Terror

One of the most difficult obstacles for any singer is the problem of nerves, no?  A couple days ago I showed a group of voice students the film of Janet Baker’s last year as an opera singer.  Called “Full Circle,” it documents Baker’s final year, when she was fifty, in opera, a year in which she sang Gluck’s Alceste at Covent Garden, Donizetti’s Mary Stewart at the Colisseum (English National Opera) and, finally, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Glyndebourne.  All three houses were places she sang for the entire three decades of her operatic singing career (she never performed in opera outside of Britain, a decision she made early in her career as a way of managing the enormous amount of time she did spend away from home).

As when I have presented this film to students in the past, there was a high level of attention when Baker discussed how nerves had been a serious impediment to the enjoyment she got from her career.  However, not long before the film was made, in 1981, a good friend of hers had explained to her that she could be enjoying her gift as so many people in the world had been doing for years, and Baker avows that for the first time in her life she was beginning to do just that.  Until then, though, she said nerves had been a nearly paralyzing force.  What were some of the reasons she listed?  A general sense of responsibility to the audience, especially after one has become more famous; the anticipation of wanting to get all the details which one has worked out so meticulously before the performance — details of phrasing and such — wanting those to go right in the performance itself; the anticipation of disappointment when such details do not come through in the performance.

There is no question that gifts as abundant as Janet Baker’s are rare indeed.  She seemed to form a certainty very early that hers was to be a vocal career (she was able to determine this early enough that both she and her husband devoted their lives to its success, and she made many concessions in her life — such as deciding not to have children — to ensure her own focus on her art).  Most modern singers are not so fortunate, and their gifts are more modest.  However, an important thing to remember, as one of my students who has indeed been diminished by his own nerves in performance before was able to articulate, is that we are indeed up there before an audience to share something that presumably does give us joy on some level.  Sharing that is in itself a gift.  A gift that requires the utmost courage to present before others.

This week I have been rereading Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares. Though she is speaking of nerves from a director’s point of view, I find her comments (she labels the chapter “Terror,” hence my title for this blog) utterly germane to anyone who has created art before other people:  “Every time I begin work on a new production I feel as though I am out of my league; that I know nothing and have no notion how to begin and I’m sure that someone else should be doing my job, someone assured, who knows what to do, someone who is really a professional.  I feel unbalanced, uncomfortable and out of place. I feel like a sham.  In short, I am terrified.”  I have shared all of these feelings, regularly.

Take away the “new production” aspect, and I think these murmurs and suspicions of one’s own unworthiness underlie many singers’ fears as well.  It’s possible to be paralyzed by these feelings of inadequacy.  Yet it’s also possible to overcome them with an attitude of commitment to the work at hand, to connecting with oneself, the work and one’s audience and coworkers.  An openness to this sense of connection makes one want to do one’s best, not just in the performance, but in listening to all the information possible regarding the process, in listening to one’s inner promptings and those of the work, the composer, one’s colleagues.

I wish all the singers out there joy in their endeavors!

Auditions

What is an audition?  Literally, a hearing.  But since those who are doing the hearing hear from their own experience and viewpoint, what percentage of what we put out there as singers is reflected in the audience’s reception of our art?  Like the proverbial tree in the woods, our singing can be thought to exist only if it has been heard.  But how differently everyone hears a singer!  How differently we hear ourselves (and often to our own disadvantage as artists).  Our best singing comes from connecting with our inmost feelings while in the act of singing, something I often call acting from an alpha state (as opposed to the mental energy of a beta state).

Many reflections were prompted by watching the PBS Great Performances presentation about the Metropolitan Opera Auditions a couple nights ago.  Besides the awesome talents on display, several things about the show continue to haunt me:  1) The way almost all of the singers talked about staying focussed as being the most important thing about participating in the competition;  2) One of the judges who pronounced one of the finalists as having “a European voice” — and what was meant by that, and what ramifications it had for the outcome of the competition; and 3) the striking difference in physical appearance between the three female finalists who won, and the three males — the three women being more than saftig, and the three males being perfectly trim, the possible exception being the lyrico spinto tenor Ryan Smith, who was however in no way heavy.  The gender sizing was striking for what I think it says about the judges’ and possibly all our gender stereotyping as it intersects with singing opera.

