How To Deal With Misogyny in Opera: On the Heels of David Leigh’s Powerful Article

If you have not read the brilliant article by David Leigh, a young bass at the Metropolitan Opera, you should! I had the joy of teaching Mr. Leigh when I was in New York and he was one of the singers I missed very much when I moved to Europe full time. He is not only an extremely talented bass, but an intellectual heavyweight. I am not surprised by his multifaceted, well thought-out essay dealing with a very difficult subject.

I am not sure what the answers are ultimately but we all need to be having this conversation. The allegations against Placido Domingo have started a very heated debate on social media. I have been hearing these allegations about Domingo and James Levine (two of the operatic artists I most admired in my youth) since I entered the field 35 years ago. One of the questions that David Leigh does not ask directly but lets the reader conclude is:

Does the inherent misogyny in operatic libretti encourage misogynistic behavior offstage?

I have been part of more than 60 operatic productions in my life and can count on one hand the moments of inappropriate behavior that I personally witnessed. But it does not mean they did not happen–indeed perhaps much more than I noticed–especially considering the many friends who have shared horror stories of sexual harassment and objectification with me over the years.

The question I ask myself as a 53-year old heterosexual male and that I encourage other male friends to ask, is the following:

What did I consider harmless in my interactions with women in the past that may not be considered so harmless when examined through the lenses of modern, better informed times?

Women have lived in a male-dominated society forever. The Bible and other religious manuals have framed women as the source of man’s original sin. These books are still part of the spiritual education of the majority of people in the world, educating men and women both to propagate these beliefs even today. The #metoo movement is only beginning to open our eyes to the harm that has been done and continue to be done in the name of religion and therefore in the name of what we have accepted as social norms for as long as we have lived on this planet. And while we are having this conversation in places where the gender equality movement is encouraged, there are many places in the world where barbaric acts are routinely practiced against women and young girls. I am purposefully limiting the scope of this article to the relationship between heterosexual men and the women they target and how that relationship is mirrored in and influenced by the medium of opera itself. Sexual assault is as pervasive in homosexual relationships in our field as well, as the cases of James Levine and David Daniels exemplify.

What do we do going forward?

In terms of our behavior as men, there is only one answer worth entertaining. We, men, pose a potential threat to women just in terms of physical strength. The fact that most women, if not all, can point to moments of sexual oppression in their lives mean that even what might seem like harmless flirtation can have the effect of post-traumatic stress. It might feel like walking on eggshells for us men at times, but we simply have to be willing to listen and learn from women how they would prefer to be treated. This has been a systemic problem our entire lives. It will take time for us to work out solutions, but it is incumbent upon us men to simply listen and acknowledge that we all have contributed in little and substantial ways to the abuse of women and girls. We should be collectively sorry for our behavior!

As to how we deal with the misogyny in the different operatic scores we perform, I don’t believe in a revisionist approach any more than I believe in the ill-advised modern treatments of operas brought on by the excesses of so-called Regietheater. As a director of operas myself, I have always sought to find the stories behind the libretto. The most effective operas have very short libretti, which means the art form has always been symbolic at its best.

Let us take for example, La tragédie de Carmen! Indeed the Tragedy of Carmen! Is it less of a tragedy if instead of Carmen’s murder by José that she turns the knife on him instead? A recent production did just that! It probably provided a moment of celebration for the women in the audience who are sick of operas making victims of women. Yet in such a case, we miss the opportunity to reflect on the root cause of misogyny in life in general of which opera is a very visible byproduct. Great operatic productions take advantage of instrumental music for instance to develop the archetypical figures into three dimensional characters. If I were to stage Carmen, I would try to find every possibility to tell Carmen’s story from before we see her onstage so we understand how a fundamentally anti-female society produced this woman who appears to be a so-called femme fatale or man-eater to which the character is often reduced. I would do the same with José and Micaela. Who are these people? How did they get to the point we, the audience, encounter them? Yet we have forgotten that Opera is in great part about the miracle of the human voice trained to its most powerful and flexible level.

Is Shakespeare’s treatment of Lady Macbeth not misogynistic and Verdi’s is? Many operatic productions reduces the character to an ambitious bitch! It is partly incumbent upon the audience to educate itself about the root source of an opera libretto. It used to be a part of the experience. The audience knew the stories that were being told and could fill in the blank. The understanding of these characters was nuanced by understanding the sources they come from. It was understood that an opera reduced a story to its emotional essence, which when expressed by the human voice moves us to our core. Both the producers and the audiences have become lazy!

