Saturday, November 21, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Short-term Memory and Scientific Sanctimony: A Bad Recipe For Completing the Vocal Rubix Cube

When I took it upon myself to create this blog, I wanted to do something that was never done before-- I was already a respected teacher, with a knack for common sense writing, bringing some clarity to the masses on the Rubix Cube that is vocal science. -- What I set out to do was to expose the many transition steps that a singer experiences in the difficult process of accomplishing true vocal balance.  I started to write this blog at the onset of my transition from baritone to tenor.  I said back then that I was not a baritone becoming a tenor but rather a tenor who thought he was a baritone.  What kinds of compensatory measures did I use to convince my high level teachers that I was a baritone?  To what degree did I throw my voice out of balance (believing myself to be a baritone--that's what I was told) in order to fulfill the fallacy that I was a baritone?  More importantly, how long would it take to get my voice to the highest level of balanced function? Also, what do the transition steps look like?

Because this blog has become widely read, it has become the target of a "gotcha'" mentality that exists in social media.  Whenever I put up a clip describing a specific transition step, I will usually receive commentary or emails from some trolls and at times very respected teachers about something they did not like about my clip.  On rare occasions I will put up a link to a performance that I have done to exhibit where I am in the process.  But usually my clips are about how concentrating on one element, brings us to awareness about imbalance in another element.  Like a Rubix Cube, we often have to undo what looks like a finished element to find completion in the whole.  After many rounds of functional analysis and physical growth, I am achieving a sense of balanced completion.  No, not that my voice is finished, but having a sense that I can actually experience my voice with what I perceive of as ideal brilliance, with ideal substance, with a sense of solid support and pressure-less flow with the ability to articulate text with astounding precision.

I reached the 7-year mark in my process last April, and felt I was at a new plateau--A state that promised a path to real refinement.  Not just the ability to sing all the tenor notes with balanced formant resonances but rather achieving a sound in balance that was immediately exciting to the listener and felt centered in my own body (that feeling that I was not fighting myself in any way). While teaching at Kashu-Do's retreat in Magagnosc, France (magic seems to happen here), my fiancée, herself a singer (and who rarely makes any comments about my voice, except to be encouraging) felt compelled to tell me that she was listening to my practice and it was extra-ordinary. She thought our host (who embodies the most extraordinary tenor voice we've heard) had returned from his errands and was surprised it was me.  For the first time she also made a criticism: "as amazing as it sounded I would like to hear the top begin a little gentler!"  I could not agree more!

My fiancée rarely makes comments because she has been one of the witnesses to my development.  She knows my daily practice and what I have had to undo and do to achieve a type of final product (as she heard yesterday).  Comments are often superfluous when you understand the process.  Her own voice has grown wonderfully in the past few years because she too practices daily.  This goes to the core of the issue:  those who have had certain abilities from before they were aware, have a hard time understanding that it can be difficult to achieve true balance.  And so it is easy to pick at a sound quality, concentrating at what they perceive is missing (instead of the organization of the whole) or else picking out a word or sentence in a blog post that offends their own technical ideals.

Many singers I know would rather hold on to the completion of one side of the Rubix Cube rather than undoing it in search of completing the whole!

I feel poised to release what I would consider a reliable top-level professional sound within 2016, because I have gone around the Rubix Cube so many times in literally thousands of practice sessions and tens of thousands of voice lessons making sense of this puzzle.  I have experienced students beginning with weak, uncoordinated voices accomplish just that: top-level professional sounds!  I watch with interest how these singers overcome the Opera World's illnesses the way they overcome their personal vocal illnesses.

One of the illnesses of our current Opera environment is short-term memory.  Our operatic culture has little memory of what made it great or what makes it great actually.  I cite Nina Stemme here so often because she has a remarkable work ethic, always seeking to better herself vocally, musically, dramatically.  I also applaud Jonas Kaufmann who does not let his fame be a reason for not working hard to improve.  Whether one likes Mr. Kaufmann or not is not the subject.  That his technique and artistic process help him to become more and more reliable and convincing is the more important lesson.  In his late forties he is steal peaking, and that cannot be said of many top professionals today.

It is important to remember the steps of development and not be afraid to lose a little something to achieve something greater.  No we do not throw our voices to the wind at just anyone's behest.  We take risks with the advice of those who know us and want the best for us and have the skills to guide us properly.  And we avoid the cautionary fears of bystanders and couch-pedagogues, who think they understand us better than our own teams.

