I am at an age in which I am more aware of my mortality than at any time heretofore! I was born in Haiti, the tiny island nation that defied slavery and became the first Black Republic on the face of this planet. So I will be bold and say: “I hold as meek and self-aggrandizing anyone who sees my analysis of Black Operatic culture as ‘Uncle Tom’ because they are afraid to face the truth of themselves!”
Months ago, someone concluded that my treatment of African American Operatic artists had a tinge of Uncle Tom-ism because I was not always complimentary! I look at the future of opera not the nostalgic past.
in January 1989, I sat in Hill Auditorium, in Ann Arbor, Michigan and reflected on the artistry of the legendary Leontyne Price. I sat there with my mouth open in disbelief at what this woman could do at age 63! I had heard her live before at the MET in several roles but did not understand then because I did not have enough understanding of music to appreciate the level of her artistry! In media, Black and White, we hear talk of Leontyne’s amazing voice! But in January of 1989, what I heard was the musicianship of Leontyne Price, made easily manifest by her superlative vocal technique and material! I no longer loved Leontyne Price because I was a Black artist looking for a role model. I loved Leontyne Price because she is a musician of the highest caliber and is possessed of a voice so extraordinary as to make her artistry manifest in a way grander than the average singer. She had voice and artistry at the highest level. Therefore, she belongs to an elite group of singers that paint the centuries-old path of the operatic firmament!
Not every Black singer who comes down the pike with a great voice rises to the artistic level of a Leontyne Price. Not even Jessye Norman, who was a friend and someone I loved without limit. Jessye was a unique artist in her own right. But whatever her personal issues, which admittedly I was not privy to, there was something held back. I knew her and therefore I loved her as a person, much more than I did Price. But Price’s artistry has nothing to do with wether I knew her or not. I recognize her artistry because empirically, it is everything that opera artists should aspire to. By modern standards, maybe Price could have been a better actress, but she was at least a double threat if not a triple.
Jessye was a model I can never forget. We spent hours listening to Nikolai Gedda and discussed his immense artistry (thank you Richard Lesueur for the opportunity). She asked me after she had lost a considerable amount of weight if her high C was as convincing, after a concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We both spent a lot of time with French music and Dalton Baldwin. We had much in common. Yet, with all the love I hold deep in my hear for Jessye Norman, I would be the first to say that she did not rise to the purity of Leontyne Prince. Why? Because we live different lives! Jessye was linguistically better! Jessye was empirically a more conscious artist. But she, like so many African-American operatic artists, was trying to find her lane–her place in this crazy operatic world.
I studied with George Shirley! I spent time with Simon Estes. I reveled in music with Jessye Norman and even fought with Kathleen Battle. I love Black singers who have achieved despite the barriers!!! Yet, as a teacher of singers, I am keenly aware of the challenges that singers of African decent struggle with. My favorite singers of late have been two: 1) Nadine Sierra and 2) Lawrence Brownlee. Why?
These two singers, in modern time, show African-American opera singers as “musicians” not just vocalists, in the way that Price and my former teacher, George Shirley showed.
What my African-American colleagues do not acknowledge is that no one disputes the vocal prowess of African-American singers. But racism can take place when it comes to the musicianship of the same. George Shirley’s Pélléas is unbeatable! And as a native French speaker, I can attest that his French language and musical style was unrivaled on that recording. On that same vein, Jessye was wrapped in the French flag to sing the French national anthem for France’s bicentennial celebration because she understood French, as a language and as a culture!
That Africans and African-Americans come into the operatic world with extraordinary voices is indisputable. But that artistry comes with it is questionable! And I don’t give a damn if people judge me unkindly for that statement. Sound and artistry do not always come together. The honesty of Price, Shirley, Bumbry McFarren, and Verrett speak for themselves. Voice, Artistry and Vulnerability are elements of Legend!
We are at a time when we not only see amazing talents coming form the United States but also from South Africa and from former French colonies.
I appreciate above all black artists in our times, the implacable Nadine Sierra, the ubiquitous Lawrence Brownlee and the upcoming Patrick Kobongo. Why? Because one hears a pursuit of excellence beyond vocal prowess. Musicianship and humanity! I also appreciate the discipline that is experienced in the work of Speedo Green. What an artist! I have felt a tremendous human touch in Angel Blue‘s treatment of several roles. She is an artist I believe will make us think of the level of Price’s contribution. And what of the Black countertenor, Reginald Mobley? A different world but an equally compelling musicianship and artistry.
My issue with singers of African descent is the following: It is not enough that the White world decides suddenly that it needs to recognize Black vocal power! It is the equivalent of saying that Blacks can play basketball or football. Singers of African descent must own their ability to command superlative artistic achievements, not just their vocal talents.
Whatever their foibles (for no one is perfect), I will work to elevate the work of Brownlee and Sierra and Mobley because they are first rate musicians who happen to be exceptional vocalists. They can have lunch with a violinist and discuss the merits of Rachmaninov or Berlioz. This matters!
This is not about putting down singers of African origin but a challenge to the same to be more than the physical attributes that the white world expects them to be–vocal Mandingos! Voice is not enough! Be artists! Be musicians! Do not give the gate-keepers a reason to see us only as physically exceptional but also musically exceptional!
I want the magnificent voice of Morris Robinson with the musical discernment of Nadine Sierra! The emotional tenderness of J’nai Bridges combined with the vocal fireworks of Russel Thomas. Not either or! But this AND that!
Hello dear friends, I’ve been itching to write since I became quarantined in Spain more than two weeks ago but I didn’t want to respond just emotionally. It’s been a mind-bending experience watching the world change before our eyes, first relative to Asia then Europe and then America and the rest of the world. No one would have thought only three weeks ago that the music world, indeed the whole world, would become so radically changed. Every classical singer is effectively out of work. All the freelancers have lost all their work for the coming months and with that we have come to understand how precarious the life of a freelance classical musician is, especially singers. Even top singers are concerned about finances. It is important to realize how insecure our financial lives are!