Nevertheless, we are coming to grips for the first time, as a society, with the inherent misogyny in our social development. By modern standards we can decide that every opera or play or movie heretofore is fundamentally misogynistic. It is too easy! And that is the fundamental problem with the way we deal with complex issues in our time.

Modern society is fundamentally lazy. We want immediate gratification at every level. Fast food, fast education, fast opera. Insipid, inept and inane!

The Domingo case, which has given rise to the online frenzy about misogyny in Opera, is an opportunity for us to have an adult conversation about society as a whole for sure, but more fundamentally about the chaotic, plutocratic oligarchy that is the structure of the operatic field, which encourages lookism, racism and misogyny while discouraging talent development, assiduous education and administrative competence.

There cannot be truly great operatic stars if a few people are performing all over the world. They become fatigued, inconsistent and burned out. And they decline. Singers, conductors, directors, stage crews and administrators need time to train and understand the whole of the field they work in. Competence yields respect and valuing of all concerned. When singers are expendable, they are devalued, mistreated and ultimately abused. They cannot talk against incompetence or unfair treatment or even sexual harassment because they have no one to complain to who has the will to confront abuse of power.

The #metoo revolution should have taken shape in Opera when Deborah Voigt was fired from Covent Garden because her talent was deemed less important than a stupid black dress that they could not alter to help her look more glamorous. I am certain, a talented costume designer would have made Ms. Voigt the most glamorous person onstage. Instead we stood by and accepted the blatant misogyny by Peter Katona and Christoph Loy and their enablers on the administration of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Naturally, they thought they were at the forefront of bringing opera up to speed relative to modern theatrical innovations. If bringing opera into the future means discriminating against a large part of the population (whether by race, weight, etc) then it actually has the reverse effect. By trying to catch up, opera in such hands, only ends up always playing catch up, rather than lead the arts and society in terms of encouraging progressive social evolution. I have enjoyed several Christoph Loy productions since then. No doubt Mr. Loy is one of the most musical regisseurs I have experienced in the last 20 years. However, his talent and accomplishments do not give him the right to undermine a world-class talent like Deborah Voigt, then at her best. Such misogyny has major consequences for the victim and it is especially defeating for an opera singer who sacrifices so much for what is supposed to be a merit-based endeavor. Few human beings ever achieve Ms. Voigt’s level of technical-musical skill. The ugly manner by which she was diminished must have discouraged thousands of young women (and men) who invested so much to achieve such a level.

So many skills are needed to be truly convincing as an opera singer and no one is superlative at all of them. Domingo, arguably the most successful opera singer of all time, could have been better in several areas. He had a package of talents that fit the demands of those times and because he is a Caucasian male, he probably did not face many of the obstacles that so many singers must confront. Opera is not quantifiable except by real experts who understand it globally. In short, today, only singers truly understand singers and even among us, many do not understand the different challenges. Non-singers (stage directors, casting agents, artists managers, Operndirektoren, Intendanten, etc) today, unlike the past, have not the experience of their predecessors to appropriately distinguish between great singers and those that look pretty while crooning! Therefore, they make too many decisions based on superficial attributes that in the end have little impact on a live opera performance.

More insidious than mere lookism would be lookism for the opportunity of future sexual harassment/assault? Let’s not kid ourselves! It can be that insidious!

My apologies to the few talented conductors and directors out there (and the singers too) who persevere despite the chaos that this once glorious field has become. Many of us have held back our voices. On this blog I have been too polite, because I thought making a balanced argument might be more convincing. However, the only thing that seem to put a little fear in the heart of so many incompetent, self-aggrandizing bullshitters is a good scandal–Especially one that reaches to the top. I’m sick of seeing my talented, creative friends reduced to sheep so they can keep their jobs. But is it really what we spent all these years working our asses for? To capitulate to less invested people who have the mere talent of yelling louder about how great they are?

This cancer has existed a long time before now and has only become unbearable in a world that has also become unbearable.

The Washington Post suggest: “…let it die!” I have written about just that at least a couple of years ago on this blog. Why let it die? Because it is cancerous!

I dare say, there is nothing wrong with Opera as an art form. It is created to grab an audience, heart and soul. I am tired of people inside the field claiming how hard it is to sell. How the hell can you sell opera if you fundamentally do not believe in its power? Why do it if you think it needs to become more like musicals and more like movies? Why not just do movies and musicals and leave Opera to those who know it, believe in it and want it to thrive?