1)  As the competition wore on, the ways in which the singers brought up the subject of focus was striking.  Though only a few were closely interviewed, one longed to hear the thoughts of all the others on this matter.  I wished I could hear more specifically what the singers were focussing ON, both on- and offstage.  The most extensive and most articulate interviews were with the exciting young tenor Michael Fabiano, who came off to many people as impossibly self-involved; yet everyone I’ve talked to has admitted to forgiving him for this the moment they heard his committed, heartfelt singing.  Fabiano conveyed the greatest sense of how much work it takes for a singer to stay focussed on the job at hand:  in this case, a ten minute postage stamp of an entire life spent examining one’s thoughts and feelings (namely each contestant’s years of study and practice) delivered before a group of opera experts.  Each singer’s repertoire had to be chosen to show off his or her personal strong points.  At the same time, their arias had to be sufficiently competitive to beat out other competitors’ strong points.  One of the backstage “handlers” announced at a rehearsal with incredulity [I paraphrase], “He’s got a high C and isn’t going to show it off?”

Singers are in every respect at the mercy of their handlers.  How is it Madame Galupe Borshk put it?  “A singer’s life has four stages:  bel canto, can belto, can’t belto, can’t canto; and a conductor will get you to stage four as quickly as possible!”  Something very much on display in the PBS special was how much influence the many “handlers” at the Met had on crafting not only the singers’ presentations, but even the choice of arias each singer presented.  I was particularly impressed with the generous help Maestro Armiliato gave in this regard, with an obvious sense of concern (and some sage advice) for each singer.

The amount of trust a singer has to have in all the people who influence and have dominion over his ability to do his job is scarey.  The singer can only accurately feel what they do from the inside.  How difficult this can be if they are being told what to feel and what to do by many people on the outside, some of whom they are barely acquainted with!  But singers are obliged to enter into a relationship of trust with these same bare acquaintances by the circumstances of their being hired to sing in the same houses where these dispensers of advice work, if not under their baton or direction.

Those of us who provide feedback to singers, to artists young or old, are beholden to make sure our own agendas are put to the side, especially if we are being paid to do so.  How difficult this can be when we all have passionate artistic agendas of our own.  We must make it clear to articulate our own aesthetic viewpoint as our own; it may be distinct from our student’s.  Meanwhile, the committed singer must focus all of his attention on his inner sense of what is right or wrong for himself, and filter all invasive information through that lens.  This is the greatest work and the greatest responsibility of all that a singer must accomplish:  listening to that inner voice.  And I believe it is the cause that people perceive singers to be arrogant when they are actually just being smart about their art.  I have yet to encounter a true artist that is not smart in this way.

2)  “A European voice!”  This was said about one of the smaller-voiced singers, a soprano whose arias were Handel’s “Tornami a vagheggiar” and Verdi’s “Caro nome.”  What does it mean to have a European voice, considering that a majority of the opera artists we traditionally admire most are Europeans?  (That is changing, of course).  In this particular case, I believe the implication to have referred not only to the taste of the singer, but her size of voice.  Consider, however:  Was there ever a louder singer than Leonie Rysanek or Birgit Nilsson (both Europeans)?  I never heard them, unless it were Matti Talvela (also European).  Were they talking about the loudness with which one must sing to fill the Met?  Or about the loudness that is EXPECTED to fill the Met?  Has anyone sung more pianissimi than Renee Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier Saturday before last?  Yet she has risen to the very top of her art form.  Does that also make hers a “European voice?”

It’s not saying anything new to assert that the encouragement of loud, louder, and loudest is the ruination of so many beautiful young artists.  I wish we could silence this incessant cry, yet it has been there since the beginnings of information we have on vocal formation.  (In several early tutors the pupil is warned to first get the voice out before it can be formed.)  I even sometimes say to my own younger students in an effort to put it out there, “Art begins with audibility.”  Yet, who has not listened with dismay to some of the singing on the Metropolitan opera broadcasts.?  Faulty intonation and articulation and an ugly wobbling tone are heard.  Unshaped musical lines are regular features when loud, pushy singers are heard over the microphones.  I remember unbelievable disappointment the first time I heard Mirella Freni in a live recording this way, having heard her sing so ravishingly time and again in the opera house itself.  The digital technology is no friend to the larger voices, and when the focus these singers achieve is driven by pushing to be louder (which a microphone needs not at all), it is doubly disastrous.  We should be careful to criticize voices in one way when listening to recordings — the musicality, the shape, the color, of course — and then report differently when we listen for these same qualities in the context of a vocal performance.  Of course, the live performance has a visual component as well.

