Friday, February 15, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Jedi Training and The Art of Opera

I remember the early scenes in "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back"!  Luke's training began physically and then he had to go beyond it.  The Jedi training is a metaphor for many things and its broad appeal reaches the classical art of operatic singing as well.  Before giving in to the automatic nature of the voice, the body which houses it and which it is must be in good order.  The physical part of the training is itself arduous and is an accomplishment, but vocalization is a natural and automatic experience and in the greatest singers we hear that the voice works organically from an innate efficiency that is more complete than conscious manipulations.  Whether it is the "Self 1 and Self 2" duality explored in The Inner Game of Tennis, or the metaphor of The Force in Star Wars or the constant directive from coaches and teachers to "let go," in the end, there must be a surrender! A surrender to an energy that feels often impalpable yet present.

In the end, we must surrender many times.  Surrender to a need for strength and therefore physical training, then a surrender to the inner mechanisms of the brain that can gauge the balance we seek better than we can by direct influence of muscle systems.  We merely need to know what we want and commit to it.  Beyond the physical coordination of the voice, we must surrender to that energy that connects us one to all the others, such that our communication to our audience occurs at a level that goes beyond understanding of either words or music, a level of communication that is more complete than the apparent boundaries of stage and public of performer and audience...

For that expression to be inspired, we must also surrender the trappings of the business of singing in order to experience the communion that is the art of singing.  Before the artist confronts an audience, s/he must have confronted herself/himself and the art itself.

Unfortunately, the training of opera singers begins, from its first steps, marred by a need to please schools, most of which exist for themselves and not for the growth of the singer's art, then by Young Artist Programs that for the most part exist to utilize the youngsters as cheap labor, then agents who for the most part exist to make their own living and finally to theaters who are more interested in their own survival and relevance to a changing world rather than the art that originally inspired the singer.

In short, the singer who becomes worthy to the system is the singer who develops in spite of it!  To become truly exceptional, the singer must be sure to remain unmarred.  Most singers will get lost along the way.  Hopefully, at some point they will find true guidance and reconnect to the source of their limitless potential before they are seduced by short-lived opportunities that they brand success.  By the Dark Side, if you will.

The seduction of early and quick success was always there and there are countless stories of those who took the easy route and never fulfilled their limitless potential.  It used to be that there were enough teachers around to help a student see the folly of quick success.  Now it is considered folly to seek self-fulfillment, to seek enlightenment, to seek wisdom, to seek (God forbid) patience.

Yoga studios and Tai Chi schools and meditation classes are booming, because human beings instinctively feel that they will burn out with the acceleration of the world unless they find a means to commune with the inner pace of life.  Theater was once a place where one went to decelerate and commune at a pace more conducive the progress of life.  More often than not, theater does not achieve the pace of life because its practitioners have lost touch with the pace of living, or the timing of true human emotions.

We are "arrested" by the pace of great theater, music and art because in the  presence of meaningful Art, our psyche is made to consider the intricacies that bring the precision of the moment, giving a relative sense of the stoppage of time.  We think we experience stillness in a moment of great artistic expression because it causes our psyche to consider the world around us in a manner much more present than we experience in the rapid course of every day life.

Don't we value the craftsmanship of a beautiful piece of jewelry or of a luxury automobile or a magnificent sculpture?  Would it not be worthwhile to quietly develop a young artist for the sake of being a great artist, separate from the trappings of the field they are to enter?  Wouldn't the field then be subject to them as opposed to they being subject to it?  Did the world of Opera revolve around Maria Callas or did she revolve around it?  Indeed it revolved around her as long as she was a viable artist with a unique appeal.  Most singers never get to the point of being discovered as a unique artistic element because from the beginning they have learned to compromise themselves to fit into its ineloquent structures.

In the last half century, we have seen the business system of Opera become dominant over the art of opera.  The business used to exist to promote the development of some unique artistic spirit, indeed a fire that many moths wanted to get close to.  Now the business is the fire and the singers and conductors and musicians and designers become compromised moths drunken for a fire that ultimately burns them out.

© 2/15/2013


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Long Live The Deutsche Oper Berlin...Especially Under Donald Runnicles


I arrived to my Berlin apartment three days ago and looked at the emptiness.  I was somewhat tired of the traveling, enjoying a more sedentary experience in New York, with my girlfriend near and a voice studio that has been continually thriving.  Yet, I could not imagine leaving this place, given a group of sensational singing souls to which I am dedicated---Singers who are so committed to their art that being in their presence makes teaching a noble pursuit and the responsibility of guiding them an honor of the highest order. --  Indeed, the last couple of teaching days quickly reaffirmed the reasons why I am here, but it was yet another unusual production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin under the unmistakable leadership of Maestro Donald Runnicles that sealed my commitment to this grey and fair city.