A few people are gorged until they burst (ungracefully die out) on more and more performances, more and more money, more and more exposure to the point that we get tired of them and even they of themselves! It becomes about over-blowing a few people at the expense of the field itself! How is that different from Wall Street? or Politics?

In short, the misogyny and chaos in Opera represents a microcosm of our society! Imagine if this little version of our world could reflect our humanity in ways we can truly process!

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THIS IS OPERA!: Calling Out the Opera Mainstream On Its Self-Immolation!

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!”

The Erroneous Transitions Into Dramatic Repertoire: Part 1 The Tenor Edition

Irrespective of voice type, opera singers tend to expand their repertoire to include roles that require greater sound pressure levels (SPL) or what we normally call “volume.”  SPL depends on sub-glottal pressure (some might call it more support).  With greater SPL comes also the need for the instruments to provide greater glottal resistance.  This glottal resistance comes in either of two ways: 1) greater medial pressure (firmer glottal closure) or 2) greater vertical fold contact area.  The former requires a little or a lot of glottal squeezing and the latter requires the folds to be thicker vertically, richer if you will.  Different singers have used one of the two strategies and when subtle to relative success.  The issue that used to be understood is that different voices have different limits relative to more “dramatic” repertoire.  The tenors are always more obvious in this regard.  The tenor voice (sorry to other voice types) walks a more precarious tightrope and issues of imbalance show themselves earlier.

The great singers of the past had a sense of measure!  They knew what was not appropriate. Not only were they smarter in this regard, but the business structure of Opera was too!  Singers in general developed better because they had a healthy fear of ruining their instruments by singing dramatic repertoire too early. Conductors and directors and colleagues would say:  “This is not good for you, yet!”  Today what singers hear is:  “How soon can you sing this part?  You can get paid big money for it!”  And that in short is why very promising young stars do not make the change in a way that is healthy and instead of thriving, they falter, lose confidence and never recover in many cases.  Some come a little better, but the quality of the instrument becomes audibly inferior.  It is also true that some singers begin their careers with the wrong kind of lyric repertoire. A future Otello, could begin his young career with Tamino or even Nemorino because the tessitura and range is appropriate in those two roles (I have sung through both with little problem) but beginning with Prince Ramiro or Werther could be frightening for naturally more robust voices (I have also worked on parts of these roles for just the experience of it).

The Last Tenor(s)

Pavarotti often told the story that his teacher Campogagliani said to him: “You should hurry up and start your career!  You may be the last tenor!”  Pavarotti was always translating from Italian and his pronouncements sometimes sounded hyperbolic! But when the details are considered, Campogagliani proved prophetic—not because great artists would not come around, but rather because they would not last long enough to be considered great!  In a sense, a great opera singer is not one who is a “flash in the pan!”  Even today, how great an opera singer becomes depends on how long s/he is around in order to be able to command a following worldwide and continue to thrill until an age that one can consider old enough for quality to begin to diminish.  

That Pavarotti’s voice became a touch less reliable in his older age had nothing to do with the quality of the voice itself but rather that his breath support system was beginning to fail him in his 60s.   But his voice sounded fresh up to his 70th birthday and the “King of the High C,” as he was called could occasionally call upon that note in performance even in his very late years.  His great rival and colleague, Placido Domingo, is still singing, but over the years he lost the tenor notes and at a very advanced age still makes a beautiful sound in the baritone range.  It is not blasphemy to say that Pavarotti had a better technique than Domingo.  Domingo himself has said it several times (not in those words exactly)!  The way Domingo expressed his praise for Pavarotti was that his voice was “easy” as if it was a native attribute.  It was not!  Pavarotti also often talked about the fact that he was about to give up when he won the competition that led to his celebrated debut at the Teatro Reggio in Emilia-Romagna.  His was a technique developed for fluidity, elasticity, lyricism.  Domingo is an emotional singer and a superlative musical actor.  His priorities lie in emotional expression, even at the expense of vocal balance (at times). But what both singers had in common was a sense of their authentic instrument.  The basic quality of their instrument never changed.  

Domingo, who took on heavier roles than Pavarotti ( a way perhaps to distinguish himself from his extremely lyrical colleague who ruled the upper register), never sounded “beefier”!  Never artificially dark!  One had a sense of his natural color always!  But indeed, he put his instrument under more pressure to sing the more dramatic parts.  And this he did by medial pressure!  He was always trying to develop a stronger breath support, because when one presses too much medially, the fold cover becomes trapped and fold oscillation necessitates greater sub-glottal pressure.  His throat was strong enough to handle it but he is known to have had hernias from his kind of exertion.  The upper range also is less conducive to high levels of sub-glottal pressure.  That would explain his very gradual loss of the tenor notes B4b and above.

