Monday, October 21, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Quixote Incident and The Savior Complex

I had a very heated discussion some years ago with one of my mentors, a rather famous Lied-pianist, on the subject of Don Quixote de la Mancha, as we were preparing a concert that included both the Ravel and Ibert Don Quichotte cycles, toward the end of my baritone phase.  I became very disenchanted when he said:

"Don Quixote is a loser!  We should know that from the beginning!"

"How would you come to that conclusion? I said impertinently!  He wins at the end!"

"In his own mind, perhaps," said he.  "But in reality he lost his mind and everything else."

And so it felt to me as if I had just realized my father was not a superhero.  This man whom I revered my entire musical life, it seems, did not get it at all.  His point of view seemed common;  I dare say banal.  The performance of the cycles seemed unusually perfunctory to me, although he felt we had succeeded in accomplishing what was necessary.  That Quixote Incident has remained with me for years and last night after a very enjoyable master class I realized something as I was going home.

I have always identified with Quixote and always will.  But from last night on, my point of view about Quixote has changed.  No I do not subscribe to the "loser" point of view of my former mentor.  The character of Don Quixote, which I also played in Man of La Mancha, is even grander to me now.  I used to think of Don Quixote as an underdog, the way I thought of Rocky (the Stallone character) as an underdog, but this is an erroneous point of view.  These iconic characters endure because they were winners from the very beginning.  They had the spirit of winners long before anyone ever saw them as winners.

What does Quixote really mean?  What is it that makes this character endure and has fascinated composers of many generations from Jules Massenet, to Manuel de Falla to Mitch Leigh?  Through adversity, Don Quixote lives by a vision of the world that in the end transforms others who in the beginning ridiculed him.  He was willing to risk his life for his beliefs.

Most artists live a Quixotic vision in spite of a world that look upon us as dreamers and yet cannot continue to exist without our dreams that are so easy to deride.  Because we persevere and achieve, often at great cost to ourselves and often against what to others appear to be impossible odds, we too often believe that anyone can undertake the journey that we have no choice but to take.  We are artists and that remains our way of life until we die.  We made that commitment before we knew we made it.

When I became a teacher, I unconsciously thought that I could enlighten my students as to the importance of the Quixotic pursuit, that I could open the way for them to a journey that was so extremely noble.  But that is indeed a savior complex that leads to disappointment.  My teachers that I saw as so extremely inspiring were only guiding me on a journey that I decided to take.  They never pushed me to do anything I was not already determined to do.  The students I have come to enjoy teaching also took on this journey before I ever met them.  Because the journey is difficult, I encourage them and remind them of that which somewhere inside of themselves they already knew.

I thought I would be much sadder when I realized that I cannot transform anyone.  But contrarily, it is a joy and a relief to discover that I can only guide them on a journey of transformation that they themselves already took and that they already know the price of attempting to become what they imagine inside of themselves, rather than what the world has superficially decided for them.

Rocky was already a winner from the beginning.  He only needed Mickey to show him how to bring the winner in him out.  Quixote made "The Impossible Dream" possible.  He is the ultimate winner.  A winner is not without doubt.  And no win is ever easy.  But winners simply win because they never stop fighting!  No teacher can turn a looser into a winner, but a teacher can help a winner learn how not to loose!

© 10/21/2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Deborah Voigt: An Important Artist Who Should Not Be Just Another Statistic

Few Sopranos in recent times have mastered the Wagnerian Repertoire with the apparent ease that Deborah Voigt has displayed over nearly two decades in the dramatic Fach.

Here vocally so consistent in Manon Lescaut:

Here head-to-head with the legendary Pavarotti and she reigns:

And here one of the most vocally balanced and musically refined readings of "Dich theure Halle" in recording history and live:

Another superb example of her technical mastery is this All-Wagner concert in São Paolo ending with the taxing Liebestod from Tristan.  She sounded as fresh at the end of the concert as she did at the beginning, except for a slight loss of support in the final phrase (this is worth mentioning later).

Technically of the highest water, musically irreproachable and dramatically convincing!  So what went wrong?

We cannot point to a singer doing too heavy repertoire too soon as is testament here.  The voice was ready and the technique was solid.

Therefore, we must point to the obvious reason why things went wrong lately!

After the surgery, this performance started fights on the various opera Forums between diehard fans and those who sought reasons to criticize:

There is a definite change in quality in the tone, that any experienced teacher would attribute to a slight glottal squeeze due to inadequate breath support.  It is not severe and even at this stage she sounded better than most other sopranos singing this repertoire.

