Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Paris Bohème In Space: A defining moment in the bastardisation of Opera


I am not a fundamentalist when it comes to staging operas.  I can imagine (and have imagined—I have staged operas and even recently wrote a 9-minute opera) an opera being enhanced taken out of its precise setting.  However, the bastardisation of opera has been escalating since the early experiments with so-called Regie-Theater (Literally Stage Direction Theater).  Regie Theater, which was often referred to as “updating” in the early inceptions, was controversial but not necessarily unartistic.  The great mythology-based operas have been re-imagined from the compositional angle.  From Monteverdi to Gluck to Offenbach, we have seen revolutionary changes.  Myths offer us endless angles and naturally different creative minds (composers and librettists in this instance) will experience different aspects of the myths and will chose to emphasise certain aspects over others.  In the case of new compositions, the entire concept is re-imagined and a music is written that is specific to the libretto in question.  If the composition is successful, there is no contradiction between the text and the music.  

Furthermore, we cannot look at the role of music in opera as one-dimensional.  The orchestra forces are used: 1) to create atmosphere—Imagine the first brass chords opening Tosca!  The grand expanse of Sant’Andrea della Valle (I lived next to it for several months in the summer of 1991) is implicit in those chords.  The weight of the subject matter is also clear.  The “Gran Cassa” (bass drum) accentuates a certain violence.  Is it a wonder that Darth Vader’s theme in Star Wars is also orchestrated for Brass?  2) The music underscores emotion.  Mozart needs three chords and a single harmony to prepare us for Pamina’s emotional state of mind before “Ach, ich  fühl’s…” 3)  It is representative.  Verdi suggests the sound of an owl when Lady Macbeth wanders in in darkness knowing her husband had just murdered the the king, Duncan.  The owl is scored for flute and the entire cello section in unison (two octaves away from the flute).  Why not a sound more akin to the screech of an owl?  I would suggest, Verdi wanted something unusual but not a sound that would disturb the dramatic tension of murder in the air.  A decided subtle approach.  When I directed Macbeth on a shoestring budget in a setting that was not literally Scotland (No kilts on stage), I was very careful not to violate Verdi’s dramatic strategy.  All of it could be obviously experienced in the score…But I digress.  We come to Macbeth later. 4) Music provides dramatic structure.  A Stage Director who is curious would want to understand the inversive nature of the three chords in the opening of Tosca.  B-flat Major, Ab Major and E Major.  From E Major, we can proceed to D Major and then Bb Major and we are back.  Puccini uses the flexible nature of this theme in so many ways to underscore the entire opera and to remind us of specific musical periods that relate to dramatic timing.  Those issues cannot be avoided if the dramatic tension of an opera is going to be kept.  This is no different from the meter relationships in a symphony or a Schubert song cycle.  The composer who wrote the score, if he is as good as a Puccini or Mozart or Verdi or Wagner, imagined the time it takes for an important statement to be processed emotionally, the time it takes to walk and pick up a glass, or how achord or a snare drum roll accentuates a dramatic occurrence.  

When such musical considerations are not taken seriously, Opera can either appear choreographed and stogy in the hands of an unimaginative director or actor, or decidedly unmusical in the pursuit of more “natural or modern stage demeanour." What one-dimensional stage directors do not conceive is that natural stage demeanour is very easily achieved inside of a musical gesture.  The crucial mistake occurs when a so-called more natural physical gestures goes across the boundaries of two musical periods (gestures) and when the musical/emotional character of the music is violated in an attempt to make opera more “down-to-Earth.” 

There is nothing dull or uninteresting about Opera!  The problem is that the artists involved too often do not understand the complex structure of the art form and quite literally botch it!  

If a stage director or even music director  does not understand the structure of the opera from a musical/dramatic standpoint, the entire enterprise is already failed before the first production meeting.  When those authorities are given so much power and do not do their homework, they will abuse their authority to intimidate their singers and orchestras into submission.  Some conductors or stage directors would rather bully a singer who does his/her homework instead of admitting to himself/herself that s/he is not adequately prepared.  Such “leaders" would rather have less imaginative, less artistic singers who are happy to say “Yes Sir/Mam” instead of posing a serious artistic question.  Serious conductors and stage directors inspire conversation with their singers and encourage them to have an opinion.  There are too few of them and the administrators, who are mostly paper pushers and economists are hired for their business acumen and not for their artistic understanding.  Unfortunately the reach of such administrators impact profoundly the artistic product.  The question I would have for many such failing administrators is:

How can you assume to sell a product of which you know so little?  This is a business question!

This is how the Paris Bohème resulted in an epic fail! Looking at the set, one is quickly impressed by the detail work.  This is obviously a detailed vision, put together by theatrically savvy people.  The handling of crowds, and contrapuntal elements on stage is overall expertly handled.  The singers are excellent.  Not always at the height of their powers in their roles but by all accounts solid professionals who can meet the challenges of those roles.  Gustavo Dudamel is not only a special orchestral conductor but he is a sensitive operatic leader.  The music making between he orchestra and singers was freeing.  The music breathed!  The tempi relationships absolutely fluid.  Maestro Dudamel is worth all the hype.  But despite all the demonstrated expertise, this production failed for a single reason. 

 Klaus Guth, like so many of these “Concept Opera” directors simply does not believe in the power of Opera to move audiences.  Therefore the only way they can imagine to make an opera relevant is to change not only the setting, but the opera’s narrative itself to something they think an audience will find more accessible. But how can they come to any other conclusion when they are fundamentally incompetent.  Incompetent yes, on the single most important level:  Music!  Guth may be a remarkable theatrical technician, but he is utterly clueless about the power of opera on the musical level.  Why else would one consider La Bohème, of all works, to be set in space.  Sure it creates a lot of buzz.  But then when it falls flat on its face, we’re left with one more reason for audiences to avoid what they more and more believe to be an absolete art form.