The other strategy is in a way more perilous because it is easily taken to the extreme.  Certain singers have been praised in later years for a “baritonal sound!”  I am such a tenor! I began my career as a baritone (beginning my studies as a bass) and discovered at age 42 that I am a tenor.  The struggle in my development was understanding what was my true, balanced vocal color. I had a C5# as a baritone. But the way I darkened my voice to sing baritone eventually threw the voice off balance and in an attempt to find balance again, I found out that the voice was naturally a tenor voice.  In this process I had to find out how deep is too deep and how stretched (light) is too stretched.  Arriving at that sense of balance made singing higher tessituras a lot easier.  As a natural dramatic tenor, I work on Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini, along side Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini.  Today’s “baritonal” tenors have a tendency of exaggerating the dark side of the voice.  A prominent agent is quoted to have said the following:  “What do you call a tenor with a baritone quality?…A millionaire!”  Placido Domingo, had a baritonal richness to his voice.  But he never lost his tenor quality.  Even now when he sings as a baritone.  I never wanted to hear Domingo as a baritone.  But when I heard him as Germont Père at the Metropolitan Opera a few years ago, he dominated the stage.  I then understand why he was doing this.   The modern “baritonal” tenors are not following the Domingo model but rather the Giacomini/Galouzine model.  We hear this clearly in the productions of José Cura and Jonas Kaufmann.  The lighter tenors who thickened their voices  to achieve the weight for the more dramatic parts unfortunately gave up what made them tenors:  elasticity!

The great tenor in 1969 at age 29
One of my favorite recordings of this great tenor in 1983, age 43!
I find this the beginning of an overly darkened tone!

Again, no disrespect to a superlative artist, who despite what I consider a touch darkened still manages two thrilling high Bbs! But we can observe the constant rounding of the lips and how that relates to an attempt at finding a darker color. Relating this to the youthful sound of 1969, some 25 years before makes me wonder. And this is the problem with emulating singers. Do we ever ask ourselves whether the technical approach is balanced, despite the results.

Is this just age, or is it a good thing taken too far? The Giacomini of the 1970s and 1980s is a different animal all together from the one in the 1990s and later. He has several interviews in his later years where he speaks of a deeper, “inside” sense of space. I use Giacomini as an example because he manages to be successful to some degree. Tenors are judged by the security of their top and these recordings show high notes that by today’s standards are more than acceptable (referring to later recordings). But does the voice sound like itself the way Pavarotti and Domingo sound throughout their lives?

Galouzine is supposedly 23 years old here. There is a spoken clarity to the tone here. Did he darken the voice when he took on Otello? When he came to New York for his debut in the role, the preview said: “A New Lion Roars!” Supposedly he was to become the new Otello after Domingo gave up the role. When I went to see it with great expectation (my favorite opera), he barely made it through the second act. He was obviously tired by mid act!

At age 55

Is 55 a time to expect major decline? There was a time such an age was considered the prime time for a dramatic tenor. But the persistent wobble, which we also hear in Giacomini in his 60s, is that a symptom of overly darkening the voice? Another example:

1994, age 32

Cura’s rise through the first Operalia competition is famous. Domingo and his wife Marta have both talked about Cura’s arrival at Operalia. They thought it was God’s gift to opera, just when it seemed there would be no one to follow Domingo in the heavier tenor repertoire. The tendency towards finding a deeper connection is heard already here in his constant onsets below the pitch. Yet a very compelling presence onstage and a great natural instrument. Is the wobble a result of excessive darkening?

Which of the voices of Jonas Kaufmann is the real one? This is a question that is often asked in opera chat groups.

in 1998 at age 29

Some passaggio notes in this Ferrando aria are a little spread and I can see how they could cause this talented tenor some frustration.

2006 at age 37

This adjustment 8 years later seems in keeping with his natural voice. But in seeking a better adjustment to the passaggio and upper range might he have gone a little over board?

This year at age 51

He is a compelling actor, and a refined musician. But is 50 now the new 60 for opera singers, in a world when people otherwise ask whether 50 is the new 40? Is the pressure in the top range sustainable?

