Monday, November 16, 2009

Kashu-do (歌手道): Extreme Art: The Discipline of Operatic Singing

For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Matthew 13: 10-17

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the book, Outliers, refers to this passage in the Bible as what was called The Matthew Effect, a term coined by sociologist, Robert K. Merton. The Matthew Effect suggests that those who have certain advantages will gather greater advantages, while those who are disadvantaged will continue be disadvantaged until they have no possibilities at all. This has proven to be true in the field of opera and is in fact one of the central premises of progression in the field. Those who have connections will tend to progress more easily. Those who are naturally outgoing tend to exhibit better stage presence and tend to be rewarded for it. Those who have excellent vocal habits, tend to develop more easily and are rewarded early for those attributes.

The most obvious advantage for any singer is having achieved an "operatic sound" at an early age, or better said, having been in an environment that did not discourage the acoustically impressive ability of creating a primal sound. All babies make that sound, but social norms discourage the kind of "unbridled" vocal expression that would maintain the voice until it is needed for operatic use. For that reason, cultures that encourage an unbridled vocal expression tend to produce great operatic voices. Latin cultures, African-American churches that have a Gospel music tradition, the culture of the Southern United States (the southern twang) are all conducive to the kind of "extreme" phonation mode that is necessary for operatic singing. Those whose every-day mode of speech is already operatic do not experience operatic vocal production as a personality-altering experience. For the average person whose vocal production is more "restrained" producing an operatic sound remains questionable. Even when the coordination has been learned, the stamina necessary in the short term to make such a sound the normal mode of expression is extreme.

For those who speak with the kind of phonation that is necessary for opera, it is hard-wired and is practically involuntary. For those who must learn to produce an operatic sound when they speak inefficiently, operatic singing usually feels like an alteration from normality. It takes an almost superhuman transformation to begin to feel that the operatic vocal mode is in fact the natural voice. It is the baby voice, unbridled, direct and extreme. Extreme only because most of us have lost our nature.

In a sense, from a purely visceral standpoint, an operatic voice brings us in touch with our primal self. It is a reminder of the most innocent, most honest, most untarnished selves. To those who have lost touch with this primal energy, opera seems extreme. It is this seemingly extreme nature of operatic vocal production that makes opera special. It reaches the listener at an instinctual level and forces him to listen.

That is why if opera is to succeed in the future, no matter what innovations are applied to it, it must remain true to its origins of vocal efficiency. With many theaters being "acoustically enhanced" (the euphemism used to mitigate the unacceptable term "electronically amplified"), many singers who do not produce a truly operatic sound are populating the operatic stages because they sound opera-like (by virtue of the very music they are given to sing). Opera-like in its superficiality does not have much to offer a modern audience. We have more popular modes of musical expression to superficially overload the senses in the name of what is called entertainment. A truly operatic experience I believe brings the listener to attention, to listen in a more profound way. That is why those who experience opera in its true form usually become lifelong opera fanatics.

An operatic fan base can only be built with the voice that accesses the listener's primal instincts. As we undergo this worldwide economic recession, the greatest asset at the service of opera companies are real operatic voices that make Opera an Extreme Art.

© 11/16/2009

1 comment:

bleetenor said...

Wonderful observations. I have a friend who speaks operatically, big and uninhibited all the time. It's just how he is. And the transition to singing with a huge resonant tenor voice is like stepping into a different room of a familiar house to him. With me it's more like getting in a car and taking an hour trip to Singtown. How I envy the ease and lack of inhibition with which he speaks and sings!