A stage director who specialises in non-music theater, no matter how good, s/he is, will not succeed unless s/he comes to the enterprise with a level of humility before the music.  When renowned Shakespeare director, Travis Preston made his operatic debut in Don Pasquale, I played the title role (Yes I was convinced by an idiot music director to sing the title role, because he thought I could act it better, regardless of the fact that I was obviously a high baritone at the time).  Mr. Preston came impeccably prepared with an assistant who was very well versed in music theater.  Mr. Preston also asked lots of questions and managed a beautiful balance of being demanding on the physical acting side of things and inquisitive about musical phrasing and timing. The result was a triumph.  I learned a great deal as a young actor in that endeavor.  

The truth that active music directors and singers are afraid to articulate for fear of retribution from administrators is that stage directors who come from straight theater and film are most often out of their depths musically and so ill-informed about the various roles of the music in opera that they are at worst bound to fail miserably and at best not destroy the opera they are producing.  A pass for them is that they do not totally insult the work.

As for Regisseurs in the German opera system (There are brilliant exceptions—Thalbach, Herrheim and others), they are so busy trying to come out of the numbers of the dozens of competing productions of the same works that they chose the path of least resistance:  Controversy brings curiosity even at the cost of the work itself.  If many German theatres have closed, it is because they made themselves irrelevant by engaging Regisseurs and often conductors who are not up to the task, but willing to put up something so utterly stupid that audiences will show up just to experience the absolute disasters.  


Opera is not irrelevant in our times.  The people running it, by sheer incompetence make the art form irrelevant.  Opera is a complex business, which even at its very best, leaves room for improvement.  At its worse (we see more and more of that every season) it becomes an empty status symbol that repudiates the young audience it seeks to lure in.  The Metropolitan Opera, for all its quasi-conservatism, has a place in rebuilding faith in the art form.  Its “The Voice Must Be Heard” campaign shows a return to the inescapable truth that opera begins with great voices, not faux-models onstage pretending to sing opera.  Yet, as this Bohème disaster proves, even the voices are not enough to make a show.  Although great voices can save a failing production as was the case in Paris, they cannot carry it alone.  The staging (sets, costumes, acting, etc) must support the inherent musical-dramatic narrative.  The story telling and the music are inextricably linked in opera.  In a sense, the orchestra is the string that runs through the entire narrative.  Failing to profoundly understand that point guarantees operatic failure.  As far as this utter failure of a Bohème in Paris, Medici TV had the good sense to stream a later performance once the premiere was done.  We do not get to experience the audience’s targeted boos for the production team in contrast to their bravos for the vibrant cast of singers and the orchestra under the balanced hand of the fantastic Gustavo Dudamel.  Opera is Alive and Well!  Down with the Opera-haters inside the business!

© 12/23/2017

Monday, December 18, 2017

R.I.P. Lloyd Hanson: I mourn the loss of a great vocal pedagogue and mentor

We live in times more modern than our minds can comprehend, more devoid of human connection because so much of that has been replaced by the expediency of electronics.  And indeed much is lost in terms of refinement and finesse--I remember the artistry in writing a letter by hand to a loved one before the onset of the internet.  I cannot remember the last time I wrote a letter by hand.--  Yet in that world of human detachment and "virtual" relationships, I met a man who would have a profound influence on my development as a vocal pedagogue.  Before there were Facebook Groups and Forums, there were list-servs.  A prominent one for things vocal was "Vocalist".  There were thousands of singers and voice teachers there discussing and debating all topics vocal.  There was also an insane amount of "flaming"!  Because of this, one of the members created a smaller list named "Goonlore" and invited about 20 people from the larger list.  I, a very young pedagogue at the time, barely in my 30s was invited due to my contributions on the larger list.  Goonlore was an unexpected blessing.  On that group for a period of a couple of years, I was able to discuss profound topics on vocal development and performance with experienced professionals twice my age.  Among them was Lloyd Hanson.

He was the resident expert on many subjects, especially vocal acoustics, a passion of mine.  He helped me make sense of the fundamentals of formant theories and the more refined thoughts about source-filter theories.  Without that guidance, I could not develop and deepen my knowledge in the way I have since that time.  A lot of new information came up that gave broader perspective on those original thoughts, but the fundamentals as I learned from Lloyd still resonate.

He was generous and patient and like any good teacher, eager to pass his experience on to the next eager student.  I never met Lloyd live, but it often feels as if I did.  His lovely daughter-in-law, an excellent professional singer, knew of our online relationship and invited me to his surprise birthday party.  Unfortunately I was not able to attend at the time as it was in Arizona and I was commuting between New York and Berlin at the time.  I was sad not to be able to attend.  By all accounts Lloyd was healthy.  We were in constant contact through an e-mail list he created to share his thoughts with his closest friends and colleagues.  I was deeply touched by the deep sorrow he shared with us when his beloved wife passed.  It felt special to be allowed to share in that hurt.  He shared lots of thoughts about the dread so many of us had about the Trump candidacy and pending doom of a presidency.  He reminisced often about his unforgettable formation at St. Olaf College.  That was another point of connection.  His many nostalgic thoughts about his time at St. Olaf, reminded me of the unique education I experienced at Westminster Choir College.  We were from two unique schools that were driven by a special choral environment that enhanced our solo singing formation instead of undermining it.  Few people outside of those environments fully grasped the profound vocal knowledge necessary for singers to grow as soloists in a choral setting.  Through the St. Olaf experience and his own Scandanavian background, the subject of the Scandanavian (particularly Swedish) vocal tradition was a mainstay in our discussions.  It is remarkable that now I would be teaching in Sweden.  Lloyd never stopped researching vocal pedagogy, even after his retirement from Northern Arizona University, where he served as Director of Opera and was a celebrated voice teacher. --Incidentally, those duties are now administered by two close colleagues of mine.-- Lloyd's profound thoughts on vocal pedagogy and singing can be enjoyed through his website.