The more confusing part, particularly for tenors coming up, is that the top-tier singers are allowed to take in very high fees even as their voices deteriorate.  The temptation is too great, even for a disciplined singer like Juan Diego Florez.  His attempt at taking on the heavier repertoire is interesting to me.  He comes from the Rossini tradition, very much based on the elasticity of the voice.  Another Rossini tenor who made the transition to spinto/dramatic repertoire is Gregory Kunde, who is jetting around the world to replace the big name tenors who are cancelling right and left.  Granted, Florez is a leggiero where Kunde was always a tenor of substance in the Rossini and Bel Canto repertoire. 

It feels like a century ago when full voices were allowed to sing Rossini and the Bel Canto!

At the height of his fame, age 34 in 2007

Will Florez take on appropriate challenges and maintain his elasticity or will he beef up the voice so much that he will lose the ease of his top notes?

2014 age 40

I don’t write this article without compassion. In retraining over the past 10 years, I’ve developed great respect for those singers.  What they do is not easy and the pressure of delivering consistent singing and the top notes that define tenors especially is not for the faint of heart.  Yet, as a lover of opera and a teacher of active singers, I always ask: Why is it that people who do not understand the intricacies of the voice making decisions about what repertoire singers should sing? Agents were always eager for a fatter check.  This is not new!  That is their job!  However, in the past, conductors knew better. Stage directors knew better!  The singers were able to say no without such extreme negative repercussions.  Today, the singers say:  “If I don’t take the job, they will get someone else who will and they will never call me again.”  Bergonzi said no to Karajan and became a legend!  It is not so easy today.  

One tenor gives me hope in this crazy game. Piotr Beczala gives the third and traditional choice! 

Possessing of a fundamentally lyric voice, he remained safely in the lyric repertoire and gradually developed his native fullness without giving up his elasticity (his ability to stretch up to the top of the voice).  When I heard him sing his lyrical roles at the MET and in Berlin, oddly I found him more successful in Ballo in Maschera in Berlin than in Lucia di Lamermoor at the MET.  The slightly heavier role of Gustav/Riccardo seems to have inspired a fullness in his voice that gave him greater thrust than the lighter part of Edgardo.  His recent Cavaradossis were indeed impressive:

and I just experienced him in Barcelona a few days ago as Rodolfo in Verdi’s Luisa Miller.  He was riveting, inspiring calls for an encore (which he delivered) of the aria, “Quando le sere al placido…”  as he did above in Tosca a month earlier in Vienna. He was also a standout Lohengrin in Dresden.  Beczala reminds me of Pavarotti in his selection of roles.  Lohengrin, Cavaradossi and Rodolfo (Luisa Miller) are relatively lyric roles in the more dramatic category.  The tessituras of these parts require elasticity like a lyric role but with greater volume.  It’s a natural development from Tamino to Lohengrin and Walter von Stoltzing or Puccini’s Rodolfo to Cavaradossi and even Calaf. 

I’ve loved Beczala ever since he broke into the international scene.  In a blogpost here at the time, I referred to him as a mix between Björling, Gedda and Wunderlich.  He may have arrived at the point of his greatest potential.  From the sidelines, if I could give the great tenor some advice, it would be the following:

1) Now that you are the heir-apparent, as Kaufmann becomes less and less reliable, be careful what projects you take on!  I’ve written on this blog as well much about Kaufmann.  I admire him for his extraordinary, multifaceted talent (musical, theatrical and vocal) but cautioned often the choice of lower tessitura roles, from Parsifal to Siegmund to Otello. It’s no question that a great lyric tenor can sing an Otello or two and get away with it (Pavarotti did the Konzertant performance in Chicago and even though he was battling the flu (had his head under a steaming concoction when he was not singing), it was unforgettable and worth the expense to see it.

But doing it often is a mistake! 

Siegmund and Parsifal lie in a fundamentally lower tessitura and require great power on F4 and G4.  Higher tessitura voices like Kaufmann do not have sufficient thrust on those notes to make a real case. Tristan and Siegfried are punishingly long roles but in some ways (tessitura) easier for the lyric dramatic than the lower voices like Melchior and Vinay (they did memorable performances regardless).  Windgassen, a lyric dramatic tenor, has one of the most satisfying Tristans on recording and the voice sounds elastic.  Developing power in that range takes time but a lyric dramatic would have an easier time in terms of stamina if the voice is trained to handle the pressure, although it might be underwhelming with a bona fide Wagnerian orchestra. But Siegmund, Parsifal, Otello, Max, Canio, and Tannhäuser (3rd Act) are fundamentally low-lying parts not suited to the lyric voice. 

