Why Opera Must Be an Elite (not elitist) Art Form–Part 1–Singers and Their Teachers

We are living in a time of expediency, which is too often mistook for efficiency. Opera can be produced more efficiently, with less waste of money certainly. However, to make the distinction between expediency and efficiency we require competency!

I have spent most of my life, more than two thirds of it as a voice teacher. I had hoped that with the availability of greater empirical information that voice teachers would be able to sit down and discuss the facts we know and how we deal with the information we don’t yet know. Instead, on the one hand, many try to posture authority by talking about vowel formants as if that constitutes the Holy Grail of finite vocal science and thereby hold themselves above those who have been too lethargic to spend the little time necessary to understand the limited nature of the science that’s available to us. On the other hand, with Lamperti’s Vocal Wisdom in hand, others shun vocal science like fundamental Christians citing Bible verses against the evidence of Natural Science and Evolution, not realizing they are stunting their own growth. Why?

In a world accelerated beyond the capacity of the average human being to keep up, the average person prefers digestible bits of information. Sound bytes!

“Instead of bringing me to understanding of how fold closure at three points of contact feels and how continuous, automatic compression occurs based on that complex closure and that the desire for the true vowels combined with a well phonated tone (breath and fold dynamics) results in spontaneous vowel modification…

…Just tell me to put it forward! Or lift my soft palate! Or close the folds a little tighter! Or pulse my stomach muscles inward for support! Or simulate defecation! Or…Or…Or…”

Instead of bringing me to the experience of how Appoggio relates to impostazione, relates to gola aperta, relates to morbidezza, relates to chiaroscuro, relates to voce di petto AND voce di testa…

…Just tell me to put it forward! Or lift my soft palate! Or close the folds a little tighter! Or pulse my stomach muscles inward for support! Or simulate defecation! Or…Or…Or…”

Do you tell a football player that modern understanding of muscular biomechanics does not matter in their training protocols? Do you tell a modern figure skater to just create more speed before doing a Quadruple Axel or do you tell them also that tucking their arms tightly in contributes to centrifugal force that accelerates the rotations and help accomplish the quad? Other physical disciplines, like Dance and Sports and event instrumental music grow their traditions in harmony with scientific research. Singing has given way to a great divergence between science and tradition, a division that has served only to create acrimony between colleagues and hold the development of our discipline hostage to ego, and absolutism on both the science side and the tradition side. Garcia was a traditional teacher but he was curious about how the voice worked and helped usher the human voice into the 19th century with the kind of information that helped make the human voice acoustically dominant in its competition with the orchestra. Not by sheer loudness but by perceived loudness relative to the human ear. In one word, resonance! Vennard in the previous century brought us more of the science as he understood than any other teacher before him. But he was a student of the operatic arts and his knowledge of science did not prevent him from using traditional methods. He understood that the science was incomplete and simultaneous that understanding it gave him a deeper understanding of traditional methods.

Pavarotti said often that operatic singing is a sport! I never take Pavarotti literally when he speaks English but rather try to understand how he is translating from Italian. The tenor was a superb technician and though never taught in conservatories apparently taught a lot of students privately. We who have had to develop muscle strength and stamina (who did not have it at the onset of vocal training) understand the amount of strength, flexibility and stamina it takes to sing well operatically. The majority of singers who developed strength and coordination before they were conscious of it are the ones who usually become elite singers and have no clue how to help others develop what they never knew they themselves developed (though unconsciously). That is why most successful singers make very incompetent vocal technicians. They usually know exactly what they want, but have no idea how to get it from a singer who does not already have the same muscular predispositions they themselves have.

Whether Alfredo Kraus not able to help a young tenor accomplish a good Bb in Celeste Aida, or Freni yelling at Russian singers for singing in the throat, the examples are inexhaustible.

On the other hand, Pavarotti would say it could take 10 years or more for a tenor to learn how to “cover” properly! He used the English word for “covering” instead of explaining the distinction between girare (turning) and coperto (covered). If it was just about vowel modification, why would it take 10 years? Some would explain this by saying Pavarotti often uses hyperbole to make his point. Or could he actually be making a statement of fact. He worked on his own voice for at least a decade and was close to giving up when he won the competition and debuted in Emilia-Romagna as Rodolfo. Instead of developing the voice in terms of muscular balance, breath coordination and a fact-base understanding of resonance, it is easier for the science-based teacher to reduce it to vowel modification, just as it is for the traditional teacher to talk about opening spaces. Pavarotti understood the organic nature of the instrument–that tone, support and resonance depend upon each other and that it took patience and dedication to accomplish and I am only speaking about vocal production.

