Thursday, May 31, 2018

Tradition AND Science --Why an Either/Or Approach is Ill-Advised

In traditional teaching, the teacher who learned a complete technique attempts to pass along his or her experiences in the process of developing the student's voice in balance.  In the best case scenario, the teacher has had to solve all relevant technical issues in his/her own instrument and is aware of how the different functions work in balance.  However, developing a proprioceptive awareness in the student is challenging if the student is not already coordinated, to begin with. We also know of the many excellent singers who developed unconsciously and have no idea how they developed balance and often simply tell their students what they were told, to very inconsistent results.

On the science side, teachers learn the structure of the instrument and attempt to balance the instrument based on keen anatomical and acoustical knowledge and principles.  At best, the teacher uses both ears and scientific tools to determine when the student has accomplished the desired results.  Still, a student will not make wonderfully coordinated sounds without a physical experience of proper function.  Knowing is not enough.  The teacher needs to develop a means to cause the desired function and the student needs to develop a proprioceptive awareness of correct function.  For example, knowing that the vocal folds must resist the breath stream efficiently (i.e. without loss of air or excessive subglottal pressure (associated with pressed voice).  Glottal resistance is dependent upon multiple functions.  The student must be guided to balance those functions in order to achieve the correct form of glottal resistance. 

The point of contention has to do with resonance feedback.  Science-based teachers are very resistant to the suggestion of specific resonance sensations.  There is no empirical basis for suggesting that any part of the anatomy should be associated with vibratory sensations relative to efficient and balanced function.  Yet, students have been relying on resonance feedback through bone-conduction since the onset of classical vocal technique.

I have been schooled by both science-based teachers and traditional teachers.  There is much that they agree upon but their jargons are so different that they often do not find a common point of reference.  When the traditional teacher says to a student: "place it in the head,"  confusion may ensue if the student has not yet developed a source tone that produces such resonance sensations.  Likewise, telling a student to adduct the folds more can be just as limiting, because glottal resistance is not one-dimensional.  Longitudinal tension, which impacts both CT and TA groups, has closure properties.  Medial activity alone is dangerous.  All the more reason to be able to ascertain what kinds of resonance feedback seem to be consistent with balance phonation.  Scientists hate this because they cannot put it in a box.  As much of a nerd as I am, I realized a long time ago that in art, often 2+2= 4+.   The goal, therefore, is to connect scientific information with proprioceptive experiences.  In this way, the singer processes singing in the way singers always have--proprioceptively! But improving on the past, the process can be buttressed by an objective process connecting tone production to resonance feedback.  The danger is that similar resonance sensations are difficult to distinguish.  Aiming for a resonance sensation without a relationship to how the source tone is being produced is like sailing in the open ocean without a compass.  The same can be said of source tone manipulation without a sense of how it relates to resonance sensations.

© May 31, 2018

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jantelagen 2: The Case For Mediocrity

I conceived the handling of this topic in two parts.  It is worthwhile to read Part 1 before reading the present blogpost.  This is not a topic to be taken lightly.  I wrote the first part from a very personal point of view because any philosophy can only be experienced through our own lives.  Telling our own stories without fear of being judged (although we are more likely to be judged) is more likely to have resonance.  The previous blogpost was meant to show the challenges that await anyone who wants to achieve anything beyond his or her immediate horizon.  The dreamers are derided for being fools who think the impossible.  They are derided until they prove to be visionaries. To dream requires courage because those who will want to help a dreamer on his/her quixotic quest are few.  To achieve any dream, one needs help and encouragement because it is always easier for those around us to discourage us into aiming a little lower, dreaming a little smaller, aim for what is visible and proven, such that they may feel ok with their own lot.  Watching someone else achieve makes us wonder if we could.  It inspires those who dare and is a slap in the face to those who would not want to try.

Among singers who have had to overcome Jantelagen (the Law of Jante), Birgit Nilsson comes to mind.  Her biography is very discriptive of those in her town who would say: "who does she think she is to aspire to the Opera School in Stockholm?" Well, she went way beyond that and became arguably the greatest dramatic soprano in the 20th century and perhaps beyond.  The number of Scandinavians who have achieved greatness in the world is extraordinary.  In the world of Opera, they are legendary.  Among the Swedes, there is an unbroken line of world-class singers that stretch back since before the second world war and further back when we think of Jenny Lind.  Yet the social norm is to not dare!  In truth, this can be said of pretty much every country.  Those who dare to go beyond normal expectations are always derided.  But there are always a few who defy the low expectations.

On the other hand, when I have visited the poorer countries of the world, I rarely hear of dreamers being derided.  It is often the reverse.  In places where resources are few, those that can are encouraged to seek their fortunes elsewhere.  It is not unusual for people to migrate to more prosperous lands to seek opportunity and then send money and goods back to their country of origin.  As the world's powers are now innondated with asylum seekers and immigrants, racist and nationalist views become more popular.  This is an expected consequence!  A certain level of comfort is in danger of being lost with mass migration.  Scandinavian countries are the last to have their social comfort threatened.  Are those countries ready to produce on a greater scale? No reason they should not!  But there may be a tremendous adjustment to be made.

Whether a Scandinavian achieves or not, there is a social net that will prevent abject poverty.  Why would the average person want to achieve beyond what they need to benefit from that social net?  I have heard the term Jantelagen used often as a reason for why one does not go beyond his/her comfort zone.  Someone with my philosophy of pushing beyond boundaries is an anti-thesis to that.  I imagined as a teacher that those that chose classical singing as a path are already unusual types who would not need much pushing to work hard.  Yet we live in a world of immediate expectations and through Pop-Opera artists and contests like Eurovision, superficiality is often not distinguished from true competence.  Although I have experienced this lackluster attitude in many different countries, the combination of social comfort, the laziness instilled by pop culture, and this ideology of Jantelagen  in Scandinavia create the perfect storm for underachievement.  Finland has decided to halt its program of providing every citizen with a basic living income. It had proven very costly and created an atmosphere of non-productivity.  Finland is also revolutionizing its educational system, which hopefully will have a positive effect on the rest of the region.