Therefore, avoid low tessitura parts

2) The great lyric dramatic singers of the past from Leontyne Price to Pavarotti spoke often of the wisdom of going back to more lyrical roles to makes sure that a fundamentally lyric voice does not lose its native quality.  What an event it would be to hear Piotr Beczala as Tamino, the way we heard Pavarotti in his later years sing one of the most inspiring Nemorinos in memory?  This is not going back, it is about preserving the balance of the voice! 

3) A story that we tenors know well:  During his co-25th Anniversary performance with Domingo at the MET singing Otello first act and Domingo singing Walküre first act, the two tenors were interviewed during the intermission.  When they discussed Tosca, Pavarotti said he met di Stefano who was performing in the same theater as he.  Di Stefano told him he had a beautiful voice and wanted to know what Pavarotti was singing next.  Pavarotti mentioned Cavaradossi and di Stefano cautioned  that Cavaradossi is a a dangerous role for a lyric tenor.  Pavarotti said he cancelled the performances and would not sing Tosca again for another 13 years. 

Is that even possible today?

For the average tenor, maybe not! We have to take whatever gives us some professional credits and earn a living if possible.  But for one of the most important voices in the operatic world, it should always be a choice.  Beczala, who a few years ago made news for deciding he would no longer do productions he felt where in violation of the score, eschewing the excesses of Regie Theater, hits me as an artist of principle.  I hope he will keep the same level of integrity relative to his fundamentally lyrical instrument, because I would love to enjoy that beautiful voice for many more years and in these uncertain times, be able to point to a tenor at the top of the game who manages this awfully anti-singer operatic world with intelligence and manages to last longer than the rest. One can only dream!

Vocal dynamics and why Pete Buttigieg will win…

As I watched the first round of debates, Pete Buttigieg emerged as the vocal winner! In a round of “yellers” Kamala Harris won! Understand, Harris made excellent political decisions that catapulted her to the top of the field by 1) attacking Biden, which may hurt her later and 2) a ” First Formant Dominant” vocal approach that screamed above everyone else except Mayor Pete! Being heard is everything! And what politicians in the 21st century still do not understand, the Singer’s Formant is an emotional tool! Clinton had it! Gore did not! Obama had it! Hillary Clinton did not. Buttigieg has it and Harris does not!

The Singer’s Formant (SF) is nature’s way of communicating emotions. Politics is emotional! The SF requires depth (calming effect) and passion ( intensity) all at once. Mayor Pete communicates with calming depth and emotional involvement. Harris has emotion but not calm! As a black candidate in a race conscious America, Harris needs calm (depth). Both candidates are smart and both are compelling. However emotional ( genetic) response is encapsulated in the SF and Harris lacks it. The voice is fundamentally “shrill”. Yet Senator Harris can acquire it. There is time!

The SF is the means by which a baby, through crying tugs at the emotional core of its parents, indeed of any empathetic human being! While Harris and Buttigieg both are compelling on a polemic level, their success depends upon the ability to go beyond the tautological and leap directly to the voter’s emotional core. Kamala, despite her compelling argument, from a vocal pedagogy standpoint, ” she yells!” Pete vibrates!

I look forward to a Democratic ticket that includes them both. However, whether it be Buttigieg-Harris or Harris-Buttigieg depends greatly upon acoustic realities. Who excites America among democrats right now? Harris! Who calms America and whispers to its soul? Buttigieg (once Biden proves ineffective). Harris has a greater acoustic challenge in term of being trusted by a white electorate that needs calm and confidence but she does better with a First Formant dominant structure that heightens emotion. And that is considerable! Buttigieg will need to be less controlled emotionally if he wants to capture America’s heart! Especially Black America. But he has the vocal tools now. He needs to emphasize emotional harmonics if he will gain confidence from the African-American community. Rhetoric alone is not enough!

#TCH16: 16th Tchaikovsky Competition Still the Best

Four years ago, I wrote enthusiastically about the Tchaikovsky Competition as the last truly fair competition on Earth. Other competitions do good work in helping singers that are already chosen in launching a career in difficult times. I missed Cardiff this year because I was in the process of moving and broadcast was restricted to the UK. Cardiff needs to get with Medici TV. Period!

First, Medici was the first to comment on the fact that they were not ready for this level of traffic. Some problems with replays were frustrating but over all an excellent job considering they had 6 categories this time.