For private voice teachers like me, it is no different. Those of us who work mostly with professional singers take a major hit as well. As these singers lose their incomes, naturally they want to hold on to their resources to be able to ride out the pandemic. So this is not a happy time for anyone who is a freelancer of any kind. We can go through this driven by our fears or we can be proactive despite our fears. I chose the latter. I am a lifelong singer! I am seeing my best singing happening in this period. By even current developments I will come out of this pandemic a transformed singer with abilities that I did not imagined when I began my transition to tenor around the time I considered my journey to tenor. Nevertheless, if I can advise anyone going into classical singing or who is already pursuing classical singing as a career, I will say:
“Singing is not enough!”
Our careers, like our financial portfolios (if we have any) need to be diversified. And it’s never too late. I’ve always taught over the Internet through Skype, Zoom, Messenger, FaceTime, etc. But I have not actively spent time until now to make this a more important component of my teaching. I had gotten to the level of teaching professionals and imagined that this would be enough. I’ve also taught serious amateurs! Interestingly enough, they have regular jobs and can continue to have lessons, even if only VOI (Voice Over Internet).
My focus on professionals and passionate amateurs comes from my disappointment in Academia. I find that the majority of young singers at the academic level are not aware of the discipline and dedication it takes to become an elite singer and tend to turn away when faced with the rigors of true development. Instead, they want to hear that they are “gifted” “special.” The truth is that people will label you special and gifted when you produce results according to their expectations. That can change from day to day and from the same person. When I was still singing as a baritone, I auditioned for a very important Young Artist Program and thought I had done an excellent audition. When I got a rejection letter, I wrote the director and he agreed to have a phone conversation with me. He said I did an excellent audition but that I do not have a world class voice and that his program caters to world class voices. Two years later, when I was too old to apply for that program, I made it to the semifinals of a competition and this director was on the jury. After I sang my round, he found me in the halls and told me I had a world class voice and wondered why I never auditioned for his program. I told him I did audition for him and he told me I did not have a world class voice. His response:
“I’m glad you didn’t listen to me!”
In short, we cannot listen to any one person’s opinion about how to run our lives. My professional students have what they call their Board of Directors. We all need a few people in our lives with diverse points of views who will tell us the truth, even when we are not of the mind to listen.
“We cannot do it alone!”
So I’ve added a business advisor to my team to help me develop the next stage of my business as a classical singer/voice teacher, or better said, a professional vocal artist. What was obvious to me just before I met her was that my vision was too narrow. As singers and voice teachers, we have so many skills that we unfortunately believe only apply to our chosen vocation. We also have the unfortunate belief that we must focus 100% of our energy on our primary career. I certainly did! If we learn anything as a community in this crisis is that we must strike a balance between artistic commitment and our lives, including our economic viability. I had the awful belief that I would teach voice and sing until the day I die and with that I would always be able to pay the bills. That is sad! The fact is I probably will sing and teach until I die because I love what I do. But the bad part is that I thought that would be enough.
“It might be enough to survive but it is not enough to live!”
Life has many components and economic viability is a part of being a great artist. In a world that has been converting more and more to a virtual dimension, it is important for us to become aware how we can participate on that front as well. As an advocate for real opera, I’ve been a little myopic relative to the importance of the virtual world. After I left academia the first time and did a considerable amount of non-music theater, I was advised to look into voice-over work. It is something that excited me back then. But just about that time, my private teaching in New York took root and grew quickly. Now, I actually have time to commit to it and I have. After applying for four voice over jobs, I received positive responses from three of the four companies, based on a two minute reading of a poem I recorded on my iPhone. I believe there is a future there. It is also work I can do at home. I have experience in sound and video software from my work in singing. One of the companies said they look forward to work with me in the future and that I had a great voice. They also asked if by any chance I speak Spanish. Well, I do and six additional languages fluently! So here is one example where my vocal work, my theatrical work, my language work, and my comfort with technology have value on a different platform and I can actually do this kind of work on my own schedule and at home.
“Is it guaranteed? No! But is it worth exploring? Definitely!”
One of my best professional students will take leave from his current singing job to relocate and work as a translator. He will continue to sing, of course! Another one writes code for website construction. I’m sure I don’t know what other interesting jobs my singers do.
My purist tendencies made me focus on students who are as driven as I am, whether professional or serious amateur. What frustrates me are people who are not interested on disciplined work. I don’t like to teach students who are just going through the motions. I don’t need to compromise that part of me. However, there are ways I can provide instruction to literally millions of people who are avocational singers and even dilettantes.
I have cringed at the many Youtube channels of people claiming to “change your life in one voice lesson online!” But cringing is not enough. Do I have an alternative?
I never even considered I might have something more honest and of better quality to offer to that world. Well, I am working on a series of online modules that singers can use to educate themselves about the nature of the voice and how to wade through the often confusing information. Instead of being critical of what others are offering (they serve a purpose to many who are looking for easily digested information) why not provide information for those who are looking for something of a higher quality?
There is a place for everyone in a world of nearly 5 billion online consumers. That is something worth considering by freelancers everywhere.
All of this, I was able to visualize after a one-hour meeting with the new member of my team. My business advisor!
More than talk about it, I am also actively doing the work!
One of the things I realized through my first talk with my new business advisor is that I can do better engaging you, my faithful readers. The world of opera has been changing drastically over the past three decades and it will only accelerate.
“We can come to solutions through our conversations on this blog. Let’s make this an interactive experience! I am interested in what you have to contribute.”
Since the blog moved from Blogspot to WordPress, many of your subscriptions did not follow. I am glad that the automatic forward brought you to our new home. Let us reconnect properly:
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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?Theicing 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!
…Yo creo que el canto es mucho (para mi, no se si para los demás) pero mucho trabajo en solitario. Mucho trabajo…tu, la habitación, el piano y buscar soluciones…(14:45-15:05)–Juan Diego Florez–16/12/2015
I believe that singing is a lot…(for me, I don’t know if for everyone else)…I mean a lot of work in solitude…A lot of work…you, the practice room, the piano, looking for solutions…(14:45-15:05)–Juan Diego Florez–16 December 2015, Liceu Barcelona.
