Saturday, December 7, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): A Tribute To Tom Gunnar Krause, July 5, 1934-December 5, 2013: Mentor and Friend

Tom Krause touched my heart long before I ever met him.  The year was 1984.  I was a first year voice student at Westminster Choir College and my work-study job was in the recording library.  This was a terrific job because I was allowed to listen to music when the library traffic was slow.  In my music history class, we were introduced to German Lieder in the persons of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey.  I found them both remarkable and took a liking to Lieder singing that developed into a life’s passion.  I fell in love with Schubert’s music and was captivated by the collection of late songs on Heine and Rellstab poems called Schwanengesang (Swang Song).  They were Schubert’s final song compositions.  I could not get enough of them and consequently I came across Tom’s recording of the Schwanengesang.  While both Dieskau and Prey touched me respectively for a certain musical precision and this “Jedermann” kind of emotionalism, Tom’s reading of those songs took directly to a part of me that was beyond precise and beyond mere emotion.  Something about the quality of his voice bore like fire straight to the center of me.  

Back then, the prospect of meeting these legends of song was unimaginable.  I got to meet Prey at a master class some four years later and only got to hear Dieskau in concert.  I had not heard much about Tom in the later years and had imagined that he either retired or perhaps had passed.  After a performance as Germont in Traviata, I got a comment that my voice could use more squillo.  My dear friend and colleague, the excellent dramatic soprano Othalie Graham asked me if I had a choice to study with anyone who would it be?  I responded either José van Dam for whom I had sung in a master class or better yet, Tom Krause if he were still alive.  I assumed she might not know who Tom Krause was.  She was in my car and looked at me astounded.  And in her classic way, she replied: “No way!!!”  I was surprised she knew the name at all.  She said: “I looooove him.  Love him!  Would you like me to call him for you?”  I thought she was teasing.  Then she pulled out her cell phone and called him and made the appointment.  The next day we both drove to Tom’s house in Philadelphia where began an apprenticeship, that though short-lived because of traveling logistics, left an indelible mark on my singing and teaching life.

The first lesson and everyone after that were “events!”  At the first lesson we spent three hours having tea and talking about life, philosophy.  Tom said we had to get to know each other before we sing together. I got to know Tom’s delightful wife Jeannie and I felt like I had just become part of a family.  For the next year and a half I traveled to Madrid and Hamburg whenever possible to meet with Tom.  In the process I got to meet his terrific daughter Danielle, who became my friend.  I remember we spent a terrific time, all four of us, in Hamburg singing, talking and having tea.  In Madrid, I remember arriving at my hotel in the center of town and it was chaos from 6pm to 6am.  The next day I went to my lesson with Tom outside of town and it was calm.  We spent two hours together and then we walked slowly back to the train station stopping along the way at a book store that had a hard bound copy of Isabel Allende’s Zorro.  I told him I grew up with the legend of Zorro and he looked at me deeply and said: “Then you have to buy the book.  It is here for you to notice it and want it.”  I bought the book and ever so happy I did.  It is the best treatment of the Zorro legend that I have ever read and it was a magical journey that began with Tom’s advice.   

Every meeting with Tom was significant.  Our meetings were not frequent because I was traveling a lot to teach and so was he.  But it was always a joy to meet.  We had a lot of people in common in the world of singing/opera.  So I heard about his advices to me repeated through trusted members of my musical family like George Shirley and Dalton Baldwin to whom he had related our stories.  

Tom’s technical approach was based on how the voice should function when technique is totally accomplished.  He looked for an ease that was difficult for me to achieve at the time because I was at the end of my baritone phase.  In fact my lessons with Tom made me open to the possibility that I might be a different voice type, although tenor never came into question.  We experimented with bass-baritone roles like Holländer and Graf Lysiart.  The lower tessitura of those pieces made it possible for me to accomplish the effortlessness that Tom wanted.  The Italian repertoire, or rather the timbre ideas I had about that repertoire, caused me to sing in a way that was causing me unnecessary tensions.  Yet Tom was surprised that I could always sing the top notes easily despite what he perceived to be tensions.  Through the process I started to experiment with pieces that influenced a warmer color from me.  It is then that I started experiment with Heldentenor repertoire.  I found a remarkable similarity between Holländer and Siegmund.  The colors and the way I approached the two characters at opposite ends of my repertoire made me realize that true “squillo” came from singing one’s true color and not by trying to sing “brightly”! The latter was what was causing me tensions.  A couple months after that it became clear that I am actually a tenor and the process began, which gave rise to Kashu-do, my brand.  Indeed the final stage of this technique is the “trust” to let the voice function.  