Opera at its best is a discipline of Olympic-level difficulty.  To become truly competent one is challenged physically, mentally and spiritually.  Yet while Olympic athletes have a platform every four years where they are celebrated and pitted against their colleagues worldwide and dared to achieve beyond themselves, Opera (which used to be have that spirit of excellence as a given) is not relegated to a platform celebrated by the entire world.  Singers with weak voices and armed with a microphone will produce an inferior similitude on Eurovision, which gets a great deal more attention.  Eurovision is enjoyed even by classical singers for its sports-like format.  The classical arts are not celebrated anymore for what they can contribute.  At best, they inspire us to greater heights of physical coordination and strength, to greater mental development and to deeper spiritual questioning.  In short they inspire.  They also require greater effort, which unfortunately is not compatible with a world bent on minimal effort and the excuse of Jantelagen for not daring to achieve.

There was a time when it was accepted that greater effort yields greater achievement.  Now the world is run by realists who proclaim that it does our children a disservice to tell them they can achieve anything they set their minds to.  It is easier today to say: "You are not all that!  You are not special!  You're just a normal kid who can only achieve normal things. Don't fool yourself in thinking you can ever do anything special."

I would have never gotten this far if not for my crazy teachers who told me that I could go further, that I can achieve more with greater effort.  Not getting to the stage of the Metropilitan Opera has not discouraged me in the least.  Quite the contrary!  I look at what I have achieved and I tell myself:  "Just one more step!  And another, and infinitum!" Who knows where I might end up?

My average college-age student sees me as a relic from another time, who dreams big with no sense of reality!  Maybe it was always like that!  Maybe it was always only a few that took the Quixotic path because they were instilled early on with a sense of possibility.  

In one of my favorite movies, Le maître de musique, the protagonist, Joachim Dallayrac, played by celebrated opera singer, José van Dam, took on two students: one rich and talented soprano and one poor thief of a tenor with a raw voice.  He was thought to be insane for taking on only two students. But he saw something in them both.  A passion and dedication in one who was rich enough not to need it, and a resillience and daring in a poor young man who would not be denied.  Alas this movie was made when I was a young singer, at the same time that movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid were worlwide successes--a time when the impossible was considered merely a barrier to overcome and not the implaccable pronouncement of fate that condemns the realist to stagnation.

Regardless of what I say, the inspired will be further inspired and the fatalist will have already given up.  The challenges of our times are great, but I would not compare my lot with those who lived the great depression or faced Nazi Germany on the battlefield.  Jantelagen is the excuse of the privileged and the reason of the lazy.  Achievement is not measured by how high you climb, but by what distance you have covered.  The fact that many have a headstart on us is no reason for us not to take the road.  The race is not against others, but with ourselves.

I write, and speak, and teach in the hope that I might provide the necessary push for someone who may be at a tipping point, the flicker that might ignite the ready wick, the thumb that may tip the scale, in the direction of hope, of possibility of inspiration, just as it was given me.  For those who would take it in derision...I don't have time for you!

© May 19, 2018

Jantelagen: Not Just a Scandanavian Principle

Jantelagen or The Law of Jante is the description of a pattern of group behavior towards individuals within Nordic countries that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. The Jante Law as a concept was created by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose,[1] who, in his novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933), identified the Law of Jante as ten rules. Sandemose's novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (modeled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but typical of all small towns and communities), where nobody is anonymous.[2]

Used generally in colloquial speech in the Nordic countries as a sociological term to describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that diminishes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while simultaneously denigrating those who try to stand out as individual achievers.[3]

The preceding comes from Wikipedia and is a term that has resurfaced in conversation often since I made Sweden my home.  Having lived in several countries, I can guarantee that this pattern of behavior is far from restricted to Scandinavia.  The Scandinavians give it a name more than likely because the Nordic countries are largely rural, with the exception of a few larger cities.  In smaller social contexts, this tendency is much more noticed.  And even in situations where the principle is considered to be limiting, the habits are difficult to undo.  

For better or worse, I have always aspired beyond my current state.  My schooling with little exception was done in very inspiring situations that extolled personal development to the highest level possible.  I began formal schooling at École Jean-Marie Guilloux, a school founded by four Catholic priests over 150 years ago and even today considered the best school my homeland has to offer.  It was an honor to be there.  As with all such schools in Haiti, at the end of each month, report cards were given and students were announced in reverse order of their standing in each class.  The top two students were given medals, which they wore to school for the entire month until report cards were given again the following month.  I wore those medals several times and I remember the names of the students who often wore them.  We were three who most often wore the medals and I remember being very sad to fall to 6th one month.  The school was demolished during the earthquake of 2010 and rebuilt in 2011.  I'm glad that piece of my history still exists even if in a different form.

After I left Haiti, I spent four years in American public schools through the first year of my secondary education.  I achieved highest marks, which caught the attention of my guidance counselor, who then recommended me to the small private school, The Vail-Deane School, at the time located in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  My 10th-grade class had 13 students when I joined the school.  We were 9 when I graduate first in my class.  Because I stuttered and struggled hard to overcome it during my high school years, many of my classmates hoped I would make a fool of myself when delivering the valedictory speech.  That is Jantelagen!  I delivered the speech without a single stutter, thanks to hours of preparation with my then music teacher. However it took me a long time to learn to forgive my classmates.  I had to understand why my success and drive was such a challenge to them.  The School closed a few years after my graduation due to financial difficulties.  It formed in large part the person I would become.

Right after Vail-Deane, I began my education at Westminster Choir College, when it was a school guided by principles.  Our dean, who taught freshmen music history, on the first day of class pronounced that we would not be musicians until we could see what we hear and hear what we see.  This remains the principal guideline of my personal musical development.  I am humbled by the directive every day of my life.  I hear more and I see more, but I will never see or hear everything.  This humility also drives me to better myself every day.  I began in what my colleagues called Bonehead Solfège, the lowest sight-singing class.  My third year I received the composition competition prize.  I began with 11 out of 12 teachers doubting my talent.  My third year, they named me along with a soprano colleague, most likely to have a professional career and awarded me the voice competition prize. This school shaped my musical philosophy.  It is in danger of closing from financial difficulties.

At the University of Michigan, my next destination, I began my first year with a less impressive voice than my voice performance colleagues.  By the end of the first term, with the help of my teacher George Shirley, I was cast as Count Almaviva, a role coveted by every baritone in the school. The competition was high.  It was a major personal achievement.  One black colleague, who had hoped to be cast as the Countess but was not, told me as I was reading the announcement on the Opera Board, that I only got the role because 'I could pass.' She meant that I could pass as white!  This is my first memory of black on black racism.  This too is Jantelagen.

