Monday, May 21, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): HD Simulcast and the Future of Opera

After reading a NY Times article on the subject of MET OPERA HD Simulcasts in movie theaters, in which the critic concludes that HD might be a mixed blessing, I engaged one of my students in a conversation regarding the article.  It was a hot button topic for him and he asserted that he gets turned off whenever anyone suggests that HD would herald the end of opera as we know it.  He argued that the same was said of the MET radio broadcasts of an earlier era, and to the contrary, they helped popularize opera.

I am personally on the side of the article.  The point is made logically and in a balanced way.  The writer did not predict an operatic doomsday but rather that our experience of opera would transform because of HD. And it makes sense for the following reasons:

If we look at the Metropolitan Opera, it is run by a non-musician, who has done a super job of bringing the MET technologically up-to-date.  With MET Player and the HD Series, Mr. Gelb has created a model that the premiere opera companies in the world are copying.  The MET makes many times more money on an HD Broadcast in movie theaters than it does in the house.  By financial necessity, HD Opera will become the norm.  Opera in the house?  A curiosity for the neofite and a temple for the  bona fide opera aficionado.  The large crowd of opera-lite fans, brought about by the success of of The Three Tenors are excited by spectacle and a few recognizable tunes.

In a sense, this is correct.  Opera in its true form (i.e., whereby a singer is measured by his/her ability to win the acoustic battle over the orchestra, all the while touching an audience in ways they did not imagine possible with the sheer sound of the voice) can only be appreciated by those who invest the time to understand what it is at its core and thereby be able to appreciate it for what it is, as opposed to what one makes of it.

With HD, comes a visual scrutiny that is not possible even at front row orchestra in the theater.  This kind of scrutiny evoques Hollywood, particularly in the context of a movie theater.  The production values are going to become more important and lookism will become more pronounced in the short term.

In the long term it may become a litmus test for live theater.  With 3D film, the proscenium stage is becoming confining and limiting for a modern audience.  For live theater to become interesting, Shakespeare's Theater in the round may offer great possibilities with modern technology, particularly with the multi-faceted nature of opera.

In the short term, we may have to get used to the idea that opera-lite has won over for a while since the onset of The Three Tenors pop-opera spectacular.  HD Simulcasts work for the pocket and modern eye of the modern opera-curious audience.  At least, HD will get a broader audience to be educated about opera.

To my student, I will say this:  it is true that Radio Broadcasts did not undo live opera.  How could it?  Radio Broadcasts lacked the visual element that makes an operatic experience.  HD however gives that experience and even streamlines it!  The camera can concentrate on the interesting parts of the stage and narrate the opera rather than let the audience do the spontaneous editing.  HD is indeed an alternative that outdoes live opera at the moment. The microphone can easily turn a voice that is substandard in the house into magnificence at the movie theater.

I am of the Star Trek generation and enjoy my Iphone/Communicator/Tricorder even more than my children do.  I am a modernist and would like to see even more HD opera available from the great theaters of the world.  If I cannot be a a Scala opening, I would like to have the option of seeing the spectacle on my Ipad.  That said, no amount of modernism is going to replace the thrill of seeing Otello live at the Met in 1982 when great voices dwarfed the orchestra even under the slightly heavier hand of a younger, more passion-driven James Levine.

The experience of live opera when there are true operatic voices is something so spectacular that anyone would become a convert.  The problem is that life-changing operatic experiences cannot exist without voices and the current tenor of the business is such that an "impression" of opera suffices.  So pretty voices with little carrying power is the norm and they work very well in HD presentations.  The dearth of developed dramatic voices is simply the fault of an industry bent on making money first and art last.

The mystique of opera will not go away and so the magic of operatic voices will not disappear, but it will take some time before the dust settles and bona fide opera is brought to compatibility with 21st century technology and the fast-food/immediate gratification culture!

In short, in the name of real opera, not opera-lite, I will pay top dollar to see an artist on HD if that same artist can deliver vocal power and charm in the theater.  Or perhaps, the two are not as compatible as we would like to believe.  Perhaps opera-lite voices work better in HD Simulcasts than their full-voiced counterparts.  In such a case,  the divide will become larger and larger!  But if it is so, then let us make the distinction clear!  Mario Lanza for the movie screen.  Mario del Monaco for the theater.  Il Divo for the screen, Antonenko for the stage.  At this point, we have a lot of singers who would fare better with the electronically enhanced movie camera.  They do not do so well in a live experience.  If the distinction was better made between what works in the theater and what works on screen, we may be able to locate the true operatic stars of the future.  The competition that would exist between the two media might indeed give rise to an operatic model for future generations.

© 05/21/2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): "In the Mask": A Sometimes Evil Necessity!

My time with the late, Ada Finelli, in Italy taught me many things about the experience of learning and teaching to sing.  Among them is an axiom that I have come to coin: "Every superficial jargon is based on a more complete and fundamental principle of singing."  Why have so many singers advocated over the years that the voice should resonate "In the Mask"?  Yet, just as many have advocated the other side, that "placing" the voice in the mask is a recipe for tension and dysfunction.

Many of my friends in the voice science community will say that one cannot place the voice and that correct muscular postures and resonance adjustments produce sensations that perhaps each singer feels differently, given that each has a unique vocal mechanism. This is correct!

But equally correct is the traditional principle that singing is passed along by sensations and not by words alone. Demonstrating a concept for a student very often speaks more clearly than any explanation.  It depends on what point in the process the student is currently experiencing.  And therein lies the disconnect between science and tradition.

