Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道) and Once More With Feeling: Why Operalia Is The Competition to Take Part In and Why 2011 Is a Special Year

I had a gracious offer to attend Operalia 2011 and unfortunately could not accept.  By some unusual sequence of events, my Europen visa expired on July 18th and my appointment to renew was on the 25th, during which time I could not travel outside of the Eurozone and Operalia took place precisely between the 18th and 24th of July.  Sometimes we have to accept that somethings are not meant to happen.
Thanks to, I was able to follow the final round.  I have seen a lot of competitions in the past few years and the final rounds usual disappoint me because finalists are often chosen based on their ability to appear polished when the fundamental sound had not yet been developed.  It was a delight to hear the 13 young singers and have a sense that the judges had chosen well.  All the singers sang with a full-voiced production that would and did travel very well through the orchestra.  I had the impression that’s microphones were set up to give a fair impression of the acoustics of the hall. The singers did not sound equally present in the webcast, but none had any problem projecting.  Opera is like a sky-scrapper supported by several indispensable steel girders.  Voice is one of those girders.  It is not the only one, but without it, opera is not sustainable.  The Moscow audience was the most participant of any audience I have seen at a competition.  They had a real stake in the competition and it was not surprising that the judges’ choices for male and female winner were also the audience’s choices and indeed they (both audience and judges) selected correctly, in my opinion.
Beyond voice, each finalist had a singular presence and style. Some had a more effective combination than others.  One also had a sense of the drama of the competition.  One tenor obviously with an impressive full voice with powerful top notes sounded hoarse, either from fatigue or sickness.  Perhaps he caught a cold or perhaps he over-practiced preparing for the finals.  Hard to tell, but one had the sense that there was an athletic aspect to these proceedings.  One had a certain feeling that there was something very physical being done, besides the obvious artistic content.  It felt like the finals of Olympic Figure Skating.  Great Olympic figure skaters are rare because they require the same combination of physical strength and stamina and artistic (indeed musical) sensitivity.  Interestingly enough, their routines usually last the length of an average operatic aria.
I was having dinner with one of my students last night and she had been a quarter-finalist at Operalia some 7 years ago.  She concurred that it was among the two best organized and most fun competitions she ever did and she has won a few.  She has an extraordinary talent and works constantly.  Operalia was not wrong to chose her as a participant back then, and I have a sense they make excellent choices in general judging by the career development of their winners.
Of course, Placido Domingo’s unprecedented star power generates the kind of international, corporate, artistic support necessary to make this the premiere competition for young artists available.  If his conducting is not the most refined, his joy at accompanying these young singers is infectious and as much as he tries to keep a neutral face, he beams with excitement when a singer really sings well.  I don’t think any of these young singers would want a different conductor in the finals.  Not only is there something special about having the great Placido conduct them in an aria, there is a definite sense of the aging Maestro passing the baton.  What young singer would not want to feel like one of Domingo’s heirs?  Symbolically, his musical presence in the capacity of conductor is not only appropriate, it is necessary.  
Every competition has something memorable and Operalia 2011 may be historically the most significant because it crowned the achievements of a singular singer, who could even have been expected to win.  The coronation of Pretty Yende (featured here on the blog a few months ago), the young South African sensation who has won pretty much every competition she’s entered, could not have been anywhere else.  Operalia is a star-making competition and if the electrifying Ms. Yende was already a star, she was confirmed on the afternoon of July 23rd in Moscow.

I would go as far as predicting that barring some unforeseen mishap, this young soprano may become Maestro Domingo’s most lasting heir and opera’s best hope.  Ms. Yende, in a field of extremely talented young singers, surpassed her colleagues in every sense and by far.  I do not belittle them when I say she was in a league all her own.  Although still getting used to a growing instrument, her technical mastery was far beyond anyone else’s.  Her musicianship is extraordinarily refined and consciously utilized to impressive effect.  Her presence is of the sort that does not go to the audience but rather entice it into her world.  Beside her rare combination of artistic attributes, Ms. Yende is a strikingly beautiful and elegant woman, radiating a paradoxical combination of charm, humility, grace and confidence that are the hallmarks of a great diva.  Operalia has given her a vote of confidence, which may be the necessary wind she needed in her sails to take her career to the important next level.
I hope to attend Operalia next year but I am very sorry to have missed this one:  to have seen Moscow for the first time, possibly meet Maestro Domingo at last, whose performance of Otello in the early 80s turned me from potential engineer to singer, to experience this well-organized and targeted competition first hand and to see possibly operatic history being made in the person of Pretty Yende would have been priceless.
Some things are simply done right and Operalia is one of those things.  Opera still has hope!  Thank you Maestro Domingo!