Graduating with my doctorate from one of the most respected music schools in the United States, achieving high competence in singing, orchestral conducting and composition and having mastered five languages by that point, somehow I still did not think very much of myself.  I took the first teaching job I was offered because I had just become a father and was thinking of being able to provide for my son.  With my many experiences, in retrospect, I should have waited for a better offer. Underachieving schools are such because they have underachieving leadership.  I did not allow myself the benefit of the doubt.  I did not apply for any other position.  I was recommended by a colleague, I visited the school and was offered the job.  I did not research it to find out if it was commensurate with my values.  I judged myself from within as not worthy of more.  This too is Jantelagen.

I have continued my life in a similar pattern.  Taking on often what seemed promising but in a way was rather expedient.  Despite my own rigorous training and continuous pursuit to better myself, I kept settling for what came easily.  The pressures of life often cause us to make the choice for less--An eternal denial of what we ultimately seek for ourselves.  In essence, a waste of our natural resources in pursuits not worthy of our personal investments.  Most social environments are controlled by the Law of Jante.  Societies would have us grow in their environments in ways that benefit the environment even at the expense of ourselves.  Therefore, it is important to seek an environment that benefits from us developing into our best selves.  Or perhaps, some of us need to go at it alone.  

During my time in Sweden, I have not found it any more limiting than other places I have been.  Whether this remains my final destination is yet to be determined.  There is a lot of potential here.  Whether this potential becomes realized and whether my own personal development matches with it will ultimately decide whether I remain here. For I refuse to ever become a victim of the Law of Jante, whether from within or from without.  

I find it sad and unusual that the three schools that shaped me the most to expect more of myself are all in danger of extinction.  Were it that Kashu-do could eventually develop enough to continue these lessons!

© May 19, 2018

Why I Enjoy Teaching Amateurs

First I need to make a distinction between Amateur and dilettante.  Wikipedia gives what I consider an appropriate definition.

An amateur (French amateur "lover of", from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, "lover") is generally considered a person who pursues a particular activity or field of study independently from their source of income.

Some other sources define the amateur as unskilled and unprofessional.  I disagree.  While an amateur may not rely on the activity in question (singing in our case) for an income, the amateur by definition finds pleasure in the pursuit and therefore is willing to invest the effort to achieve standards at times equal or surpassing the professional.  I knew a math professor at the University of Florida who had a spectacular bass voice and performed with symphony orchestras throughout the United States in concert and oratorio.  I sang with him in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.  He was a magnificent Kaspar to my Melchior.  There was nothing about him that was of low quality.  He was the Bass soloist for the University's performances of Verdi's Requiem and was by far the best among the soloists, two of them hired professionals from New York and the third was the soprano pedagogue at the University.  He is not the only one I have known and I have taught several such singers.

Google defines a dilettante thus:

a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.

Indeed there are sources that do not make a difference between the two terms.  I personally subscribe to the definitions above and more importantly, I place students of the art of lyric singing in two categories:  dedicated and superficial.  The so-called Amateurs that I have had the pleasure of teaching are very dedicated, sometimes more than those who call themselves professional.  The amateurs that I have taught come to singing with passion, a desire to become truly competent, an aspiration to achieve the highest level possible.  I currently teach several such students and they bring me a great level of energy and joy.  

One summer in Nice, France, while teaching alongside the celebrated collaborative pianist, Dalton Baldwin, I asked him why he had amateurs in his courses.  He could fill his courses with professionals and young aspirants alone.  He said (I paraphrase):

 the amateurs bring an element to his courses that the professionals often lose because they become jaded by the difficulties of the profession and the young singers often come to singing with a sense of haste because they have not had enough life experience to care about quality at the highest level.  The amateur retains a childish wonder and a fervent desire to become worthy of the art.  And because they do not rely on singing to make a living, there is an artistic purity in their pursuit that reminds of the rare young singer who comes into it wide-eyed before they are confronted with the darker sides of the music business.

When I organized the very first Härnösand Opera Academy in 2014, we had 24 students, a mix of professionals, college-level students, and amateurs.  One of the most memorable statements at the end came from one of the professionals who said:  "It was an unexpected pleasure singing with the amateurs.  They reminded me at every turn why I began to sing in the first place."

Perhaps I feel a kinship with the amateurs.  I sang professionally as a baritone for some 20 years.  When I started to retrain as a tenor, it felt like I had to learn to crawl and walk again.  I was making my living teaching singing to a mix of professionals, students, and amateurs.  I was not relying on actively singing to make a living.  This gave me the freedom to dig deep and become the singer I always wanted to become.  I continued to develop my piano skills.  I had time to look at my future roles deliberately, not only from a technical standpoint but also from a dramatic and musical perspective.  As I envision the possibility of being on the professional stage again, I consider my standards to be much higher than what would be expected of me.  I am not interested in just getting through a recital or a role.  After a grueling ten years of retraining, I desire to have the abilities I always dreamt about.  I wish for my instrument to be ready to execute the finest details of the score and for my heart and mind to be inspired to delivering the complete artistic message.  This fervent desire is something I experience regularly with the best among the professional singers I teach and with all the amateurs I am blessed to have in my care.  I experience this less with the average young singer who claims to aspire to professionalism, and this is often a source of frustration, knowing what awaits them around the corner when they must confront the brutal world of the music business.

In a way, the dedicated amateur, unfettered by money pursuits and the frustrations of the professional music business, is the best hope for the future of singing.  They may never see a professional stage, but in a church somewhere, in an opera chorus singing a single solo line, in a home concert, many of them will get up and deliver a song or an aria  in such a way that makes you wonder why the people who are paid for this and the youth that pretend to aspire to the highest levels so rarely have the presence, calmness of mind, and dedication to bring a performance to such a high level.

The professional singer has many challenges that make it difficult to do their best work.  Classical singing is a poorly paid job unless one sings at the highest levels. As such, singers find themselves often worried about money and not settled enough to produce their best work.  Incompetent conductors and stage directors often make the lives of singers a living hell to cover for their own inabilities.  Sexual harassment is rampant in the field and singers often do not have the means to defend themselves without retribution on them.

And yet, I remember experiencing a dreadful production, with the worst working environment I had yet been a part of and just before taking the stage, the wonderful conductor who noticed the weight on my face said lovingly:

"once you are out there, it is you, me and Mozart.  We can still make music!"