Another illness is what I call vocal pedagogy in a box!  I have great respect for vocal science as is evident here, but I have less respect for the process that is employed by vocal scientists and many who claim to have a science-based approach to singing.  There is a real danger in attempting to protect one's "intellectual property!"  The kind of mentally that says: "I published this ten years ago, so I must defend it even if I discover it is not quite correct"; or the type of mentality that holds on to specific terminology the way religious fanatics quote Bible verses with literal dogma!

For all intents and purposes, I am a writer.  I have written close to 400 blogposts on the subjects of opera and voice, plus hundred of articles on classical singing forums and a few in professional magazines.  What I have learned is this:

 words are limited.  At best they crystalize more complex thoughts.  At worst they reduce complicated subjects to simplistic drivel.

I received a well-meaning comment from a very respected colleague relative to a recent blogpost.  He had issues with my usage of the term "great breath pressure" in relation with operatic singing.  From a theoretical principle of final vocal experience, I do not disagree with my colleague that the use of the term could be misleading.  Yet on the other side, some modern pedagogues (not necessarily my colleague here whom I respect greatly) fail to consider the process of the developing singer who when finally experiencing an organized phonation mode finds the body's muscular responses to be so much more extreme than s/he ever imagined.  Here in Magagnosc, a young tenor who I instructed to reduce volume but imagine a "fuller voice" had a lightbulb experience when he said:  "That is a lot of breath pressure on my body, but remarkably there is no pressure in the throat.  I feel that my body is working much harder than before but it is as if all sensations in the throat disappeared!"  So the student experience complete glottal closure for the first time and experienced a stronger breath compression than heretofore.  Simultaneously, the full closure was so gentle that efficient trans-glottal flow gave him a sensation of effortlessness in the throat.  Pressure, compression, pressure-flow balance...  It was enough for me that the student articulated in his own terminology a sense of relationship between his breathing and phonation. That will take him further than me insisting he uses a terminology he might find restrictive. It was also important to tell the student that:

"next week, the same experience might feel less effortful on the body as well.  The more developed the coordination, the less effortful it feels everywhere."

The vocal science community invents new terminology all the time to replace what was considered inadequate before.  Yet, the same people will wave the newly accepted terminology around with the conviction of religious zealots.  For better or for worse, I am a geek, in part.  I love knowledge and I love science.  But I am also a bit of a philosopher.  I do not like to be mentally restricted or restrictive.  Teaching vocal function in a vacuum does more to discredit empirical scientific information than anything else.  For that reason, I have one foot in tradition and one foot in science.  I keep my distance from zealots in both camps.

The Rubix Cube of vocal pedagogy couples empirical information relative to the efficient functions of the vocal apparatus with the uncertain physical and psychological vacillations of the human being who is inhabited by that same vocal apparatus.  The goal is to get the human being to be in synchronicity or better yet in symbiosis with the functional necessities of the apparatus inside of him/her.  For that, we need short and long term memories to understand the steps we took in the process.  This includes understand very well our necessary transitory periods of relative imbalance. For this we also need to be free of sanctimonious shackles of pseudo-science.  Imagery, imagination, even imprecise language sometimes speaks to the student more precisely than correct scientific jargon.

Scientific language, no matter how well-meaning, tends to unfortunately speak to one specific localized function without regard to the singer's experiences on a global level. yet this in no way gets the traditional teacher off the hook.  In the tradition of the most effective teachers, real knowledge instructs our process.  While we cannot absorb every piece of information out there, it is part of our job as voice teachers to be as informed as possible.  This takes an effort that too few of us are willing to make.

© 11/21/2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Let it fall...Opera will survive: What If the Current World Opera Structure Were to Collapse?

In a recent conversation with a respected colleague about the problems that the operatic culture faces in our times, we came to the question that none of us want to ask:  "What if the theaters all closed down? What if the government sponsorship of opera were cancelled? "  Would our greatest fears be realized?  Would opera disappear forever?  I personally have had this fear!  My first instinct has always been to try to educate politicians about the importance of opera and why it needs to continue to be funded.  Whenever I get a chance to do an interview, which is somewhat frequent these days, I make a point of saying that culture is not a luxury but a necessity to our well-being as developing human beings.  I often will point to direct connections between reduced cultural funding in the United States to the rise of teenage delinquency and ultimately of crime in adulthood.  I believe that cultural education is fundamental to brain development and ultimately the capacity of a person to become a positive influence on society.

That said, I find myself thinking suddenly radically about the state of operatic affairs in the world.  What if state sponsorship is actually the problem?  I am beginning to believe we underestimate the public appetite for innovative, entertaining and moving theatrical experiences.  What person would not rejoice in a performance of Katharina Thalbach's magical treatment of Rossini's Barbiere, or Christoph Loy's Fanciulla or Stefan Herheim's Xerxes? What if those productions were not at state sponsored theaters ( Berlin Deutsche Oper, Stockholm Royal Opera and Berlin Komische Oper respectively)?  Would these geniuses be silenced?  I think not!  For every genius production by these stellar figures, there must be 50 or 100 productions in the operatic world that prove noxious to human senses by their lack of imagination and respect for the theatrical experience.  