Singing better than the average is not the modus operandi of a singer at this level, nor would it be of a world class athlete.  Yet as much as some in our midst would like to refer to opera as a sport, few truly understand why that is.  An opera singer does not need to look like a bodybuilder anymore than a golfer does.  But there are specific muscles in both cases that need to be developed to prevent breakdown.  Besides the laryngeal muscles (which in Ms. Voigt's case were ideally developed) the breathing apparatus must be developed to extraordinary levels particularly in the case of a Wagnerian singer.

Why had Ms. Voigt been so successful if her breathing was not developed?  Most singers know the fact that additional fat assist in the breath support of a singer.  With the fat tissue as a cushion beneath the diaphragm, maintaining constant breath compression is much easier than without.  The downside is that it takes great effort to take a deep breath.  Nevertheless, Ms. Voigt managed quite well.

But indeed even in a singer who is obese, the fat is not the only part of the breathing process.  The muscles of exhalation are still a part of the process.  And at the end of the São Paolo concert, the exhalation muscles gave up in the final phrase.  Her vocal folds  compensated by pressing together (via Interarytenoid Muscles) to make up the pressure lost from the support muscles.  However the medial pressure added time to the vibration cycles and the pitch lowered.  An unexpected occurrence in an otherwise almost flawless concert.

Indeed this occurrence in São Paolo signaled what was to become more problematic post surgery.  Once the fat was removed, the muscles had to work harder to create the compression that the voice was used to.  Ms. Voigt was back on stage 8-weeks after the surgery according to her recent interviews.  This was not enough time to develop the necessary muscular strength to maintain compression at the level se was used to.  When that compression is lacking, the vocal folds responded again as they did in São Paolo, but this time chronically since the old support system was no longer there.

I work with singers who come out of pregnancy and even if they sang during the pregnancy, they require more than 8-weeks to be back to normal.  Dramatic voices require even more time. In her recent interview with the NY Times,  Ms. Voigt attributes the change in her vocal quality more to age and the requirements of very difficult repertoire than to the surgery.  Age and repertoire are real factors of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore the obvious.  The voice did not sound the same after the surgery and that is a fact.

The more important question is not just why this occurred but how does one recover from it?  The technical side of it is not so difficult.  Ms. Voigt would have had to maintain the sound expectation from before the surgery.  Why?  Because it was healthy and balanced.  There is no fat tissue on the vocal folds.  They do not change when one is slim or obese.  The breath compression system is what changed and she should have taken the time to work the breath until her sound returned to its pre-surgery color.  This is still possible!  It is not her technique that needed to change but rather a "vocal fitness level" that would compensate for the sudden weight loss.  

Why "vocal fitness"?  Because the fitness of the breath compression system that is needed should be totally relative to how it brings her larynx to its old balance.  In short, this is not about perfunctory fitness, but rather a specific fitness related to the voice.

Yet the work that would need to be done to get Ms. Voigt her old voice back is not only physical.  Ms. Voigt spoke of alcohol abuse in her NY Times article and dealing with it head-on by attending regular A.A. meetings, etc.

 Ms. Voigt is a very strong and determined woman who has fought many battles.

1. She rose to the top of the operatic world and no matter what anyone tells you, that is not accomplished only because God gave you a talent.  Success has so much more to do with dedication and hard work.

2.  She was publicly humiliated by that ridiculous black-dress incident and she came through it triumphant and reinvented herself.

3. She is dealing with this crisis head-on and honestly and she is to be admired for that.

Was her decision to have gastric bypass surgery wrong?  At the time I thought so.  But in retrospect and perhaps with a little more wisdom, I realize that it was a decision that she had to make and she knew better than anyone what the stakes were.  As she explains in the recent interviews, she had to chose her health over the potential ill effects on the voice.  I would say she chose well.  She may still recover her old voice.

The question is whether she has the emotional strength to fight any more battles.  Is it then a wise choice to take on easier roles that do not demand the precision of technical balance required for the Isoldes and Brünnhildes?  We should trust her in that regard.  She has other talents which are being developed and perhaps her career will now take a more diversified outlook.

As a singer and a fan of Ms. Voigt's I would love to see her recover her pre-surgery voice.  More importantly, I would like to see Ms. Voigt transition from this crisis and reinvent herself again.  I would hope the operatic world would not treat her like yesterday's great dramatic soprano who has lost it.  That is the noxious air that wafts through conversations with singers and other business types, whether at cafés or on the blogosphere.