© May 19, 2018

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Opera vs. Popera: The Rise of Andrea Bocelli and Confusion

The majority of young singers do not begin their conscious singing lives with a sense of the physical effort it takes to produce a bona fide operatic sound.  A generation ago, there was consensus on what an operatic sound is.  In the space of a few decades, the world of vocal pedagogy has become dominated by idiomatic methods developed specifically for Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM).  Just as methods have developed for classical music over centuries, it is only logical that methods would develop to meet the specific needs of the growing number of very diverse sub-genres (e.g. pop, rock, gospel, musical theater, etc...) that fall under the umbrella of CCM.  This is all very positive.  The downside of this, in my opinion, is the coincidence of the emergence of these techniques (too many to name) with the onset of the phenomenon called Pop Opera or Popera, represented by the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Sarah Brightman, et al.

At the onset of the Three Tenors' unexpected mega-success in 1990, decision-makers in the classical music world decided to capitalize on the lucrative potential of not only the Three Tenors but the idea of Opera as a popular medium.  The first concert was well-conceived, whereby the singers performed challenging arias that exposed both the strengths and flaws of their individual artistry (a real operatic challenge) and then as dessert, they presented a medley of popular tunes, that they were known for, sung with fully supported operatic technique.  Unfortunately, impresarios and concert presenters got the wrong message from this success.  They assumed the popular tunes is what the audience applauded instead of the fully developed artistries of those three magnetic individuals.  They were fully developed, bona fide, opera singers with very large personalities to accompany their powerful voices, at times challenged, at times simply radiant--not to mention the return of a beloved artist, Jose Carreras, from a fierce battle with leukemia, which was the philanthropic cause behind that concerts.

After that followed less successful concerts by The Three Sopranos, whose reputations did not rise to the level of their tenor predecessors.  Then came Three Irish Tenors, Ten Tenors, Il Divo, and Three mo'  Tenors, who brought something of interest both in terms of musical diversity and a necessary attention to the injustice that kept many capable Black tenors from the mainstream.  Yet none of that could rival the powerful artistry of the Three Tenors' initial concert.  What followed even from them thereafter was pale by comparison.  It had become about how many millions one can earn for those stadium concerts.  The musical preparation became lackluster and the programming unbalanced at best.  Artistry was secondary.

Pavarotti had already presented many concerts with Pop Stars like Zucchero, James Brown, Lucio Dalla, Michael Bolton, etc, in the context of the Pavarotti and Friends series.  In that situation, the strategy was to bring together artists of different genres for a cause.  The lines were clear between who the opera singer was and the pop singers who would try their luck at an operatic aria.  It was entertaining, and we laughed when Brian Adams threw his voice with humility at the Neapolitan song, "O sole mio" in duet with Pavarotti.  Great entertainment for entertainment sake.  No one imagined those pop singers to be opera singers.

Then came the phenomenon, named Andrea Bocelli, a very successful Italian pop singer, known for is fresh love songs, who had the pedigree of studying with one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century, Franco Corelli.  He was a fine musician, who happened to be blind.  Some wrongly criticized Bocelli, saying that he would not have been so successful if he were not blind.  Whether his blindness added something extra to his overall artistic package is debatable.  But the reason for Bocelli's crossover success stems from his operatic lineage (having Corelli as his teacher), being a fine musician by any standard, and most importantly that he broke into the scene precisely when there was a significant vacuum in terms of Italian/Latin tenors that could continue after The Three Tenors, in a music-business environment that sought to maximize on the idea of "the opera singer as crossover artist" on the heels of the Three Tenors' unprecedented success.  With Bocelli's pop credits, connection to Corelli and his innate musical sensitivity, not to mention his special brand of charisma (proven that this particular element comes from within), he was the perfect man at the perfect time.  Thus far, there are no complaints -- that is if we imagine Bocelli in the same vein as Mario Lanza!  There are two differences between Lanza and Bocelli.  1) Lanza emitted a bona fide operatic tone.  The acoustics bear it out. 2) Lanza had an operatic voice and according to lore, only sang two full-length operatic roles: Pinkerton in New Orleans and Fenton in Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor in Tanglewood.  In 1947 he toured alongside the legendary George London and the excellent American baritone, Robert Weede.  His Tanglewood experience must have happened at the behest of Tanglewood Music Director and teacher of Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky. He had also impressed Philadelphia Orchestra conductor, Eugene Ormandy. Because he was possessed of a true operatic voice, he was able to bring attention to opera in a very positive and effective way via his performances on the movie screen.  Listening to Lanza, when one went to the opera house, there would not have been a significant difference if one heard Tucker or Corelli.  Meanwhile, Bocelli also sang a single role:  Werther at Michigan Opera Theater in November 1999.  The review from the New York Times' Anthony Tommasini says it all.

That Bocelli failed the operatic test would have been less of an issue if not for the fact that The Three Tenors must not have realized that their success at once brought great attention to opera and blurred the lines between what is considered real operatic singing and a popular singer's aping the operatic sound.  Besides making a lot of money on The Three Tenors project, Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti must have genuinely thought that they would help bring attention to their art form in a way no one before had.  It seemed logical to all of us who were invested in Opera's continuity in those days.  The dark side of it was not to be experienced until Bocelli flourished despite his abysmal failure in Michigan.  The public was not tuned to live performances anymore.  They had been using personal listening devices for at least a decade, with the popular Sony Walkman.  Bocelli sounded like the closest thing to Pavarotti, considered at the point to be the King of Operatic Tenors.  I first heard Bocelli in a television broadcast of this edition fo Pavarotti and Friends:

My back had been turned away from the television when I heard this voice and immediately took me by surprise.  I thought I had heard a smaller version of Corelli's voice, without knowing at the time that he studied with Corelli.  I thought the voice was elegant and if fully supported could become something remarkable.  It has operatic qualities.  It is not a raw pop voice.  It is the beginnings of a classical technique and the operatic novice might not be able to make enough difference between that and Pavarotti's truly operatic sound.  A novice might have erroneously deduced that Bocelli only has a smaller voice than Pavarotti but that he is, in fact, an opera singer.  The majority of the CD buying public made that erroneous assumption and the lines became forever blurred between what is Opera and what is operatic mimicry or Popera!

The heightened intensity of Opera can be offputting for some who experience it on headphones or speakers for the first time.  The magic of opera is more powerful in the opera house, in a dramatic context, and with fully developed opera singers.  For a generation of listeners with aural appendages (headphones), the sweet, less penetrating, weakly supported, tones of Bocelli were more approachable.  The fact that he is a native Italian completed the illusion. 