© 7/28/2011

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道) and Once More With Feeling: The Rossini Tenor

So much to share and so little time to write these days!  I am sorry, dear readers for the lower frequency of posts.  I am in a very exciting phase since my gluten-free transition.  My voice is doing things I always hoped and it is my desire to share in more and more interesting ways.  You have accompanied me through this interesting journey with encouragement and I wish to share the fruits of those past three and a third years with you all.  But all in good time!  Before I begin with the main topic, I ask you to keep Susan Eichorn Young (SEY) and her husband Thomas in your prayers as they recover from the injuries sustained in that terrible car accident a month ago.  This blog continues to carry Susan's blog title until she fully recovers and takes over her own blog!

Recently, I had the pleasure of working with a marvelous tenor who has the rare ability to sustain an unusually high tessitura without sacrificing richness of tone.  The last tenor I heard who could do this is the peerless Bel Canto tenor, Bruce Ford, who I interviewed here a while back.  Interestingly enough, this excellent singer covered Maestro Ford at one point.

In our times, it is easy to conceive of the Rossini tenor as a freak, an anomaly, simply because once cannot conceive of such a voice being natural.  Many prefer to think that the high tessituras found in the works of Rossini and the French composers of Grand Opera, (e.g. Meyerbeer, Halévy, Auber, etc) must have been sung with some version of falsetto in the high range.  When considering the amount of time singers took back then to develop their voices, I find it hard to believe that falsetto would have been a desirable option.  That a naturally higher voiced tenor was preferred in those days is conceivable and historical documents would support it.  The leading tenors of the time, Rubini, Nourit and Duprez were well-known for their well-developed high Cs and Ds and Duprez's famous do di petto (chest voice high C) does not mean that Nourit (his co-lead tenor at the Paris opera) sang falsetto high notes.  There are degrees to the amount of chest content a tenor can employ in the highest notes.

In Italy, Rubini was considered the premiere Bel Canto tenor, championing the works of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.  Another tenor, Domenico Donzelli, who influenced Duprez, was recognized as a baritonal tenor called tenore di forza (forceful tenor).  The development of the full-voiced (or chest-based) high C, which became the sine qua non of mid 19th-Century opera can be attributed to the personal developments of Donzelli and Duprez after him.  The story books are full of interesting myths about this period, which make for dramatic and entertaining reading (e.g. Nourit's suicide right after hearing Duprez's high C, etc--Nourit did commit suicide, but much later in Naples due to his deteriorating mental health combined with his vocal decline).   The vocal declines of both Donzelli and Duprez are attributed to the chest-based high C, which of course became the standard over the next 170 years.  In my personal experience, full-voiced high notes require slow and deliberate muscular training. If we cried like babies all our lives, we might develop such facility spontaneously, but that is for another blog post.  What is interesting is that some very hefty-voiced singers have sung this high repertoire with great success:

Kurt Baum who was well known for his Trovatore and Forza del Destino is heard here in Asil héréditaire (Italian version) from Rossini's punishing role of Arnold in Guillaume Tell.

The full lyric tenor, Nicolai Gedda also executed this piece with aplomb in this French version studio recording:

Another excellent performance by a current tenor, Stuart Neill (Cavatina may be found separately here)

And finally, this beautiful rendition by Juan Diego Florez:

Even in our times, we have tenors of different weight singing this high lying repertoire.  Could Mr. Neill have specialized in Rossini?  Certainly.  But in the current market and with a voice of such substance, why would he? Gedda performed high Ds quite easily and routinely during his career. Rossini was not a specialization early in his long career as it is today, and it certainly was not as present in the repertory at the height of Kurt Baum's career.

