FAITH, COURAGE, AND PATIENCE…HARD WORK IS A GIVEN.
I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the capital of a very humble country with a very dramatic history and practically “No Opera”. Yet some 45 years later I found myself having dinner in Northern Sweden with friends asking me: “How does one get from Haiti to teach Opera in Sweden?”
My story is a curious adventure that has covered a great many places. The sheer improbability of my life story leads me to think that nothing is impossible. When I rejected a scholarship to study engineering at an Ivy League School to pursue music at Westminster Choir College, I did not have much voice, a fact which led 11 out of 12 teachers who made up the voice department at the time reject my audition for voice performance. The head of the department, Daniel Pratt, thought I had a spark that was worth a gamble. Unbeknownst to me, I was placed on probationary acceptance for three months. Three years later, those same teachers chose me as the winner of the annual voice competition and named me “most likely to have a professional career!”
I continued my education at the University of Michigan under the tutelage of legendary American tenor, George Shirley and worked for a few summers with the Italian contralto, Ada Finelli in Rome. I made early strides as a lyric baritone and sang internationally in opera and concert for some 20 years. According to most of the people I worked with, I had no noticeable weakness. I studied orchestral conducting under Gustav Meier for 6 years to develop musicianship. I studied composition with Leslie Bassett to be able to understand the composer’s point of view. I sought opportunities to perform in straight theater and musical theater to develop theatrical skills. Finally, I developed fluency in 7 languages and grammatical/conversational proficiency in several others in order to interpret my music more idiomatically. Yet something had held me from going to a higher level in the field. Over time, I realized that I was a tenor singing baritone (a very common occurrence in Opera). The experience of making the transition from baritone to tenor over the past few years was the final step of completing a pedagogical philosophy that began 25 years ago. During this time I taught voice, diction and languages, pedagogy and Opera Workshop at such places as Utah State University, University of Florida, Westminster Choir College and the University of Delaware, and as a freelance teacher throughout Europe, parts of Asia and the American continent.
This sequence of events made me realize very early on that talent is not easily defined and that “voice” is not simply “given” but rather something to be “developed.” I began teaching right after my vocal pedagogy sequence, when my then teacher, Judith Nicosia, sent me a few students and told me I had developed a special ability for teaching. After some 30 years working with literally thousands of voices throughout the world, I have been able to define how voices develop. Early exposure to music, cultural background, choral experience, positive reinforcement, our own sense of adventure, fear, and even athletic competition, all have an impact on the singer’s psyche.
Opera, more than ever before, has become an international enterprise by necessity. When the Berlin Wall came down, East met West and Germany, with more than a hundred full-time opera houses, became ground zero for operatic competition. The Three Tenors made opera popular and so the average person thinks he or she has the wherewithal to become an opera singer by virtue of being able to sing along to an operatic recording.
A recipe for slow disappointment and a lot of wasted money!
Music schools lower the bar and change their paradigm to allow more students to enter, so that they may remain financially solvent. This means that thousands of young singers graduate every year from voice performance programs thinking they are prepared for a singing career. The jobs are few and the field is saturated with singers who are ill-prepared.
Avoid being just another failed story!
Furthermore, opera houses try to innovate to compete with mass media and in the process, they often go against what makes opera fundamentally opera. The singers who truly want to succeed must be willing to finish the training that was not addressed at the Music School level and be flexible enough to change with the whims of the business side of opera, which changes every season. All of this happened in my lifetime.
Have a strategy, beginning with a real vocal technique!
The teaching of singers is not only about developing a voice (yet vocal training in the real sense is of prime importance and prepares the singer for the development of other skills). It is about developing job skills, life skills, and a competitive edge, not as a means unto itself but as a byproduct in the pursuit of excellence. The body, the mind, the spirit must be addressed in order to make sense of oneself and consequently of the work we do.
For better or worse, you are your voice. Take care of all of you!
My life story has brought me to this point. It is my goal to change the operatic landscape by helping singers become decision-makers in their operatic lives as opposed to being victims of a system in flux (though many thrive on the chaos as it is). For singers to be successful in this field, they must understand its complexities and how to work it to their advantage. Otherwise, you are in for a series of short-lived, disappointing experiences.
Chose wisely! Make a conscious decision! It is Your life!