Monday, April 24, 2017

For Tenors Only: Learn Rodolfo with the Legendary George Shirley

Dear Readers,

I am pleased to announce that the legendary tenor, George Shirley, will be teaching an 8-day course on the interpretation of Rodolfo from Puccini's La Bohème.  Mr. Shirley, who turns 83 years today, is still singing beautifully and is a very respected and admired teacher and colleague.  He is known for his specific, dramatically compelling and vocally moving interpretations including his Grammy Award recording of Ferrando (Così fan tutte), his Pelléas (Pelléas et Mélisande), considered by many to be the best recording of the role and certainly Rodolfo, which was one of his most frequent debut roles.



Of his debut as Rodolfo at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, Italy, the arts critic of the Giornale del Mattino wrote, “…George Shirley quickly convinced us by his clear phrasing, by his stupifying Italian diction, for the very appropriate scenic play and for the enchantment of [his] soft singing…”

This is one of our special courses and will be limited to 8 active participants (tenors only, of course) and 12 auditors on a first-come-first-serve basis.  The first 8 complete applications will be guaranteed a spot.  The auditors will be on a waiting list in case someone drops out.

If you are a tenor who sings Rodolfo or expects Rodolfo to be one of your future roles, I recommend highly that you do not miss this course.  

For more information Click here!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Uncertain Vocal Expectations in Early Music

I write this article as a singer who has been steeped in early music traditions from an early age.  My first voice teacher was an organist and flutist and among other things introduced me to the vocal music of Bach and Handel, which became staple to my work, in my earlier incarnation as a baritone.  Furthermore she introduced me to the music of recorder (Blockflöte) virtuoso, Franz Brüggen, who inspired my love for the instrument and its musical possibilities.  Early in my teaching career I had the opportunity to teach a few exciting countertenors and experimented myself with the repertoire (I’ve always had a well developed falsetto).  In my current work, I have the pleasure of working with several professional singers who specialise in early music, and I consider them to be among the highest caliber musicians I teach.  They aspire to flexibility in vocal production, linguistic refinement and musicianship of the highest order.  The combination of these aspirations constitutes an ideological deference to important principles of the bel canto, whereby vocal composition derived from an adherence to the combination of language, music and effortless and natural vocal production.  In my new incarnation as a dramatic tenor, even though I will probably never be hired to sing Bach or Handel or Monteverdi, I continue to practice this music because of its requirements of high level musicianship, flexibility and linguistic dexterity.

The problems that early music singers confront today stem from expectations of vocal production with respect to modern concepts of Informed Performance Practice.  Because I am a singer/teacher with one foot in the traditional operatic world, one might expect my objections to center primarily on the practice of straight-tone singing.  However, from my standpoint, straight-tone is not the central problem.  Straight-tone applied to an unbalanced voice, particularly a voice lacking adequate vertical contact area (let us call it VCA for short), can be an exacerbating practice.

In order to more completely address the problem of VCA deficiency, it is important to address the question of Ideal Fold Posture (IFP) irrespective of vocal style and genre.  IFP relates almost entirely to fundamental frequency (FF—Let’s call it Pitch, although some find it inaccurate).  A 440  means that for the given note A4, above the middle C of the standard 88 key piano, the vocal folds must oscillate (closing in a wave-like motion bottom to top and then opening) 440 times in one second.  This means that the length of one oscillation for the pitch (FF) A440 must be 1/440 of one second.  That oscillation time depends on three fundamental functions: 1) the vertical depth of the folds, because the folds close bottom to top; 2) the longitudinal tension on the folds (how taut the folds are when stretched for pitch) which has a direct impact on how quickly the folds “snap back to closure” after the open phase of the oscillation and 3) medial pressure (how tightly the folds are pressed against each other during oscillation, which has a direct effect of prolonging the close phase of the folds, adding to the oscillation time.

The IFP constitutes the most efficient mode of oscillation.  Appropriate vertical fold depth and longitudinal tension set up conditions that require gentle closure of the folds, which in turn require lower sub-glottal pressure to reopen the folds.  In this way the folds are open for a longer period during each oscillation, making greater sound pressure levels (greater airflow) with minimal resistance and compensatory tension.  

BUT HOW DO WE ACHIEVE THIS MAGICAL SET-UP?

