The Complexity of American Racism–And An Apology To My African-American Brothers and Sisters

A few days before the George Floyd murder, I wrote a blogpost on my experience as a Haitian-American and the difficulties I have had in my relationships with African-Americans (not all obviously) and that it was a source of deep sorrow for me. I took the article down the next day because I realized my African-American brothers and sisters would not understand my experience. Why would they? I took offense and held a deep grudge for the fact that throughout my life in the United States since age 11, many African-Americans treated me as “Other!” Well, in a sense, I am other. I was deeply hurt when an African American colleague in graduate school told me to my face that I was cast in an operatic leading role because I could pass as White (referring to my lighter skin). But whether she was right or not, I was not equipped with enough experience to empathize with her frustration.

I refused to accept the obvious: that I am in fact different!

Being a Haitian-American, who speaks French as a native language, and with lighter skin color, in everyone’s mind, Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians (except for me), made me different. My dear voice teacher in Undergraduate college, who saw how my Black colleagues at Westminster Choir College treated me (never mean, but different), warned me that I may find myself in the middle of a racial imbroglio as I prepared to begin graduate education at the University of Michigan, which had experienced open racial conflicts in the 1980s.

As always, my teachers never treated me differently. People like George Shirley, Willis Patterson and Earl Coleman, back then, had enough life experience to understand the difficult dynamics I was living. They made a space for me, while my colleagues, for the most part, emphasized the foreignness of me.

I worked really hard! But in my self-centeredness, I never saw the fact that, in an operatic context, I came with extraordinary privileges:

In undergraduate school, I learned Italian so quickly that the Italian teacher took it upon herself to eat lunch with me every day during the academic year and help me develop faster–Because of having French as a mother tongue, Italian might as well have been a French dialect.

When I arrived in school in New Jersey, in the 6th grade, the class was doing long divisions. The teacher had a student up to do such a division and after she had finished, the teacher said: “Good job!” But I raised my hand and said that the operation was incorrect! The teacher asked me how I can possibly know that? I told her I proofed it. She checked with her calculator and saw that the operation was wrong. She asked me how I proofed it, I went on the board and did an X proof (I doubt that many Americans, who have not studied math as a major in college, would know that proof. As a result of this experience, I was sent to the library to study more advanced math, when math was being taught in class.–My Haitian education gave me an advantage. But how can I think anything Haitian is an advantage, when I was routinely teased for coming from a backward, poor, dirty country?

When I started my undergraduate education at Westminster Choir College, my only deficiency (other than voice) was sight-singing. I had not formally learned it. But that took me no time. I was advanced in acting! I had worked professionally. I was hired my senior year to do a two-person play on the subject of Open Admissions in colleges, playing an inner-city, African-American youth, who objected to always getting a B-grade from his teacher, who admitted that under the “Open Admissions” system, she was to give preferential treatment to inner city Black youth who were considered underprivileged. After doing that role in my senior year of high school (sacrificing my prom for the opportunity and gaining my classmate’s ire for it), I thought of myself as more African-American than ever.–Yet, I got that opportunity because I went to a small private school, where I got to experience advanced theatrical skills through plays, workshops and performances.–I chalked up my opportunity to hard work! Yes I worked hard, but I had advantages that I did not recognize as such.

Thus, arriving to Westminster Choir College with linguistic and theatrical skills, what could my less privileged Black colleagues compete with? Their gorgeous voices, which they attributed to their experiences in the Black Church, of which this foreign, French-speaking kid was not privy too. At Westminster Choir College there was so much to aspire to that the difference between me and my African-American colleagues was minimized. But it existed.

I felt it as a continuation from my first years in public school, through my private school experience and beyond. I was always treated differently!