This was Florez’s response to the question of whether his amazing talent is a gift or the product of a lot of work. It was refreshing for me to hear this four years ago and I’ve used this clip for students during my time teaching in Härnösand, Sweden. I know a few understood it but most did not!
But if you think this blog is going to go in the direction I often take, hammering once more the importance of work ethic in opera, you would be mistaken.
This is one of the most difficult blogs I will ever write because it is extremely personal. But I think it is important to write it!
As with anything that is important, I did not plan to write this at 5:19 in the morning. I was tired tonight before midnight and thought I was finally going to get a good night of sleep after a few days of not doing so. But the forces of the universe converged and conspired to inspire this blog.
I am very engrossed in the American presidential race because I am an American citizen living abroad. This is significant. I have lived in at least two places at a time over the last 15 years, whether New York and Berlin or New York, Berlin and Sweden or Berlin and Sweden. I am not expressing this in terms of glamor but rather the opposite. Before I explain the significance of the presidential campaign, I will take a moment to go back in time for some historical context.
I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as many of you know. When I was 4 years of age, my father joined my mother in the United States. Saying goodbye to him at the airport is the most vivid and painful experience of my childhood. My mother had left a year before and I don’t remember that day. For reasons both personal and political, my parents had to leave. I have had a loving relationship with my parents and my sisters since the family reunited 5 years after my father’s departure. I hold no ill feelings against them whatsoever.
But as I listened to Pete Buttigieg, late in the night while he spoke at the University of Southern California, I realized why I understand him and why I gravitate towards him. His favorite all-time television character is Captain Picard (who is one of mine) and mine is Mr. Spock.–Both Stark Trek characters–In some ways the two characters are very similar. Intensely emotional but mentally disciplined. I used to pride myself on the ability to keep my feelings in check. But they often came exploding out when I least expected them. I never gave much thought to the tragedy of essentially losing my parents at age 4. I also remember horrific night terrors in my childhood when I lived with my extended family. I had a huge extended family that took great care of me: My grandmother, loving aunts and crazy uncles and my cousin, Gary.
They helped me survive, to the point that I forgot that I ever experienced tragedy. Then my parents returned and the family reunited.
I moved to the United States at age 10 and a half, which means I had already developed a Haitian identity. In all of the 6 foreign languages I speak (besides my native French and Haitian Creole), people who have refined ears will often ask me if I am French, because they hear a slight French lilt to my speech.
When I started the 6th grade a year later in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the first day of school was like walking into a war zone, compared to the orderly school experience I had in Haiti. I spoke English somewhat but with a bit of difficulty. When I was asked by the teacher to introduce myself, I stood up (as was customary in schools in my native country). The entire class burst into laughter! I panicked and since that day, I began to stutter horribly. I was now living in a foreign country. My parents were loving but home life was often turbulent between them.
Having lived in Haiti and remembering the extreme poverty that some people experienced without complaining, I never thought to consider my own life as anything but a luxury. Who was I to complain? But suffering is suffering!
Just as I acclimated to the absence of my parents, I acclimated to this foreign country and what seemed to me a chaotic lifestyle. Through it all, I had a chance to develop the seeds of talents that were planted in Haiti: sports (first soccer then tennis and baseball), music and the expectation to excel academically. I was eventually accepted on scholarship to a very small private school, where I became soccer team captain and leading scorer, playing leads in plays –I learned through singing to overcome stuttering as much as was possible. That is the root of my interest in singing. I could sing fluidly because that is controlled by a different part of the brain from the part that controls speach– sang in choir, edited my senior yearbook and graduated valedictorian. The Vail-Deane School shaped me! But it also hurt me. My graduating class was comprised of 9 students and word was out that most of them hoped I would stutter through my entire valedictory speech. By excelling, I alienated my classmates.
This pattern would continue! At Westminster Choir College, where I did my undergraduate work, I had the greatest teachers! But I was a minority. Being heterosexual there, in some respects, meant I was an outsider even though I was very supportive of my gay colleagues in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. I was not an enemy. But I was not a friend either. At the University of Michigan, there were race issues. I was not perceived as Black because I am a light-skinned Haitian.
One Black colleague said to me, after I got the lead role of Count Almaviva through fierce competition, that I was chosen because I could pass as white.
Another told me I was not allowed to sing Negro Spirituals because I could not identify with Black American suffering. But through it all, there were supportive teachers and inspiring people (and a few assholes too). I excelled not only developing my voice, but studying orchestral conducting and composition. I thought they would help me in my interaction with conductors and in my understanding of the composer’s process. They did! But my colleagues saw that as pretentious.
My life in Academia was no different. The values of excellence that I learned through all my schooling was not appreciated in the institutions that hired me. I had to rebuild a program in Utah. Apparently I did too well! My predecessor who ran an opera company in town threatened to sue me for defamation although I had never met him (but I did fire a teacher that he had hired because several of her students had developed diagnosed nodules, with the support of my colleagues). I was not Mormon in a town that was 99% Mormon.
In Florida, my Dean told me I was doing a great job but I should not teach my students so well that they become better than the scholarship recipients, because there was no more scholarship money if it was not awarded at the beginning of the student’s admission. Then a colleague who wanted his wife in my position started to write negative tenure reviews to the point that another colleague told me that it would probably be a difficult tenure process and that I probably should find another job.
It continued thus from job to job! I was hired for my excellence but no one told me that I should underperform so that colleagues would not see me as a threat to their territory.
If you think I’m feeling sorry for myself, that is not where I am going with this!