This is the most frequently asked question!  And the response is actually very simple:  

IT OCCURS IN RESPONSE TO THE SINGER’S SOUND EXPECTATIONS.

Although the answer is simple, it is also simplistic.  No two singers have the same sound.  The voice is like a fingerprint.  Each singer’s acoustic signature (the display we see in a spectrogram) is unique and can be used to identify him or her.  Likewise, no two singers have the same ideal sound.  If we all produced our voices ideally, we would sound quite unique.  While the spectrogram can distinguish even the most inefficient voice from another, our musical ears however distinguishes more generally.  

Let us take an extreme example!  Imagine a bass who imagines himself to be a lyric tenor.  His sound expectation becomes relative to the great lyric tenors he might have heard and what is traditionally expected from lyric tenors in general.  Let us assume he manages this feat and is able to sing up to a tenor high A!  What is he doing to produce this pseudo-tenor sound?  Most likely, he reduces the vertical depth of the folds, which reduces the mass that would help produce a richer, darker tone and then increases medial pressure (press the folds together) to make up for the lost time of the natural “bass”oscillation.  The resulting sub-glottal pressure would then cause the larynx to rise (it could also be that the sound expectation makes for a high larynx preset), further reducing the possibility for strong low overtones.  

IN A NUTSHELL, THIS IS WHAT THE AVERAGE EARLY MUSIC SINGER DOES!

The average early music singer learns imposed (from without—e.g. recordings, conductors, coaches, etc)  expectations with respect to vocal timbre that violate their natural vocal make-up.  Their longevity in the professional arena depends primarily on the degree to which they have violated their vocal nature to placate the important musical personalities they work with, whether their early music coaches or the powerful conductors who lead the early music movement as we know it today.  Before the larynx calcifies (a natural consequence of vocal maturity) the younger singer (up to mid twenties) can get away with faulty fold postures, because the larynx is more elastic.  In such an anatomical environment, the singer’s vocal apparatus can more easily “snap back”to more natural defaults.  After the instrument has calcified appropriately with age, faulty fold postures are less easy to recover from.  It is at this point that many early music singers begin to experience problems.

Helping professional early music singers to recover from the negative effects of faulty fold posture is not merely an anatomical or vocal training problem.  It is a psychological and economical one as well.  Singers who have “sung against their nature” have come to vocally identify with their imposed vocal timbre.  They have been conditioned to think of the faulty sound as their natural sound and are therefore apprehensive about changing it.  The answer I tend to offer in such a case is:  “If this were your natural sound, it would not be causing you problems now”.  On the economical side, singers who are professionally active and became such because of the faulty vocal posture are naturally afraid they will become less marketable and perhaps rejected by their conductors if they were to change their voices.  As a pedagogue I respect this.  The good news is that appropriate changes do not require the singer to violate stylistic requirements.  In the many cases I have dealt with in the past 15 years or so, the changes give the singer a fuller voice (consistent with the singer’s natural voice) and greater dynamic control.  Taking away the excess medial pressure offers the possibility of “flow phonation” and the possibility for softer dynamics without sacrifice tone quality.  The singers also tend to hear from managers and casting directors that they have possibilities beyond early music.  So far it sounds positive, but it is not that easy!

The leaders of the Early Music Movement and Informed Performance Practice have very specific aesthetic values, some of which present no challenges to healthy vocal production and others that unfortunately do.  Many of the vocal aesthetics imposed upon singers have more to do with instrumental norms of the periods in question and the relative limitations of the instruments involved.  The literature relating to operatic singing from the 16th century through the 19th century do not require the impositions that instrumental conductors have insisted upon with regards to modern early music vocal practices.  The vocal requirements for sacred vocal music meant for overly reverberant cathedrals were never the same for the theater, as can be clearly understood in treatise by the likes of Tosi and the many students of Porpora.  

