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Operatic vocal instruction continues to be a pandoras box of vying theories, contrasting aesthetics. There is scarce agreement today on what constitutes healthy wholesome vocalism, and the resulting beautiful sound. Confusing, very confusing. Fortunately, there are still great singers performing whom students can use as examples of what they should sound like. We also have a wealth of recordings from the beginning of last century which inform us about the old traditions.
When I was a student in Italy, except for two very different approaches, (Tebaldi traditional and gorgeous versus Callas exotic and exciting), there was a general consensus of what constituted great singing, and this was shared throughout the country and the world, by the critics, impresarios, conductors, artistic directors and the public. There was universal aesthetic agreement on which you could rely. Yet, nowadays there is disagreement on even such basics as breathing, vowel, (beware the purveyors of the “pure vowel theory”) resonation and phrasing. Finally, there are the most virulent arguements of all: which sound is THE truly “beautiful”.
So what is the student singer to do? If you are serious, in good strong health, have a basic musical ability, no bad habits, no paralyzing vocal problems, no paralyzing mental
problems, tenacity, and above all a good solid basic voice that people enjoy listening to, then onward! Here are some guidelines :some of the doʼs and donʼts which I embraced.
First, listen listen listen to old singers - if possible, to non-digitalized recordings. Immerse yourself in the subject of how great singers sound, go to opera, become
obsessed with trying to understand what they are experiencing. Get inside their throats. Inside their heads, their souls. Steep yourself in the traditions. I had such great
coaches, (I donʼt know if they still exist), but people who could say with authority things like,“on this phrase Milanov took a breath here and changed the vowel to o as she went
up”. Or, “here even though you have the vocal line, listen to the orchestra, they are the ones really singing, melt into that poetry”, Or, “donʼt try to lead this ensemble - here you
rest, sing, but in your mind go to Miami Beach - let the chorus and orchestra do the heavy work”. Or, “ʼAlbanese took this cadenza here, - but there are several others you
might consider - Caballe did this Sills did that, letʼs find one that best suits you”. One coach actually told me that the markings in the score were wrong, because he knew
Mascagni personally and the composer didnʼt mean how he had written it down! They were coaches who were veritable encyclopedias of past uses and traditions, had
worked with great singers and conductors and had infallible ears and taste. They didnʼt need metronomes to tell them what the right tempo was.
Find a coach.
Above all, find a teacher in whom you believe, has verbiage you can understand, and with whom you feel that singing is easy, and your voice is always improving. Stay with
them. Sporadic voice study is useless. One lesson every month, or the frantic lesson before an important audition is not going to do it, and it is not fair to the teacher. This is
a physical process and the same training discipline which applies to acquiring an athletic skill applies to you. No magical thinking!
Remember that you might have to deal with some teacherʼs over bloated egos and lots of absurdities like, “after I lost my voice, I got this knowledge directly from God ”, or only
I know the true bel canto technique through direct transmission from Nellie Melba through Flagstad to my teacher to me”. “I am channeling Giuditta Pasta - she comes
and sits at the foot of my bed in the night.” If the teacher is good in spite of this nonsensical stuff, lovingly indulge them. Who knows? Maybe Pasta does fly around
giving out important advice. If you are lacking the metaphysical bent, you will have to put up with this stuff in a good natured way. However, if you feel abused psychologically
or vocally, leave. Mind games are not helpful.
Now that you have both a reliable, knowledgeable coach and a teacher, donʼt expect overnight progress. Like any athletic feat it takes many thousands of hours of study,
repetition, persistence. Because of its delicate musculature, you have to be very patient with the voice. It takes a good six or seven years to develop the operatic voice, learn
repertoire, etc. Practice a lot, but donʼt sing yourself hoarse. Perform for small groups as much as possible - this will be a good measure of your progress along the way.
Some people are born with perfect voices (rare) which just need some gentle coaxing along. It may take less time for them. The phenomenal baritone, Giuseppe Taddei,
studied for one year only and then began his career. He sang well into his late seventies. The Slavs seem to spring out of the womb ready for Verdi. There are such
miracles of nature.
Record everything you do all the time if you can. You are your most severe critic so go easy! Nevertheless, you should be scrupulous about listening to yourself. If you can,
video recordings are good - I might add here they are also very tough to watch at first.
Be gentle with yourself.