It is revelatory, as I write this blog, how many points of intersection we actually had.  It makes even more sense in my head now why I felt so close to someone I had never physically met.  But when the ego is taken out of the equation and two people discuss and debate in pursuit of the truth, without a need to be "right," a great intimacy can be achieved.

Lloyd was very healthy and I even expected to finally have that face-to-face with him at some point.  But on December 3rd of this year he suddenly collapsed and subsequently passed.  He lived a long life, but the unexpectedness of his passing is terribly poignant to me personally and receiving the news via that e-mail list through his daughter, I got a sense of the family's deep sorrow.  I offer the following Swedish song in his honour and in empathy with his loving family.  It's a song Lloyd knew very well:




Tanke, vars strider blott natten ser!
Thought, whose struggles only the night sees!
Toner hos Eder om vila den ber.
It prays for relief from you o tones (Music)
Hjärta, som lider av dagens gny!
Heart, which suffers through the day's tribulations!
Toner till Eder till Er vill det fly.
To you, o tones (Music) it wants to flee.

Text: Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783 - 1847)
Music: Carl Leopold Sjöberg (1861 - 1900)

© 12/18/2017

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

R.I.P. Dmitri Hvorostovsky -- Farewell to a unique vibration

Some 15 years ago, I sang in a concert honoring the pianist Dalton Baldwin on his 70th birthday.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky, already a world star also sang in that concert. Other than the occasional brief greetings at an event, that was our only significant interaction.  The baritone however is one of the singers who captured my imagination when I sang as a baritone and was doing the competition circuit.  He was three years older than his colleague Bryn Terfel. Their vocal duel in the final round of the 1989 edition of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition is the stuff of operatic lore.  The two became inextricably linked, at least in the minds of baritones of that generation.  Both had particularly rich voices for their vocal category.  Hvorostovsky, a lyric baritone took on the Verdian repertoire and Terfel, probably more suited to Verdi opted instead to focus on Wagner.  Whether their darker hued voices confused those that were hiring, or that the gatekeepers opted to Fach up these two vibrant artists because the need for bona fide dramatic voices was being felt already in the early 90s is anyone's guess.  Most likely both reasonings played a role.

Hovorostovsky, if not a truly dramatic baritone in voice, was one in spirit.  He understood the Verdian temperament, he had the requisite cantilena and the physical presence to inhabit the Verdian baritone.  In an operatic arena that was more and more dominated by electronic media, he appeared at just the right time to become a world star.  In certain lyric roles like Rossini's Figaro, Onegin, Valentin, Prince Yetletsky and even Posa, he was unusually convincing:




His beautiful baritone voice was however not made for the heavier parts like Renato in Un ballo in maschera, or Di Luna beyond the cavatina.

One particularly significant contribution was his championing of Russian Romances (Art Songs).  His many recordings encouraged developing singers, myself included, to look at the Russian song repertoire with less fear of the language.




Dmitri Alexandrovitsch Hvorostovsky, like most of the singers of his generation came to symbolise a turn in the modern operatic aesthetic:  A unique vibration above all else.  His unique voice is immediately recognisable.  His emotional commitment to every sung moment is unmistakable in his plaintive voice.  The often used Verdian direction: "con voce spiegata" probably found true meaning in his declamation more than any that come to my mind.  He was not the "next Bastianini" as many in the operatic world wanted to label him, thinking it would be great marketing.  No, he was the "first Dmitri Hvorostovsky!" And that is much more important and lasting.  I am personally thankful this artist has walked this earth and left us with his unique and unforgettable vibration. I will always hear his voice whenever I hear this Tchaikovsky song:




...Thou thy earthly task has done, home art gone and ta'en thy wages...(Shakespeare)

© 11/22/2017

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Time Is On the Side of the Persistent

There are too many axioms that advise patience and persistence in the pursuit of an objective.  That should be obvious and commonsensical to anyone who takes the time to think.  However, it has never been the habit of the common man to be patient.  Otherwise there would not exist so many philosophies suggesting that longterm accomplishments require time and hard work.  Our societies, if not at their onsets, then certainly the more they develop, have aspired to make quick use of the few who by happenstance have acquired certain competences, rather than invest in the seriousness of those who engage their pursuits with commitment, regardless of how long they take.

After some 30 years of teaching singing, it has been my observation along the way that those who have had an easy path find it difficult to face challenges because they were not trained for them.  The number of singers who have a brilliant start and end up as "a flash in the pan"are too numerous to mention and in fact even useless to spend time on.

There is a well-known saying:  

"You can take the horse to water, but you cannot force it to drink."

The saying should be updated to say: 

“You may take the horse to water but do not expect it to drink!”  

I would never tell a student “you cannot.” But occasionally it might be a good idea to test a student’s resolve by saying so and see how they respond!  Then again I’m not one for head games and there are enough people in the word who revel in discouragement. Students will not lack for opportunities to be discouraged. Whether our students take our teaching and advice seriously is not in our control.  We must use our limited time on those who are serious, determined and engaged.  They will reveal themselves.

