Saturday, January 22, 2011

Interval Adventures: I Go To Opera Boot Camp

Ominous but helpfully labeled stairway.
After a week of exhausting academic productivity, I decided to take a break today by going to a lecture.  The Metropolitan Opera Guild's blurb for the first session of their Opera Boot Camp series, "Vocal Vocabulary," asked if I had ever tried to describe a performance to friends but found myself struggling for the terminology to communicate, precisely and passionately, what I meant.  Why, yes, Opera Guild, I have!  Regularly, on the internet, no less!  In high spirits I set off in search of some help on my mostly self-educated course towards becoming a More Knowledgeable and Discerning Audience Member.  In the event, the lecture was conducted with humor, charm, and energy. But it was not the Opera Boot Camp I was looking for.

The vocal vocabulary I was most interested in--fach, timbre, tessitura, passagio, coloratura, fioritura--came at the end of the lecture, which ran longer than its scheduled hour and fifteen minutes.  I was hoping for a sort of guided tour through audio samples: this is what critics mean when they describe a tone as bright, dark, round, flat, metallic, etc.  There were audio samples across fachs, from Diana Damrau to Rene Pape, which was nice.  But I think I might need the next level (or two) up in the Met's educational programs.  Or book recommendations from you, Gentle Readers!  Or possibly even both.  Before the lecture got to this point, the following terms were defined and clarified: tempo, dynamics,pitch, families of instruments, and articulation.  The audience questions included the following: What is perfect pitch?  (Apparently this innate gift is caused by the fluid balance in one's ears, which I did not know.)  Is the harp a percussion instrument? Do you control dynamics at each instrument or by adding more instruments?  Are there symphonies or operas which require rearranging of the orchestra?

The audience seemed moderately well-heeled, but not pretentious; the majority had traveled abroad.  But the game presenter seemed to think it necessary (and perhaps it was necessary!) to demystify staff notation.  Had no one in the audience taken a piano lesson, or sung in a chorus?  Maybe they never thought to associate those scales and arpeggios with what they hear in the opera house; it's possible; one gentleman asked if the nature of pitch applied to the voice as well as to orchestral instruments.  I do not mean to denigrate either the good-humored, courageously questioning people who attended the boot camp (may it redound to their credit and enjoyment!) or those who conducted it with grace and skill.  It passed one of the key tests for academic writing: it accomplished what it set out to do.  I learned that repertory opera houses keep lists of singers arranged by fach, and I got a handout.  But my restless search for continuing opera education goes on.


  1. I find the concept of perfect pitch mystifying, especially since an Oberlin Con graduate told me that it makes early music very hard to play, since your ear wants A440 and what you're getting is more in the A415 ballpark. Sounds like under those conditions any display of HIPness would be excruciating.

  2. Ouch! I hadn't thought about that potential aspect of it. It's mysterious to me too. Clearly long practice makes one better at recognizing pitches... I don't know how being wired with it, so to speak, might differ essentially.

  3. I always wondered how people knew what was the right pitch without the electronic pitch-o-meters. It was like a skilled trade I expect: getting the pitch by heart (by ear?) was part of musical education.

    I am still mystified by the pitch forks and other very simple pitch gizmos that some tuners and chorus masters carry around. But they seem to know what they're doing.

  4. "Bravo: A Guide to Opera for the Perplexed" by Barrymore Scherer, is actually a pretty good book for explaining things that are not always obvious to the learning listener. It manages to give information without being patronizing, which was comforting. "Opera 101" by Fred Plotkin is also great, although it weighs about ninety pounds.

  5. @DTO To the best of my second- and third-hand understanding, that sense of pitch still is a part of musical education, almost certainly to a lesser/different extent. I also find tuning forks mystifying, but love watching piano tuners at work for just this reason.

    @Christie Thanks for the recommendations. I have read and actually now own Opera 101, chiefly for the useful bibliography. :) I enjoyed how it articulated some things I didn't/don't fully understand (e.g. Fach) and it was good to see how Plotkin put into words the process of listening. I will look up "Bravo" and let you know how I get on in taking things to the next level.

  6. Ear training is boot camp of music school. In my experience, it makes people enjoy listening to other people's music less, but I suppose the point is to make it yourself better.

    The gizmos are for people like me who don't have A440 hard-wired in the head. Those I get (including tuning forks, which are also fun to play with). It's just the historically relative nature of A that makes me wonder why that hard-wiring makes a thing "perfect". Anyone is welcome to disabuse me of my ig'nance.

  7. I have a friend who carries around a tuning fork and hits it every 10 minutes. He claims it's going to teach him perfect pitch. I think it's just going to make him good at keeping an A440 in his head, which is not the same thing. Also, dude plays Baroque music (often A415 or so), and lives in Vienna (where many orchestras tune at 446, I think 446 is Official Staatsoper Pitch) so getting too 440-fixated could be a problem.

    I'm not sure if I would wish ear training class on anyone. It was useful, but it was HELL. You think you've seen it all, and then you get atonal sightsinging.

    Also, here is a website about Fach:

    Also, if you haven't read Denis Forman's A Night at the Opera, you might find it useful. Possibly a little basic, and definitely dated, but it's also hilarious.


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