Saturday, October 24, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): What Is Your Natural Voice?: The Operatic Search For Identity

Even for those who do not experience a change in vocal categorization, the idea of knowing what your natural voice is is a constant problem for opera singers.  When children are asked to imitate an opera singer they do what they think is a fake unnatural sound usually making fun of the idea of opera.  It is not because they find it "unnatural" per se but rather because it is something that is "not common" to them.  It is like asking them to pretend they are a super-hero.  It is extraordinary!  The truth is the more I teach singers, even professional singers, the more I notice they have a problem with doing something "extraordinary!"  That is the price we pay for trying to make opera an ordinary thing.  Ever since Pavarotti and Friends, pop singers think it is a cool thing to do to attempt an opera aria.  Perhaps the desire to "popularize" opera is just reducing it to the least common denominator (i.e. what we think people are comfortable with).  Many developing opera singers go only so far in seeking their total vocal color for precisely that reason.  They are afraid to go too far from "normal."

Vocal categorization is another limiting factor.  "A tenor sounds like this! Your voice is naturally too dark.  You must be a baritone.  Maybe a bass-baritone."  Such authoritative pronouncements I have heard from some teachers when I began the process of accepting my tenor voice.  Thank God there were voices like Giacomini, Galouzine and Efe Kislali around to see and hear on Youtube.  They have more baritonal voices than I do and they made great careers.  When it comes to vocal categorization, we must be very careful not to be reductively influenced by "norms."  Every voice is unique when it is "complete."  Today's definition of unique seems to be "in what way can you go against good function so the voice sounds unusual?"  That is the pop definition, not the operatic definition.

Even well-meaning voice teachers can have a wrong idea on a given day.  My excellent colleague, Karin Bengtsdotter Olsson, at Härnösands Folkhögskola likes to remind our students that they own their talents.  We are only their guides!  In the end, they know what feels natural and must always seek a sense of their true selves even as we help them make changes.  Great advice from a great teacher!

Likewise, I often tell my more advanced students that they will have to make the final steps on their own.  A teacher can give us the tools to fundamental techniques, however who we are as artists/human beings can only be experienced by us first.  A good teacher can discover the nature of the student over time, but the clues come from the student, even if they are often not aware that they are giving clues.  Our job is to find the nature of the singer in front of us not to dictate what they should be.

As a singer, myself, I am always in search of the truth of my voice.  More than 15 years ago I did a series of Tango concerts with the Latin Grammy-winning Bandoneon Master, Raul Jaurena.  One of my colleagues at the time told me after a concert that it was the most natural he had heard me sing.  There was something about Tango that brought out the complexity of my musical heritage.  It combined Latin rhythms, a touch of Jazz, great emotion and even a touch of the classical elegance that drew me to Opera.  My father brought all kinds of music to our home, including Tango.  I was very drawn to this form before I knew what it really was.  It also fit my natural vocal color.  Tango singers like Carlos Gardel or Roberto Goyeneche (two of my favorites) had rich voices that worked well in the speaking range.

We can immediately make the connection between this music and some of the classical forms that influenced it.

Goyeneche at this point in his career was less steady of voice but remarkable with what he did with text.  A master in phrasing and emotional context.  Going back to playing with Tango (I recently joined a Tango studio to learn to dance the Tango better), I was able to make sense of something the late mezzo-soprano Ada Finelli told me when I began the change to tenor: "Whatever you do, do not lose your natural baritonal color.  I believe you are that type of 'tenor robusto' and if you try to color your voice like a lyric, you will never find true 'morbidezza.'"  The difficult part of becoming a tenor for me was not developing high notes, but rather developing flexibility and true support in the low and middle. Going back to Tangos gave me a balanced sense of both:

Lately, I have begun my practice sessions with one of my favorite Tangos, Nostalgias. 

It is quite low, touching on low G#2 and only going as high as D4.  This is precisely the range I need to balance.  The tendency is that as a tenor, I became afraid of engaging my full lower voice.  Under-supporting this region made the approach to the passaggio and higher more difficult.  And if I must go down to the middle and back up to the top it was often a problem.  The Tango comfort of my low range makes for a cleaner approach to the top of the voice.

Then I can allow the head voice sensations to dominate in relation to this lower voice as I do here with Addio alla mamma from Cavaleria Rusticana.