We artists have the tendency to fear censorship at all costs and thereby support artistic freedom regardless of its quality.  We must realize that we do not have the luxury of defecating on the stage ad nauseum (alla Calixto Bieto) and expect the tax-paying public to sponsor it.  That is not an opinion.  It is a fact, as was proven when theater goers in Hannover boycotted Bieto's Butterfly by canceling their season tickets.  Bieto is not without talent, but it is one thing to use one's talent for the benefit of expanding the boundaries of what we thought of a piece (as Herheim does so well with Xerxes) and another to either work out one's personal psychoses at the expense of the work or for sheer shock value.  There are those who prefer shock over real theatrical evolution and will pretend that shock theater is the same as innovation.  Some of them are my friends.  And I have no qualms in disagreeing with them.

I am writing this while my students are preparing to sing their last performance of Resan till Reims,  a Swedish language rendering of Viaggo a Reims in the form of a reality show about a Trip to some non-specific place.  I sang one production of this opera and saw Abbado's production in Vienna and found both experiences boring despite the great music and the amazing voices on stage.  Boring because the story itself was limited to its time, being tied to the coronation of Charles the 10th of France in Reims.  Rossini himself never expected the opera to be produced beyond that specific connection.  This brilliant production by Sweden's great secret, the boundless imagination of Märit Bergvall, not only kept the audience in stitches all night, but it enhanced the experience of this magnificent music in a way I never fully appreciated before.  It gave the music a context we can all relate to---A true updating with panache that gave the piece a greater vibrancy that everyone, regardless of age responded to with unison rhythmic applause in a standing ovation, both nights I went.  I would be there tonight if I did not have to be on a plane writing this.

I believe artists like Märit Bergvall will continue to expand our minds about the relevance of classic operas in our times.  I don't believe that would necessarily be the case with the likes of Bieto and the hosts of pseudo-regisseurs that unfortunately inhabit so many of our houses relegating the greatest theatrical music ever written to the role of background noise.  It is sheer arrogance every time some unpersuasive director claims that the audience is incapable of understanding!  I have seen too many instances where this poor excuse proves just as unpersuasive as the failures it seeks to explain.  Why shouldn't politicians target cultural institutions as irrelevant when they take a position of intellectual superiority to explain failed productions?  At the first production I experienced in Germany (a Bohème in Köln)  I realized how fundamental opera is to the German psyche.  I had never experienced such a concentrated audience at any opera house like that.  It was as if they were experiencing something sacred to them.  People of all classes and status were hurrying from their jobs to attend the performance on that Thursday night.  I was enchanted!  Now expect these same people in a time of uncertain economical future to support something that routinely offends them and to add salt to their wounds, they are told they are not intellectual enough to understand.  It is not that the masses prefer some cheesy spectacle at the Friedrichstadt Palast (a kind of Las Vegas production house in Berlin), it is rather it makes sense for what it is and Opera is continually failing to either define itself or produce convincing results.  

Better Cheese than Feces!

A little production company I was a part of in Berlin produced 5 successful shows in a row, but in a town with three major opera houses there is not a lot of subventions left for alternative opera.  Our reviews were unfailingly positive and the work was very innovative.  I am still very proud of our production of Verdi's Macbeth and our first production, Don Giovanni, without funds.  Another such venture is beginning in Berlin in which some of my developing students are taking part. That spirit of "creating something" because there is a need is what makes me believe that the collapse of the entrenched Operatic Machine would herald a new period of innovation. Little opera companies sprout up because developing singers need experience and they are shut out of an exclusive system without any kind of oversight, whether relative to the art's future or to racism, gender prejudice or lookism.  The failure of the International Opera Machine cannot be rectified by the great work of a very small number of brilliant stage directors.  There is a lack of training for opera conductors, who, if they had been trained would have been the advocates against the excesses of unmusical and unimaginative directors.  

State-sponsored Opera for all its positives has one powerful Achilles' heel.  It is too comfortable to be artistic.  An Intendant in the German system (who is usually the Stage Director as well) does not feel enough responsibility to the people who pay for his/her job.  Consequently, they rule their theaters like personal fiefdoms.  When a new Intendant comes in, he usually brings his own ensemble with him, a level of obvious nepotism that should not happen.  This leaves singers in particular in a bind.  After a few seasons of great work at a theater, with no certainty of another position, singers are often told they simply do not have a job the following year because a new administration is coming. How is that responsible?