She is as close to the Birgit Nilsson of her time as one can get.  In the old days, when a great singer had a crisis (I am reminded of Leontyne Price's 1962 Anthony and Cleopatra), it seems there were important people in the field who felt it necessary to help the singer find real solutions.  If not from the business, I hope Ms. Voigt has a team of caring people around her who will help her make a triumphant return to the stage and to her life, as she so richly deserves.  God knows she has given us enough to enjoy for generations to come!

© 10/7/2013

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Bing Crosby In the Throat and Willy Nelson in the Mask: Why Traditional Imagery Takes Training For Granted

I was having a Skype session with one of my wonderful students from the Southern part of the United States and we started to laugh with the imagery I was using.  This very gifted dramatic soprano is pure South and she speaks with a wonderfully charming Southern drawl, full of vibrant high overtones.  Unfortunately we do not see each other as much as I would like and so we do what we can with Skype sessions.  Over the past two or three years we addressed the fact that her Southern heritage made her particularly prone to press the voice forward.  the tendency is to disengage from low overtones and as a result force the vocal folds into a posture that fits this reduced resonance adjustment.  Her tendency was to press the voice slightly to achieve a one-sided tone.  However, after a long period of working on "substance", and reengaging the full tone, we were able to address her issues from a resonance standpoint.  And so I said to her laughing:

Imagine Bing Crosby in the throat and Willy Nelson in the mask!

Her dramatic soprano exploded into a laughter reminiscent of Birgit Nilsson on a silly day.  Her tendency was to give up one side each time she thought of the other, to which I prescribed:

Imagine Willy singing in Bing's house!  
Code for: Maintain the lower space while allowing the high overtones to dominate!

In the end, the concepts became clear and we ended the lesson with a lot of laughter and clarity.

But the truth is I could not have talked in this way with my wonderfully disciplined and hardworking student if we had not spent the past years working on a muscular structure that allowed resonance adjustments to be so immediately available.  As I listened to her speak throughout the lesson, he Southern "brilliance" froth with high overtones was riding above a tone of great substance.  That is not the young dramatic soprano I met a few years ago.


Now the voice has substance through many hours of lip-trilling.  Once the structure was built, it was easy to deal with the voice in terms of high and low overtones, in terms of chiaro and scuro, in terms of head and chest resonance...This was not possible while the voice was one-sided.

This post originally included a video of a famous singer of the past making pronouncements about resonance that are at best questionable. Commenting on that video infuriated one of my former colleagues and the video was taken down.  Nevertheless the point will be made without that prop.

The point to be made is complimentary to the story of teaching my student above.  When a teacher refers to the chest, the neck and the skull as resonating cavities, it does not take more than one semester of basic vocal acoustics to refute such pronouncements.  Yet the sensory feedback is real!

What I find infuriating are the many master-classes I attend given by famous singers where they will pronounce a student to be untalented because they cannot sense these vibrations in these so-called resonators.  The situation is a simple one to understand:

Singer 1 is told to feel high notes on the top of the head and responds wonderfully.
Singer 2 is told the same thing and looks like a deer caught in a headlight and has no idea what is meant.

In an atmosphere led by the famous teacher in question, Singer 2 seems like an idiot.

Yet Singer 2 is not an idiot at all.  This is a very easy situation to understand.  Singer 2 simply has not trained the mechanism well enough to be able to have the sensory feedback that said famous teacher takes for granted.  Singer 1 already has a vocal structure that makes it possible to have the feedback that the teacher speaks of.  Calling Singer 2 untalented is tantamount to not understanding the fact that a laryngeal structure as well as certain resonant adjustments are necessary to produce such feedback.  Rather than pronounce the young singer as untalented, a teacher whose pedagogy goes beyond personal experiences would consider what Singer 2 would need to begin to experience such feedback and work on that foundation work!

During my time in academia, I watched young students come with magnificent voices trained by a very specific teacher in North Carolina only to be modified and diminished by college level teachers who thought they understood more than a local teacher who had a certifiable genius for training young voices.

The disconnect in the world of Opera is the following:  Famous people know better!  

In truth, famous people have the ability to get themselves famous!  It does not mean they always have skills in teaching commensurate with their fame.  Like this not famous teacher in North Carolina whose name escapes me, the most gifted people are more interested in the work at hand and not in making themselves known.

Is it possible to be famous and truly competent.  Yes!  That unfortunately is a rarity in current vocal pedagogy!

© 10/15/2013