In the quarter-century since Bocelli appeared in that edition of Pavarotti and Friends, no one has sold more classical recordings than he has and many of the gate-keepers of Opera no longer understand the difference between real operatic singing and operatic mimicry.  Hence, young operatic upstarts concentrate more on the definition of their six-packs than on the development of their breath support, more on their presentational cliché hand gestures than on operatic acting, which must take the musical environment in context and more on popular mannerisms and involuntary nuances than on idiomatic musical phrasing requiring true musicianship.  When we make it so superficial and easy, we cannot fault millions of young people looking for an easier path to operatic success.  Of the millions of operatic aspirants in the world, we must find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff!

© April 28, 2018

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Kashu-do Experience

As we prepare for Kashu-do Intensive Summer Sessions (KISS), many things come to mind.  How does the future look?  A recent masterclass in Vienna reminded me of what we do best--
we provide a safe environment for singers of all levels and collaborative pianists to explore their talents and make the next steps in their development guided by some of the most talented teachers around.   
Our faculty this year includes the extraordinary tenor, Bruce Ford and the fabulous soprano, Rosalind Plowright.

Bruce Ford, tenor

Rosalind Plowright, soprano

While many programs claim giant leaps in the space of a short program, we know that anything that looks like a big leap is only the culmination of many preparatory steps.  The truth about becoming a great singer is not glamorous.  Operatic singing is hard work:

The video should start to play at 14:10, at which point...

The man in the audience says to Florez:  "I think you are the best 'leggiero' tenor of all time, for the phrasing, diction, coloratura, etc.  I want to ask one more thing--Maintaining the timbre of the voice from piano to forte across the entire range, is it a gift or is it hard work?"

Florez responds:

Singing is very hard work in solitude--alone in a room with a piano, trying to find solutions!  

Maestro Armiliato agrees.  The soprano, Elena Mosuc quotes the celebrated Romanian composer, Georges Enescu who famously said: "1% talent, 99% hard work."

Jussi Björling was famously quoted saying:  "I get very angry when people say I am gifted!  It erases all the hard work I had to do to get here." 

Whether a lot of that work was done when one is very young or later in life, building the muscular coordination and strength to sing opera takes time, patience and discipline. To become a first-rate musician and then understand how music, text, voice, movement, emotion, psychology, etc come together as a natural experience is a life-long process.

We take that process full on!  We take the student where he or she is and go from there.  Whether amateur or aspiring professional or professional, the principles are the same, even though the singers may be at different points in their development.

This tenor coming from baritone is very experienced, but making a change from baritone to tenor is a very difficult process.

In an interview with August Everding, the great heldentenor, James King said that his transition was like going through hell...

The video begins at 2:30
"Es war 4 Jahren...Es war eine Hölle!"
On a day when the above tenor is dealing with a cold, we were able to work on fundamentals and even on a less than an optimal day, the process still leads to beautiful and efficient singing. Even with the cold two days later he was able to concentrate on the principles we worked on two days before.

The next video is of a young full-voiced soprano trying her hand at "Pace, pace mio dio..." in front of people after working on it a little at a time over a period of time.

More importantly, this and the previous video show the balance we seek to find between working intensively and seriously and creating an environment that is relaxed and playful.

I take the process very seriously.  I too made the transition to tenor, beginning as a baritone.  While training myself over a period of time, I always got input from people who really know me and my voice.  A process like this puts the singer in a very vulnerable position, especially the more experienced singer who goes through a change after professional success.  Most of those people who allow me the time to relearn and retrain without judgment teach at Kashu-do courses.  We teachers always share our own singing/playing and imperfections during the course to encourage students to get into the mindset of growing.

We try to avoid locking students up into some absolute goal during the short time that these courses last.  Instead, we give them tools so they may continue their development when they leave our presence.

The main point is that we continue to develop.  This is our greatest and most important principle. In these times, everyone is interested in a false illusion of perfection.  In such a culture, we are protected from the arduous process of becoming truly good at what we do.  Hence, young people come into singing expecting someone to flip a switch and fix all of their problems.  My personal hope is that our sharing of our own trench work will encourage young people to allow themselves to be patient in the process.  We should all be conscious that top professionals have lots of moments of imperfection in learning a new and challenging role, working for the first time with the music of a new composer or genre, etc.

I wish with all my heart that top professionals would share their private preparations, showing the chinks in their armor so that we can get back to the reality of classical singing.  No one is perfect, no one is perfectly secure, no one is complete!  All of us who are dedicated struggle every day to be better!

Nevertheless, a process should yield high-level results!  Below are a few examples of my professional clients, who have experienced the process over years and who make their living as active singers in opera, concert, early music, etc.  Several of them are also gifted teachers and often return to teach at our courses:

Raymond Ayers, baritone

Helene Lindqvist, soprano

Zachary Wilder, tenor

Meta Powell, soprano

Sophie Junker, soprano; Emilie Renard, mezzo-soprano

Anna Maria Niedbala, soprano

Katherine Osborne, mezzo
Nadine Weissmann

These are a few of the professional singers we guide through our principles:  Musicianship, vocal balance, stagecraft and above all love and respect for the art form we aspire to practice; dogged determination in the pursuit of excellence and patience in the pursuit of lasting results.

I hope you will take a serious look at our program.  Detailed information on our Website!

For further information about our programs and especially KISS (Kashu-do Intensive Summer Sessions), contact Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond.

© Apri 26, 2018

Monday, February 12, 2018

Upcoming Kashu-do Activities

17-18 February 2018:  Berlin -- This coming weekend I will be in Berlin for two days of teaching.
email me for information and lessons!

26-27 February 2018:  Göteborgs Operan -- I will be teaching at the Gothenburg Opera on Monday and Tuesday 26-27 February, hosted by my colleague Erik Enqvist, tenor.

4-10 March 2018:  Winter Bel Canto Intensive in Nyland (Kramfors) Sweden at my house:  I will be joined by my colleagues Anna Niedbala, soprano and Brandon Eldredge, Conductor-Pianist for an intensive week of singing and coaching, analyzing Bel Canto Principles from a science-based perspective.  We will be analyzing the significance of words like Appoggio, Lotta vocale, legato, morbidezza, voce di testa, voce di petto, etc, in terms of a total philosophy and not as separate words. There are a couple of spots left for this course.   Click here for more Information!

17-19 March 2018:  London -- I will be hosted by my colleague Meta Powell, dramatic sopranoemail me for information and lessons!

4-8 April 2018:  Spring Vocal Technique Intensive in Vienna:  I will be joined by Anna Niedbala, soprano and Ekaterina Nokkert, pianist.  For more information contact: Ekaterina Nokkert

We will be offering two 2-week summer sessions 8-22 July and  30 July-12 August.  More information this week!