Let us imagine a young singer coming into the field with a well-developed instrument! That singer will have a beautiful vocal quality and would be easily audible with strong impact in the presence of an orchestra!

Now let us detour and consider the great orator and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, who’s birthday we recently commemorated! Imagine Dr. King speaking to a crowd! He had a lovely vocal quality and his microphone was working. That young singer above is equivalent to Dr. King saying: “Good Evening!” But what comes next? Does the singer come out with utterances that stop us in our tracts or just make a bunch of beautiful audible sounds? Why Dr. King as a comparison?

Martin Luther King spoke in poetic form, transmitting a message that was as current as it was eternal. His voice rose in melody and his utterances were purposefully rhythmic in ways that enhanced the message. His words were in harmony with the gravity of the situation he was addressing and in resonance with a world in turmoil of injustice. The Dream speech could easily be an operatic aria!

A young singer who has a well developed voice attracts the audience’s attention with beauty of tone and the capacity to be heard and be vocally impactful. Every operatic singer must be able to at least do that! Audibility is not enough. Impact and beauty of tone (not one or the other) are indispensable! But even with that, a singer would only have the audience’s attention for a few seconds (at the Good Evening level) unless that singer has poetry and rhythm and harmony and emotional resonance, all organically combined to keep the audience engrossed through a song, let alone an entire evening.

A singer with a viable voice is like an orator who has a functioning microphone. It says nothing about message or the singer’s ability to capture an audience’s imagination. For that we need poetry (often in foreign languages), melody, harmony and rhythm, all organically combined as the composer did to magical effect! Young singers today, through the fault of schools and institutions that prioritize superficial concerns, are generally not up to the task. We are grateful for those who aspire for that kind of elite competency despite the failure of the entire system.

There are more operatic aspirants today than ever before! The world of opera is beyond saturation with singers. Why do we get so few who can last? Simple, the requirements to become professional do not match the requirements necessary for opera at its most effective! Why not?

Because those who are in charge of the business of opera are confused about what it takes to make opera “marketable!” A beautiful body (as if there was some objective idea of what that is) may get you in the door and maybe even onstage, but it does not make you Leontyne Price or Maria Callas. Being charming and having self-confidence only go so far if your message is superficial. Stage presence in a small room with a piano becomes stage absence the moment the voice does not reach the audience.

The Cake and the Icing: The substance of an opera singer is made up of vocal impact and beauty, musicianship, poetic sensitivity, emotional expression and dramatic empathy. Those ingredients combined make up the opera singer’s cake! But when we go to the bakery store to buy a birthday cake, we are looking at the icing that it is covered within and the design of the words on top: the colors, the decorations, etc…

I don’t think it is unfair to to say that today’s operatic business concentrates it’s efforts on the icing. But too often (not always) when we bite into that operatic cake, it is insipid, flavorless and leaves no desire to take another bite. Why then should we expect audiences to return? The icing may get our attention, but it is the cake itself that inspire a second bite.

In the words of my favorite comedian, Bill Burr: “we need to thin the heard.”

Classical singing requires the discipline and passion of an Olympic athlete, not a beauty pageant contestant. The former is an investment into the limitless potential of the human spirit and the other is about caring for superficial qualities that do not last beyond youth. We cannot blame young singers for not investing in their spiritual development when we say you will be hired if you can fit a size 0 or if you develop a bodybuilder’s figure. Nothing wrong with a super physique in opera if you can back it up with operatic talent of a complete kind.

Can someone really invest in a supermodel figure and have time for operatic competence at the most elite level? You answer that!

If operatic viability looks like it is only diminishing with time, there is a good reason. The leaders of the business of opera have opted to prioritize the icing instead of the cake. Opera is not only a powerful art form, it is also a visceral form of entertainment–But only if it is allowed to be that. Football players playing patty-cake will not fill stadiums no matter how athletic they look. Don’t expect opera houses to be filled when you too often give them crooners in operatic costumes instead of powerful musical orators with superhuman voices!

© 3 March 2020

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