It is also important to understand  why the leaders of the Early Music Movement reject in large part current classical singing norms.  These norms are related to the excesses of modern orchestras in the production of Romantic Opera, particularly Wagner, Strauss, Puccini and Verdi.  It took the likes of Giulini and later Muti to impose a sense of tonal clarity both orchestrally and vocally, as well as a greater deference to the instructions of the score.  Because those conductors rarely engaged in pre-nineteenth century music besides Mozart and Rossini, they could not have had enough influence on the conversation of Early Music Practices.  The dominance of Alberto Zedda at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro created a cultish environment that had an equally problematic influence on the modern Rossini tenors in particular.  Consequently, the leaders of the Early Music Movement (Baroque and before), most of which were musicologists assigned vocal expectations to harmonise with the important discoveries they made relative to instrumental practices. With the resultant transparency of the newly formed Neo-Baroque orchestras, singers had to be found whose voices went along with that particular sound.  

The mainstream operatic aesthetic of the the 1990s and on was very influenced by the ability of smaller theatres to produce large-scale operas like Turandot and certain Wagner works, compounded by the popularity of the Three Tenors whose repertoire was essentially 19th century.  It did not take long before most opera houses were producing only a handful of 19th century Italian Operas, Wagner (which has had its own cult following) and one French Opera, which reflected The Three Tenors' repertoire .  With the visual aspect carrying greater and greater weight (this includes both lookism and ageism--including the severe lack of opportunity for singers with naturally substantial voices, whose physicality does not always conform to preferred aesthetics), it can be argued that less attention was given to the finer details of vocal technique.   This confluence of events in the mainstream gave rise to either lighter voices singing the heavy mainstream repertoire with disastrous results or appropriate voices without enough time on the stage to refine their product.  Finding a mainstream production that could boast a total cast of singers, whose musicianship and vocal material could be worthy of the term "bel canto” was challenging.  Light voices shouting to sing heavier repertoire, developing wobbles became more normal than not.  The argument was that the lighter voices (with slender bodies deemed more visually appropriate by stage directors with little operatic know-how) who were given the opportunities through Young Artists Programs (YAPs) and competitions had the name recognition to sell out theatres and were therefore preferred regardless of repertoire.  False comparisons were (are) made with earlier legendary lighter-voiced singers to justify light, often underdeveloped voices assuming heavier repertoire.  Such singers would not fit the Neo-Baroque aesthetic, neither for sound nor for musicianship.  There were always exceptions.

In short, the Early Music Movement became specialised, not unlike the Rossini cult, the Wagner cult and the Mozart cult.  The mainstream appropriated Mozart but only certain types of singers would be hired for either recordings or important productions.  It became a natural consequence that the leaders of the Early Music Movement would avoid mainstream singers, supposedly for their “excessive vibratos” and less than refined attention to stylistic details. The preferred aesthetic became diametrically opposed to these vices.  Musically sophisticated singers with lighter, vibrato-less voices became the desired breed.  Unfortunately, little distinction was made between naturally lighter voices and singers who reduced their natural voices to accomplish the desired aesthetic.  This is a problem that naturally effects sopranos and tenors in particular, who would suffer greater vocal dysfunction with respect to pressed voice (excessive medial pressure), because of the higher fundamental frequencies of their voices relative to their lower voice colleagues (i.e. altos and basses).  Additionally, altos and basses are expected to have darker sounds.  In fact a great number of successful Early Music altos and basses are appropriately developed sopranos and baritones.

WHAT DOES THE SOLUTION LOOK LIKE?

The solution requires change from all corners.  Current leaders of the Early Music Movement may need to die off before real change can occur.  People who made lucrative careers on a particular aesthetic and who are used to having their way over many years are naturally less likely to revisit their model and make the changes required.  The changes are in fact not drastic!  Allowing a singer to assume their true vocal timbre will certainly make their voices more present.  However, these singers will also have a flexibility and ease of production because they will not be behaving contrarily to their vocal nature.  In fact, the singers I have helped to rehabilitate have been praised by the same people who hired them in the first place.  A voice functioning with IFP can produce a straight-tone effect with greater ease.  In fact under spectrography, a voice that sounds straight-toned exhibits a regular vibrato.  The illusion of a vibrato-less voice is produced by a touch of excessive medial pressure.  A voice that is appropriately balanced can get away with a relatively small amount of excessive medial pressure to create the illusion of straight-tone without wandering too far from home.  In terms of straight-tone singing, a voice functioning with IFP is functionally preferable to a voice that is reduced and therefore already pressed.