Vocal Science fails in one most fundamental way.  It does not truly follow the scientific process when it comes to the analysis of voices.  Up to this point, vocal science has not established a vocal ideal!  Norms have been established based on selected professional singers' voices that happen to be available for analysis, more often because they are academically bound and not usually doing battle with an operatic orchestra.  One can get away with a great deal in a small recital hall and a piano!

The sensation of Mask Resonance is not based on resonance of the sinuses.  Singers who do not understand the way resonance works will swear that the resonance is happening in this cavity or that! Science proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the nasal cavity is not a resonator.  William Vennard's experiment, stuffing the sinuses with cotton and then milk, proved that there was no acoustical change when the nasal cavity was stuffed.  The experiment has been repeated by other scientists since and the result has always proven to be the same.  Still singers feel strong and specific vibrations in the bones of the head.  This is a principle called bone conduction.  Vocal tract vibrations are transferred through the skeleton in the form of vibrations in head and chest.  The specific nature of these vibrations are based upon the overtones produced by the oscillating vocal folds and the filtering of the vocal tract to emphasize certain areas of acoustic strength based upon the five identified strong acoustic bands called formants.

For a given pitch (frequency) there are three possible basic glottal (vocal fold) postures:  Too deep and breathy, appropriately deep and appropriately closed and shallow and pressed.  We seek a fold posture that is deep enough to create a spectrum rich in overtones both low and high and still allow for complete glottal closure without the frequency falling (singing flat).  This follows the principle that two variables influence the length of the glottal cycle (and therefore pitch accuracy), namely fold depth and fold closure (medial pressure).  Deeper folds take longer to close, given the pattern of the mucosal wave.  Likewise pressed folds take longer to open since the glottal squeeze works against the opening of the folds.

The strategy to achieving mask resonance (i.e. sensations that accompany a strong influence of the singer's formant) is first to create strong overtones and then chose a vocal tract adjustment (vowel) that gathers two of the top three formants closely on either side of a single strong harmonic, a principle called clustering of formants.

An exercise I use often to bring singers to this sensation (once the fold balance has been achieved over months of lip trill  and vocal fry exercises) is the following patterns:

Start on D3/D4 (male/female) on a clear, strong chest voice on [a], maintain the sensation of chest voice and without detachment, sing legato to D4/D5 (octave above) of [wi] and then descend on a five-note scale to G3/G4.  In otherwise 5-5-4-3-2-1 (two 5s constituting an octave) in G Major on [a-wi-i-i-i-i].  The exercise can then be taken further:  Still beginning of D3/D4, 1-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 in D Major following the pattern [a-wi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i].

The goal is to attempt to maintain the efficient phonation of the chest voice as the resonance of the [i] vowel emphasizes the narrow sensation of the epilaryngeal tube responsible for the resonance of the singers formant.  The chest tone guarantees a tone rich in overtones and the [i] vowel with its upper formants close to each other  would cluster around a harmonic in the 2800 range, the frequency of the singers formant.

In terms of sensation, this does two things for the singer: 1) Attempting to maintain the phonation sensation of the chest tone makes it clear that the tone needs to stay appropriately full and closed.  A jump of an octave guarantees that the vocal folds will thin out, but appropriately and without losing closure and produce a falsetto pattern as is often the case with women in the middle range.  2) The natural resonance of the [i] vowel (providing the glottal oscillation remains full and efficiently closing during the adduction part of the cycle) will bring the singer to the sensation of resonance in a narrower tube (the epilarynx), which by bone conduction is experienced in the mask (the bridge of the nose, between the eyes, etc).

Having established the sensation of the narrow resonance of the epilarynx, the singer can then vary the exercise to 1-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 on [a-wi/a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a], making the vowel change of the upper octave (8) and attempting to maintain the sensation of narrow resonance as felt of the [i] vowel.  The glottal source must continue to produce a rich spectrum of overtones and the choice of the specific [a] vowels should be guided by how strongly the singer can maintain the narrow resonance of the epilarynx as felt naturally on [i].

It is important to note that the Singer's Formant, carried by the epilarynx and to the mask by bone conduction only occurs when the source tone (the glottal vibration) produces strong overtones.  There is a trap that has ruined vocal balance that feels similarly to the correct resonance adjustment of the Singer's Formant.  In an attempt to "place" the voice in the mask before the fold posture has been achieved, some teachers will have a student sing a bright [i] vowel, whereby the larynx rises making it impossible to achieve the 6:1 ratio of pharynx to epilarynx that is necessary for the production of the Singer's Formant.  In those instances, the lower overtones are suppressed and the singer only experiences the high overtones that are available (usually weak).  Still, some singers, because they have a particularly large pharyngeal structure, can achieve the Singer's Formant even with a high larynx.  But those are not the norm.

It is my experience that when a singer works to develop a glottal posture that is appropriately full (deep, adequate chest content), then glottal closure can be efficient without too much medial pressure (pressing).  This also makes it possible to achieve excellent trans-glottal flow preventing the rising of the larynx.  Appropriate sub-glottal pressure is built during the closed part of the glottal cycle and the pressure is released during the slightly longer open phase when there is no excessive medial pressure.  Aside from the case of singers with large pharyngeal spaces conducive to the production of the Singer's Formant even when the glottal source is pressed, an appropriately deep glottal posture is necessary in order to create the conditions that make the Singer's Formant possible.  Only then can the experience of epilaryngeal resonance be carried via bone conduction to the mask.

In short, mask resonance is real and necessary and it is my belief that although we have singular vocal mechanisms, all voices function more or less the same way.  Mask resonance when based on correct principles of function can be reproduced and passed along. However, pressed voice with a raised larynx can produce an experience that is similar in sensation but is not efficient and could lead in a very short time to faulty and harmful vocal production.

© 05/20/2012