I realized then that I had some fundamental structural work to do to alleviate 25 years of “making” my voice sound like a baritone because that is what I thought I was.  Indeed, I realized that many young singers try to “fabricate” colors they think their voice types require instead of develop a sense of what their natural voices are.  Without trying to, Tom Krause influenced my teaching in very substantial ways.  It took me 5 years to do the structural work I needed to do such that my voice could start to respond to my imagination and not to muscular manipulation.  I can now do what Tom was asking of me and it was my hope that I would go back to him to continue to refine my voice.  Unfortunately I would not have that chance as Nature called Tom’s essence back to her bosom so that he may graduate to a different level of existence.  In truth, during that year and a half of work I believe I captured the essence of what he wanted me to accomplish and my current students who are benefiting from that approach based on “Trust” are the testimony of how important that year and a half was to my development.

I have been fortunate with teachers who taught not only information but philosophy.  They took their students “in” into their hearts and mentored them, often without them knowing that they were being mentored.  Tom made me realize that quality is always of the essence.  He expected a certain artistic quality.  

When I told a friend that I studied with Tom, he said something along the lines that Tom’s approach was cultish and “spiritual”.  Tom felt a student must be an artist to understand artistic things.  What my friend thought as cultish is simply a capacity for “higher” reflection.  It took me a long time to realize that many people posture as artists who are not really such.  Classical singing is a diverse world that celebrates “vocal athleticism” as well as the kind of singing that evokes philosophical and spiritual reflection.  Great artists have the capacity for both.  A great singing artist must be a great vocal athlete, but not every vocal athlete is an artist.  Tom was a great singer and a superior artist.  His singing touched me profoundly before I “understood” what “the art of singing” was.  He touched me in a visceral place.  As his student, by example he taught me I could go further than my intellect could grasp.  This level of faith requires a vulnerability that few students are willing to experience.  I trusted Tom and felt safe in letting go of what I thought I knew.  I became a more profound person for it.  I was rewarded yesterday when a student I have taught for almost eight years accomplished this complete release of control, trusting that his desire was enough to bring the instrument into natural, balanced function.  

His response: “I feel like I don’t know anything!” 
“Does that scare you?” I said.
“In fact, it does not.  It’s humbling and empowering!”

Thank you Dear Tom for all the things I thought I was learning and even more for the many things I did not know I was learning.  I will miss you always!  But in a crazy way you have been with me since the beginning, before I knew who I was artistically, and I know on some level I can always count on your mentorship.  You leave a mark not only on many ears but on so many hearts.  

I leave you to graduate to a higher consciousness with these words from Shakespeare from a Finzi setting I sang often:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Thou thy earthly task hast done
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages...

No exorciser harm thee
Nor no witchcraft charm thee
Ghosts unlaid forbear thee
Nothing ill come near thee.

Quiet consumation have

And reknowned be thy grave.

© 12/07/2013

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): I Want To Be Like Nina: The Unique Artist That Is Nina Stemme

I first met Nina Stemme the night I heard her live as Minnie in Christopher Loy's magical production of Fanciulla for the Royal Opera Stockholm.  After what appears to be a vintage film sequence on the main drop, featuring Nina herself astride a horse through what seems the New Mexico/Arizona landscape, the soprano burst through the paper curtain, with classic six-shooters in hand--A theatrical move that could have been cliché if not handled with perfect timing and physical energy.  She was brilliant! As Minnie is the only substantial female figure onstage, her presence must be enormous to counter that of the two powerful tenor and baritone leads and the male chorus as well.  She radiated an energy of such intensity that one wonders if anyone could match it even though all her colleagues on stage were magnificent.  I had befriended her teacher, Micaela von Gegerfelt a couple of years before and a couple of my students were singing in the production.  Consequently I was able to meet her after the performance.  She was as down to earth in real life as she was otherworldly onstage.  We ended up having a beer together in the opera café.