I have loved Britten’s Peter Grimes, among my top half dozen operas, along with Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Parsifal, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Debussy’s Pélléas et Mélisande and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  Yet, I have never had the opportunity to see Grimes live.  The level of refinement of this evening’s magic can be encapsulated in one of my favorite German words: Consequenz!  Responsibility!  Artistic responsibility!

Unplanned, I found myself under the same roof with some of my most respected musical colleagues in Berlin:  Adelle Eslinger, a long time friend and colleague from my University of Michigan days, who has become one of the most respected operatic coaches in the world; Rupert Dussmann, another exceptional coach, with whom I had the pleasure of working when he was head coach at the Staatsoper Berlin at the end of my baritone days; Kanako Kanagawa, one of my very favorite musicians, a coach of especial musical integrity who served as the musical backbone of the Berlin International Opera, during my tenure on the board of that organization and teacher at the famous Hans Eisler Hochschule für Musik; the delightful Andrej Hovrin, another of Berlin’s exceptional coaches who has become a frequent collaborator on many fronts and my dear friend, colleague and client (would be almost disrespectful to call her student), the electrifying mezzo, Nadine Weissmann, who will make her Bayreuth debut this summer as Erda in Wagner’s Ring.

To watch a great operatic production is already life-changing, but to do so in the company of exceptional musical souls is unforgettable.  Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes, is a heart-wrenching dramatic work of extreme musical complexity that captures life at its paradoxical rawest.  Accidental man slaughter or murder; a drive for life or an insane obsession for security, tragedy, torture and relief; sacrifice and redemption...In the end, the singers, the orchestra, the dancers, the conductor must make it palpable, immediate, alive...The Deutsche Oper Berlin succeeds on every front!

David Alden’s staging, a co-production with the English National Opera is a tour de force and a good case made for the virtues of Regie Theater, when applied with intelligence to further the visceral impact of the work at hand, rather than obliterate the central musical/theatrical argument, as is too often the case today, particularly in German theaters.  A minimal set, by Paul Steinberg, with movable walls that can evoke endless spaciousness one moment and claustrophobia the next, supports in very specific terms the emotional drive of the moment.  Costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, choreography by Maxime Braham and lighting by Adam Silverman combine effortlessly to create a dynamic, atmospheric menagerie of emotions, exploring the many foibles of a small village in flux, tortured between religious fervor and secular debauchery and everything in between, all suggested in Britten’s transparent and evocative score and Montagu Slater’s Shakespeare influenced libretto.

The ensemble cast reveals a depth in the DOB’s vocal personnel that should be the envy of any house in the world.  These singing-actors exhibit a level of total theatricality that is not often experienced:  

Christopher Ventris has been a solid singing actor for years, yet a singing actor’s genius sometimes requires the right vehicle in order to be fully released.  I cannot imagine a singer in the world, since the best days of John Vickers, who can reveal so much of this tortured character's soul and with such vocal mastery to boot.  Mr. Ventris reveals a voice of immense power, subtlety and flexibility and a physical presence of a master Shakespearean.  Michaela Kaune’s Ellen Orford balanced him perfectly, revealing both the tenderness and torture of her love for this forsaken man.  Her rendition of the famous Embroidery Aria, a real set-piece, bloomed naturally from the framework of a character she expertly developed throughout the evening.  Marcus Brück, one of the veterans of the ensemble and a refined singer did some of his finest work to date in the short but significant role of Balstrode.  Rebecca Pont Davies played a compelling and memorable androgynous version of Auntie supported marvelously by the detailed characterizations of Hila Fahima (a voice to watch, a recent Königin der Nacht here) and Kim-Lillian Strebel as the nieces, one moment innocent young girls, the next dangerous Lolita-like jailbaits.  The sonorous Hobson of new ensemble member Albert Pesendorfer (magnificent bass, heard as an imposing Gurnemanz earlier this season), the swaggering Ned Keene of Simon Pauly, particularly in his interactions with veteran Dana Beth Miller as Mrs. Sedley and Thomas Blondelle’s incisive English diction as Bob Boles, all add to the rich color palate of this magnificent texture.  The Choruses (under William Spaulding) and Dance Corps of the DOB should win some kind of award for the detail work they exhibit here.  It must have taken hundreds of hours to accomplish this tour-de-force.