This pattern would continue through my experiences as an academic at the college level:

When I experienced very ill-treatment at Utah State University after doing what everyone called a stellar job my first year, I assumed that I had been threatening to my predecessor, who ran an opera company in town, since he threatened me with lawsuits for maligning his name, although I had never met him. It was definitely political, but I never assumed that it could be racial. As a Haitian, I am proud of the fact that my African, ex-slave ancestors defeated Napoleon and assisted Simon Bolivar in his campaign to free South America from Spain. I never felt like less than anyone and so I presented myself with confidence and fortitude (from my point of view). —Is it possible that in a town where I only saw one other Black family that there might be the thought: “What is this uppity nigger think he’s doing?” My own part Hispanic, part White ex-wife told me through the worst part of that crisis that maybe it was my fault for being to fort-right!

“The fact that I never even considered being viewed as an uppity nigger is the proof of my privilege!”

The fact that I had a Black colleague at the University of Florida who called me a “jack of all trades and master of none” because the orchestral conductor chose me to sub for him when he was away might be further proof (Never mind that I studied orchestral conducting for nearly 6 years under one of the world’s finest conductors). That the local newspaper treated me with great deference whenever I had an event of any kind could have been because of my lighter skin color and my foreign accent.–Again, I felt marginalized by a Black colleague, plus the Good Old Boys’ Club at the University of Florida School of Music (that is what a white colleague told me regarding what she taught was a biased tenure process) without ever consider that it was because I appeared daringly threatening as a Black man with extraordinary attributes.

Thus the Uppity Nigger shows his ugly face again! The fact that this never crossed my mind is the proof of my privileged.

In retrospect, I can see the same issues at play in North Carolina, Delaware and even upon my return to teach at Westminster Choir College for a year.

I thought a fort-right Black man was to be revered! It never crossed my mind it was insulting to those of my White colleagues who were racist and to my Black colleagues who saw my conduct either reflecting badly upon them or disrespectful of what they had to go through every day!

The fact that these issues never crossed my mind is the proof of my privilege.

It took watching the murder of George Floyd to feel the burden that African Americans feel every day. It was just one more experience beyond history, beyond Rodney King, beyond Abner Jean-Baptiste (a very dark-skinned Haitian sodomized with a nightstick by New York cops), beyond Kapernick, etc, for my privilege to become obvious to me.

Yes, the police in the United States does not treat me any differently than they treat other African Americans, but it takes me uttering two sentences to realize I am different.

And as much as I hate being treated as “other” by my fellow African Americans, because it makes me feel that I don’t belong anywhere in the United States, they are right. I am “other” and all my privileges confirm it. And all of my difficulties in Academia may have sadly been a result of me not being aware that in the United States power structure, in the eyes of too many I never suspected to be racist, I behaved like an Uppity Nigger, who needed to be put in his place!

Thus I owe an apology to all my African American brothers and sisters for being too “nose-deaf” to understand what they were going through!

In my defense I will only say the following: I never thought that a kid from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, from that ‘shithole country,’ could ever be an Uppity anything!

© 30 May 2020

Opera: Evolution or Devolution? Ask the Squillo!

The first time I sat in the Metropolitan Opera audience and heard Margareth Price, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes and a host of other singers singing smaller parts,  was the day that any offer from Universities or from the military academies to pursue another career vanished from my thoughts.  It was a singular experience!  For all those voices to get to my ears in that balcony so far away from the stage through that rich orchestral sound was a miracle to me.  That it was accompanied with dramatic and musical excellence was another level of experience and then there is language besides.

I don’t remember that well how those singers looked onstage, whether it was Domingo’s leaner or plumper look, whether Milnes looked taller than him or not or whether Ms. M. Price could have fitted a size 0 dress.  But that they sounded so powerful, as if they were in front of my face in that huge expanse of space, will never leave my sensory memory.

Opera require so many skills that it becomes difficult for some to remember what it is that distinguishes the opera singer from other singers.  A pop singer can make a beautiful sound and even sing through operatic music. A jazz singer can sing in many languages.  A musical theater singer can be a wonderful actor.  A rock singer can be a great musician.

The only attribute that distinguishes the opera singer is the unique resonance that makes it possible to be heard easily in the presence of a symphonic orchestra.

Even Monteverdi’s orchestra was known to be very loud and even noisy, given the difficult of tuning natural instruments like sackbuts, crumhorns and trumpets.