And so I celebrate some students this week who are enjoying the earned fruits of their hard labor.  I am proud of them and celebrate our teamwork.  It is the most extraordinary experience to watch the moment when a singer resonates with his/her unique vibration.  It’s like meeting a hiker who was lost in the woods for years and kept looking for the path home and found it. In essence, the path to excellence is a search for one’s personal truth.  We teachers are Tenzing Norgays guiding a new climber to the top of Mt. Everest.  It’s an exhausting climb and we cannot waste such energy on the “weak of heart.”  Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to make it to the top of Everest could not have done it without Tenzing Norgay, who worked as a lowly porter on several expeditions.  However that experience prepared Norgay to be a proper guide and partner to Sir Edmund.  Norgay’s remarkable training was necessary for success.  Yet Norgay’s skills would not have been worth much in that expedition if Sir Edmund were not committed and prepared.  The recognition was given to both equally.  But it is not about recognition from the outside.  I would have been interesting to see how the two men interacted.  There must have been an extraordinary level of trust between them.

In honor of those who persevere and take the road less traveled in search of their truths, and out of respect for my own time, I must say no to the uncommitted.  I will invest in the “Amateur” but not the “Dilettante.”  The unfortunate fact is that the vast majority “prefers” to believe they are inadequate out of fear of failure rather than that they have it in themselves to achieve! 

Finally, I honor the most accomplished among us.  There are some fortunate ones who have had a relatively easy path in their early stages, leading to early successes. Instead of resting on their easy laurels, they challenge themselves to reach ever greater heights.  They are the few who end up inspiring millions. Unfortunately only a few will act upon that inspiration.

©  11/16/2017

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Legato: A more global concept

Legato: (mus) Un gruppo di note eseguite senza interrompere il suono tra l'una e l'altra (A group of notes executed without interrupting the sound from one [note] to the other).

This is the musical definition from the online dictionary of Italy's premiere newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera.  It is a fair definition.  The discussion continues however when we ask ourselves:

"how can there be interruption between one note and another?"

 1. The obvious is that there is an actual silence between notes (staccato--detached).

However, interruption can be also perceived:

2. When an unvoiced consonant appears between vocalic sounds and vocal fold vibration is perceivably stopped, or

3. When a voiced consonant is experienced as remarkably less vibrant than surrounding vocalic sounds, or

4. When resonance is lost or reduced from one vocalic note to another.

When we analyse a vocal line in that way, it becomes immediately clear that legato is not only a musical concept (e.g. think of the direction of the phrase) but rather a technically global concept that will be effected by breath management, phonation and resonance issues.

In other words, "interruption" can be perceived as not merely an interruption of sound, but also as a change in the quality of the emission (e.g. intensity, resonance balance or even vocalic integrity when one vowel is sung over several notes).

This should serve to explain that the Italian Bel Canto Tradition has left us a number of words that symbolise vocal technique in a global and organic manner.  Taking words like legato, appoggio, morbidezza, squillo, etc, in literal and one dimensional terms is tantamount to a misapplication of the greater philosophy of Bel Canto.  All the pieces are interrelated!

© September 27 2017

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Education or A lack thereof: An Unsuccessful Attempt at Dismantling Traditional Vocal Pedagogy

The great tradition of classical singing was always based on disciplined long-term development, unrelenting work-ethic and a thirst for knowledge.  Before there was much empirical information, voice pedagogues and students read voraciously in the search of enlightenment, relative to both the physical act of singing and the artistic performance thereof.  Today, my colleagues and I at the Opera Studio in Härnösand, Sweden labor daily to instil in our students a fundamental respect for knowledge, objective information, dialogue and debate based on accepted factual information, including "music as a language!"

1. Music:  Everything we do as classical singers must have "musical literacy" at its core.  Music is hardly abstract.  It is no more abstract than a foreign language.  However, a foreign language is literally "gibberish" to someone who does not speak it.  Just as some singers sing words they do not understand and try to cover their ignorance by silly facial expressions, so do they sing harmonies with no idea of their "weight" and "significance" in a musical phrase, and make inappropriate nuances with their voices to cover their complete lack of understanding.  Where the honest singer will feel gratification when a teacher instructs them about musical and textual phrasing, the lazy singer will continue to develop subterfuge to disguise their abject musical illiteracy.  Posturing is a common and overused manner of hiding a fundamental lack of knowledge.

2.  Pedagogy:  Unfortunately, in a world strongly influenced by one's ability to manage quick soundbites, the illiterate singer (sometimes armed with a good native vocal material) can quickly become a master of subterfuge, knowing just what "button word" to use to give a false impression that s/he is knowledgeable.  Such poseurs can become very influential in a world where "fact" is labeled "fake news," "real knowledge" is labeled "elitist cult," "experience" is labeled "obsolete" and "manipulation of ignorance" disguises as "pedagogical pedigree."

I see too much of this and it makes me sick to my stomach!  Especially when experienced masters in our field are thrown to the wolves by narcissistic anarchists who can only achieve influence by destroying the reputations of people who have worked their entire lives to contribute to our field in substantial and undeniable ways.  Those of us of conscience must do everything we can to expose such malignancies in our midst. 

Yet, we must not despair!  At The International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT 2017) in Stockholm in early August of this year, I left inspired and optimistic about the future of singing as a whole.  I met many wonderfully knowledgeable people who are passionate about learning and passing on information, who have real skills and share them with generosity of spirit.

I was able to see a remarkable presentation on the state of modern vocal pedagogy by three next generation pedagogues.  Drs. Noël Archambeault, Blake Smith and Doctoral Candidate Joshua Glasner were not only informative in their presentations but articulate and organised.  Talking with them afterwards was revelatory.  Knowledgeable people do not need to posture.  They have answers and yet are always humble before the elemental proportions of our discipline.  What I constantly find in people who cherish knowledge is their fundamental awareness that they are trying to understand something that is practically limitless in scope and therefore they must revise their understanding every time they come across new information.  That is the nature of education.  Meanwhile the lazy ones hold on tightly to whatever small amount of palatable information they may possess and repeat it ad nauseam while avoiding any new information that may question that little bit of knowledge.

