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