© 2/12/2018

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Vocal Identity: Beyond Voice Types, beyond Empirical

Teaching classical singers gets more difficult by the day.  So much so that it can become downright depressing.  We are living in a time that despises empirical evidence in favor of half-truths that further one's opinions.  The difference between teachers who respect science and those who reject it is that science-based teachers are able to say:

Science does not provide us all the information.  As voice teachers, we have to fill in the blank spots!
Whereas, those who teach based on their opinions only, will claim they have a full-proof technique that can fix all the problems.  And if they should find a student who needs precisely what they need, that student can thrive even to the highest level and then they have an example of their "full-proof" technique.

Those pedagogies are usually quite superficial and fall into two categories:  1) Bright, high and forward 2) Open throat, low and dark.

Many young students begin with one of these extremes.  Unidirectional teaching gets faster albeit incomplete results and depending on voice type, the student can become very adept at this monochromatic approach until the larynx calcifies in their late 20s.  That is often when they start to have obvious imbalances and must seek out lasting solutions. 

Unfortunately, such students face another extra-technical problem, namely that they have come to identify with the sound that resulted from a simple but incomplete approach and mourns its loss.  They often go through a phase of wanting to get that sound back as opposed to wanting to correct the imbalance that led to degradation and imminent dysfunction.  This part is psychological, and as a pedagogue, it is like going through a mine-field with a student in that state.  It takes enormous patience to steer them in the direction of a balanced approach while not deprecating the very imbalance that we are attempting to correct because the student so identifies with the euphoric memory of that very vocal imbalance. 

A generation or two ago, we could have pointed to a general acceptance of what a balanced classical voice sounds like.  Singers have always been idiosyncratic relative to their techniques, but back then,  at least to a certain extent:
All Roads Lead to Rome!

In the past, idiosyncracies could be identified as "slight departures from the center!"  Today, extremes are considered exciting in the operatic context.  Oversized leggieros sing Wagner, and swallowed (ingolato) voices are thought to be dramatic, especially when professional auditions are held in small rooms.  In a world where such extreme idiosyncracies are rewarded, anyone who recommends balance or empirical information is looked upon like a relic from a distant time.  

How can we hope to guide students in a balance direction when the professional field too often rewards imbalance?
Opera has little left in terms of musical, technical or artistic standards!  Everyone has become specialized.  But too often specialized so as not to have to deal with the difficulty of the larger concept.  To avoid the ills of excessive and irregular vibrato, some early music advocates suggest straight tone all the time.  To avoid a depressed tongue, one pedagogue advocates a high larynx, while another will accept a depressed larynx in order to avoid nasality.  The idea of chiaroscuro ( or chiaro e scuro, as my late teacher used to say) does not even enter their minds.

The original operatic aesthetic was about bright and dark, squillo and open throat (very much related to each other), power and flexibility, emotion and vocal balance, accessibility through extraordinary skill.  Today there is an expectation that Wagnerians must sing pushed and ugly, leggieros must lack in depth, popular must be superficial, balance is a matter of opinion and empirical information is elitist propaganda. 

The operatic art-form represents an ideal that parallels the Olympic spirit--By challenging ourselves to achieve beyond normal, we can momentarily touch the divine in ourselves.  Olympic:  to strive for Olympus, the dwelling of the Gods; to achieve Apotheosis (a transformation to God-like status).  Some might even refer to the idea as blasphemous.  The concept is not about becoming a God, but to aspire to a level of excellence, that to the Ancients could only be explained in terms of Gods. 

This winter, I will watch as much of the Winter Olympic Games as I can.  I am in need of inspiration and it is sorely lacking in daily life.  It is very lacking in the Operatic aesthetic.  However, what keeps me inspired about this calling is that despite the degradation of expectations in the Operatic artform, great singers are coming out.  Therefore there must be many wonderful teachers out there doing great work.  Therefore, were the Operatic business to fall apart completely, the Operatic Artform would always endure!

© 2/8/2018

Monday, January 22, 2018

Revisiting the Rubix Cube of Vocal Balance

The concept of a balanced phonation is a the heart of high quality classical singing.  What that entails requires intimate knowledge of how the instrument function or the blessings of genetics and environment.  A young person who sings early and has appropriate vocal models at an early age tends to develop a strong “sense of self” in singing.  Having an instinct for comfort at an early age tends to help the developing singer to navigate the changes in the anatomy as s/he matures.  That sense of balance at an early age, if encouraged throughout the singer’s development, can make all the difference in how easy the process of maturing occurs.  

This is why such singers are called “Natural Singers!”

As a pedagogue, it is always exciting to get the singer who comes with natural coordination.  In some regards the job is easier at first.  But more times than not, the singer who develops without conscious effort and without an awareness of the discipline needed to grow to professional levels can become very difficult to convince that it takes great concentration, great conviction, great patience and hard consistent work to develop further, especially the refinement stage.  There are always exceptions, and they often become,  because of their early advantage, the stars of our field.

I am more interested in the singer who is passionate about singing and willing to do what is necessary to become the best s/he can be.  I find the most passionate singers most often to be real musicians who lack a certain muscular coordination to perform at the highest level.  My most dedicated clients come as amateurs, college level students and professionals.  They all have the common trait of desiring to excel.  They are great listeners and they practice efficiently.—Daily, focused and concentrated.  Not two hours one day until they are tired and then must take 2 days off.— 

I research and practice almost every day—Partly for myself and partly to find more exact answers for my dedicated students.  The balance of phonation requires not only an understanding of the concepts but a feel for them.  Teaching a tenor to sing a high C for instance is an emotional experience.  While it is not absolutely necessary to be able to demonstrate it, every tenor out there know that they feel better when their teacher can demonstrate it—Well!  Because of my dramatic voices, they are happy enough if I do a great high B for them.  But it is certainly encouraging for them to hear me do the C.

Why  is a high C so important to a full voiced tenor?  Because it requires a level of correctness that leaves very little margin for error!  I have always had a Bb.  Even in my baritone days.  But singing one in the context of an aria while sustaining a high tessitura (living in the passaggio) is trying at best.