What is more significant in this discussion is that none of these singers resort to falsetto or even what we might refer to as falsettone (literally big falsetto, or what might be called reinforced falsetto).  The voices are of different weight (Gedda and Neill close in weight) but each singer is using his full voice throughout the range.  Mr. Florez having a lighter voice sounds considerably more at home in the punishing tessitura.  Could that be a deciding factor in suitability of repertoire?  It is a good enough reason, but perhaps not the sole reason.

I have a personal preference for Mr. Gedda and Mr. Neill in this repertoire.  The full lyric tenor has a hard task here but not so heavy as to make it in any way unpleasant to listen to.  Mr. Baum's vocal weight is rare in a piece like this and very exciting to hear a voice of such weight capable of such ease in the stratosphere.  My preference for Mr. Gedda and Mr. Neill stems from the substance of their voices combined with the ease they exhibit in the high tessitura.  There is a thought that such substance could not yield the stamina necessary for such a tessitura.  But it is rewarded by the very demonstration of stamina.  That combination makes for exciting operatic experiences.

To go back to the young professional singer who graced my studio last week, he indeed reminded me of the combination of qualities I find fitting for this repertoire, both in terms of stylistic requirements and vocal excitement.

The quality I most appreciate in this repertoire, also exhibited by the vocal purity of Mr. Florez, is best exemplified in a clip that I have used on the blog before.  Oddly enough, not Rossini but the unusual tenor writing in Mozart's Mitridate, as executed, unmatched, by the remarkable Bruce Ford:

The day I exhibit this kind of flexibility in my repertoire, I will have realized something substantial.

© 07/21/2011

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道) and Once More With Feeling: Der internationale Gesangstechnik und die Täuschung der nationale Gesangsschule

Ich erlaube mich wieder auf Deutsch zu schreiben obwohl ich bin es sicher dass ich unbedingt viele grammatische Fehlern machen werde.  Ich habe trotzdem eine starke Bedürfnis mich klar auszudrücken, auch auf den vielen Sprachen die ich dilettantisch spreche und sogar nicht beherrsche.  Worum dann? Viele Deutschsprachigen lesen den Blog und ich möchte klar zu denen mich erklären.

Letztlich hab ich ein indirekt Diskussion mit einem Kollegen geführt, indirekt über den Wert der Gesangswissenschaft.  Es war weniger eine Diskussion sondern eine, von der anderen Seiten, Beschuldigung der Wissenschaft in Verhältnis mit Gesang.  Das Argument ist einfach dass die Wissenschaftler uns nicht genug beigebracht haben das wir bei der Pädagogik mit wertvollen Ergebnissen benützen dürfen.

Ich hab schon oftmals auf dem Blog geschrieben dass sei die Wissenschaft für Gesangspedagogik nur ein Anfang. War es vielleicht zu zart von mir weil ich versuchte wie immer ein Mittelpunkt, ein Kompromiss, zu finden um in Ruhe mit den vielen Kollegen zu sein? Vielleicht schon! Ich glaube es dennoch.

Wissenschaft für Gesang ist ja ein Anfang, aber ein wichtige, unverzichtbare Anfang.  Ein Sänger zu unterrichten ist kein einfaches Ding!  Es hat nicht nur mit eine Verständnis den Funktionen des Gesangsapparat zu tun aber auch mit dem geistlichen, psychologischen und ganz physikalischen Dasein des Sängers.  Aber weil wir Gesangslehrer kein Priester oder Psychologe sind, müssen wir durch unseren starken und genauen Verständnis des Gesangs auch das geistliches und psychologisches Teil angehen. Was wäre ein Arzt wenn er den neuesten Entdeckungen der Medizin gar nicht bewusst wäre? So muss ich dann fragen: was ist ein Gesangslehrer wenn er/sie gar nicht versucht sich den neuesten Entdeckungen des Stimmapparats auf dem Laufenden zu bringen?