Which brings us back to topic 3).  What’s up with the physical size standard in opera singers?  The fact of three large ladies winning the auditions in the PBS special, and three perfectly fit men also winning has something to do with size of voice as well as physical size, it’s true.  Because of the noisier, less focussed tone opera singers generally sing with nowadays, the expectation of full-throttle, throbbing high notes is just that:  an expectation.  To get an idea of what I mean by this, and how our expectations of what a high note is expected to sound like has changed in a century’s span, all one has to do is listen to recordings of the most famous singers from one hundred years ago.

The classically trained female voice sings primarily in a mechanism (head voice) which is lighter than that used primarily by male voices (I speak of tenors and basses — countertenors are left out of this discussion, but would be included in the primarily head voice mechanism voices).  The use of the head voice has diminished through the past three centuries in the operatically trained male voices.  Meanwhile, as the male voices have pushed more “chest” up (Tamagno is often accounted the cause of all this, but I imagine Caruso to have been more responsible for our present direction), women have been pushing their head voices down during the course of the last century, of all things!  To make the female voice as “loud” as the male while working the mechanism so differently, I think greater physical size, more physical ballast, may be necessary.

Again, one need only listen to old recordings.  What would be accounted dangerously high use of the chest voice for women today is regularly employed by female opera singers before 1940.  To my way of thinking, the divide between male and female voices has increased, and our expectations that male and female singers present differently onstage have also grown.  Just think of the 17th and 18th centuries, when women played the primo uomo’s and men (castrati) played the prima donna’s with frequency.  Men and women played women and men with nearly equal fluency.

So let’s look at what’s going on physically, because I believe this vocal difference has a physical counterpart in today’s opera world.  Women can “get away with” being heavy onstage, while overweight men are considered only for character roles if they are extremely portly.  The last really fat leading male I can think of was Pavarotti, and he was not gigantic until later in life.  Also at the time he began his career, the gym phenomenon hadn’t yet occurred.  Marcello Alvarez is not obese, but I heard him abused for his large physical appearance in the recent Met Tosca.  Physical gender roles are evidenced as more divided than previously, just as vocal gender roles are more divided.  This says unfortunate things about what we think of men and women in general, and opera only highlights this difference in expectations between what we require our men and our women to look like.

Despite all the commotion caused by Deborah Voigt’s episode with the little black dress several seasons back, and the supposed truth going around that you have to look svelte in order to be cast, I don’t see the evidence for this in general where women are concerned.  Women are always highlighted in discussions about weight in opera these days:  the problem of needing to appear slim in order to appear before the camera (this was directly mentioned in the PBS film by the soprano Angela Meade).  Men, on the other hand, are mentioned in this regard if they have gone to the gym a lot and asked to bare their chests (or more) onstage so that they can  look more studly (which is happening with greater frequency onstage — though I don’t notice going through a similar baring).  And the men are unabashedly praised for this, while women are not praised in a similar way for being slim, I think because it would by implication censure the heavyweights.  This gender inequity was unavoidably on display to me on PBS Wednesday night.  There was much compelling about the behind-the-scenes look at the auditions, but not all of it was pretty.

Pure Vowels

What are pure vowels and why talk about it?

I’m always drawn back to things I have read in singing treatises of centuries past, and one of the most frequently encountered is the admonishment to clarity of pronunciation.  I find that people who are reluctant to make friends with opera frequently use as the excuse for their distaste that you can’t understand the words (regardless of the language being sung in).  Generally speaking, these opera naysayers are people who enjoy pop vocal music of all sorts.  Though I’m by no means expert in the realm of pop music, I can’t find the diction anymore distinguishable in pop music, and it is arguably, at least to me, far worse.  I think back to the gift given me last year of a Radiohead album (given me by a classical singer who is a genuine enthusiast for the dynamic group).  I could barely discern 10% of the text on a first listening.  And this in vocal music which rarely climbs out of the range of an octave, much less the two plus octaves required of an opera singer.  So what is it these anti-opera folk are hearing as poor diction?

Over the holidays, we had a great variety of music appreciators in our house for parties, from Met performers to choral giggers to avid listeners to poets.  All are concerned with words and communication through the medium of the voice and through words.  All are concerned that the words be clear.  But one young collaborative pianist asked me whether I thought one should learn the text of a song or role first, or the music?  I replied without pause that I think a great singer learns the music first, and then the words.  Since the general method encountered in conservatories is the reverse, why would I make such a reckless statement?