So while I can speak of the “Rubix Cube” of phonation in theoretical terms, considering fold depth (contact area) fold lengthening and medial approximation (closure), coordinating a high C requires  precise sensations relative to these three main functions.  What does a gentle (but fully compressed), clear (but not pressed) and flowing (but not breathy) onset feel like?  A gentle onset can remain superficial and not coordinate with the breath compression fully.  This will lead to an eventual glottal squeeze for compensation.  A clear onset can easily be pressed because clarity relies on both closure and fold tautness (antagonism between a sensation of singing fully and the elasticity to stretch the folds appropriately).  The appropriate stretching of the folds for a given pitch depends on the pitch itself but the quality of the tone/vowel.  The singer must want a certain brilliance while not loosing the initial gentleness.  Flow can very easily be confused with breathiness.  

Thus we can simplify the onset to gentle and full, brilliant and flowing.  Gentle and full address TA group as well as the LCA group. Brilliant and flowing address the CT and IA groups.  Both double-directives active the breathing mechanism.  One must train to take a full, elastic breath and maintain the “sensation of the intake” (never pushing outward but suspended in the desire to expand) even as onset occurs and phonation continues.  Furthermore, there is no stoppage time between intake and onsets other than the imperceptible time that it takes a pendulum between swing in one direction and then the other.  

How long is a pendulum still when changing direction?  

The fullness of the tone guaranteed breath compression.  Let us say the singer achieved the ideal onset (after many tries) but then must maintain the feeling of balance when changing from note to note.  All the parameters are changing!  If the singer were to sing a five-note scale from F-C, the folds would be lengthening, which means the CT muscles would be contracting, while the TA group would be slightly relaxing.  Perhaps!  If the singer has a tendency of relaxing the TA group too much, the correct product might require a feeling of getting fuller not lighter.  Does breath compression need to increase or decrease.  If the singer has a habit of overexerting s/he might feel a need to reduce compression.  Conversely, if the singer has a tendency of decreasing compression too much, the moment might require a sensation of increasing.  Yet what is actually happening may very well be the reverse.  By the same token, if the singer tends to press medially as s/he ascends the scale, s/he might correct by relaxing them and conversely attempt to increase medial closure as s/he goes up if the tendency is to become breathy.  It does not guarantee that one needs to either increase or decrease medial pressure as one rises to a top note.  It has to do with the singer’s background.  The process of balance relates to reducing over-compensations and correct the tendency to under-perform a given function.  

The final product depends a great deal on the singer’s sense of self.

A bigger problem is the psychological factor.  When a singer sings the appropriately balanced sound, it can be so unrecognisable to him/her that s/he may back away from it.  The greatest challenge to the singer who did not develop “Naturally” (unconscious training) is acceptance of the most efficient voice.  It often feels too much at first.  

It takes time to get acquainted with the true timbre, so as to let go of the one we accepted heretofore.  

The management of the vocal tract as resonator becomes crucial in this kind of precision singing.  While jaw articulation may not cause noticeable problems in the singer’s comfort range, a slight hyperextension or reduction of the mouth space can have a detrimental effect in a sensitive range (the high range is not always the most difficult.  Depends on the singer).  A slight retraction of the tongue could cause a wrong resonance adjustment and cause compensatory stiffness in the fold vibration.  

Too much volume may destabilise an otherwise balanced tone.  

In the refinement stages singers must be aware of their instrument globally.  They must have their feelers everywhere, but not interfere with the physical process.  The singer must have a clear idea of what s/he wants and focus on it, such that the brain sends the appropriate signals to the muscles via the nerves.  

This weekend at the Gothenburg Opera, I worked with a number of very, very focused singers.  Intelligent enough to understand the issues at hand and disciplined enough not too interfere and micromanage.  

Fear is natural, but panic is a choice!  Walking such a tightrope, a strong-minded singer concentrates on the task at hand!  S/he sings fully, but not necessarily loudly; gently but not cowardly; clearly but not stridently; passionately but not violently, etc… 

At this level, I often tell the singer:  “I may give you suggestions, but in this flight I am only a co-pilot.  You are coming to the time for your solo flight.” 

This means simply that the final step to technical mastery is taken by the singer alone.  While a teacher may always be there to guide, s/he cannot know the singer’s inner experience and therefore must come to trust the singer to take those solo steps and own their own voice and technique.  

© 01/22/2018

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Bel Canto Technique Intensive 4-10 March, Nyland (Kramfors) Sweden

The next Kashu-do Course in Idyllic Nyland, Sweden 4-10 March: Bel Canto Technique Intensive. Limited to 10 participants. Experience the Italian Tradition with an analytical understanding from both a traditional/Musical perspective and a scientific/technical perspective. As of this first posting 7 spaces remaining.

Kashu-do Opera Studios, organizes several masterclasses throughout the year in idyllic settings that encourage the singer artistically and humanistically leading to the Härnösand Opera Academy and Festival.  The second masterclass of the season is  Bel Canto Intensive featuring  Internationally renowned pedagogue, Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond, soprano-voice teacher, Anna Niedbala and Conductor-pianist, Brandon Eldredge. The Bel Canto Intensive gives the singer the opportunity to understand Traditional Italian Vocal Technique by analyzing Old School Concepts with respect to current (New School) research.  The intensive week will include, morning group warm-ups using the Vaccai Exercises, daily voice lessons and evening masterclasses. The Bel Canto Intensive will concentrate on Italian Repertoire. Kashu-do (歌手道):  The Way of the Singer is a philosophy of vocal artistry developed by Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond.  In short, it is a process that opens the developing singer to the awareness of the many elements that must be mastered in order to achieve true competence as a vocal artist. 

Go to the Kashu-do Website for more information!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Discipline of Opera: It's Always Been About Interdisciplinary Competence

Post-modernism, post-truth!  The extreme strain of taking in the vastness of what is human existence is often too much for some of us to take.  In such instances, rather than sifting through the barrage of information that is catapulted toward us via mass media, social media and our immediate surroundings, we often retreat into a bubble of ignorance, which we convince ourselves to be safety.  Ignorance was bliss, before we had immediate access to information about the most remote corners of the world.  I love Brazilian Portuguese and often thought about spending some extended time in Brazil!  But a recent acquaintance, a native Brazilian, walked me through the grave situation in his country's daily life -- that assault at gunpoint is a daily experience. Do we close our eyes to this fact?  Or do we open our minds to how corruption at the highest levels is a worldwide reality that is only contained in countries where the social safeties are in place.  Yet even in a country with powerful safeguards, such as the United States, many social constructs we take for granted can quickly disappear under a president who shows anarchist tendencies through a total disregard for the democratic process.  The same overstimulation from social media, or world-shaking wars that scare many of us to retreat into "virtual" utopias of our own design have profound repercussions in the development of art. And most certainly, Opera.