 The orchestra in Trier protested in the streets to keep their General Music Director, the excellent Victor Puhl, against the whims of the incoming intendant who was resolved to sack the very effective conductor, quite probably because he had some friend in mind for the job.  The orchestra was successful in fighting for their leader and his contract has been extended for two more years.  Such little revolutions against the norm give us hope--when an orchestra would take their job so seriously that they would indeed fight for someone who brought them the possibility of growth and improvement.  Bravi!

The revolution needs to be more systematic!  If theaters were not funded by the government, they would have to learn to become truly artistic.  Another colleague made the suggestion that the government should pay the salaries of the ensembles, but the production budget should come from ticket sells.  In that sense, the theater has to be responsible to its audiences, striking a balance between challenging their limits, educating them and entertaining them. Great productions often come when funds are short, because a theater is constrained to use imagination and innovation to put something credible on stage.  That was the case with the Metropolitan Opera in the 90s.  Low budget yielded magnificent productions.  The house was never more consistently full than during that period when belts had to be tightened.  The period of "my production was great but the audience doesn't get it" must end!  

As an audience member I don't mind occasionally not liking a production, but I like to feel that the producers attempted to take me on a journey that begins with a clear understanding of what is at stake artistically and that well thought-out choices are made, not convenient modern symbolism that work in one scene with the rest abandoned or shock value where imagination fails! It has become unacceptable to call crap by its name: "crap!" If anything is good, nothing is good! 

Music and probably most art forms over the last 100 years took the road to be "modern" instead of encouraging the artist's true voice. New ideas come not by a desire to be modern but by being a true witness of one's own time! Insisting that one uses modern compositional techniques is just as bad as tying him/her down to absolute functional tonality. Regie Theater imposes the same type of dogma and tyranny!  Let directors find their true voices instead of forcing them down the only road that is accepted! When shock is all that's left, we're left with stage defecation (simulated or otherwise) gratuitous violence without dramatic impact, blood and gore instead of honest poignant story-telling! It's boring, it's anti-art, it's not entertaining and not worth the tax-payers' contribution!

In such a case, LET IT FALL!  Let the opera machine collapse to cinders! From its ashes will visionaries rise like a swarm of fiery phoenixes to breath life into a new period of serious art that seeks to understand the undiscovered regions of the human psyche instead of poisoning it; mature artists that seek to challenge their audiences instead of offending them. The two are not the same! People would pay for that! And theaters would have to be convincing! Not conservative! CREATIVE! 

Those that want stage defecation can pay for it too! But it would not have to be force fed to the masses under the ruse and guise of necessary art experience! 

To my students, I will stay this:  I am not advocating being an outsider for being an outsider's sake.  I believe that it is better to try to change things from the inside.  And perhaps my thesis is a cry out from the gut to those who inhabit this Opera world we all share. But there is a point in which those who run our field in large part are not interested in change for the betterment of the field.  The goal is not to be an outsider but to be willing to be an outsider if it serves the art better.  We will walk and fret our way upon the stage, like the poor players we are, hopefully not full of sound and fury but having some lasting significance during our time on the scene.  Above all, after we have spent our hour, we will have gone.  But hopefully the art will remain!  Hence the Art matters more than we individual artists and if we are committed to it we should be willing to fight for it when necessary! Our fear of being on the outside is preventing us from finding a true place of belonging! 

© 11/17/2015

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Kashu-Do: Long-term Vision is Not a Cult: A Call to Arms!

I feel a need at this crucial time in Opera's impending demise to define what we at Kashu-do stand for!  We are sometimes called "cultish" by our detractors.  Yes when we are gathering steam and are beginning to make an impact on the field, those who are afraid in some way of losing their status will attempt to define us for their benefit!  That is totally normal and expected.  And since in the last post, I encourage singers to define Opera and not let it be defined by those who do not believe in it, I became inspired in the process to talk about what we are.

Kashu-do (歌手道): The way of the Singer:  I have always been interested in the martial arts, because 
of the discipline, dedication and philosophy involved.  The martial arts, like singing at its best, is about 
lifelong self-development, aspiring to be the best that we can possibly be.  Like Karate-Do, 
The Way of the Empty Hand  or Ju-Do, The Gentle Way, I adopted Kashu-Do to represent a philosophy
based on the most noble principles of the art of singing:

1.  Lifelong Self-development:  


The Americans have a simpler version of this:  "Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars." - Les Brown 

Performing is a very "naked" vulnerable experience and singers need confidence, the way a boxer before a fight or an athlete before a big event.  Sometimes you need to convince yourself you are unbeatable.  We go further!  We develop a philosophy of "Yes We Can!"  But we are always aware of our potential to fall short but persevere with a calm trust in our abilities to meet the challenge because we prepare for it.  Being an artist is the noblest of pursuit and our world needs to recognize how very much it needs the arts.  We are the ones to carry the torch!  And how can we do that if we are ashamed of admitting what we are and what we stand for.  At Kashu-do we are proud to be artists and what it means at the core to be one.  