It is not how loudly a singer sings or the size of the voice that determines audibility. It is the ability to generate strong acoustic energy in the region of 2000-3000 Hz, which coincides with the most sensitive acoustic range of human hearing. Most babies, barring deformity accomplish this when they cry or when they laugh.  However, most young people lose this ability as they become socialized.  Speaking loudly in the home or in small gathering spaces (where we spend most of our time in life) is not considered polite in most cultures. The coordination of breath, vocal folds and resonance that was instinctive to us as babies gets transformed with language, social norms and education to something more acceptable in confined spaces.

That special resonance, traditionally called Squillo (or the ring of the voice) and in science terms, The Singer’s Formant, is a possibility for any human being, barring deformity or some illness.  Some people have a pharyngeal structure that makes it easier to accomplish even when they produce their voice in less efficient ways. There is an acoustical theory that the pharynx must be at least 6 times the size of the epilaryngeal tube in order to produce this resonance.  The size of the pharynx is increased when the larynx is in a lower position.  The low larynx has been the traditional way of accomplishing the Squillo.  In more recent times, singers have been experimenting with the possibility of narrowing the size of the epilaryngeal tube to achieve that 6:1 ratio between the two spaces.  However, someone whose pharynx is naturally larger may be able to produce that resonance easily even with a high larynx.

The spaces are not the only factors.  The laryngeal vibration, also called the source tone must be efficient enough to produce a strong sound to begin with.  The science confirms that a so-called rectangular vibration is the most efficient manner to produce a source that that would be rich in harmonics (overtones) and set up in such a way to not necessitate a tight closure of the vocal folds.  That rectangular posture can be called full voice with a relatively fluid closure on the superficial, flexible layers of the folds.  Such a set up also reduces subglottal pressure and facilitates the natural decent of the larynx (as long as the laryngeal depressors are doing their job and are not overbalanced by the laryngeal levitators).  This kind of source tone also facilitates a more flexible breath emission, requiring less effort from the breathing musculature.

Other than a few singers (called gifted for good reason, both for acoustic advantages relative to the pharynx and speaking habits that foster a good source tone),

this coordination is not easy to accomplish.

I remember when I did not have a strong Squillo when I began to analyze my voice with a spectrogram. But now I have an ever present one.  In my case, it did not have to do with a low larynx because mine was always relatively low. But my source tone was out of balance because I was manufacturing a baritone sound (because I believe I was one).  The more my tenor voice became more balanced (between length and depth of the vocal folds) the more the squillo strengthened.  And breath management became much more flexible.

Because of my false baritone past, it’s taken me the last 38 years of active learning (since I started with voice lessons at age 16) to accomplish this coordination.  If I had given up, I would never have accomplished it and might have taught that it was simply not possible with my anatomy.  I my 30 years of teaching and searching, other than some abnormal vocal deformity, I do not see any reason why a singer should not be able to produce that resonance and become a viable opera singer.

It’s taken me a lot of words to say that:

most people can develop a voice capable of singing opera.  

But it takes physical training unless you are gifted, as explained above.  Then of course comes the additional skills to sing slow and fast without loss of air (No machine-gun colaratura please.  The fastest coloratura passages can be done legato)!

I can play tennis pretty well.  But I am not Roger Federer!

Why do we take for granted that athletes have to train but singers just have to be able to sing the notes? When I was in my teens, I once got my tennis serve clocked at 102 miles per hour.  But I could not serve that fast often and it did not go into the service box with any consistency.  The singer has to be able to maintain that squillo throughout the vocal range and while singing very difficult music.  The consistency of that coordination is dependent upon a fine balance of all the muscles in the body, supporting the laryngeal musculature in particular.

A singer can spin a beautiful phrase or very fast coloratura into a microphone and be very impressive.  But if it does not have that specific setup that makes it the most present sound in the presence of an orchestra, it’s not operatic in the true sense of the word.

