who gets to experience us when we are honestly taking on that challenge.
This is Opera! uses a blunt instrument effectively! In the clips, s/he hits the younger generation, and anyone who is willing to listen, over the head repeatedly until s/he gets the point across, and the comparisons aptly show the difference between the great singers of previous generations and how modern singers, and the system that give them rise, too often only give a symbolic Idea of Opera instead of delivering the genuine article.
For my part, I will continue to make arguments in as balanced a way as I can. But that is not going to drive home the message to singers who are out there, many of which are inadequately trained and a step away from a disastrous end. No exaggeration necessary! Just go on Youtube and listen to singers from when they hit the big leagues and see how long they have lasted. Without a solid technique, more than ever, it is a game of vocal Russian Roulette out there. Therefore, it is good to have this Operatic Dirty Harry out there taking them on with a video version of a .44 Magnum asking:
“Do you feel lucky?…Well do you, punk!”