The commonality in all of this is the following and something I learned in an article recently about Pete Buttigieg. When you feel unaccepted, out of your element, mistrusted, rebuked just because you are different, foreign, you will try anything to belong! You try to create an impenetrable shield of excellence and achievement, not realizing you are alienating others:
Senator Amy Clobuchar in a recent debate said to Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “Not everyone is as perfect as you, Pete…”
At that moment, I heard the snickers of my classmates in high school and at University and academic institutions. She seemed so petty! But how can she possibly understand Pete’s desire to belong? He hid his homosexuality! When I was young in New Jersey, I hid the fact that I was born in Haiti. French was more accepted! Is it a wonder that Buttigieg’s campaign is about belonging?
Whether it was marrying a girlfriend I was about to break up with because she became pregnant or taking a job in the cold north of Sweden, it was about two things: 1) In the case of my ex-wife, I wanted to do the socially correct thing. I wanted to be there for my child even though all signs pointed to a very unhappy relationship. I did not want to be looked upon as an absent father. In the end, I became exactly that! 2) Taking that job in Sweden was about making a difference. I had forsaken academia for 10 years after my last job and was happy as a freelance teacher. But after doing masterclasses there, I was convinced to take the job with the promise that I could have an effect on young students by promoting excellence. It was an empty promise. In Sweden, novelty is a valuable commodity. An American teacher with a doctorate and 30 years of teaching experience, with professionally active students and an international profile is already a boon. But one who looked like me? And who incorporates Tai Chi in his teaching? What better to attract more students to a program that is at least geographically challenged?
These two situations exemplify 1) my deep desire to please and 2) my even more profound desire to belong. My naiveté was such that I would allow myself to see only the good and looked away from the obvious clues to the many deceptions that would follow! And they always followed!
How much do opera professionals need to belong? What will we do for a job, a role, a contract? What will we do to be accepted? Will we lose weight? Will we buff up to get a six pack? Will we offer ourselves sexually to someone? Will we marry someone? Will we take terrible pay? How much do we devalue ourselves just to be accepted? How much sorrow and deep trauma do we carry with us from all the disappointments?
Through it all, Providence gave me a piece of self-preservation! Through my multitude of poor decisions just to belong and be respected, I did make a few good decisions. Not for anyone but for me:
1) I chose to become a musician when I had the grades and offers for a much more practical career path. I thank my parents and family for having been my greatest fans through it all.
2) I quit academia after 11 years of investment. Then I took it again in Sweden and quit it for good this time. That is for my soul!
3) I took the challenge at age 42 to accept myself as a tenor and released myself from the false baritone trappings of a singing career at all costs. I am becoming the artist I always dreamed to become. That was always my soul’s desire.
4) For once, I moved to a place, not because of work, but just somewhere I am happy to wake up to. That too is for my soul. Thank you, Valencia!
5) I practice almost every day…My work in solitude…me, the practice room, the piano…looking for solutions.
I am in the process of healing from a lifetime of offering myself for the good of others and at my expense: financially, emotionally, physically, psychically. I am in another foreign country, but this one is kind to me. I chose it because it welcomed me with sea and sand and sun. It is MAS (more in Spanish). Mar, Arena, Sol (sea sand and sun). It has these essential elements of my country of birth. It reminds of my adopted country. I am a New Yorker at heart and I love being able to talk to people in the street because it is human and natural to do so. Natural for me! I enjoy teaching my students because they are passionate about singing. It is a work that give me great energy. And I am singing happily (except when I get little sleep). I haven’t fully built my environment of belonging yet, but this city is the place and I am slowly building my local network of friends. But while I am building, I have an extended family that includes amazing people all over the world, even in Sweden.
For the first time, I believe (not just think) truly that everything that happens to us is meant to shape us into the best version of ourselves–if we learn from our experience!–Because of my few special friends in Sweden, I can begin to release the memory of the suffering that occurred there. I can begin to release the deep anger that I harbored for former relationships because I invited them into my life (Doesn’t mean I wish to relive any of it, hehe). Being able to share these feelings openly is proof that I am healing.
Even while I was going through my own deep suffering, I found great joy in my work. Singing and teaching opera singers is what I was put here to do. In working with them, I get to experience the very vulnerable people they are when they sing and also the challenges the operatic world in its intense dysfunction puts them through. Domingo is only one symptom among so many.
I believe this article is the first in a series. That is why I label it Part 1. I feel depleted after nearly three hours of this stream of consciousness and yet remarkably refreshed. I will now sleep a little before going to my very enjoyable Tango lesson. I found a wonderful teacher here (See, I’m building my environment)!
Before I sign off, I must close with Pete Buttigieg. This is not a political commercial! I kept wondering why I felt such a deep connection to this man I don’t know. Judging by my blog, one would think I would be more aligned with Bernie Sanders. And in a way, I am. But I feel a kinship with this man, Pete Buttigieg, that is unlike most experiences I’ve had from afar. He is far from perfect but he is a profound human being who knowingly carries his passions with discipline. He is a Star Trek fan like me. So that earns him points. He is an overachiever and I appreciate him for that. He’s audacious! And that reminds me how audacious I can be and that I need to take advantage of this new day of clarity and have vision again. Vision with a new maturity. He lost his father to cancer and so did I. He’s definitely much more balanced than me. But he is a complex, paradoxical human being in the best sense of the world. He struggles! He’s difficult to define! He is rejected by what seems like a plurality of LGBTQ voters and young millennials, who on paper would logically be his natural constituents. Despite that he is committed to an idea of inclusion of belonging! And he is so right:
There’s nothing more fulling than to feel part of something!
But be sure you chose what it is you want to be part of.
One of the easy but ill-advised choices that some science-based voice teachers make is to attempt to replace older terminology with scientific jargon. Too often modernists like to present tradition in the way that some in Western medicine like to define traditional medicines as “snake oil!” In this way, modernists also conflate information with methodology. After 33 years of active teaching I cannot say that the process of teaching voice has changed fundamentally although we have a wealth of new information.
Teaching and indeed singing is informed by the mind but occurs in the body.