Is That Cultish

No, it is just artistic! This philosophy is not new.  It is what artists of all stripes believed and lived by for centuries!  Modern media has done a great job of countering this with a destructive philosophy of immediate gratification at every level: fast food, fast money, egocentric self-aggrandizement at the cost of long-term sustainability of the common good.  A few singers make millions in the name of the art, contributing to its peril, because they have no responsibility to the art's future.  A few that I know at the top of the field tried their best to contribute the way they can, whether by taking little fees to promote a new work, or taking time to talk to young singers about where the field is now.  Unfortunately, those many who think they are contributing are just buying in into the popularization of Opera bent on abandoning core values for a quick buck!  

2. Advocacy for the Art of Opera: 

We just are among those with our heads out of the sand, realizing that our art form has been compromised beyond repair at the hands of those who do not believe in its intrinsic great qualities. We believe opera can be successful in terms of what it actually is and not what it is forced to pose as. Pseudo-pop!

There are great singers, conductors, regisseurs, stage designers, instrumentalists, agents and casting directors who understand and love opera at its core.  Our mission is to gather as many of these people as possible in the common cause of reclaiming the path of our art.  

No we are not reactionary!  We do not believe that operas need to be produced in period costumes and settings.  But we much prefer that to the kind of desecration of the art form that poses as innovation these days!  Singers don't like it, audiences boo it, but they persist because those of us who care are afraid to become outcasts for speaking out against a conscious destruction of the art form.  Well guess what?  Those who really love opera as opera are already outcasts.  So what have we to lose, except the cancer that is eating at the heart of our beloved art?

3. Wholistic Artistic Development:  

Kashu-do began with a mission of common sense vocal pedagogy based on modern empirical information buttressed by traditional values.  Our mission has expanded to instructing our singers about the core values of the art of opera: top level vocal technique, superlative musicianship, solid language skills, solid stagecraft worthy of a professional stage actor, self-confidence based on reliable skills and a sense of purpose, a well-rounded education and awareness of the world we live in, which in turn instructs our relevance as artists and our responsibility to the art form.

4. Instruction at all levels:  

We have developed instruction tracks for Professionals, Aspiring Professionals and Dedicated Amateurs, as well as development strategies for Voice Teachers, Coach-Pianists and Stage Directors.  We are looking for opportunities to develop Conductor Training and Artist Advocates (too many so-called agents only provide a company name for their singers and do not actively help them progress in the field while taking money for jobs the singers often find for themselves).

In short it is our mission to infiltrate the field in every way possible so to have an impact on the development of the field.  We would like to be part of a community of antibodies that eliminate the cancer that has infected the art of opera.  If it sounds extreme, it is because we care that much!

5. Meaningful Jobs for Singers in Development:  

It is our goal to develop opportunities for singers to do work for the betterment of opera that allows them to pay their basic sustainability, without being so tired at the end of the day that they cannot practice.  As we grow, we will be able to provide these opportunities.  This is a central premise of our mission.  An artist cannot grow when worried about paying the rent.  We are addressing this problem as part of our company's development strategy.

6. A philosophy of Inclusion against Co-dependence:

This past summer we put our money where our mouth is and developed Kashu-do Teacher Training.  We invited teachers including several of our professional singers who are also gifted teachers, and spent a week developing.  For the first three days we spent 10 hours a day discussing, anatomy, acoustics and empirical vocal functions, as well as vocal health and fitness and disorders.  After each topic, each teacher contributed, based on their experience, how they approached each issue.  

The information we presented as a core structure on the first days helped each teacher feel comfortable to offer his or her own experience into the bigger picture.  So no one felt that they were being guided to teach a certain way. 

Over the following four days, we took turns singing while 14 other teachers made comments from their individual perspectives.  Each of us made visible progress in our half hour in front of the group. Because we had three days to develop a sense of what the bigger picture looks like, no one was afraid to put themselves in a position of having their singing analyzed and bettered by our colleagues.

We went further!  Our teachers taught at the Academy and sang in a master class taught by 81-year old, legendary tenor, George Shirley, who rejected the title of "Master Teacher" in favor of "Eternal Student!"  That is Kashu-do in a nutshell!