Donʼt engage in behavior which can damage your voice. Drinking, overeating, smoking, yelling, weight lifting etc. are all detrimental to your vocal health, injure the delicate
covering on the cords and take away suppleness. The voice loses its luster, the squillo goes, the sound becomes thick, and can only be activated by force, thereby
compounding the problems. There are many good books on vocal hygiene which list dangerous drugs, behaviors, drying drugs, how to protect yourself when traveling,
hormones, foods to avoid etc. Read them for advice on the proper care of the singing voice. Donʼt become obese please! It wil destroy your health, YOUR LIFE. Twenty or
thirty pound are okay, more is dangerous. (People are always citing the rare exceptions to sensible vocal care: those exceptions who can defy nature. Maybe you are in that
category. However, if you are not Swedish Norwegian Finnish or Danish.(throats of steel), powerful physiques, I expect you will have to abide by the rules like the rest of
Stay healthy. Donʼt sing beyond your comfort zone, or beyond the beauty point in your voice. Sing things that suit you and that you love.
I loved studying and practicing and was fortunate to have extraordinary teachers- my first was Marjery Meyer - a wonderful singer herself, then Ricci, Campogaliani and
finally, Oren Brown. I had great coaches - among the best along the way was Gianine Reis in Paris, Eugen Kohn, and Felix Popper in NY.
So you too will be: the eternal student, the conscientious caretaker, of your instrument, the exuberant lover of vocal music, the purveyor of healing beauty. Enjoy the journey!
Well, I thought it would never happen, but after an artistic life-time of not being a fan of Mozart operas generally, (I do love Idomeneo), I fell in love with Figaro. It was a sudden and unexpected and don’t know whether henceforth I will be a committed to unending adoration, but certainly eternal fondness is a definite. ( I can never give up my total addiction to Wagner and Strauss, and (most of ) Verdi). All right, Donizetti too!
The rehearsal period was fast and dynamic — demanding speed imprinting and even fast forwarding from the cast. We did it in two weeks- and that is with a couple of singers debuting. They were tremendously good sports about it all — and even enjoyed the” fast forwarding,” : pretending to speed up the tape and moving breakneck through the second blocking/staging. I find that once the footwork is definite, and the artist is secure in the blocking, the real work of creating the character and staging can start. It frees the actors up to be inventive, change things to fit, and start making the character live. And boy, did they begin to design their roles- taking them ever further as a cohesive cast, and eventually making the total work a delight-, The audience laughed and laughed, and was rapt in pleasure during the sublime musical moments. The artists had full,” stand and sing’” moments, e.g. Dove sono, Deh vieni, Porgi Amor etc.-but also the hilarious madcap sections. What a cast! it was a dream working with such cooperative talented artists. They all wanted to explore and discover ; work the scenes together for precise comedic timing. What a beautiful bunch! What beautiful voices! I’m so grateful for you.
Undergirded by the wonderful meals Ellen and Ron provided, the careful musical support of Jonathan, and the lively rehearsal process-we sailed along. We even had a pancake breakfast for the entire cast and production/volunteer team cooked by the lovely hands of both Ellen and Michael-.
Thank-God we avoided the “homage to Mozart” stance, the sacrosanct preciousness which can be so suffocating and debilitating to this work in particular. There are theories and uber theories - thousands of books by now about Mozart, but my approach is, be elegant, stylish, respectful, witty, but never be dull. Keep the emotions Mozart sized and stay with the music and what is there.
We were overwhelmed with the crowds that showed up - some people came three hours early to secure a space. It was amazing to see people everywhere in the theater and many more spilling all over the hillside. A gentleman who has lived across from the park for forty years said he had never seen such a enormous audience for any performance there. The first day, some audience members looking for a seat, moved onto the adjacent hillside, unknowingly loosening a few stones into the orchestra “pit”. Oiy! We had to move fast to correct that. It was gratifying to see such a huge audience- most especially, I was happy to see young mothers with their children - eyes as big as saucers, following the opera with total attention.
Nothing is just is as it seems, as those in the theater know- producing opera is like moving Alexanders troops from Greece to Persia. Even at this modest level it is still a slow moving army with a thousand moving parts. I will leave it to Ellen to discuss in her blog, the portapotties dilemma and the extra security guards- costumes, wigs, the set, the huge drape, (thankyou Virginia), projecting surtitles (thankyou Khuners, Ross) in daylight! etc , etc. So much behind the scene structure and coordination - Ellen is amazing. Just puts her head down and gets it done, like a star quarterback.
Volunteers showed up to help set up and dismantle the” set” each time and to help load everything on the van, God bless them. There has got to be a special place in heaven for people who are willing to contribute to the arts like this; schlepping, towing and lifting- being there, alert and ready backstage. Never seen, never heard - bravi! to you, Ron Rudy Eileen Tyler Camille Katy Jason Katya - to everyone, a great big thank you.
Saying good bye is always hard after such a bonding experience, and yet it happens all the time in the theater. We meet, share intimate emotions, compress life as it were, and then poof! It is gone. All too ephemeral. All too fast.
But this time…..
May this Figaro live on and resonate in all kinds of positive ways for everyone involved! May it be your artistic four- leafed clover!!!
My love goes with you, O