That is why a very talented and experienced colleague said to me: “I don’t really know what head voice is.” Likewise, some 15 years ago when I was still singing as a baritone, I was preparing Germont Père from Traviata. I went to have a lesson from one of my former teachers and after I sang Di Provenza il mar…, she said: “You never used head voice in the entire aria!” My very science-minded answer was: “The voice turned. I know I achieved dominance of the 2nd Formant (now called fR2- 2nd Formant Resonance).” She replied: “It’s impressive that you can do all of that in chest voice!”
This is where an either/or jargon in my on mind prevented me from understanding what she meant. What I have learned over the years is that Head Voice and Chest Voice are components of the voice and both are active at all times in a well-coordinated voice. The way I was able to make sense of that memory is that the head voice function was not active enough when I sang Fs and Gbs. For a baritone, certainly not! A baritone would have given in to the lighter side of the voice a bit more when singing Fs and Gs. What my teacher did not know then is that I am in fact a tenor. This means that my Gb will exhibit more chest content than a baritone’s Gb. In someways, that Gb may have been appropriate for my tenor voice or maybe it could have had a little more head content. Either way, the fact that I made the turn to rF2 dominance did not necessarily mean that I made the muscular shift appropriately. Maybe I did, but I was not aware back then that rF2 was not the same as giving into the lighter mechanism.
As I explained in a recent post, vocal fold closure is a three-part system: 1) LCA closes the folds superficially along the folds’ length. 2) IA closes the folds posteriorly. 3) TA muscularis closes the folds inferiorly along the folds’ vertical depth. My theory is that closure 1 and 2 constitute the head voice and is a clear light experience, while closure 3, closure along the substantial depth of the folds constitute chest voice. The sensation is that the chest voice is full and is the dominant sensation in the lower two thirds of the voice (but the head function is always present) and the head voice is the dominant structure in the upper third. For me as a dramatic tenor, B3-F4, what I refer to as The Bermuda Tritone is an area of shared dominance. Subtle changes occur in this area. F4# and above require more and more head voice sensation but the integrity of the chest voice is not compromised. A good chest voice requires a strong compression of the breath and a deep fold posture to result in a flexible full tone instead of pressed voice. Maintaining the integrity of the shape of that full tone while allowing the head sensation to dominate our experience is the vocal battle (La lotta vocale) that we need to manage all our lives in order to become more and more skilled and not less so.
But explaining is never enough. Passing this along to students is not a one size fits all experience. Each student comes with specific issues and histories, which require the teacher to take a very specific approach to each student although the fundamentals are the same for everyone.
The last thing I wish to express relative to head and chest voices is that they relate to each other. A fully developed chest voice is necessary to liberate the head function because tension or dysfunction in one part of the system reflects in all parts. Accessing the ease of the head voice depends on developing and maintaining the fullness (support inducing aspect) of the chest voice. This balance more than anything else explains the great singers.
rF2 dominance is important! It was always a part of the operatic tradition. Girare, “turning the voice,” (which is what rF2 is) is crucial in the organic production of the voice, but it is meaningless unless a proper muscular balance has been achieved.
There are many examples of legendary singers who never valued the turning of the voice as important, or perhaps confused achieving head voice with turning the voice. Most famous among the men are Giuseppe di Stefano, Alfredo Kraus and Juan Diego Florez. These voices tend to be somewhat head-voice driven, but there is always enough fullness of tone to balance out the head voice. It is possible for a traditional male to achieve rF2 (turning) in a chest dominant adjustment or a head dominant adjustment. It is also possible to remain in a non-turned acoustic adjustment (rF1) in head voice as well as chest voice.
The problem relative to female voices is the concept of the middle voice. rF2 dominance from a traditional acoustic transition should occur in the female voice around E4b. The singers I teach talk about this lower passaggio around Eb to F#. All of that is very low in the voice. Feeling that transition of the voice can be confusing for female singers. The problem to understand is that changing to rF2 does not mean that the the singer is suddenly in head voice. The female singer has not reached a muscular necessity to access head voice dominance until the upper middle of the voice (For mezzos around B4b and for sopranos around D5. The interval of a 5th between G4 and D5 is often the weakest part of the modern female voice. The voice building challenge is to develop chest dominance in rF2 acoustic adjustments. Few women achieve this these days. It was easier when women assumed that the only passaggio was the upper passaggio. They assumed what is now called middle voice was still in chest voice dominance. Early Tebaldi, Margarethe Klose and Violeta Urmana are some examples. I’ve also observed that lyric coloraturas tend to do well here. If a soprano of a lighter voice must sing Violetta in Traviata or the second and third act of Gilda in Rigoletto, they need a strong middle voice. Mezzos and dramatic sopranos require a full middle voice but it takes time to develop the breath support for it. Often such singers, chose a different strategy–go into head voice dominance earlier in the range. I believe that is what has driven the tendency to lighter voices in opera altogether–It is difficult to develop a full voice. It takes a lot more time than the business of opera is willing to allow in our times. Not only are more dramatic voices more difficult to develop but even the middle voice of an average lyric soprano or the top of an average lyric tenor are also.
Fully developed voices produce consistent and replicable patterns that can be observed acoustically. However differences can be seen in voices that are fully developed because the singer has a different sound aesthetic. Di Stefano was called “a law unto himself” by his contemporaries but he was an exciting performer and artist. Today, we still use di Stefano as an example of someone who’s vocalism was against the grain. His contemporaries understood that his obsession with “pure text pronunciation” made acoustical vocal balance impossible. Yet his muscular balance made it possible for him to do great things, especially when coupled with his extraordinary musicality, stagecraft and linguistic gifts. Nevertheless, his colleagues judged his vocalism to be flawed. Today, many singers sing very much a flawed sound and are applauded for it. Whereas even 30 years ago there were agreements about the fundamentals of operatic singing, today people seek to lock themselves in a bubble of people who applaud what they do even if it is objectively problematic. We need to go out of this so-called post truth world. There is no post truth! The malady we are experiencing must be made an anomaly. We must return to a fact based world.