I also met two of the most extraordinary Western overtone singers in the world: Wolfgang Saus, whom I had briefly encountered several years before at PAS5 in Stockholm, and the Youtube phenom, Anna-Maria Hefele.  What was extraordinary about them both was their passion, their understanding of vocal acoustics and their eagerness to share their knowledge.  I was fortunate to have several discussions with them, which resulted in a mutual desire to deepen our combined knowledges and create a bridge between traditional classical singing and overtone singing.  I have committed myself to learning overtone singing because of them.  We remained humbled by the infinite possibilities.  They are not just a curiosity in a world fixated on novelty.  They are on a journey towards understanding and their passion is infectious.  I am eager to collaborate with them. While classical singers hope to have an effect on the various formants, these overtone singers understand them so well they can control individual formants in opposite directions to one another.

Kenneth Bozeman, another extraordinary American vocal pedagogue gave a mind-bending lecture on applied vocal acoustics that I found stunning.  This was a lesson on how what one knows can be seen from a totally different angle and renders everything that much easier to understand.  Mr. Bozeman is one of the truly great vocal pedagogues around and I am determined to find ways to collaborate with him.

There were elegant and instructive masterclasses by Janice Chapman, George Shirley and David Jones, among others.  It never ceases to amaze me how much experience open our horizons.  These people have been at it a long time and they have true wisdom to impart.

I encountered my dear friend from Barcelona, Dr. Patricia Caicedo, who has made Latin American and Iberian classical songs her passion.  She continues on her path with even greater vigor and passion than ever before.  Lifetime commitment and growth is our inheritance in the classical singing world.  We must not allow it to be obliterated by a few who seek to gain influence by undermining a tradition of personal investment with a false promise of immediate gratification covering superficial drivel. 

I encountered a number of wonderful young performers in the field of popular music, who despite their extraordinary voices and stage presence wanted to understand the voice from the classical perspective.  Swedish jazz singer Emilia Mårtensonn, Italian pop singer, Emilia Zamunder and Dutch pop singer, Kim Beemsterboer made an indelible mark on my spirit.  

At home in Sweden, at least two interesting connections were made in Stockholm.  On the last day, I spontaneously started conversations with Helene Lux Dryselius, whose openness of spirit inspires collaboration.  I am looking forward to sharing information with her soon.  Finally, after many years of passing each other in the halls of various and sundry voice congresses in Europe and the United States, I finally had the courage to approach the legendary Johan Sundberg, who presented some very informative and entertaining sessions.  Our talk lasted close to an hour regarding, among other things, the subject of my presentation with Dr. Katherine Osborne, on the acoustics of the female voice.  He was immensely generous, and has already taken a look at our work since.  He is passionate and ever searching for new information.  He was genuinely interested in what we have found out and was eager to help us understand the greater ramifications and how we should proceed.  I look forward to meeting him again, as soon as time allows.

In the middle of a world that constantly falls for the promise of easy success--we see it in the posturing of the American president as we do in "Talent" shows promising quick fame to an ever gullible public--We must maintain an unwavering optimism, because in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse of Lazy Singers and False Prophets, promising rain on the moon,  there is genuine artistry and profound pedagogy all around us.  

1. Great pedagogues never claim they are the only answer to your problems because they are aware of the fact that there isn't one of us who command the full scope of the monumental challenge of teaching a human being to discover his/her true vibration.  

2.  Great pedagogues never promise to make your career, because they know that only you can navigate your own path.  But they will do everything they can to help you make the next connection.

3.  Great pedagogues do not put down other pedagogues, because they know that fundamental disagreements usually stem from not seeing where two paradoxical concepts intersect.

4.  Great pedagogues do not envy the success of others but rather celebrate it and attempt to learn from it.  Your failure does not make my success.

Kashu-do, The Way of the Singer, seeks to create a body of open-minded, truth-seeking, collaborative teachers, who can proceed from established and newly discovered facts, in order to understand how their apparent differences come together to form a more complete vision of our beloved discipline.  We welcome collaboration, when we can all agree that we are little compared to the enormous nature of vocal pedagogy in its unlimited facets.

© September 24 2017






Saturday, September 9, 2017

Necessary Artistic Distance: Avoiding Codependence Between the Art and Business of Classical Singing

In recent decades, the education of classical singers seemed to have shifted drastically in the direction of career management.  Although business savvy is of indisputable importance in managing a career in classical singing, the balance between artistic development and career management has become so tilted in favor of business, that one must wonder whether the farmer has forgotten to load his vegetables on the cart he is taking to market.

In the 1970s and 1980s, before the internet dominated our lives with easy access to videos and self-promotion on social media, it was healthy to discuss business savvy in the field of classical singing.  The field had become markedly international and singers had to learn how to make the best use of the market, particularly between the United States and Western Europe. It was a given then that talents must be viable before they could even be competitive in professional singing venues.

The Convenience Generation, schooled in fast food, online-shopping, a sense of entitlement and immediate gratification, in large part, does not understand the term Discipline, particularly when it pertains to the development of musical competency, vocal resilience and artistic preparation.  Some would spend several hours editing their most recent video, but will not spend the time in the practice room to learn an aria (let alone a role) without the use of Spotify or Youtube.  How is a singer going to develop a personal interpretation of a piece of music if s/he is not able to read the language of music?  In too many cases we are left with poorer copies of what other artists took the time to develop.  