Vocal pedagogues must also understand the aesthetics of the Early Music world and help their early music singers produce a tone that is stylistically viable in Early Music and functionally balanced at the same time.  All singers need to understand their true vocal nature before they undertake the process of vocal specialisation.  If there is a single problem that unifies all vocal genres, whether popular music or early music or Wagner, it is this tendency to "put the cart before the horse," namely that singers are taught to twist their voices into pretzels to fit a style before they have any idea what their native instrument actually sounds like.


The final responsibility (because casting agents and managers tend to behave like sycophants to the conductors and stage directors they serve) lies with the singers themselves.  They must learn that they are not slaves to the conductors and directors they work with and that their fundamental truth is what gets them hired.  That truth includes their true vocal nature.  They should do everything possible to understand their natures before they embark on careers.  Otherwise the careers will run them instead of them running their careers.

© 4/15/2017

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Dystopian Operatic Future Is Here: Be The Change You Want!

One of the greatest disappointments for the world of opera in the last year was the precarious nature of Jonas Kaufmann's health. Whether the debated article in "La Nación" speaks some level of truth or is totally inaccurate as Kaufmann's managers said is less important at this point.  More to the point is Kaufmann's own statements on his website regarding a vocal hemorrhage.  Hemorrhages occur under many different conditions, including singing with an infection, when vocally fatigued, and under straining or stressful conditions and can happen to any singer with a heavy schedule.  This is less about Kaufmann's technique, although much is made of his tendency to sing a bit dark and breathy when singing softly.  However it can be explained  quite logically  that Kaufmann's issues are related to an unusually punishing schedule that stands to reward the short-term goals of opera houses that benefit from Kaufmann's popularity rather than the singer's longevity that would have benefited the art-form in the long run.  Kaufmann is just one more victim of a system that is determined by short-term benefits of economically beleaguered opera houses rather than the philosophies that would help determine the long-term health of the operatic art-form.

The current Operatic Dystopia has been generations in the making.  Luciano Pavarotti spoke often about his teacher saying he should hurry and make a career because he would be "The Last Tenor."
This is prophetic to the extent that not Pavarotti but his contemporary Placido Domingo has emerged in some respects as "The Last Tenor."  With respect to the great tenors singing a more specialized Fach, in the business of opera, it is often regarded that the tenor of choice should be one like Domingo who has been able to sing a vastly diverse and varied repertoire and has the stamina to sing over 200 performances in a year.  This combination brought Domingo's market value to legendary and unique proportions that enriched him, his agents and the opera houses and concert organisations that sold out concert after concert.  However, one thing must be kept in mind.  Not all of Domingo's concerts were well-prepared and well-sung.  Not all of his concerts were operatic in nature and not everyone has the robust physical stamina that he has.  While one can hope for a singer with the musical proficiency, physical stamina, linguistic facility and varied repertoire of Domingo to emerge, the field of opera cannot be carried on the shoulders of any single singer.  When Domingo began, Pavarotti and Aragall were hot names, and Corelli was still active along with a host of full-voiced tenors from all over the world who could carry the same repertoire when needed and would be allowed to do so.  The world did not go into a tailspin if Domingo had to cancel.  Yes, patrons who came to see the great Placido might be disappointed if he were indisposed but there were respected substitutes who could jump in and do a professional job, appreciated by an operatic public that came to experience "opera" for what it is as opposed to what it is defined as, for the benefit of a growing audience that has no idea about the nature of the art-form. With Kaufmann being crowned as the only viable tenor who can sing Puccini and Verdi, Massenet and Bizet's Carmen and Wagner too, the operatic gate-keepers have ham-stringed themselves into a narrow-minded search for a single person who can fit the Domingo-Kaufmann mold.  Not only are they not succeeding in that limiting task, they are also ignoring viable singers who could fit part of the bill and also ignoring in the process that although the economic health of opera is enhanced by a glowing figure like Domingo and perhaps Kaufmann, the ultimate long-term health of opera depends on many components that have been totally ignored by the establishment despite pleas from practically every responsible voice in the field.

WHY???