Lastly, there are many singers in the world who sing truly well by any measure and remind us how a great traditionally trained voice sounds like. But the environment caters to a more superficial sound aesthetic and therefore the great voices are actually valued less. The idiosyncratic voices are considered more unique. But are they really? Or just disorganized? Are they audible? Well, see you at the opera house!
At the heels of the blogpost based on Ingo Titze’s 2014 paper on a “Bi-Stable” glottal closure system, I reconsidered the role of the IA. This is more based on personal practice, but I find it particularly helpful on a number of fronts. The closure of the posterior gap cleared up (pun fully intended) a few doubts over the past couple of weeks. Titze’s article concentrated so much on the interaction between LCA (lateral crico-arytenoid) and TA (thyro-arytenoid) that the role of the IA seemed almost secondary. Titze further emphasizes the instability of the two-part system, which made me wonder if there was a stabilizing factor that was overlooked. Might the IA (inter-arytenoid) be that stabilizing factor? I believe that to be true.
Unregulated air loss, when a posterior gap exists, would have a destabilizing effect on phonation when the other two muscle groups are playing at Tug-o-war. Is it possible that the IAs provide just the needed interference between the main fighters such that neither exaggerates? Worth considering!
The idea of lifting the soft palate might be related to posterior closure and therefore the IA. Raising the palate has always seemed sketchy to me since I’ve never felt a direct relationship to the tone. However when achieving what I believe to be posterior closure, I experience a resonance sensation in the area of what I perceive to be the soft palate. This action produces a very satisfying brilliance in the so-called “back vowels” (i.e. /a/, /o/ and /u/ and related mixed vowels).
The question is, of course: “how do you achieve this posterior closure?”
The idea of lifting the soft palate is not bad. However, the action must relate to a desire to say very clear vowels, particularly with respect to back vowels. Closure along the length of the folds (front to back), without closing the posterior gap seems adequate with respect to front vowels (i.e. /e/ and /i/ and related mixed vowels). However with closure of the posterior gap, the front vowels take on greater richness (to be expected with greater efficiency).
Finally this makes me think about a trend in recent decades of the “lighter” approach to singing. Lyric baritones who sound like tenors, lyric mezzos sounding like sopranos and lyric tenors sounding more like lower range countertenors, when compared to their counterparts some three to four decades ago and further back. Is it possible that this prevailing trend results from reduced involvement of the TA combined with some slight posterior gap? I have tried it! And the argument seems to hold water.
This is true particularly of Rossini tenors by and large! But that strategy is understandable (although not ideal) because their repertoire depends on unusually high tessitura and high notes (as high as F5). That other voice types follow this trend might have been caused by the dominance of electronically amplified media as the prevalent mode of experiencing music, even classical singing, which was meant to be experienced without electronic enhancement. Producers of recordings do not like the strong Singer’s Formant resonance, particularly at the dawn of digital recording when noise reduction was brought to zero. Before digitization a certain amount of ambient and mechanical noise was acceptable and in such an environment the “buzz” of the all-important Singer’s Formant (if one is too be heard with emotional intensity) was not intrusive. Is it possible that “the tail is wagging the dog?” That the acoustically reductive environment of recorded voices is dictating an aesthetic that is ultimately unviable in the context of an acoustic performance? I say yes!
I will leave it to the researchers to create a protocol for testing my contention. Meanwhile I’ll continue testing it in my practice.
I was introduced to this App and I find it very interesting, in particular because it is very sensitive. There are so many intangibles in singing that whatever clarity we can find we should pursue it. I will investigate the Pro version and try to understand the coding parameters behind Sing-O-Meter but at first look, it is impressive. It is not a “singing” app in the advanced sense of the word. However it addresses the most fundamental skill in singing, which I call “ear-to-throat coordination.” Intonation in actual singing is fundamentally a perception issue and perception means context. In operatic singing, the desired chiaroscuro balance plays also into perceptions of intonation. 1) First of all, what are operatic vocal norms? Sadly today we don’t have any. Mass media plays a big part. Whatever we are told is viable is what we accept. Singers who are inaudible live can sound like they possess giant voices when they are amplified. 2) The audience is very forgiving. What we deem to be acceptable intonation has as much to do with what we accept as the singer’s timbre. That however can change with the singer’s personal tone expectations. In a way, consistency within the acceptable pitch margin of error can define the listener’s tolerance to a great extent. For example, is the singer flat or does s/he have a darker voice? As listeners we are also very forgiving relative to our timbre preferences. Furthermore, in a post-truth world, the singing business apparatus sees us as sheep who will accept whatever we have been programmed to accept. The human brain prefers what it is used to. That is why nearly 90% of pop songs in the last 20 years was written by two song writers, one American and one Swedish. It would not be a stretch to understand why Sweden is the most important nation relative to Eurovision, one of the entities that controls what we define as modern pop stars. What is the connection beyond Eurovision? How is this all related to the music we consume on our little personal computers?–This goes deep and dark!
That is why the fundamentals of Sing-O-Meter impress me. The level of sensitivity is very high therefore lowering the margin of error. This app leaves little to timbre preferences. I tried to modify how I sang into the app, but purposefully dark or purposefully bright, the app responded to fundamental frequency not perceivably to variations in the overtones. I could sing darker or brighter and still control my fundamental frequency relative to the app’s very limiting margin of error. An app like this can restore some objectivity to what we define as standards!
The truth is that the business, the schools and even private teachers lower the bar in the name of making more money. In the last 30 years it became more profitable to be mediocre than excellent. There aren’t so many people who have the staying power to become great singers in any discipline if great singing is defined by vocal control within more narrowly defined parameters. Someone can be a great musical artist and be a very poor vocalist. I love the voices of Edith Piaf and the lead singer of the Flamenco-Latin fusion group The Gypsy Kings but I’m clear that neither produces the voice in a way that is healthy and that both produced their voices in ways that are “harmful longterm.”