The saturation of singers in the field  of classical singing is reminiscent of a Zombie Apocalypse.  It feels like an army of the undead climbing over one another aimlessly, seeking only to infect others with that same sense of emptiness.  Within that sea of aimlessness, there are often mindful artists who despite the carnage around them chose to go to their practice rooms and do the diligent, soul-searching work of the artist.  They develop!  They get better! They become musicians and singing actors!  They are on a lifelong path of development and refinement.  But they are too often surrounded by that army of the dead of nay-sayers, that would encourage them to take the easy way out.  This reminds me of those changing a light-bulb jokes:
How many tenors does it take to change a light-bulb?
One!  Plus an army of onlookers saying: "Wouldn't it be better if you sang high baritone, dear?

The punchline is really: "Isn't that a little high for you, dear?"  But I hope the point is clear.  Developing high competence in anything requires time, patience, resilience, tears.  Athletes know that.  Great singers know this.  But the educational system is too often about getting students through a program that is too short and too limited in scope to train viable candidates for the classical singing world.  Hence, an army of zombies!

Singers at all levels should develop an inner sense of when they are truly competent and ready for market.  Yes they need knowledgeable people who know the realities of the market who can advise them as to when they have the physical, vocal, musical and emotional wherewithal to confront the professional market.

At every level, singers should be encourage to spend private time learning how to create art!  We should all follow the principle espoused in Friedrich Rückert's wonderful short poem, "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder..."  Take private time to create fine art!  Then offer it like a precious gift to the audience!




In a music business environment that is bent on pushing singers onstage as soon as they can make an inoffensive sound and look attractive on camera, singers owe it to themselves to be more honest judges of their own talents and take appropriate distance from a business that does not have their best interest in mind.

© September 9 2017

A Three-dimensional Model of Vocal Fold Closure: Efficiency and Avoiding Pressed Voice

I remember years ago, when the Italian mezzo-soprano Ada Finelli told me that the muscles of Appoggio are far inside the body (not the superficial ones we see) that and their contraction produced a twisting action.  I was not sure what she meant back then, but I trusted her.  Eventually I observed graphic representation of the muscles that root  the diaphragm to the various insertion points on the pelvis and saw what could be described as a twisting motion.  Her sensations were based on empirical information although she was not aware of the science.

As for me, my process is usually instructed by the available science.  A recent article by Ingo Titze and colleagues addressed a two-prong system that produces efficient glottal closure (see more below).  The specifics of that article are a bit complex to address here, however the concept is not new.  We know that the contraction of the Lateral Crico-Arytenoids (LCA) bring the two vocal folds to midline.  This however does not complete the closure of the posterior arytenoidal juncture (sometimes referred to as the mutational chink in earlier vocal literature).  The contraction of the Inter-arytenoids (2 pairs, one lateral and one transversal) complete the posterior closure giving the singer that sensation of "mask resonance," rooted in multiple functions of breath compression, glottal resistance and resonance adjustments.

The concept of mask resonance is a a controversial one.  I address it here as a result of a three-dimensional closure system.  Many would instruct their students to "put the sound in the mask!" This directive does not always produce the desired results.  The student indeed may accomplish some kind of closure to achieve the objective, but often the result is pressed phonation.  This occurs for two reasons: 1) the directive of "put it in the mask" does not address any specific function relative to the goal. 2) Even if fold closure is mentioned as the functional means toward the end result, if closure is conceived as a simple system--one set of muscles-- the result is often hyper-function relative to whichever muscle group is targeted for closure.

The two-function system I wrote about above is the most complete we commonly hear about.  The third part of the three-dimensional system is indeed fold-depth.  Titze points out the importance of appropriate y-axis (vertical) mass relative to the "closure phase" of phonation.

Appropriate fold-depth depends on the specific voice.  Experience teachers can easily hear when a voice is "shallow"in color.  Often the recommended remedy is to "find more room"!  That directive does not specify any function other than a sound concept that is less "superficial-sounding." The easiest way to accomplish that objective is usually to retract the tongue.  This often gives the student a fall sense of room and depth, however the result is artificial darkness and a loss of high overtones.  By contrast, accomplishing appropriate depth (which must be developed over time with respect to breath/vocal fold interaction) often requires time.  But when accomplished, pressed voice is avoided, flow-phonation induces an appropriate low larynx, which increases the length of the vocal tract.  The more massive the vibrating fold-cover the more consistently stronger must the breath compression be.  This physical development (or lack thereof) is often the greatest obstacle to the singer's ability to accomplish a tone that is completely full (resonant) relative to that particular vocal material.  It is this accomplishment that gives the voice its unique acoustic signature (timbre) and optimum resonance.

The richness that comes by way of the vertical fold depth (Thyro-arydenoid function) can of course be exaggerated.  The fullness of the voice must not be so extreme as to hinder the possibility of closing the superior aspect of the folds. Nor should efficient closure at the interarytenoid level hinder the possibility of a full tone.  Yet often, in an attempt to avoid exaggeration of either function, singers often neither sing fully enough, nor achieve adequate closure. Of course both breath compression and acoustic adjustments (vowel/vocal tract) contribute to the ability to accomplish a three-dimensional fold closure model.  In short, all functions interact upon each other and in such a context are interdependent.  They must however never become co-dependent. In the former scenario, functions act upon each other but do not hinder each other.  In the latter, the singer's fear of going too far in any direction, causes him/her not to go far enough in any direction.

© September 9 2017

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Uncertain Vocal Expectations in Early Music

I write this article as a singer who has been steeped in early music traditions from an early age.  My first voice teacher was an organist and flutist and among other things introduced me to the vocal music of Bach and Handel, which became staple to my work, in my earlier incarnation as a baritone.  Furthermore she introduced me to the music of recorder (Blockflöte) virtuoso, Franz Brüggen, who inspired my love for the instrument and its musical possibilities.  Early in my teaching career I had the opportunity to teach a few exciting countertenors and experimented myself with the repertoire (I’ve always had a well developed falsetto).  In my current work, I have the pleasure of working with several professional singers who specialise in early music, and I consider them to be among the highest caliber musicians I teach.  They aspire to flexibility in vocal production, linguistic refinement and musicianship of the highest order.  The combination of these aspirations constitutes an ideological deference to important principles of the bel canto, whereby vocal composition derived from an adherence to the combination of language, music and effortless and natural vocal production.  In my new incarnation as a dramatic tenor, even though I will probably never be hired to sing Bach or Handel or Monteverdi, I continue to practice this music because of its requirements of high level musicianship, flexibility and linguistic dexterity.