I did not have time to follow the instrumental competitions in depth, but in the Voice competition, the jury made up of the regular casting agents was complemented by some truly legendary figures of singing including Feruccio Furlanetto, Matti Salminen, Neil Shicoff and the unsurpassed Edita Gruberova. I believe these singers made the difference in judging a group of 46 singers that were less imposing than those of the previous edition by and large. However, the finalists were mostly at par with those of 2015 and gave excellent performances in true competitive spirit. I particularly enjoyed the moment when Gihun Kim encouraged his rival, Alexandros Stavrakakis between arias. Those two gave us a friendly rivalry equal to the Terfel/Hvorostovsky battle at Cardiff.

The Jury made bold choices in both male and female categories. The choice of Maria Barakova, the 21 year old mezzo over the more exacting coloratura soprano Aigu Khismatullina parallels the one of Alexandros Stavrakakis over Gihun Kim. In short, emotional commitment over technical exactness! But it’s not so black and white. I will discuss these wonderfully talented young finalists with encouragement and some cautionary advice. #TCH16 did a great job in making us aware of these potential stars of tomorrow but it will take the unsung heroes ( the teachers who took them this far) to make sure that the coming opportunities do not destroy these young talents before they fully mature.

I find that over the past 10 years, my job has become as much about career guidance as vocal/music pedagogy. These young finalists need both in a world more geared toward a “flash in the pan” than about career development for longevity. I went to the opera last night and heard/saw some interesting “young” talent that are already on a downward spiral but they do not know it. Vocal degradation is very gradual. The young baritone feeling emotionally satisfied about a pushed high G (because it feels exciting to him) doesn’t know that he is inaudible most of the time and that the bass singing with him with a similar size instrument resonates in the house impressively with much less effort. Method acting, which was developed for capturing a moment on camera, does not transmit on an acoustic stage (sans microphones) very well. A measure of emotion must be calculated in a way that does not interfere with the instrument’s ability to project. Shakespearean actors spend years developing vocal resonance and emotional measure for the purpose of giving the audience what it needs to respond emotionally. Feeling “more” doesn’t mean the emotions are transmitted to the audience. Knowing how much to give emotionally and maintaining vocal balance is an inspired, purposeful act of committed action. The audience gets the impression that it is very real. When overly felt, the audience gets the impression they should not be there for this moment that should be private. Paradoxically, when the act is purposeful and measured (not randomly or just felt), the actor can actually go very far and the audience feels involved in witnessing a performance that evokes real emotions from them, rather than an act of theatrical masturbation that they are not comfortable witnessing. Great acting happens on a fine line of vulnerability and technical control. Barakova and Stavrakakis have developed this empathetic sense. Even on my iPad screen, they came alive. That’s why they won!

The two gold medal winners are greatly developed “operatic” actors. They understand music with all its components (harmony, rhythm, phrasal architecture, language, melodic contour, etc) as a vehicle for dramatic expression and they have sufficient vocal technique to sustain the music-drama. Stavrakakis is a great bass-baritone who sounds like a bass because he has not yet mastered his resonance. As often with lower voices, there is a tendency to exaggerate the darker colors of the voice. He conflates the sub-glottal resonance that can only be felt strongly on specific pitches with the vowel resonances that must be always changing relative to pitch. In other words, the larynx needs to float low, without the tongue root getting involved. Therefore he does well with the [i<—>E] vowel spectrum and less so with the [a<—>u] spectrum. Some faulty vowel strategies cost him in Wotans Abschied, for instance, and throughout the competition. But he won nonetheless and deservingly so for the touching nature of his performances, his musicianship and focused stage presence, even against a mighty competitor, such as Guhin Kim, who must be disappointed. The difference in the scoring could not possibly be substantial. Stavrakakis and Kim are a greater story, in my opinion, than Terfel/Hvorostovsky at Cardiff. The question remains whether they will be marketed appropriately and with patience. Kim was masterful and poised throughout. He is linguistically at home in Italian, German and Russian, impeccably prepared musically, dramatically committed and technically the most consistent singer in the whole competition, barring none. However, like my hero Cappuccilli, when I was still a baritone, there is an emotional distance. One can be theatrically masterful and dramatically measured, as Kim was throughout but not be emotionally vulnerable to the degree that both Stavrakakis and Barakova were.