We believe at our core that NO TEACHER HAS ALL THE INFORMATION. NONE!  So in a sense it is cultish to promote the idea that you have the only key to developing a student's singing. In our studios we promote open lessons, unless the student needs privacy in their development.  There are many occasions when the singer needs to be alone with his/her teacher (e.g. first lessons, working out a particularly difficult problem, those days when one is emotionally or psychologically a little down, professionals who need their work private, etc.)

Kashu-do Singers are free to have lessons with whoever they want, whenever they want.  The singer owns his/her destiny.  We teachers are only guides.  Students come back to us because they believe they are progressing!  No one teacher is the single solution for any singer.  Developing a singer is developing an artistic person.  For that we need a team that is appropriate for each individual singer.  Cults seek to imprison their members into an ideology of exclusivity.  We free singers to find their  individual paths.

We teach Tai-Chi and Kung Fu as part of our core curriculum because they are proven techniques to help the singer in developing mental focus and self-confidence as well as total physical fitness.  But we do not force anyone into this.  We encourage it!  We promote Yoga, Pilates, and any form of fitness and mental focus exercise.  

We continue to maintain our core values at every level.  Our Partner Institution, Härnösands Folkhögskola in Northern Sweden has adopted our philosophy in their curriculum.  Young students get the opportunity to develop musical, vocal, linguistic, theatrical skills in an environment that promotes teamwork, competition in a way that encourages each other to improvement as opposed to tearing each other down.  We alternate Tai Chi and Kung Fu daily and our students are physically more fit, more flexible, and more daring in general.  Their confidence after a few months is visibly improved.  We can see their gradual transformation into committed artists.


I, Jean-Ronald LaFond, developed Kashu-do.  It became a reality through my transformation from baritone to tenor. I went to top schools, worked with top teachers and began a professional career only to find out in the middle of it that I was in fact a dramatic tenor not a baritone.  It was not discovered because by that point, most of the schools in the West (North America and Europe) had prescribed a style of singing based on non-invasive caution, dealing with the superficial adjustments of the voice.  A teacher who would have called me a dramatic tenor at 19 or 20 might have been labeled a quack or dangerous in the safe pedagogy of modern University settings.  But it is my believe that having a larger voice is genetic.  However, that one has the genetic material does not mean that one has developed it.  I had to go through my experience to understand this fact and many others.  The vocal material is given but it's development is environmental and based on traditions and training.

I will have been teaching for 30 years as of this coming Spring.  Great pedagogy comes from the experience of teaching thousands of voices over a long time.  That and a constant curiosity to understand further, and the humility that I can always learn more even from my least experienced student lead to Kashu-do.  I love the art of Opera more than my own personal need to be onstage. I did not think that would be the case because I love what I do.  I am a singer first.  However to do the kind of singing that I want to do, there must be a system that values it.  Who is going to heal the operatic world?

I start by healing my own voice, with my own knowledge and the help of those I trust to guide me. Every singer needs a teacher or a few.  If all singers heal their relationship to this art form, we might be strong enough together to heal the whole thing.  Conductors and directors and agents and casting directors need to look themselves in the mirror too.  But we cannot have an impact on them before we make sense of our own house as a singer community!

My Team:  I am surrounded by great pedagogues, successful students, and some wonderful colleagues and friends in the business that have a similar vision of Opera.  We combine our efforts to grow an ever expanding network of professionals to provide an alternative to egocentric, self-serving visions of the world.  We would like to see the great works old and new performed for centuries and for that to happen, we must stop the bleeding of operatic values that is currently happening.  The hemorrhage is dangerous and Opera as a sustainable art form needs emergency help.  No one person is going to heal Opera.  But serious people who care about this art form can come together and do the job, even if it means challenging the establishment.  Most likely it will.

We are not a cult! We challenge the cultish nature of the current opera establishment.  We call attention to facts and we respect the hard work it takes to produce an opera.  We dare to be Quixotic. We dream big and we envision a world where opera singers can make a living doing what they love, not what others who don't like the art twist it to become.

This afternoon I watched the dress rehearsal of a fascinating, very modern treatment of Rossini's Viaggio a Reims at Härnösands Folkhögskola, a difficult opera sung by young singers in their early 20s.  It is a magnificent production and a testament to the fact that modern treatments of operas can be highly artistic, entertaining, totally updated without violating the essence of the piece.  The singing is at the center of this genius interpretation on a very low budget.  If you don't know the name Märit Bergvall, you should!  If it is the last thing I do, I will make sure  the world knows this genius regisseur!  I have seen four productions by this magnificent woman and it would be a crime if the world does not get to experience her magic.  Too many fakes in the opera world desecrating opera because they are unmusical, unimaginative and plainly boring.  This woman is another Katharina Thalbach or Christoph Loy or Stefan Herheim! This is to say, the world of opera is not without genius directors and great conductors and great singers.  It is simply that some other agenda is obstructing their good work and forcing them down a path that is neither worthy of their talents nor of our art form.  This must end and it begins with each one of us who cares.  No more whining: "Oh, the opera world is being destroyed and I can't get a job!"  Well, if you really care, let's go to war!