A few months later she came to Berlin to sing a concert including Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Rachmaninov songs accompanied by the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra with Donald Runnicles at the helm.  I greeted her backstage before the performance and asked how she was doing.  "Allergies!," she said matter-of-factly. "But what are you going to do? Gotta sing!"  Singers in perfect health wish they could produce the tones she produced during that concert.  Wether loud or soft, tender or passionate, she was in complete command of her resources.  That is a professional and that is what we should all aspire to.

Whether singing in Italian or German, she is flawless.  Her idiomatic expression in both is uncommon for a non- native Italian.  I know she speaks German, Swedish and English.  I would not be surprised if she spoke fluent Italian as well. We talked also after the performance and it was mostly about family, being on the road and the fun of making music with colleagues from before.

The next two performances, Salomes, a year apart turned me into a total admirer.  In New York's Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst, Nina sparkled, truly topping the all-star cast.  If she had not been too familiar to New York audiences, she won them over that night.  She soared on Salome's high tessitura commandingly, calling on every dynamic shade and practically dwarfing the orchestra with her radiating resonance--All at the service of a deft musical and dramatic interpretation.  That concert Salome was more "femme fatale" than "crazy lolita!"

A year and a few months later, the Stockholm Salome took on dimensions both vocally and dramatically that were hinted at in New York.  The simple but profoundly multidimensional staging by Sofia Jupiter must have contributed to this.  She was buttressed by the vocally superb Austrian baritone Josef Wagner as Jochanaan and one of my clients, Niklas Björling Rygert, perhaps Sweden's most gifted singing-actor on the male side, was her unforgettable Herodes.  Nevertheless, these magnificent artists only supported the central figure which is Nina Stemme's Salome.  My girlfriend, who had also experienced the New York Salome, was so impressed by Nina's "girly" demeanor even when singing giant dramatic soprano tones.  Strauss created a version of the opera whereby the orchestra is reduced to facilitate the possibility of a lighter voice singing the role in order to emphasize the childlike nature of the character.  Those incarnations have always left me wanting more voice.  This is a piece written for a great actress who can give the impression of a young girl while erupting in rich tones that leaves the fullest orchestras in the dust.  This Nina Stemme does!  Her portrayal left nothing wanting.  The capacity house was on its feet for more than 15 curtain calls and they would have continued their rhythmic standing ovation (me included) if the stage manager had not called for house lights.

At the post-premiere reception, I was speechless, not knowing what to say to this magnificent woman. So I said simply: "How?..." "Every day is different" she replied.  "I must find it each time..."  But in fact I knew how.  This is the kind of results some singers used to get in their youth because they were talented enough and took a year to prepare a degree recital, where every note was carefully studied.  Most top professionals can put out a very good product that would please most critics, but this level of specificity and effortlessness in the production of an Olympic level effort is not accomplished because one is "gifted".  Jussi Björling used to get upset when people assumed singing came easily to him.  He wanted people to know how difficult the preparation was in order to make it look easy.  Nina's work ethic was already noticeable by her friends in the Stockholm youth choir, as one of her former colleagues revealed to me recently.  That work ethic has only matured.  Hers is a big voice for big roles, yet she can sing the most ravishing pianissimi without losing any part of her rich timbre.  This requires great skill, hours of practice, determination...

As I wait for a too early flight from Frankfurt to New York, I could not take my mind away from the powerful emotions I was left with after that performance a few days ago in Stockholm.  I felt compelled to put these thoughts here.  Yet I know I am too fatigued right to be as eloquent as deserves Nina Stemme's unique, far-reaching skills.  I will only say this:  If I were to chose one performer I would recommend for my students to emulate, it would have to be Nina.  Every time I see her, I have the strong feeling that the art of opera is alive and well and it remains "noble"!  Thank you Nina!

© 12/6/2023