Braucht man eigentlich eine wissenschaftliche Verständnis des Gesangsapparat?  Es ist doch so einfach zu sagen dass die Alte Schule hatte bessere Ergebnisse ohne Wissenschaft als wir aktuelle mit! Das stimmt!  Aber heutzutage sind wir alle in so eine Eile.  Haben wir die zehn oder so Jahren um eine Sänger auf der alten Art für eine Karriere vorzubereiten? Hat ein Sänger das Geld um sich einem Gesangslehrer für zehn Jahren zu vertrauern? Zum mindesten haben die Wissenschaftler uns klar beigebracht was wir eigentlich suchen.  Wie es gelingen ist die Arbeit des Gesangslehrers!

Beschuldige ich die uralte Italienische Schule? Gar nicht!  Aber muss ich dennoch fragen: was bedeutet uns die uralte Italienische Schule?  Tatsächlich hatte Manuel Garcia selbst weniger Information als wir heute, auch ins Internet zu Verfügung haben. Meine geschätzte Gesangslehrerin, Ada Finelli, hat mir viel beigebracht und ich vermisse sie.  Von ihr hab ich gelernt dass es dauert Zeit um eine Stimme in Ordnung zu bringen weil es eine muskulöse Arbeit ist. Gesang ist teilweise eine physikalische Training.  Jeder Sportler weisst dass er muss auf Dauer trainieren um im richtigen Zustand für die Arbeit zu sein.  Der grosse Pavarotti hat selbst gesagt dass wir Sänger Sportler sind und das stimmt!  Aber noch eine Frage:  müssen wir ein Sportler trainieren wie es vor 100 Jahren gemacht war? Müssen wir alle die neue Entdeckungen von Sportwissenschaft vermeiden um treue den uralten Sportmoden zu bleiben obwohl die Ergebnisse würden niedriger?  Ausser wir Sänger, alle Sportler haben neuen Rekorden neugestellt.  Pavarotti selbst hat der Niveau von Gigli nicht erreicht!

Ein Wissenschaftler ist kein Gesangslehrer!  Aber, wie wäre es wenn ein begabte Gesangslehrer, mit allen Verständnissen der uralten Tradition,  das Wissen eines Wissenschaftlers hätte? Das ist eigentlich mein Ziel!  Was täte Manuel Garcia wenn er alle die Information von dem berühmten Wissenschaftlern, Ingo Titze, hätte?  Hätte er wirklich gesagt, wie manche behaupten, dass Wissenschaft muss erstmal der Niveau von Tradition erreichen?  Ich glaube es nicht!  Ich glaube er hätte die Information benützt um die Tradition selbst weiter zu entwickeln.  So beschuldige ich den Manchen die die Wissenschaft benutzen wenn es Ihnen passend ist und gleichzeitig dasselbe beschuldigen wenn es zweckdienlich ist.

Ich finde selbst keine Widersprüchlichkeit zwischen Tradition und Wissenschaft.  Die beide zusammen zu mischen macht mir Sinn: Information der Wissenschaft und die Disziplin der Tradition.  Wer einer gegen den andern stellt verliert viel und versteht wenig!

Ist Jonas Kaufmann ein Deutsche Tenor der international unserer bestgesungen Cavaradossi heisst?  Ist Thomas Hampson ein Amerikaner wenn er ohne Vergleich Mahlers Lieder singt?  Ist Jessie Norman Amerikanerin wenn sie, mit der Französischen Flagge eingehüllt, singt die Marseillaise an dem Tagen des Zweihundertjahriges Jubiläum der Französischen Revolution? Die heutige Sänger sind Produkten von verschiedenen internationalen Erfahrungen und Mischungen.  Auch Pavarotti selbst war ein Produkt der Weltopermaschinen.

Ich bin gebürtige Haitianer aber kein Haitianer von der Sicht des Haitianers.  Ich bin Amerikanische Stadtgehöriger aber kein echte Amerikaner von der Sicht des Amerikaners. Ich bin deutsche Einwohner aber klar kein Deutscher.  Am Ende, wir Opernsänger sind von vielen Seiten beeinflusst.  Es würde falsch mit irgendeinem nationalen Begriff uns allen einzuschränken! Vielleicht dienst es manchen ein Priester der Französischen Schulen sich zu nennen, oder der Italienischen, oder der Deutschen...