What about chamber opera?  I wrote a 10 minute chamber opera for young singers who were just developing.  That’s part of studying opera in the beginning.  But what if I scored the piece for a symphonic orchestra instead of the piano? Would the young singers be able to be heard in the theater?  At that time, no!

In a discussion on my Facebook feed, a young singer suggests that opera should evolve to include singers using a microphone.  But then, that special resonance would no longer be necessary and we would not be able to distinguish between the singer who developed the skills to turn the natural un-amplified human voice into a miraculous instrument and those who make a lovely sound but without squillo.

There is the additional factor that the presence of squillo in the voice may invoke primal emotional responses from the listener that may not be as easily achieved without. The way we respond emotional when we hear a baby cry may very well be because of the squillo.  There is a theory that the squillo exists in our voices (matching the most sensitive range of the human ear) because in the wild, parents needed to hear their children in case of danger.  Therefore, the presence of squillo in the voice could have helped the propagation of our species.

Because of this specific acoustic phenomenon, I have heard singers sing very quiet sounds with large orchestras and are heard as if they were whispering directly to my ear.

So it is not about loudness in terms of decibels, but rather about the relationship between the primal human voice and the human ear.

It is an elite singer who works very hard to develop the ability to sing at all speeds, at all dynamics, in different linguistic configurations, in different musical vocabularies and maintain the primal, human resonance through all of it.

Acoustic singing of this nature is a very special skill!  The moment the microphone came into play, the squillo became a problem.  Recordings of opera after the late 1950s already includes editing that reduces the squillo, because it was considered distracting.  So in recordings, it is difficult to distinguish between singers who have squillo and those who do not.  That a singer is musically highly artistic on recordings unfortunately does not guarantee that the singer will be audible in a live operatic performance.

From Monteverdi to Menotti, nearly 500 years of operatic development did not necessitate a microphone.

Perhaps opera will evolve into an electronic art form the way musical theater has, but then we would lose the very essence of what makes it opera! It would have in fact devolved!

Pélé’s scissor kicks:


Michael Jordan flying


George London’s Squillo (Even in Speech)


The Greek word Apotheosis:

1. The highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax
2. The elevation of someone to divine status.
The word was often used in the early Olympic Games, to describe athletes who developed their skills to such a high level that they would seem godlike.  Likewise in opera, the term Diva was assigned to a female singer who had achieved the highest level of skill.  Unfortunately the term has taken on a pejorative meaning.
Squillo is not the only skill that an opera singer should have, but it is the one that distinguishes the opera singer from any other. Squillo amplifies all the good qualities. Without it in the opera house, it is the equivalent of turning off Martin Luther King’s microphone during the Dream speech.  Lots to say but no one can hear it!

An Apology to Andrea Bocelli

I sit in my kitchen, preparing a late meal, because I have had a full day. A day of teaching, a day of sharing knowledge with my dear and respected colleagues, Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff, who kept singers around the world engrossed in a 9-week Vaccai Project on Facebook, giving not only something to do proactively during the pandemic but also inspiring hope for a better continuation after the Covid19 crisis.  Afterwards, I found myself in a nostalgia-filled fest with my sisters, Nadine LaFond, a talented painter and singer, and Karling LaFond (a hero nurse in these times), reminiscing about our musical heritage.  Later, I found myself in the Youtube rabbit hole, face to face with the personality that is Andrea Bocelli, a figure that cannot be ignored, but that has been lampooned and ridiculed by the classical singing community, myself included. To be fair to myself, I never ridiculed Bocelli, but labeled him in previous posts over the years as a “pop singer using opera!”  I promise that all the subjects touched upon in this paragraph are relevant to the current discussion!

What is Andrea Bocelli?  

  1. First and foremost, a pop singer with a more substantial and flexible voice than the average pop singer, including the Josh Grobans of the world.
  2. An Italian who speaks the first language of opera with elegance.
  3. A musician of exceptional directness and musicality (I loved him as a pop singer first)
  4. A blind man who meets his audience through a very warm speaking voice and then enchants them with beautiful melodies, some composed by him and some taken from the finest of classical compositions (e.g. Aranjuez and Rach 2)
  5. A man with an unusual voice that in terms of substance, falls between Corelli (his teacher) and Tino Rossi, a Corsican singer in the 1930s-1950s, who also used opera as a means of expression but also brought operatic music to a pop audience.