© 11/12/2015

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): If It Quacks Like a Tenor...: Why We Singers Are At Fault For Letting Others Define Opera

A duck quacks! A dog barks! A snake hisses! An Operatic Tenor...???  No there is no one word that describes what an operatic tenor does.  On the coveted high C on a vowel resembling [a] (more than likely a neutral vowel that sounds closest to [a]) an operatic tenor, singing with a fully developed voice excites the surrounding air at over 500 vibrations per seconds, producing a dominant overtone at over 1000 or 1500 vibration per second and another one around 2800 vibrations per second, exciting the human ear with great intensity, while expressing emotions commensurate with that kind of vocal power, without the tone degrading into an unbalanced scream, through the most extraordinary music ever written and poetic texts produced by some of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, and looking elegant in the process.

Opera is nothing short of an Olympic level feat akin to a figure skater doing a Quad Axel while skating on an iced tight-rope.
It is that breath-taken when you hear a real tenor do it.  Luciano Pavarotti often used the term "real tenor" to describe his singing as opposed to that of tenors who sang reinforced falsetto in the top voice.  If Pavarotti felt a need to distinguish "a real tenor" from the "not so real tenor" it is because he had cause.  His teacher apparently told him: "hurry and start! You are probably the last tenor!"

The degradation of operatic standards began almost immediately.  Late 16th Century pedagogues were already complaining of singers not adhering to the principles of the Old School.  As Claudia Friedlander expressed in a very inspiring article:

I believe it is now time for another course correction to steer opera back in the direction of its essential purpose. 

Dr. Friedlander makes a good case for the definition of Opera's core mission of emotional transference.  A worthy endeavor!  She also makes a point that we singers must seek to better ourselves first in order to better our field.  I could not agree more.  The central job in my opinion is defining what an operatic voice is!  Opera is the Olympics of Singing.  Keeping the human voice balanced while performing in a very wide range, without electronic amplification, with great breath pressure and resonance manipulation in order to be the dominant presence in the company of a symphonic orchestra, is indeed an Olympic level endeavor!  It is breath-taking and it is inspirational...when it is the real thing!

Franco Corelli was a real Opera Singer!

Mario del Monaco was a real Opera Singer!

 Andrea Bocelli is an Italian pop singer with a lovely vocal color and a love for his native country's art of Opera.  He actually took a few lessons with the legendary Franco Corelli as he explains in the next video.

Bocelli studied with one of the greatest tenors of all time and learned to mimic operatic sounds. It's wonderful and it makes his popular singing healthier, stronger and more varied.  His love for opera aside, if we take Bocelli's microphone away, in the presence of an operatic orchestra he would be over-powered if not inaudible. Yet in an age virtually totally electronically amplified when it comes to music, the average person does not know that Bocelli is a pop singer singing opera and not an opera singer singing pop.

Michael Bolton is not an opera singer!  He is a rock singer who developed a love for opera and with a voice not trained to sustain opera, he tries his best to do something beautiful.  But he could not be confused for an opera singer.  But many would say Michael Bolton is singing opera.  Being able to sing the notes is not the same as maintaining optimal vocal balance and dominating over an orchestra without electronic amplification.

"I think we have a case of a little lump of coal here that is gonna turn into a diamond..." says Amanda Holden, one of the judges at this circus that has turned the world of music upside down.  That was the pitch!  Take a guy who looks like the ultimate underdog, have him sing the most popular aria, made famous at the first concert by TheThree Tenors and draw sympathy for an otherwise lost cause.  Not that Mr. Potts is a lost cause, but that he was played as such!  There is a basic material there that with a lot of work could develop into an operatically viable instrument.  The patience required for this is the total antithesis of what American Idol and Britain's Got Talent and such shows represent.  The narrative is that " too can become famous quickly by appearing on one of these shows, even if you are the most unlikely person to win."  Yet millions of people probably believe that Paul Potts won because he has an operatic voice.  Mr. Potts is not an opera singer.  He sings an operatic aria with a wobbly voice in a show that makes no difference between him and Luciano Pavarotti, with judges who have no competence whatsoever to judge whether he can sing opera or not and an audience so lacking in basic arts education that they might not be able to distinguish between Potts and Pavarotti on the same stage.

Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bolton and Paul Potts and all the pseudo- or wannabe- opera singers are not the problem.  It is the fault of the opera industry, so insecure about its own viability, that it would embrace any gimmick that brings attention to our sorry state of affairs.  It is the fault of us opera singers, who are more interested in any kind of notoriety that we would sell out the art form for our own short-term glory. It is the fault of us singers who are so afraid of not being able to walk on stage at all, that we would do anything to get to sing this music even if the circumstances are totally against the principles of our art form and at the disservice of the music we claim we love.

Between Corelli and Del Monaco on one extreme and Paul Potts and Michael Bolton on the other, there are too many opera singers whose development fall closer to Bocelli than Corelli and they themselves do not know of the poor quality of their instrument.  Why should they when agents and casting directors are more interested in their 6-packs and the size of their breast than they are interested in the quality of their voices.  The democratization of Opera has been to reduce it to its least common denominator.

That narrative reads thus: "...if the average person believes that s/he can sing opera with little work, maybe s/he will be likely to come to it...  If they see the opera singer as a normal person, then they might find the art-form more approachable."

The opera singer is a normal human being doing something superhuman, like Cristian Ronaldo or Michael Jordan.  These abilities take great dedication and work to accomplish and surpass human expectation.

Surpassing human expectations sells!  

I have produced so many low budget operatic productions that people still talk about.  My little Academy/Festival in Northern Sweden is successful, not because of anything except that we believe in the transforming power of the fully developed human voice combined with the greatest music ever written.  It's that simple!  People embrace it because they experience it for what it is.  They are not being sold pseudo-Musical Theater.  Real Musical Theater is more powerful than fake opera wrapped in a Musical Theater package.  Opera aping the movies or productions attempting to shock with poor theatrical worth are only killing the art-form like a cancer from within.

Take the Stage Director out, you still have opera--  The singers will use their ingenuity and figure out a staging. It happens in so many productions anyway!  Take the sets down, you still have opera-- The singers will use their imagination and transport the audience via text and imagination to far away lands.  Take the agents and the casting directors out, you still have opera!  Take the Opera Singer out, there is no more opera! 

And yet we take no responsibility for this power but rather walk about like sheep afraid we will be taken out to the slaughterhouse unless we play nice.


What can you do you ask?  Simple things!

1.  Gather some great opera singers who like you are not finding an agent to listen to them (don't make it just your friends unless they have great, fully-developed voices and radiant personalities) and present a concert in a local venue. (Make sure that your singers are musically independent and don't need a lot of rehearsals and coaching to get their pitches, rhythms and language right.

2.  Find the most charismatic of your team of singers and have them approach the venue and sell the idea!  Convince them to put it in their advertisements. Convince them your presence is good for them and they should not charge you for usage of the hall.

3. Find a top level coach-pianist and pay him/her to play the concert (prepare your notes on your own or with the help of a lower level coach, so you don't have to pay said top pianist a high fee for coaching you the basics.  Use top pianist for one or two coaching sessions and dress rehearsal.

4. Blow the audience away with your great voices and personalties.  Make them say it is better than what they heard at the MET or Covent Garden or the Wiener Stadtsoper! On many nights this would be true.  Make sure audience members leave contact information and contact them to ask how they enjoyed your performance.  Now you are beginning to create a following.  

5. Video-tape everything and post your best efforts on social media (Youtube, Facebook, etc...)

6. Repeat 1-5 until your local theaters cannot ignore the fact that you are getting more consistent audiences than they.   Don't be co-opted by them!  They want to hire you because of your success. Great!  But don't take their job with the condition that you stop producing.

7.  Grow in quality not quantity--Better programing, maybe a reading (off-book) of an opera.

8. Find an inventive stage director who loves opera and is a musician and gets it!  Stage a production when you're ready, but don't sacrifice your core values.  Keep your costs down by concentrating on basics.  Frills are unimportant until you can afford them!  Be patient and let things grow!

9.  Save parts of your profits to develop the next level of quality.  When can you get a chamber ensemble?  Can you find a skilled conductor who loves opera and gets it, but for some reason could not find work in the current chaos?

10.  Suddenly you are the alternative to the company that has lost its soul and no longer believes in the viability of the art form---

11.  Be careful not to become what you just replaced!

That is just one strategy!  

Never forget! Opera Singers have super powers!  We can blow someone's ear out with our voices at close range or we can caress their souls with our voices in the Opera house.  Anyone who tries to reduce that power is not a friend of opera. Singers use your gifts responsibly! 


© 11/11/2015