Am Ende wir sind in unserer Kunst vereinigt.  Künstler erstmal und danach irgendetwas dazu! Zum mindesten ist das meine eigene Meinung nach!

© 2011.07.17

Monday, July 4, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道) and Once More With Feeling: Three Intersecting Axes of Vocal Technique

In a very satisfying studio class yesterday (I should make a habit of videotaping those classes), I had a young tenor (18 years old) who occasionally visits my studio when he is in town.  He just finished his first year of college and wanted my input on his progress, which I found very satisfying (not a given in conservatory life these days--and so bravo to him and his teacher).  He sang a Verdi song, which challenges the passaggio in the climatic passages.  Although his sound had improved, there was a tendency still for the voice to be a little squeezed, a little throaty.  But improvement is a gradual thing and I want to reiterate that he is on the right direction.  Since I do not work with this young man regularly, I wanted to give him a complete idea of the technical issues he faces so as not to take anything too far.  My work with him inspired me to write this post.

It was interesting when I woke up this morning that the first email I got was the abstract of my colleague, Jack Livigni's most recent post on registration and the approach he believes to be the correct one.  In terms of empirical scientific data, it is important to make some clarification when it comes to fold vibration:

1) A balanced fold posture on any given modal note depends on a specific antagonism between fold thickness and fold length, not one or the other.  Efficiency in vibration relative to accessing higher pitches depends on the longitudinal tension (tautness like a guitar string) of the vocal folds, not length alone.  Of course the folds get vertically thinner as pitch rises, but vocalis activity does not simply disappear as one gets in the higher voice.

2) An important distinction must be made between vertical contact area, which depends on vocalis activity and depth of fold layers that participate in the vibration, which depends on inter-arytenoid activity (This is explained in detail in a previous post).  Adequate contact area along the mucosal edge gives a tone of substance, as opposed to a pressed tone that requires excessive interarytenoidal activity.  The interarytenoids must close the folds completely but not excessively.  With due respect to my excellent colleague, Livigni, the idea of "...finding brightness by thickening the chords through shortening them excessively in the passaggio" is not even possible.  Thickening the folds by shortening them excessively will create at best a mildly hooty, unfocused tone. Excessively vocalis activity which thicken the folds on the vertical axis also reduces the activity of the external thyro-arytenoid (which would normally help in lengthening the folds and draw them together).  Finding brightness through chest voice (which is what I believe Jack is arguing against) interestingly enough is a function of the Inter-arytenoids.  Excessive inter-arytenoid function causes a glottal squeeze that makes for the deep layers of the folds to participate in the vibration rather than the superficial mucosal layer.

The balanced function of the vocal folds is governed by paradoxical actions at many levels.  The greatest danger in vocal technique is to define it by an either/or strategy.  Efficiency in the top voice is not accomplished by inter-arytenoid function instead of vocalis participation, but rather by a paradoxical action requiring both.  The appropriate tautness that produces the most efficient vocal fold oscillation depends on a dynamic, antagonistic relationship between CT and vocalis.  But the fold oscillation is only one part of the equation.  The pitch depends not only the relative efficiency of the oscillation but how the length of each cycle is affected by the closure quotient (the percentage of the cycle length that the folds are closed), and this is where the inter-arytenoids come in.  They need to be active to the degree that they bring the folds together along the outer edge.  Too much will produce a pressed tone and force an excessive squeeze and excessive lengthening of the folds.  Too little will cause a breathy tone requiring a deeper vertical phase to keep pitch.  Neither is desirable.

Finally, the consistency of breath pressure or lack thereof has a direct effect on inter-arytenoid activity.  If the breath pressure falls, the brain will seek to make up for it by squeezing the folds together (like putting your thumb at the mouth of a garden hose when the water pressure is to low in order to water the plants from a distance).  There must be a full tank of air in the lungs, not because we use so much air to produce the tone, but because the air is necessary to maintain pressure.