When I had my first successes as a singer, it made sense when I heard a teacher say:  "That's too bright!" As a teacher, I do not allow myself to tell a student "too this or too that!"  I prefer to say "not enough of this" instead of "too much that."  In my own practice and retraining over the past decade, it became clear to me that the interdependency of muscular systems require each system to be stable/strong enough to withstand the forces that other systems exert upon them without buckling. 

One teacher will say:  "Don't sing too bright vowels or you will lose your space!"  Another will say:  "Don't make space!  It's artificial and will make your vowels dull and unintelligible!" 

Who is correct?  Neither!  We need only to listen to the best singers to realise that it is definitely possible to have that feeling of an open throat and still articulate vowels with absolute intelligibility.  However the muscles of vowel articulation (tongue, jaw, lips) do not only counter the musculature that govern the opening of the vocal tract (laryngeal depth and palatal height).  The antagonism between those muscle groups make way for better vowel production.  The systems are complimentary. The depth of the larynx create a better acoustic space for balance between the formants.  Tongue, jaw and lip articulations must neither hamper the ability of the larynx to lower appropriately nor be hampered by it.  Furthermore, the results that we seek relative to vowel clarity and laryngeal depth cannot be achieved in balance without a source tone that is also balanced between vertical contact area, fold lengthening and fold closure.  The stability of the whole is impossible without a constant compression of breath, achieved without collapsing the expansion of the torso as achieved by an inspiratory process that leaves the body flexible (non/rigid).  In short, all the functions that are favoured by one teacher and frowned upon by the next can coexist.  Even more, they must coexist to achieve sustainable balance.

As complex as all of this sounds, some young singers achieve near ideal balance just by listening to a balanced voice that is similar to their own.  The great disadvantage of this is that they often progress with very little conscious knowledge of what they do.  It takes one wrong role to throw that balance off and create a sense of panic in the young singer.  Fifty years ago when the operatic business was still relatively small, singers could have their teachers at their sides constantly and could be rebalanced before every performance they sang.  Today, the constance geographical displacements make that nearly impossible.  Singers must be self-reliant and must therefore learn to know themselves vocally to a fine degree.  Unfortunately few do!  They prefer to limit their scope to what they are able to process and call that limited bubble the totality of information they need to concentrate on, most often avoiding anything that is potentially confusing.  They too often do not realise that it is from confusion that the search for clarity begins.  We teachers do not help the situation when we spend our times trying to make our students comfortable instead of challenging them to develop in every way. Academic and artistic rigor have declined in direct proportion to operatic decline.

Singers do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.

By the same token, the amount of knowledge a conductor needs to amass in order to be truly competent as an operatic conductor is overwhelming at first.  It was so in the past as well.  But the ideology then was that a conductor was expected to take time to amass that knowledge and master it in order to lead others.  Now conductors will limit themselves to "directing traffic wit flair" with very little knowledge of harmonic structure, or phrasing, or how to balance an orchestra by tuning appropriately and how that leads to balancing the ensemble with the singers.  Let us not even talk about the language skills required, or the understanding of how music and drama interlace in an operatic moment.  Seeing young maestros like Alexander Joel and Gustavo Dudamel deal with operatic music in expert fashion means that this is possible.  Too many prefer to limit themselves to the few things they do well, rather than expand their knowledge and continue to grow.  When they don't know something, instead of admitting it and seek to learn it, they prefer to posture in their authority and blame others for their lack of expertise. 

Conductors do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.

Likewise stage directors need to understand the operatic art from the singer's point of view and from the conductor's as well.  Like the vocal mechanism that is complete only when localised muscular systems must be able to function flexibly while withstand the forces exerted by the global instrument, so must stage directors especially understand the forces exerted upon them by the singers' tasks and the conductor's tasks and the composer's music and the librettist's words.  A stage director's ability to make constantly viable theatrical choices is only possible when s/he understands the whole and respects and appreciates the complexity of the different jobs.  It is easier to blame the singers inability to do acrobatics while singing, the conductor's rigidity of the score, the limitations of the score or the public's ignorance.

Stage Directors do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.
The non-musical administrators that are brought in for their business acumen should be taught to respect the art form.  The complex roles that music plays in an opera, what a bona fide opera singer sounds like, the different vocal and theatrical requirements for success between a Mozart or Bellini or Wagner or Verdi or Massenet opera are a few among the many issues an administrator must be taught to understand over time. 

However, if singer, conductor, repetiteur, stage director have little respect for their process, how can the administrator be expected to have respect for the art-form?  Then there is the casting director!  So many of them have no idea what an operatic sound is. 

They hold auditions in small rooms and think singers unrefined when the squillo needed to carry the voice in the large hall hurts their ears in the audition room.  

There are some wonderful opera experts out there, but for every 1 expert in his/her field there are hundreds who are virtually incompetent.  And many such incompetent people get hired through connections who prefer to insulate themselves in a bubble of underlings that are less knowledgeable than they.  We in the opera world and beyond it have build a house with rotten wood.  A discerning buyer is not going to be fooled by a nice superficial coat of paint.  Nor will an audience be convinced by an opera house's PR machine touting its productions as great art when they are left uninspired in the opera house. 

Simply put, it is not the audience that does not get it.  We in the opera world present shoddy productions on a regular basis that even we insiders are bored by.  

How can we expect an audience to respond differently?  When I enjoy an opera, the enthusiasm of the audience around me is felt like electricity in the air.  When I am bored, I watch a confused public applaud because they think they are supposed to and ask themselves whether or not they understand this so-called "high art."

By extension we should not fault social media for our decisions to insulate ourselves with a friend's list of like-minded people, but rather by our collective fear of having our values questioned, by our fear of engaging our fellow man in a civil discourse that might show the limitations of our individual knowledge.  For my part, I have never unfriended someone from my social media profile because of a difference of opinion.  But I will remove someone who argues without facts to back up their opinions and insults by calling an opposing viewpoint "fake news!"

The operatic machine, the gate-keepers close their ears to the deep illnesses that are rotting the field from the inside.  The fear of the massive work before us as a collective makes those in charge insulate themselves so to only hear what they would like to hear. 

It is uncomfortable to admit that despite a few stellar moments, a few truly well-developed singers, fewer prepared conductors and directors, our field is in crisis, not from outside forces but from our collective laziness and fear of the difficult tasks before us.  It is much easier to say: "fake news!"
© 1/4/2018