The problems that early music singers confront today stem from expectations of vocal production with respect to modern concepts of Informed Performance Practice.  Because I am a singer/teacher with one foot in the traditional operatic world, one might expect my objections to center primarily on the practice of straight-tone singing.  However, from my standpoint, straight-tone is not the central problem.  Straight-tone applied to an unbalanced voice, particularly a voice lacking adequate vertical contact area (let us call it VCA for short), can be an exacerbating practice.

In order to more completely address the problem of VCA deficiency, it is important to address the question of Ideal Fold Posture (IFP) irrespective of vocal style and genre.  IFP relates almost entirely to fundamental frequency (FF—Let’s call it Pitch, although some find it inaccurate).  A 440  means that for the given note A4, above the middle C of the standard 88 key piano, the vocal folds must oscillate (closing in a wave-like motion bottom to top and then opening) 440 times in one second.  This means that the length of one oscillation for the pitch (FF) A440 must be 1/440 of one second.  That oscillation time depends on three fundamental functions: 1) the vertical depth of the folds, because the folds close bottom to top; 2) the longitudinal tension on the folds (how taut the folds are when stretched for pitch) which has a direct impact on how quickly the folds “snap back to closure” after the open phase of the oscillation and 3) medial pressure (how tightly the folds are pressed against each other during oscillation, which has a direct effect of prolonging the close phase of the folds, adding to the oscillation time.

The IFP constitutes the most efficient mode of oscillation.  Appropriate vertical fold depth and longitudinal tension set up conditions that require gentle closure of the folds, which in turn require lower sub-glottal pressure to reopen the folds.  In this way the folds are open for a longer period during each oscillation, making greater sound pressure levels (greater airflow) with minimal resistance and compensatory tension.  

BUT HOW DO WE ACHIEVE THIS MAGICAL SET-UP?

This is the most frequently asked question!  And the response is actually very simple:  

IT OCCURS IN RESPONSE TO THE SINGER’S SOUND EXPECTATIONS.

Although the answer is simple, it is also simplistic.  No two singers have the same sound.  The voice is like a fingerprint.  Each singer’s acoustic signature (the display we see in a spectrogram) is unique and can be used to identify him or her.  Likewise, no two singers have the same ideal sound.  If we all produced our voices ideally, we would sound quite unique.  While the spectrogram can distinguish even the most inefficient voice from another, our musical ears however distinguishes more generally.  

Let us take an extreme example!  Imagine a bass who imagines himself to be a lyric tenor.  His sound expectation becomes relative to the great lyric tenors he might have heard and what is traditionally expected from lyric tenors in general.  Let us assume he manages this feat and is able to sing up to a tenor high A!  What is he doing to produce this pseudo-tenor sound?  Most likely, he reduces the vertical depth of the folds, which reduces the mass that would help produce a richer, darker tone and then increases medial pressure (press the folds together) to make up for the lost time of the natural “bass”oscillation.  The resulting sub-glottal pressure would then cause the larynx to rise (it could also be that the sound expectation makes for a high larynx preset), further reducing the possibility for strong low overtones.  

IN A NUTSHELL, THIS IS WHAT THE AVERAGE EARLY MUSIC SINGER DOES!

The average early music singer learns imposed (from without—e.g. recordings, conductors, coaches, etc)  expectations with respect to vocal timbre that violate their natural vocal make-up.  Their longevity in the professional arena depends primarily on the degree to which they have violated their vocal nature to placate the important musical personalities they work with, whether their early music coaches or the powerful conductors who lead the early music movement as we know it today.  Before the larynx calcifies (a natural consequence of vocal maturity) the younger singer (up to mid twenties) can get away with faulty fold postures, because the larynx is more elastic.  In such an anatomical environment, the singer’s vocal apparatus can more easily “snap back”to more natural defaults.  After the instrument has calcified appropriately with age, faulty fold postures are less easy to recover from.  It is at this point that many early music singers begin to experience problems.

Helping professional early music singers to recover from the negative effects of faulty fold posture is not merely an anatomical or vocal training problem.  It is a psychological and economical one as well.  Singers who have “sung against their nature” have come to vocally identify with their imposed vocal timbre.  They have been conditioned to think of the faulty sound as their natural sound and are therefore apprehensive about changing it.  The answer I tend to offer in such a case is:  “If this were your natural sound, it would not be causing you problems now”.  On the economical side, singers who are professionally active and became such because of the faulty vocal posture are naturally afraid they will become less marketable and perhaps rejected by their conductors if they were to change their voices.  As a pedagogue I respect this.  The good news is that appropriate changes do not require the singer to violate stylistic requirements.  In the many cases I have dealt with in the past 15 years or so, the changes give the singer a fuller voice (consistent with the singer’s natural voice) and greater dynamic control.  Taking away the excess medial pressure offers the possibility of “flow phonation” and the possibility for softer dynamics without sacrifice tone quality.  The singers also tend to hear from managers and casting directors that they have possibilities beyond early music.  So far it sounds positive, but it is not that easy!