When I first heard Bocelli, it was in this performance:


Franco Corelli was my vocal god at the time, especially after having the unusual opportunity to have three lessons with him in the late 80s.  When I heard this performance of Pavarotti and Friends back in 1994 or 1995, I heard that voice and thought I was hearing a smaller version of Franco Corelli, I did not know that Bocelli studied with Corelli. But I heard something uncannily familiar.

If you listen carefully, you hear Corelli in that voice!



It is said that when one loses one of his senses, the others are enhanced.  Possibly…Possibly, Bocelli used his ears to sense Corelli’s timbre!  Of course, Bocelli’s voice is not as substantial as Corelli’s but here are some pluses:

  1. Legato:  whether his Italian nature or his connection with Corelli, Bocelli sings legato.
  2. Purity of language: whether Italian or his connection to language, Bocelli sings beautifully in his native language.
  3. Emotion:  whether Italian or his connection with Corelli, Bocelli is an emotionally immediate performer.
  4. Top notes: Pop singer or not, his top notes are exciting!!!


The argument against Bocelli has been that he does not sing a tone supported enough to be a bona fide opera singer!  I was critical early on of his attempt at Werther at Michigan Opera Theater in the 90s.  He wasn’t present in the hall for much of the opera but quite powerful with “Pourquoi me réveiller?”  In truth, the voice has never been that far away from real operatic singing.  This is not Michael Bolton belting Nessun dorma! He is closer to the real thing, the way Tino Rossi was in the time of Gigli.


I grew up with that voice as my favorite! (I was a tenor from the beginning. Just didn’t know it).  That Rossi was a French/Corsican/Italian pop singer who approached his top notes in falsettone doesn’t erase his extraordinary legato, musicianship and charm. What Rossi did for the early 20th century, Bocelli provides in the early 21st century.

Tino Rossi was an international star, making waves in Rome and Paris, as he did in New York and L.A.  In my estimation, it is possible that in the developing postwar world of Melocchi, del Monaco and Corelli, the omnipresence of Tino Rossi in the Italian psyche may have given way to the voices to Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and LoForese in a post Gigli/Pertile world.  The lyricism, the legato, the purity of the text, the elegance of the phrasing! All Bel Canto attributes, which may have seen a confrontation 50 years before between the music of Tosti and Donaudy on the Bel Canto side and Respighi, Malipiero  and Casella in the Verismo side.

Bocelli’s place in the late 20th century and early 21st century is sealed.  As he benefited from the visionary Pavarotti’s influence in bridging the gap between popular and classical music, Bocelli himself continue to unite the classical and popular through collaborations with great artist of both camps as exemplified in the following clip:

If one reads the comments below this video, one understands why Bocelli has sold more records than any classical singer of his time, even though he is fundamentally a pop artist.

He did, in short, what his classical colleagues could not accomplish! He grabbed the hearts of his audience with beautiful melodies, direct emotion and a singular charm! His blindness is an incidental exclamation!  One cannot sustain this kind of commitment from his fans if he did not deliver.

The important factor is that this pop singer crosses over to classical and obliterates the bona fide classical singers. Kaufmann included!

To be fair to our top tenor, Kaufmann has to deal with a big orchestra, sans mic! Bocelli does not! But here is the rub! When Opera decides to go the route of Popopera, it will always lose.  And I believe that is the central problem! Bocelli, does not stand a chance, side by side with Kaufmann.  And that is evident with the first clip between Pavarotti and Bocelli. However, in that battle, Bocelli acquits himself positively! He stands toe to toe with one of the greatest tenors of all time and says:

I studied with your predecessor and I got game! As a pop singer, I am to be applauded!”