In short, we have three intersecting axes (the plural of axis, not the plural of ax):

A) The fold posture axis: Dynamic and changeable relationship between CT and Vocalis to create adequate longitudinal tension (tautness) for the most efficient oscillation based on vertical contact area, balanced by the closure mechanism of the inter-arytenoids.  The vertical contact area of the superficial layer of the folds combined the with closure of the folds have a direct relationship to the length of the vibration cycle.  In this I agree with my colleague Livigni that if one is thinking only about CT and Vocalis, you only have 2/3 of the equation.

B) The pressure/flow axis:  Adequate pressure and flow is determined paradoxically by how much breath pressure is being produced by the rise of the diaphragm while the ribcage maintains volume and how much air the glottis allows to flow during the open phase of the cycle.  In this sense, inter-arytenoid function depends in part on breath function

C) The vowel or resonance axis:  Vowel quality as perceived by the listener has many aspects. For simplicity's sake, the vowel is defined by scientists by the frequency of the 5 vowel formants.  Since most of vocal science derives from the study of speech and vocal disorders, it has been expedient to define vowel distinction (rather than vowel quality) as primarily dependent upon the 1st and 2nd formants.  Indeed vowel recognition depends mainly on those and to a certain degree the 3rd (vocal pedagogy does not discuss the third formant in vowel recognition as much).  The upper three formants are discussed mainly relative to their impact on the sensitive range of the human ear between (roughly 2000-3000 Hz).

I prefer to conceive of vowels in a more complete sense. That recognition and quality are bound together in singing.  The acoustic effects of a narrowing epi-larynx and widening pharynx have been proven beneficial in many scientific papers.  The paradox of the the vowel axis is that one should keep in mind both the pure concept of the vowel and the necessity for modification as opposing forces that are active at all times.  Finding the adequate acoustic adjustment between the singer's pure conception of the vowel and the acoustic realities of modification is where the artist comes in.  Vowel charts and the like (and I have created a very helpful one) are only a beginning to promote the idea that certain vowel shapes are better suited to certain notes than others, but exact vocal tract adjustment goes far beyond vowel recognition.

Furthermore, vowel quality depends completely on glottal function.  A loose phonation will produce a dull vowel, whereas a pressed phonation will produce an equally undesirable shrill vowel. Balancing all 5 formants in a way that takes into account an equilibrium between low and high partials is crucial.  There is great diversity in taste.  But great voices do not diverge two much from a sense of balance.  Pavarotti was often on the bright side of balance, but never too far.  Del Monaco was at times in his career a little dark and heavy in his production but never so far.  At the end he was often thin trying to compensate for earlier heavy singing, still he sang remarkably for 25 grueling years.

Having sung as a baritone for years and now singing tenor, I have a keen proprioceptive understanding of the extremes and the difficulty of achieving true, lasting balance.  I am now lucky enough to have found that gluten was my biggest enemy.  As a result I can begin to trust my voice to create the sounds I want to create. As a result of stopping gluten I have a clearer idea of my vocal strengths and weaknesses.
In that studio class, yesterday I saw the product of the hard work of 7 students who have been working with me between three months and three years and I was happy to see that there was a definite path to exciting, solid and healthy singing that was easily understood by those who had been practicing it and immediately by the young tenor who visited and made beautiful changes before our eyes and ears.

Yet, after 25 years of teaching (I taught my first group of high school students and adult amateurs at age 20, when my pedagogy teacher told me I had a particular gift for teaching), I have as many questions as I have answers.  I consider fundamental issues and apply fundamental principles that sustain the student through all changes. Balance is a changing thing, but the elements of balance are the same.  I often thought I would write a book one day called The "and" of Singing.  An either/or mentality is most poisonous and creates an atmosphere of negative antagonism between pedagogues who find it easy to demonize each other to promote themselves.  I have been exceedingly happy that as the voice blogosphere developed at the heals of this blog, that the strongest voices have been those of colleagues who respect each other, like Susan Eichorn Young, Claudia Friedlander and Jack Livigni.  I do not always agree with everything they write (that is normal), nor they always with what I write, but because we respect each other, our contributions become complimentary for our common readers, which are many.

Wishing all my American friends a happy and exciting Fourth of July as I embark on yet another excursion across the Atlantic where I will embark in interesting vocal adventures with the Berlin Studio.

© 07/04/2011