If I were to chose a hero this evening it would have to be the combination of General Music Director, Donald Runnicles and the attentive and refined execution of this multi-layered score by the DOB Orchestra.  From a poetic Wagner Ring Cycle, to a recent Lohengrin of note and a deft reading of Janacek’s Jenufa (to a brilliantly psychologically tortured production by Christopher Loy) to this evening’s performance, and a concert with the inimitable Nina Stemme last year, the combination of Maestro Runnicles and his new band is changing the landscape in Berlin in no uncertain terms.  This is a conductor who is at his apogee and there is no sign of leveling off.  His readings are at once masterfully controlled and expertly spontaneous.  Spontaneity comes not out of involuntary nuances but rather from a profound knowledge of the musical whole.  A clear attention to structure makes spontaneous burst a natural evolution of living music that never destroys the fundamental fabric of the global whole.  

Opera of this kind, of this level, is more a rarity today than it should ever be.  My lamentations of too much plane travel upon arriving in Berlin a few days ago are all but erased.  It is a privilege, as a singer of opera, to live in a city that houses three top level opera houses.  It is an outright gift to know that evenings like this one have been and will probably be more routine at the DOB in coming years.  And to borrow a line I once heard from the righteously proud General Music Director himself after one of his unmitigated successes here: “Es lebe die Deutsche Oper!”  Long Live The Deutsche Oper Berlin!

© 02/13/2013

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Low Larynx and Pure Vowels... And Efficient Phonation Too: A Tripod Solution

I have quoted the legendary Richard Miller here a few times regarding the "Lowered Larynx". He coined a phrase that make nerdy vocal pedagogues chuckle: "The history of the lowered larynx is a long and depressing one..." In a previous post, I dealt with the issue in a practical way, based on some experiences I have had at that time.  As I progress in my own vocal technique, I have become more philosophical about this issue and the other issues that are connected to it.  Let us deal with the three controversial issues that make up the title of this post!

1)  In the linked post,  I recommended a laryngeal position that is flexible and not rigid but I also spoke about one that was not pushed down too low.  As practical as it is, it does not tell the singer how low is too low.  Modern pedagogues like the late Richard Miller tend to take a practical position on the matter and I seemed to have advocated an even more practical approach, which puts me in the same category. But as I have often said, vocal science is a beginning!  Singing requires something a bit less heady!  More on this later!

2) Modern pedagogues are just as wary of the lowered larynx (AKA open throat) as they are of the term "Pure Vowels"!  I have often said, there are no such things as pure vowels.  The vowel quality changes on every pitch change.  Yet I have also said if we think of changing the vowel actively we will tend to exaggerate and the result would be imprecise diction.


My point of view in recents months has been tweaked to reflect what I have often advocated here on this blo--that great singing is achieving a balance between what often appear to be contrary ideas. -- Indeed to many teachers the concepts of open throat and pure vowel are incompatible which is why singers often feel like a "yoyo" when they move from one teacher to another.  Many ideas from the first teacher (if such ideas were one-sided) often prompts a contrary response from the second teacher (eg. If one teacher advocated pure vowels that causes a high larynx, then the next teacher might advocate a low larynx, citing necessary vowel modification resulting in dull vowels and imprecise diction).


The root of the problem is indeed at the "root" of the tongue, the so called hyoglossus muscle, which originates from the Hyoid bone and inserts at the base of the tongue.


Since muscles contract in the direction of the point of origin, the contracting Hyoglossus muscle pulls the root of the tongue down when it contracts.  It is also important to note that the laryngeal structure suspends from the Hyoid bone (the only bone in the body that does not attach to any other bone).  Therefore when laryngeal depressor muscles pull the larynx downward, it causes a domino effect that then causes a pull on the hyoglossus and therefore a pull on the base of the tongue.  

The difficult skill that a singer must learn is to achieve the low larynx by contraction of the laryngeal depressors as opposed to the assistance of a the base of the tongue pulled down by the contraction of the hyoglossus.  "Facilitating" the lowering of the larynx in this way traps the tongue in a rigid position that makes the precise shaping of vowels nearly impossible. When the tongue is not free to migrate, the laryngeal position cannot remain stable, for vowels such as [i] and [e], which require a higher position of the back of the tongue would result in raising the larynx from the lowered position.  This is the most significant reason why the larynx rises with the [i] vowel and then migrates low with vowels such as [u] and [a].

Therefore, exercises must be utilized that encourage a lower laryngeal position without impeding neither the paradoxal movement of the back of the tongue (upwards)--for vowels like [i] and [e]-- nor the relatively flat position of the tongue for the [a] vowel.  One-sided exercises do not work!