And he is correct!  If Kaufmann is inaudible in the theater as Siegmund or Parsifal, the reality of the day is not in his favor!  I wrote here, years ago, that Kaufmann is the first tenor in the world for important reasons, but that he should have avoided Wagner!  Because news is immediate, we get to celebrate Kaufmann for his HD simulcasts of Walküre and Parsifal, but remain disappointed in those roles in the theater. Yet, I am the first one to applaud his Cavaradossi, which is appropriate.

It is not Kaufmann’s fault!  Theaters are willing to pay him lots of money for his services. Why?  Because theaters are about now! Not about the future of this art form. Therefore, Kaufmann will be a footnote, just as Netrebko who takes on roles that are far beyond her vocal possibilities. But they will be rich!

But history will speak only of Bocelli and what he contributed to these times.

He might be falsely remembered as a classical singer, but indeed, he may have contributed more in favor of classical singing than his bona fide classical colleagues. Kaufmann as a pop icon does not come close to Bocelli’s power. However, Bocelli as a classical singer is confirmed in the mind of a vast public that could be drawn to opera, if only opera could deliver LIVE!

Tino Rossi brought average people to classical singing, including opera! Mario Lanza brought simple people to opera for similar reasons. And Bocelli will be the hero who calls to the average person and says: “Classical music is beautiful! And not so different from pop music!”  It is not Kaufmann who does that job!  But it was Pavarotti who did!

My friends, Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff, spent 9 weeks, convincing singers of our time that operatic success is about the fundamentals of beautiful singing, a fact that the operatic establishment has totally lost cognizance of!

To be audible while singing beautifully is the first and foremost principle of operatic singing!

6-packs are nice and so is a beautiful face. But without audible beauty, it is not opera!  If 6-packs and a beautiful face is your thing (first and foremost), you are better served by Hollywood and Pornhub than you would be by Opera.

In my heart, Pavarotti remains one of the most beautiful men who ever walked this earth when he opened his mouth and sang.

In that big open space of a theater, whether the MET or Scala, whether Covent Garden or Vienna Staatsoper, whenever I heard that man, I could not concentrate on anything else.

For the last time, whoever has influence in Opera must understand that Opera begins with beautiful singing.  Anything else is added bonus and must not supersede THE VOICE! 

And as my sisters, Nadine and Karling, reminisce about our childhood musical influences, I find that whether Antonio Aguilar or Miguel Aceves Mejia or the singers of the great Haitian bands or Tino Rossi, or the great singers of the early Motown era, or the great crooners, what my father, André L. LaFond loved and introduced us to was always beautiful singing! 

Dare I say: Bel Canto?

I would be remiss if I did not include this link to Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Groff‘s next Vaccai Bootcamp, three weeks from now!  I will be there as a participant, because it is important!  I recommend strongly that you join!  It is free!  There is no catch! But contribute if you got something out of it, because these wonderful people give a lot of their time and energy to bring something crucially important to us. The rescuing of the art of Opera, in my estimation, begins with Rachelle Jonck’s Vaccai program.

© 18 May 2020



Appreciating My Teacher: Judith Nicosia

I have had great teachers throughout my life! Voice teachers, directors, conductors, math teachers, and more.  As I thought of the teacher who was probably the most influential in the course of my life, it is Judith Nicosia.  She was my voice teacher, my last year at Westminster Choir College, but more importantly, I had her for three terms of Vocal Pedagogy and she opened a world for me of vocal science, critical thinking and holistic teaching.  She is a gifted singer and the most supportive voice teacher I have ever had.  She inspires confidence and shows possibilities!  She respects the singer she teaches and remains a source of guidance throughout our lives.

I know many who have felt her guidance and support…and love!  She is a caring human being, too.  

If I am a successful voice teacher, she is the example I look to.  I’m terrible at keeping in touch with her and I should do better.  I wanted her to know that I hear her voice often and that the last lesson a few years ago is still paying dividends.

I am so fortunate to have you as a teacher and when this virus is gone and I can travel to the United States again, I will pay you another visit.  Thank you for a lifetime of guidance!


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