Longterm harm is a powerful combination of words! In a world obsessed with immediate gratification, almost no-one cares about longterm consequences–Not the music business driven by short-term profits, not the schools driven by student enrollment for their short-term bottom-lines, not the singers who get to scrape a living and perhaps not the teachers who also need to put food on their family’s tables and certainly all the bottom feeders who are sticking to aspiring singers like barnacles to a sinking ship.
In the last generation, we have seen the dumping of pretty much every value that made singing something special. Similar trends can be followed in every facet of life. Being an “artist” has essentially lost all of its luster in the name of money. The Internet was not conceived for what it has made the world. It is only a tool that has magnified the effects of the unbridled greed that can followed through every part of human history. And even at the edge of environmental catastrophe and even human extinction, it would seem that our human greed overpowers even our survival instinct.
There’s nothing I can write on this blog that will provide any effective counter to the momentum of a runaway greed train. However, this app gives me a little ray of hope that standards might be brought back. That in some corner of a post-decency world, Excellence might have worth. Quality might matter. Patience might be a virtue again. More than ever we need Art for Art’s sake.
The app is available on Apple and Google Play platforms.
Since I have not been part of the Higher Education environment for the last fourteen years, I miss out on a lot of interesting publications. What is interesting is that an article by Ingo Titze in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America dating back to 2014 corroborates the theories I have shared on this blog relative to the necessity of deeper fold adduction. Titze’s conclusions (a culmination of more than a quarter century of research and shared research with colleagues) are so accepted in the field that they inspired research in surgical procedures to achieve the so-called rectangular glottis in phonation. I will attempt to clarify the basics as Titze explains in his article:
Titze concludes there are three muscle groups responsible for different aspects of glottal adduction: 1) The Lateral Crico-Arytenoid (LCA) pair that bring the folds to midline at the superior aspect (upper portion) of the folds. 2) Thyro-Arytenoid (TA), which includes two muscles, vocalis and muscularis, thicken the folds vertically and brings the folds in contact at the inferior aspect (lower portion) of the folds. Finally 3) Inter-Arytenoid (IA) pairs seal the posterior gap to prevent air leakage (IA is less relevant to this discussion since it only prevents leakage beyond the vibratory edge of the folds)
The LCA adducts the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilages, which bring the superior edges of the vocal folds together…The bottom of the vocal folds is adducted by the TA.
But Crico-Thyroid (CT), the primary function of which is the lengthening of the folds (also called the pitch muscle) has an adductory function as well.
Titze explains further:
What role does CT activity play in registration? Its main function is anterior–posterior fiber stiffness regulation of the vocal fold tissue layers by vocal fold lengthening, but CT also plays a role in adduction. LCA and CT activity are often highly correlated in speech (Atkinson, 1978). One reason is that, when fundamental frequency is high and governed by tension in the vocal ligament (Van den Berg, 1960; Titze et al., 1988), amplitude of vibration is small. Smaller amplitude requires more adduction at the vocal processes to allow the vocal folds to reach contact in vibration.
Titze confirms what I have attempted to explain here–That shallower glottal posture (i.e. convergent glottis, as Titze refer to it) requires “more adduction.”
Thinner tends to be pressed (my words).
In addition, elongated vocal folds are retracted from the glottal midline because their cross sectional area is reduced. This retraction requires further LCA adduction, which adjusts the glottis toward a convergent shape if TA activity is not simultaneously increased (Hirano, 1975). In other words, bottom adduction may not follow top adduction of the vocal folds when CT is much more activated than TA (Berke et al., 1989). At the opposite extreme, if TA activation is strong and the ligament is lax due to little CT activation, a divergent pre-phonatory configuration can be the outcome. Adduction at the top is then weaker than adduction at the bottom. For mixed registration, it is hypothesized that the two extremes are avoided with appropriate muscle balance so that a near rectangular glottis is achieved and stiffness is balanced in the tissue layers. A small convergence angle is probably not detrimental, but large divergent or convergent angles are not conducive to low-threshold self-sustained oscillation.
Titze concludes (perhaps correctly) that LCA (the primary adductory muscle) approximates only the upper portion of the folds and that TA is needed to adduct the lower aspect. He then correlates LCA and CT. He refers to convergent glottis as related to LCA dominance and divergent glottis to be TA dominant. That is one way of looking at it. Far be it from me to question the research of a top scientist far more fluent in his understanding of such matters than I am. Nevertheless, I have a suggestion purely from the singer’s point of view:
I believe that pre-phonatory postures are a result of the singer’s expectation of vocal timbre. If I imagine myself to be a bass, I will tend to expect a deep sound, which might lead to exaggerated TA activity resulting in a divergent glottis. The sound feels like it is rooted in the chest. This posture prevents the folds from closing at the upper portion, which is related to a lack of CT activity (lengthening). That imbalance results in lax vocal folds and result in a rather dull timbre. This, of course begins with the singer’s desire to sound bassy (this would work for a mezzo as well). The opposite can be said for a tenor (or soprano)–that is a tendency to desire brightness over darkness in the voice, resulting in an excessively convergent glottal posture. Naturally a tenor or soprano can desire to be excessively dark just as a bass or mezzo may seek to be excessively bright.
If we take as given that fold posture is primarily influenced by the singer’s imagined sound, then I would explain more simply that LCA is the primary adductory muscle and that the shape of the the glottis will depend on the balance between CT and TA.
Titze concludes that a balanced (or mixed) coordination in the antagonistic relationship between CT and TA will produce a desired rectangular posture that requires less adduction than the convergent (relatively pressed) glottal posture. Ideally, the folds approximate gently along the entire vertical cross-section of the folds.
The rectangular posture gives both richness and brilliance to the tone–In bel canto terms, chiaroscuro.
Titze also mentions that the extreme postures, convergent and divergent, are more stable, which is why more singers tend to find comfort in a one-sided posture (convergent or divergent). The most admired singers achieve a successful tightrope act of balancing CT and TA and regulating breath pressure as to not blow apart the gently adducting rectangular glottis and adjusting vowels in order to achieve acoustic configurations that encourage the dynamic coordination that produces the rectangular glottis.