For these two magnificent young talents I have a few cautionary words. Mr. Kim has his technique together and unlike Hvorostovsky, who was fundamentally a lyric baritone with dramatic presence, he is a burgeoning young Verdian baritone. But he is young! He is already a soloist on a fest contract in Hannover. It would be a grave error to give him anything heavier than Posa at this stage. If Hannover wants to help him, they should plan eight years of Bel Canto repertoire, Tchaikovsky and some excellent French works like Thomas’s Hamlet and Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Térésias. All these roles would be vehicles of artistic and physical growth. Balanced voices grow in balance and will handle greater volume (breath pressure) over time if they are challenged appropriately. This is something the operatic world has forgotten. Just because one has a Verdian voice, does not mean one should not sing Mozart or Donizetti. Guhin Kim will follow a long list of great Korean baritones to an early demise if he sings the heavier Verdi and Verismo roles before his mid to late thirties. He is more than a voice. He is a special talent who needs to be encouraged to become emotionally vulnerable and to choose his repertoire carefully. I pray he gets the chance! Wolfram lies fundamentally too low for such a voice and Amfortas too heavy for another 20 years.

Alexandros Stavrakakis is a future Wotan like Terfel never was. That Terfel and Hvorostovsky sang Wagner and Verdi at the Cardiff finals made unknowledgeable PR agents and managers package the two greatest male voices in recent generations wrongly. They assumed Verdi and Wagner too early respectively and in inappropriate roles. I would have killed to hear Terfel as the greatest Amfortas ever and maybe the greatest Jago of his generation. But he’s big and looks like Wotan. That was not enough. I’d hate to see two more top level young talents ruined by the operatic machine. Terfel is one of few singers who inspired tears from me. Stavrakakis has that potential and he is a future Wotan. Give him at least 15 years! Despite his bass-like quality, he should avoid true bass roles. Filippo II, yes! Banquo yes! Fiesco no! Sarastro, though not hurtful does not feature his best tessitura. Figaro, Leporello, Guglielmo in the original writing. Villains and devils! All three Mephistos (Gounod, Boito and Berlioz). Prince Igor. Boris later. Also 15 years. Until the resonance issues are worked out, any role that involves great orchestral forces will hurt him. For a bass-baritone, he is young and should have time to develop for the great roles that await him. It would be a shame if he does not become the Wotan we all hope because houses want to fill a few extra seats and agents want their 15%.

For the third place winner, the tenor, Agagzanian, I had the same thought as I do now when he won several prizes at Operalia last year: There is only one Domingo! A fine singer with a fine instrument that seems geared at every turn to copy the great Domingo, vocally, in physical mannerism, even aping Mr. Domingos signature bow at Operalia. I was happy to see that he stopped that horrific habit. My advice is develop a top and try to figure out the true unique color of that voice. We can learn a lot initially by copying our heroes but at some point we must find our personal truth unless we want to remain a pale copy. Enkhbold and Kuprianov are two excellent baritones that confuse pressing the voice in search of mask resonance for true squillo. I enjoyed them both.

For the gifted young mezzo (21 years old), Maria Barakova, I recommend slow development of breath support to manage the extremes of the voice. If anything, the length of the competition (10 days) revealed that this magnificent young singer doesn’t have the physical stamina for sustained singing of the type that would be required for rehearsals and preparation of a substantial role. Her first round was spectacular. As she went on, one could hear the wear of the voice and in the final round, her beautifully managed lower passaggio, which I enjoyed in the first round degraded into common, pressed chest voice and her elastic top became labored and out of tune. There are many great Russian singers to look up to. Obratsova and Borodina come to mind. Take it slow! I would love to enjoy that total artistry without vocal stress when I’m in my 90s. It’s worth it. Other young mezzos have taken the big Verdian parts in their mid 20s to their detriment even if they don’t know it yet. Deterioration is slow, but once we reach the tipping point, it hits like a hammer: swift and detrimental.

The other two winners, Khismatullina and Motolygina, have similar issues: a slight medial squeeze that contributes to a consistently high larynx, which in turn makes for slightly pushed or slightly shrill high notes. Khismatullina is very musical and the high larynx affects a light coloratura voice less than Motolygina’s lirico-spinto. Khismatullina though playful in her excellent Zerbinetta was emotionally protected throughout. Her physical language attests to this. Motolygina has a great instrument but either because of weaker musicianship or technical limitations giving her fewer musical options, I found her less convincing. Mayorova would have won third if weak breath support did not hamper her rich Tebaldi-like dramatic voice. The beginning of her Forza Leonora finally showed the true nature of the voice. One to remember! With further technical work, she could surpass all of her competitors here.

As always, I’m just one voice teacher commenting and one can never be totally sure how a voice sounds through three levels of filtering: 1) the microphones used in Russia 2) the internet and 3) my iPad and headset. Yet, as a voice teacher who advises professionals, I cannot help but worry for great young talent coming up through these competitions, no matter how well-meaning. Let’s face it! We’ve seen too many such promising young singers crash and burn way before they ever should have seen a top international stage.