Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reading List: Master Singers

I jumped at the change to review the recent volume: Master Singers: Advice from the Stage. The structured collection of commentary from professionals at varying stages of their careers is designed to bridge the gap between academic methods of singing learned in the studio, and the practice of singing on the opera and concert stage. This is not to remove one jot or tittle of the law, but rather to add to it. Advice from a starry host is then thematically organized by chapter, which adds to its usefulness for the singer. Enthusiasts, like myself, might find the most interest in the first three chapters, as they focus on the craft that results in what we see and hear.

The text is edited by Donald George and Lucy Mauro, a singer and a pianist, respectively, and both professors. A lot of work has clearly gone into this, as the chapters are subdivided into helpfully specific sections on, e.g., passaggio. Each such section is framed by a question posed to the singers--whether in person or in writing--who could then choose whether and at what length to respond. (The introduction observes, naming no names, that some answered every single question, which strikes me as positively saintly.) The conversational tone of each singer seems to be preserved with often startling immediacy; George and Mauro say that they edited the singers' words as little as possible.  The contributors, as well as topics and operas covered, are indexed and cross-indexed for reference. Although Americans predominate, the singers come from a variety of linguistic and national backgrounds, offering a helpfully diverse range of experiences and traditions. Christine Goerke, for example, in responding to a question about creating varieties of tonal color, observes that "Americans have fallen into this 'make beautiful sounds all the time' thing." Singers from multiple fachs respond, and David Daniels and Ewa Podleś add the perspectives of countertenor and contralto to those of sopranos, mezzos, tenors, baritones, and basses.

While fascinating, this book defies synthesis... which is indeed part of its charm, as well as part of its wisdom. Especially in the first chapter, "On the Craft of Singing," the questions posed are specific, designed to elicit focused answers, and the singers' responses about, e.g., muscle support and diction are helpfully specific too. And even as someone whose singing has been limited to choirs, I found the range of responses to "What is your ideal placement of the voice for resonance and the most beautiful tone?" fascinating. This is no small tribute to the singers' lucidity, my well-attested nerdiness notwithstanding. It will come as no surprise to Gentle Readers here that I was also particularly engrossed by discussions of diction... and intrigued to find how often singers whose diction I've delighted in (Eric Owens, Simon Keenlyside, Jonas Kaufmann) emphasized the importance of legato. I didn't find a single question without some disagreement in the answers. But amid the wealth of detail, there are also bons mots suitable for copying out on PostIt notes, like Stephanie Blythe's "Know what you want, and get out of the way so your body can do it."

The chapter on singing on the operatic stage builds up from techniques for learning a role, to warming up, to pacing, to examining what images are used for projection (or not.) Included in this wealth of information are also asides on preparing characters: Denyce Graves on Amneris, Jonas Kaufmann on Cavaradossi (I'm still not over it,) and Alan Held's disarming commentary on the fate of the bass: "How refreshing it becomes to play a very human and warm character such as Hans Sachs after playing all the bad guys or gods." Surprising and interesting to me was the (apparent) consensus of singers on entering diligently into cooperation with directorial demands (not to be confused with passivity, as many of them also remarked.) I also really appreciated that George and Mauro's question about staging, concerning body movement etc., did not seem to a priori be classifying the contemporary diversity of approaches to opera staging as somehow outlandish, eccentric, or unreasonable. Aná Maria Martinez' advice to "let your mind grow and be stretched" is advice more necessary for audiences than for artists, on this showing.

In discussing the work of the recital stage, the singers are nearly unanimous both on the distinctive intimacy of the recital as a genre, the energy it demands, and the paramount importance of good chemistry with the collaborative pianist. Encouraging to me was the general optimism of the singers about the recital as art form, too, with several of them commenting on steps they've taken--incorporating new composers, shaping audience engagement by replacing printed texts with conversations--to make them more vital. Curiously incorporated into the chapter on recitals and concerts is a question about the increasing prominence of video broadcasting, and here I found the singers' responses fascinating for how they incorporated views often framed as opposing in lay discussions. Overwhelmingly, the artists expressed enthusiasm for video broadcasts, as a way of making performances available to a much wider audience than that of the opera metropolises of the world. And with even more emphatic consensus, they dismissed concerns about modifying performances (they don't) or modifying appearance. (Stephanie Blythe: "no one looks good when they are singing"; Eric Owens: "I have the perfect 'diet' for this: sing!"; Simon Keenlyside, most pithily: "Pah!") The remarks of several singers that excessive addiction to close-ups by videographers is a senseless and unflattering practice are familiar to me from conversations with fellow broadcast-watchers, craving to see the stage picture.

The advice offered on building and maintaining a career is remarkable both for its realism and its gentleness, engaging with subjects from vocal health to the importance of hobbies and learning languages for mental health. Included in this chapter, too, is a discussion of how singers incorporate contemporary opera into their repertoire. This also stood out as one of the questions which garnered the most consensus in the answers. The respondents were voluble in their enthusiasm; and here I think audiences might take a page from their book. I'm on record as enjoying the recent opera I've heard, but it's still a comparatively small part of programming. And if singers at all stages of their careers are so enthusiastic about the opportunities it brings for them, and the way it stimulates their artistic creativity, surely we should be open to how it enriches and engages us as an audience. Hidden in the envoi, "Extras from the experts," is advice on some of the questions that singer-friends of mine have expressed great anxiety about, including singing through illness. Here and throughout, the contributors are touchingly frank in responding about their own growth over time. Some remarkable, unspoken advice is provided, too, in the great generosity with which the interviewed singers responded, answering questions between engagements, between rehearsals, even between planes. Informative and engaging, their responses are also anti-dogmatic. Gerhard Siegel's refreshing summing-up is: "I'm sorry, I have no recipe, no prescription. Go out and sing and have fun!" This book provides a valuable vade mecum for those seeking to do just that.


  1. I'm not surprised that singers show as much more open to new repertoire and new directorial approaches. That's been my experience talking to singers, which I do a lot. The problem is that not inconsiderable section of the audience that suffers from a lethal combination of entitlement and cranial sclerosis.

    1. Ha! A felicitous phrase for a problem which, as you justly observe, is truly lethal. I'm glad to hear that your own experience bears out the impression given by the interviews here.


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