We may talk about technique in all kinds of technical ways and in the beginning, in terms of building a structure and maintaining it, we need to be very empirical and very disciplined about function.  When we get to more advanced stages, it is no longer about the root and the branches but about the leaves.  This means we must experiment with intuition and instinct.  That can only come from the singer himself.  Helping a student to find out their true nature often depends in finding out what type of music really excited them in the beginning and how they tend to engage that repertoire.

I have decided to commit some of my energy and time to developing my Tango repertoire.  It provides me a real balance in my approach to Opera.

© 10/24/2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Olympics of Opera Singing: The Power of the East at the Tchaikovsky Competition 2015

It is no secret, by name alone, that Kashu-do has its roots in Eastern philosophy.  But not all Eastern philosophies are the same.  What Korea, Russia, China, Ukraine and now Mongolia have in common is an adherence to "Old School" principles and a traditional definition of what an operatic sound actually is.  While these countries have strong popular music styles and a very vibrant pop markets, it would seem, as evident by the strong contestants representing these countries in the last Tchaikovsky Competition, that they do not confuse popular styles with Operatic values.

At the Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, last August, the most common comment I received from audiences was: "I did not know an operatic voice sounded that extraordinary!"  One person said it was like hearing X-Men whose superpower was an overwhelming resonant voice.  Operatic singing is as mind-boggling to a listener as it is to watching basketball legend, Michael Jordan fly to the basket or Ussain Bolt break world records in the 100m dash.  It feels "superhuman!" And it does not matter if it is a light coloratura shooting out rapid-fire fioratura or a dramatic baritone singing Scarpia's first entrance.  The way the fully-developed operatic voice vibrates the surrounding air is a magical experience.

The live experience of a fully resonant operatic voice singing great music with compelling understanding does not need preamble.  We do not need to make excuses for opera as an art form but rather give the live audience what it comes for:  great vocal power, great emotion, great music and great story telling.  Opera thrives in the Eastern countries because they have embraced the Operatic genre for what it is and they more than any other continue to produce great voices.  If one goes to the Opera in Russia or China or Korea, one expects to hear great voices and they are in abundance.  Listeners in those countries make the difference between a pop singer attempting to croon an operatic aria and the true Opera singer delivering a bona fide performance.  In the West, Opera in the Movies is the new norm, which means that it is enough to look good on screen while crooning an aria that sounds resonant on the movie screen (boosted by microphones) and inaudible in the live hall.

The Easterners prove that there is no shortage of voices and interesting stage personalities, very evident in the Tchaikovsky Competition (admittedly the only vocal competition I trust to be fair anymore).  Fully resonant voices are more rare in the West.  To control dynamics and be refined with a fully developed large voice requires extraordinary breath management.  When the developing singer shows signs of difficulty because the breath mechanism is not yet fully developed, Western teachers are more likely to have them "reduce everything" to produce a "pretty" tone, even if the tone is inaudible.  I must say I have not gone to one international competition where I heard Koreans and Russians and Chinese singers reduce themselves.  When they sing a "piano" it is an event!  Because it sounds like it requires the balance of a tight-rope-walker to maintain it.  And it does!  This leaves the audience spellbound, intrigued, speechless. And when that same voice turns on the volume, it is like waves of warm sound passing right through one's body and we feel changed.

The East is just as effected by modern consumerism and immediate gratification as the West. But somehow they make room for both the superficial entertainment of Pop-Opera and the ennobling, profoundly life-changing  experience of Grand Opera.  I am not suggesting that we give up Opera at the Movies.  However, if we hope for that audience to come to the Opera House and enjoy the experience, we will need real voices to do the job!

The Winner of the Tchaikovsky Voice Competition 2015 was also the Grand Prize Winner (overall winner) was Mongolian baritone, Ariunbaatar Gunbaatar, one among a large number of Mongolian singers who took part in the competition.  Many of them who did not make it past the first round will probably end up having world class careers.

Here he is demonstrating a cantilena from a large voice, an almost lost art today as truly large voiced singers tend to sing lower voice parts instead of learning to control their large voices in the appropriate tessitura.

This young singer with a mighty voice is not only well-trained but singing Largo al factotum for the Winners Concert reveal a real concept of traditional voice building.  Reminds of the great Bastianini singing this great baritone aria, which is no longer considered territory for full-voiced baritones.

It is no secret that the great secret of developing voices in the East is a true adherence to tradition!  More coming on this discussion.

© 10/20/2015