Yawning while singing as a means of achieving the low larynx is frowned upon by many teachers, fearing the very conditions of retracted tongue root that is discussed above.  Yet yawning is a very specific sensation that all singers can deal with and it does activate laryngeal depressors as well as palatal levitators enlarging the pharyngeal space.  

The solution is the following:  sing a yawned [i] vowel! If the problem is tongue retraction, the yawned [i] is the ideal solution.  The yawn activates laryngeal depressors while forcing relaxation of the hyoglossus.  This paradoxal (two-way) movement trains the laryngeal depressors to function without causing tongue retraction from rigidity in the hyoglossus.  

This however is not all.  Yawning also tends to cause a relaxation of the inter-arytenoid muscles that bring the vocal folds to midline in order to achieve complete closure.  A singer must learn to achieve a yawn all the while maintaining efficiency in phonation.  I personally identify correct laryngeal closure as the vocal fry (The vocal fry is of course an unsupported sound, i.e. the efficient sound that occurs before adequate pressure is added to the folds to cause a sustained regular vibration that we recognize as a sung pitch)  and believe that this flexible mode of onset that brings the folds together completely simultaneously coordinated with the breath must be what Garcia meant by the "coup de glotte" (defined as glottal stroke, distinguishing from a glottal strike or plosive).  Exercising and practicing the sensation of the "vocal fry" encourages vibration along the muscosa layer of the focal folds, avoiding the medial pressure associated with the glottal plosive.  This facilitates a balance between pressure and flow at onset of sound.  The glottal stroke needs to be as fast as "scratching a match" and relatively gentle.  Grinding the fry will cause too much friction of the fold cover and could result in pressed voice.

Efficiency in phonation is reflected in the clear nature of the sung or spoken vowels.  If there is no rigidity at onset, pressure/flow balance will be maintained and the larynx then can be lowered without resistance from excessive sub-glottal pressure.  Complete glottal closure and a comfortably lowered larynx provide both a rich overtone structure and balance between the low and high side of the spectrum because the lower overtones depend on low larynx (i.e. greater dimensions of the lower pharyngeal area is necessary for lower harmonics and the increase in pharyngeal size help create the conditions [1:6 ration between pharynx and epilarynx] for the singer's formant).

Pure vowel, the sine qua non of compelling vocal expression, must be defined as the intelligibility of language in the listener's ear as the speaker/singer imagines it.  This specificity of language, besides guaranteeing flexibility and precision in vocal tract adjustments (i.e. adequate lowering of the larynx as well as shaping of the tongue), may have a positive influence on glottal closure.  The singer's desire to be understood has an effect on the efficiency of the phonation, because intelligibility is precisely the objective of communication.

Glottal efficiency creates strength in the entire acoustic envelope making it unnecessary to  either raise the larynx to achieve a brighter sound (i.e. eliminating lower partials to accentuate the presence of high ones) or retract the tongue to achieve a darker sound (i.e. eliminating high partials to accentuate lower ones).

In essence, with these three issues, we are confronted with the analogy of a tripod, whereby three legs must necessarily have the same length to achieve balance.  These three elements, committed to completely in ways that may seems extreme, constitutes a check and balances system that prevents exaggeration in all three elements.  Add breath management and the tripod is turned to a four legged table whereby the same interdependence is necessary.  The fundamental pillars of technique, phonation, space management (i.e. pharyngeal space and shaping via tongue and lips) and breathing must be thought of in absolute terms.  When they are all applied together, they balance each other out preventing excess in any one single functionary part.  Achieving balance is where the singer and not the scientist or even voice teacher can finish the product.  The singer's personal understanding of his/her complete sound and process finishes the final sound, the final balance.  This is why, my technical approach needs to be worked out every day in order to figure out where better balance can be achieved.  I have begun video taping myself lately to see as well as hear what aspect of my technique could be improved on:



My coach will have a field day with this video looking all of the bodily up and downs trying to connect to my breath!  I post this quick example to illustrate my attempt at maintaining balance on a very difficult phrase.  The richness and flexibility of the lower range is not quite mastered yet in the high range, so the high B although good can be improved on.  When the structures are all refined, my body will be stiller and I won't worry so much about securing the top note.  It is hard enough to practice one element, but amalgamating the different elements into a single sensation is what the singer's goal should be.  Sometimes the elements can and should be practiced separately, but one should know that final results are never achieved in balance until all elements contribute together toward a flexible, centered whole.

©  02/07/2013