It would be silly and unimaginative to think of the dystopian state of opera as an isolated incident.  Opera is just one flashy example of a world in chaos without a guiding philosophical consensus other than consumerism, quick personal gains at the expense of many justified by a sense of impending doom.  In the 21st century, if we are not living through a biblical Armageddon, the thinking of the average person reflects precisely this doomsday scenario that would justify a hedonistic, nihilistic lifestyle that suggests one should enjoy every luxury possible in the moment considering that the world is about to end.  This may sound somewhat dramatic and over-the-top but this is the world we have built for the last several generations dominated by TV, Movie and Computer screens that teach the subliminal message of money, possessions and pleasures of all kinds in the short term regardless of the consequences.  We see Wall Street exposed as the enemy with frequent discoveries of ponzi schemes at an institutional level, whereby bankers and investment agents lure their clients to invest and reinvest while they themselves take money out of the system in the form of commissions and bonuses.  The hard-working investor in the end ends up the victim.  The gate-keepers come out in the end with the benefits while the investors lose their shirts.  The middle class investors in particular work hard for little remuneration, invest what they can in an effort to get ahead but are in fact the ones who lose the most.  These good people become terribly disenchanted with a system that benefits those who run it at the expense of the many who pay into it.  They rebel by looking for any alternative that they can find.  In the case of politics they look to elect anyone who speaks to their personal interests including those like the United States' Donald Trump who profess ultra-nationalist/white supremacist ideology guiding the disappointed masses toward identifying an easy enemy in the form of immigrants, the press and the very establishment that such politicians aim to control.  Yes it seems like a Sci-Fi nightmare!  How does it relate to opera?

The parallels are obvious.  The average talented artist understands opera to be a discipline that requires a long view. The many skills needed to sing opera at a high level require time, effort and determination.  The current narrative devalues all three and replaces them with immediate gratification, manifest destiny and physical appearance.  In such a fantasy world, a great voice teacher is one who turns a switch and makes you sound like Domingo; a talented singer is one who is born with all the qualities necessary and requires little or no guidance to take his/her place in the firmament of operatic Gods; and physical appearance is a genetic gift that requires no real effort to maintain.  To counterbalance the vast number of aspiring singers who are released from the conservatories every year, high profile competitions irresponsibly reduce their age limits to deny the singers who require more time to develop into viable professionals, while hiring artist managers with little musical training or vocal understanding to pick winners based on that "it" factor--which has to do with their abilities to be noticed on magazine covers rather than their abilities to transmit emotion and musical refinement through their voices in the company of a large orchestra in the large hall seating thousands of spectators.

In such a fantastic dystopian operatic world (which happens not to be fantastic at all, but rather the one we are living in currently) a massive number of aspiring singers who invest a lot of money into the system are left on the sidelines to wither even if they achieve the required skills to do the job.  Like the political middle class, we are left with a lot of aspiring singers accruing large financial debts supporting a failed system that rewards the chosen few (manifest destiny) at the expense of the studious majority.  The chosen few unfortunately are not up to the rigors of the field for the most part (there are always exceptions).  Singers at the top of the field lose their voices in a matter of a few years but continue to sing because of name recognition.  The rules claim that singers cannot attract an audience unless they are known already.  Yet it is common knowledge that singers become known by doing great work consistently.  The old rules were governed by the idea of "A Star is Born!" and "There is Always Room at the Top!"  In such a paradigm, the gate keepers were (fittingly) the audiences.  Now the gate keepers are casting directors and agents who could not care less about the health of the art form but rather about the health of their pockets in the short term, if it means feeding the system that gives them relevance.

Consequence--

Who can we point to in our times as symbols of excellence in our field? 

Vocal Excellence: Which singer has had a long career and continues to sing healthily?
Interpretative Excellence: Who has sung a role long enough to discover new possibilities in that role?
Musical Excellence: Which conductor has the time and willingness to defy the system and insist on musical and stylistic considerations as opposed to allow singers and orchestras to have their way for expedience's sake?
Dramatic Excellence: Which stage director at the top of the food chain has the luxury or will or musical sophistication to insist on dramatic intensity relative to inspired musical source material (as opposed to inflicting physical mannerisms onto dramatic moments for lack of stagecraft and musicianship)?
Career management: Which artist manager cares enough to protect their singers from destroying their talents when there is money to be made in the short term?
Composition Excellence: Which composer has not only the musical skill but the knowledge of opera in all of its intricacies to be able to produce an opera that works vocally and dramatically, without the excuse of needing to revolutionize music theater in one stroke?
Theaters: Which opera house will look at its community and the operatic art form together and come up with solutions that both invigorate the public while investing in artistic educational and development?