The leaders of the Early Music Movement and Informed Performance Practice have very specific aesthetic values, some of which present no challenges to healthy vocal production and others that unfortunately do.  Many of the vocal aesthetics imposed upon singers have more to do with instrumental norms of the periods in question and the relative limitations of the instruments involved.  The literature relating to operatic singing from the 16th century through the 19th century do not require the impositions that instrumental conductors have insisted upon with regards to modern early music vocal practices.  The vocal requirements for sacred vocal music meant for overly reverberant cathedrals were never the same for the theater, as can be clearly understood in treatise by the likes of Tosi and the many students of Porpora.  

It is also important to understand  why the leaders of the Early Music Movement reject in large part current classical singing norms.  These norms are related to the excesses of modern orchestras in the production of Romantic Opera, particularly Wagner, Strauss, Puccini and Verdi.  It took the likes of Giulini and later Muti to impose a sense of tonal clarity both orchestrally and vocally, as well as a greater deference to the instructions of the score.  Because those conductors rarely engaged in pre-nineteenth century music besides Mozart and Rossini, they could not have had enough influence on the conversation of Early Music Practices.  The dominance of Alberto Zedda at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro created a cultish environment that had an equally problematic influence on the modern Rossini tenors in particular.  Consequently, the leaders of the Early Music Movement (Baroque and before), most of which were musicologists assigned vocal expectations to harmonise with the important discoveries they made relative to instrumental practices. With the resultant transparency of the newly formed Neo-Baroque orchestras, singers had to be found whose voices went along with that particular sound.  

The mainstream operatic aesthetic of the the 1990s and on was very influenced by the ability of smaller theatres to produce large-scale operas like Turandot and certain Wagner works, compounded by the popularity of the Three Tenors whose repertoire was essentially 19th century.  It did not take long before most opera houses were producing only a handful of 19th century Italian Operas, Wagner (which has had its own cult following) and one French Opera, which reflected The Three Tenors' repertoire .  With the visual aspect carrying greater and greater weight (this includes both lookism and ageism--including the severe lack of opportunity for singers with naturally substantial voices, whose physicality does not always conform to preferred aesthetics), it can be argued that less attention was given to the finer details of vocal technique.   This confluence of events in the mainstream gave rise to either lighter voices singing the heavy mainstream repertoire with disastrous results or appropriate voices without enough time on the stage to refine their product.  Finding a mainstream production that could boast a total cast of singers, whose musicianship and vocal material could be worthy of the term "bel canto” was challenging.  Light voices shouting to sing heavier repertoire, developing wobbles became more normal than not.  The argument was that the lighter voices (with slender bodies deemed more visually appropriate by stage directors with little operatic know-how) who were given the opportunities through Young Artists Programs (YAPs) and competitions had the name recognition to sell out theatres and were therefore preferred regardless of repertoire.  False comparisons were (are) made with earlier legendary lighter-voiced singers to justify light, often underdeveloped voices assuming heavier repertoire.  Such singers would not fit the Neo-Baroque aesthetic, neither for sound nor for musicianship.  There were always exceptions.

In short, the Early Music Movement became specialised, not unlike the Rossini cult, the Wagner cult and the Mozart cult.  The mainstream appropriated Mozart but only certain types of singers would be hired for either recordings or important productions.  It became a natural consequence that the leaders of the Early Music Movement would avoid mainstream singers, supposedly for their “excessive vibratos” and less than refined attention to stylistic details. The preferred aesthetic became diametrically opposed to these vices.  Musically sophisticated singers with lighter, vibrato-less voices became the desired breed.  Unfortunately, little distinction was made between naturally lighter voices and singers who reduced their natural voices to accomplish the desired aesthetic.  This is a problem that naturally effects sopranos and tenors in particular, who would suffer greater vocal dysfunction with respect to pressed voice (excessive medial pressure), because of the higher fundamental frequencies of their voices relative to their lower voice colleagues (i.e. altos and basses).  Additionally, altos and basses are expected to have darker sounds.  In fact a great number of successful Early Music altos and basses are appropriately developed sopranos and baritones.

WHAT DOES THE SOLUTION LOOK LIKE?

The solution requires change from all corners.  Current leaders of the Early Music Movement may need to die off before real change can occur.  People who made lucrative careers on a particular aesthetic and who are used to having their way over many years are naturally less likely to revisit their model and make the changes required.  The changes are in fact not drastic!  Allowing a singer to assume their true vocal timbre will certainly make their voices more present.  However, these singers will also have a flexibility and ease of production because they will not be behaving contrarily to their vocal nature.  In fact, the singers I have helped to rehabilitate have been praised by the same people who hired them in the first place.  A voice functioning with IFP can produce a straight-tone effect with greater ease.  In fact under spectrography, a voice that sounds straight-toned exhibits a regular vibrato.  The illusion of a vibrato-less voice is produced by a touch of excessive medial pressure.  A voice that is appropriately balanced can get away with a relatively small amount of excessive medial pressure to create the illusion of straight-tone without wandering too far from home.  In terms of straight-tone singing, a voice functioning with IFP is functionally preferable to a voice that is reduced and therefore already pressed.

Vocal pedagogues must also understand the aesthetics of the Early Music world and help their early music singers produce a tone that is stylistically viable in Early Music and functionally balanced at the same time.  All singers need to understand their true vocal nature before they undertake the process of vocal specialisation.  If there is a single problem that unifies all vocal genres, whether popular music or early music or Wagner, it is this tendency to "put the cart before the horse," namely that singers are taught to twist their voices into pretzels to fit a style before they have any idea what their native instrument actually sounds like.


The final responsibility (because casting agents and managers tend to behave like sycophants to the conductors and stage directors they serve) lies with the singers themselves.  They must learn that they are not slaves to the conductors and directors they work with and that their fundamental truth is what gets them hired.  That truth includes their true vocal nature.  They should do everything possible to understand their natures before they embark on careers.  Otherwise the careers will run them instead of them running their careers.

© 4/15/2017