The singer’s challenge is to figure out how it feels to access the two sides of adduction. How does appropriate TA activity feels such that it produces ideal posture on the lower portion of the folds? And how does one combine that sensation with the sensation of appropriate CT activity to close the upper portion of the folds? That is what we must achieve in voice lessons. The benefits of a mixed (rectangular) posture include an easier, more flexible tone; more dynamic transitions between registers; greater volume control; greater stamina and less wear on the folds. And more!
Lastly, health matters! Our folds’ surface is not always flat and smooth. It is usually somewhat uneven from inadequate sleep or viscosity from inadequate hydration or reflux or allergies or colds, etc. When the surface is uneven, we often compensate by adducting a little more firmly to avoid gaps in the closure (which sounds raspy and produce subharmonics). In so doing, we are creating a chain reaction that results in a more convergent glottis, lacking in depth and causing abrupt register changes. Achieving this balance is the singer’s daily work for a lifetime. Additionally, achieving balance in speaking has a great influence on the ability to achieve a mixed (Bi-stable fold adduction, per Titze’s article) posture in singing.
I was not at the gala, so my comments are a response to comments I have read from singers who were there and from two reviews that disagree on most aspects but are united in Ms. Netrebko’s singing (The New York Times and Operawire). From the recordings I have listened to of Netrebko’s “In questa reggia,” I am not surprised that she would do well. Her tone is fundamentally full and flexible and always well-supported. There is enough natural substance to the voice to justify certain dramatic roles. But before I continue, a little background regarding my personal assessment of Netrebko’s voice when she caught the world’s attention.
I tend to shy away from opera singers who are complimented for their looks far beyond their voices. That was the case with Netrebko in the beginning and I was turned off even before I had the chance to hear her live. When I finally did, it was a production of Rigoletto with Villazon as Duca di Mantua. The voice reminded me of the more substantial incarnations of Renata Scotto’s career–More lyric than coloratura. She was comfortable in the first act but not dominant. She was breathtakingly beautiful in the second and third acts. Therefore I was surprised that she took on Puritani and Sonnambula. In both roles I found her inconsistent relative to intonation in the highest parts of both roles. Lucia was even worse and the Traviata for which she garnered great reviews also betrayed suspect intonation the highest parts of the role. I said often (perhaps even on this blog–I must search) back then that she should sing more lyric roles. Gounod’s Juliette was a great fit for her. I experienced that incarnation opposite Alagna in a celebrated MET production. Unfortunately the night I saw it had Domingo in the pit to disastrous results. While I loved her “Je veux vivre,” despite Domingo pedantically interfering in a 3-pattern (no professional conductor would be beating 3 in that situation), I left the theater after the first act. I could no longer bear the disaster in the pit. I’m a huge fan of Domingo as a singer, even in some of his baritone incarnations. If he were serious as a conductor, he should have taken some lessons from his many great conductor-friends. But I digress! I had also enjoyed several of Netrebko’s excellent Mozart roles.
A few seasons ago, I experienced her as an excellent Leonora in Trovatore in Berlin and later as Elsa in Dresden’s Lohengrin. The voice had gained in fullness without losing flexibility. I was impressed! The Lady Macbeth attempts (as I experienced at the Waldbühne in Berlin), in my opinion, were disastrous. I remember a similarly scary broadcast of a celebration at the Bolshoi in Moscow. The hint of a wobble was evident and a sense that the voice was at its limits:
I was under the impression that she would quickly decline as so many before her have done by taking on heavier and heavier roles until they cross the line of inappropriateness. Perhaps I was wrong! Many great singers with very long careers have overcome disastrous role attempts to become models of vocal intelligence: Gedda’s singular Lohengrin and Pavarotti foregoing Cavaradossi for 13 years after he was advised by di Stefano to respect the potential perils of the role.
I questioned Netrebko’s choices further because of the fact that the World Operatic Oligarchy (WOO for short) banked so much on the persons of Netrebko and Kaufmann to unbearable stress, at very least evident in Kaufmann’s illnesses over the last few years. But unlike Kaufmann’s dilemma of being the only lirico-spinto that WOO has bet on, Netrebko’s reign as the current prima donna in assoluta, she is far from the only viable and celebrated soprano taking on the light Wagner, Verdi and Puccini in the world. She may have more time to calculate and learn from potential mistakes. If she is to last, she will have to forgo roles like Lady Macbeth, Santuzza, Elisabetta (Don Carlo) and ultimately Kundry, Isolde, Senta and Elektra, i.e. roles requiring a thicker middle and fuller second passaggio than are natural to her fundamentally lyric instrument.
Why do I think Netrebko will take on those roles? At least Elisabetta, Isolde and Elektra (the Strauss not the Mozart) are bonafide prima donna vehicles and Netrebko’s career has been built on glamor not artistry. By all estimation, she is indeed a very sensitive artist. Unfortunately, those responsible for developing a career are less interested in the impact on the art form but rather obsessed on the individual as an end unto herself. And despite the fact that Ms. Netrebko is a rare artist, I had to find that out upon reflection and sifting through many videos. For despite her superior talent, she has been marketed as a fashion modal who sings opera instead of a great operatic artist who happens to be a very glamorous woman as perhaps Schwarzkopf before her. Now that she has fed the WOO, perhaps she has enough time and freedom to build her legacy as the excellent artist she is without the tethers of representing pop culture as well. She chose her MET NYE Gala repertoire very well. Indeed she is a memorable Mimi and one of the best Tosca’s around (I prefer Radvanovsky’s sound-surround suppleness vocally) particularly with respect to the necessary emotional content she brings to the role. Her current videos of Turandot on Youtube reflect promise in the role.
Let’s hope she continues a great and steady climb and bring back the idea that an opera singer’s legacy is based on her/his longevity not how much they flash the pan!