The answer should be all!

But alas, most companies are trying their best to keep up with the current production let alone plan the next one or determine any kind of vision for sustainability.

The system is broken!  It is not serving the singers who make the effort to become what they were told they should become.  Great artists!  Instead it rewards the flash-in-the-pan artists who excite the public for a short time and then they move on to the next one.  In such a system, there is no legacy, no vision, no future!  Therefore we are here!  The future is bleak! Empty!

Therefore there are no singers for a real manager to consider developing over a long time.  The conductors don't have to understand singers because that singer will probably be forgotten in a few years and they do not have to understand the difference between symphonic conducting and operatic conducting because they just have to survive the evening without losing the effect of the hairspray that sustains their conductor-hair. The stage directors don't have to create memorable productions that will be talked about for generations, just something that lasts a news cycle. Therefore we are in a state of perpetual decline.

Not unlike global warming, those who stand to gain from fossil fuels and the money generated from it politically will deny that the planet is in serious danger.  They will probably die before the ultimate environmental catastrophe occurs.  Likewise, those at the top of the operatic food chain will continue to chant that the health of the operatic field is better than ever because they will have gained enough of an economic parachute by the time the entire system collapses.  News flash!  It has already collapsed.

The Phoenix

The system is broken but Opera is alive and well.  Even in the dystopian nightmare that is our system,  some visionary directors, conductors and singers persist with one foot firmly set in tradition and the other searching for an artistically adventurous future.  It is their rare performances that continue to inspire young artists.  But inspiration is only the beginning.  

Anyone can become an operatic artist, but few have the commitment to do all that is necessary to become a dependable professional.  It's a lifelong pursuit that requires a determined artist with access to knowledgeable and constantly growing teachers  and a professional environment that values true vocal-musical-dramatic talent and not just an empty shell that is visually interesting enough to fool the operatically illiterate, that is curious enough and has money to buy an expensive ticket.

Art has a way of re-emerging phoenix-like through the ashes and flames of the decaying past.  And so shall it be!  

The reality being as bleak as it is, what does an operatic professional do?  In every way possible we should work for the excellence of our art, avoiding mediocrity whenever we can.  This is not easy! Even in my little heavenly oasis in Sweden, I find myself too often having to convince students about the need for consistent, persistent hard-work and too often being convinced to reduce my expectations for the sake of the student who finds it too difficult.  

The best we can do for opera is aspire in our own lives for excellence.  We must push ourselves to become better singers, teachers, conductors, directors, agents and casting agents.  Those elements are already there, doing their best in a system that obstructs their progress at every turn.  But those people do not give up.  They look for opportunities to make a difference.  And so we continue!  In the best case scenario, those positive elements already active will emerge just as the decaying system crumbles. And if we are lucky we will not even feel the dramatic shift but simply enjoy the result.  But that is improbable.  I predict we are close to seeing the majority of opera houses shut down in the next couple of years and thousands of singers and conductors and directors give up on opera.  A skeleton crew of visionaries will be left to rebuild from the ashes.  

My analysis is far from pessimistic.  I am only commenting based on what I observe in the trenches daily, whether extremely talented artists having a difficult time progressing in the field or truly well-meaning and effective agents giving up on the field because it makes no sense.  I am in fact very optimistic about the future of opera.  However there is a need for a cleansing of sort before this field can go forward.  A year or so ago I eliminated over 800 acquaintances from Facebook that I felt inspired a very negative feeling whenever their names popped up on my screen.  After doing this, I found that my social media experience became very constructive and positive.  Opera will go through a similar cleansing and I suspect it will be spontaneous!  As this occurs the operatic landscape will take on a more productive profile and I suspect those elements truly invested in its development and future will be the ones left standing!




In 2016, Fausta Truffa was the operatic story in my estimation.  For several weeks, her angelically pure, heart-driven voice shed a light on the darkness that often envelops the subject of opera!  Old, Amateur...Perhaps two of the worst words that opera people can utilize these days.  Yet the two noblest words I believe should define opera's future are synonyms of those two:  Longevity, Love!

© 12/31/2016