Consider the most famous libretti by the most famous opera librettist of all time, Pietro Metastasio.   Top of the list would be Alessandro nell’Indie, Artaserse, Didone abbandonata and L‘Olimpiade.  Not counting librettos derived from Metastasio’s, there are at least thirty settings of each of these works (and most of Metastasio’s other works were set nearly as many times).  So, if we are learning Hasse’s version of one of these operas, as opposed to Galuppi’s or Gluck’s, what is it we are learning and attempting to express?  Are we learning and expressing the libretto the same way again and over again?  Most certainly not.  We are learning to express the text of the opera, which is to say the  music by Hasse, Gluck or Galuppi (or thirty more).  Metastasio’s work has become the subtext.

The argument extends even further if we consider the care with which talented vocal composers set words for desired effects.  Great composers of every century have worked with great artists to achieve the performance of their works, and a Handel, for instance, would work with the best singers when possible.  If we study how Handel wrote, it becomes clear that if he wanted a gentler, more flutey effect up in the passaggio of a singer’s voice, he set the note on “u” or “o.”  If he wanted brassy brightness, he set the same note on “ah” or “i [ee].”  This quite apart from the kind of vocal acrobatics (or lack of same) he might use to highlight a text.  Therefore I contend that if we are not striving to sing the pure words, the argument is to be made that we are not performing the music.  We are performing something else (and, usually, what I find we are performing is the love for our own voices!)

On closer examination, good vocal composers make these distinctions in all sorts of classical repertoire.  We must bear in mind that they were creating settings for singers who were trained to deliver a good two octaves, and, until the past century, I can’t find that singers were taught to compromise vowels.  It is difficult to make the same argument for most popular song, because its vocal requirements (span, or tessitura) are usually much more narrow than that required of classical singers.

If we are not expressing the words, then are we really performing the song, or aria or role?  Of course, something could be said for creating a timbre that is expressive of the music at the cost of purity of pronunciation, and here we get into an interesting set of choices between the demands of the words and the demands of the musical character, not to speak of the demands of the line:  does it want to be smooth, or sharp?  How much vocal pressure should we exert in response to the words before we have compromised the musical line?

Is singing not an endlessly debatable activity?

Monophony

Christmas has always been a strain on my singing body.  Growing up in a boys’ choir at the National Cathedral meant untold hours of singing and few hours of sleep.  Deep down in my cells is embedded a memory that associates this season with exhaustion:  exhaustion from constant temperature and precipitation changes, from rushing hither and thither when my inner senses are telling me to crawl into a cave and savor the darkness, from getting it physically together to sing when my body and mind would rather be horizontal.  So it came as little surprise that on Christmas eve, the second I got through with my singing part of the prelude at church, the flu set in.

That meant that yesterday was spent in blissful quiet reading in front of the fire (finishing J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar).  A stack of videos beckoned, however, and at the top of the stack was an archival video of The Play of Daniel, which I was directing just last December at the Cloisters in New York.  The video had just arrived in the mail a few days ago and gave my heart a winsome pang at the memory of the experience.  I think it’s always with trepidation that any artist settles down to seeing and hearing a record of his or her own work; but aside from obvious places the camera wasn’t when it should have been, Daniel turned out to be just as magical on video as I remembered the final result to have been last year.  Not only were each of the solo voices interesting and interestingly varied, but the full cast, including not only the trained singers but the instrumentalists as well, singing the Te Deum with one voice at the end was almost unbelievably moving.

A single line of music sung by a group can have a wonderfully hypnotic effect when beautifully rendered as to tone, tuning and timing.  I’m not sure even the most involved counterpoint or luxuriant orchestra can be any more poignant than monophonic song sung well.  Ludus Danielis, or The Play of Daniel, was written for the Cathedral at Beauvais (north of Paris) in the 13th century.  Probably because of its proximity to Paris, the music capital of Europe at the time, there is an obvious sophistication to the melodic writing, which is highly varied in its tune structures.  In single line music of the middle ages there is a certain amount of leeway in realizing how to perform it.  Mary Ann Ballard as music director had created a score that by following the poetic meters situated a lot of the music in medieval rhythmic modes —  in other words, in triple meter.  As dramaturg of the show, I chose to emphasize character through different performance modes.  So, Daniel’s centerpiece, the deciphering of the letters Mane Thekel Epharsin foretelling Belshazzar’s downfall, was taken out of time and expanded.  The princes sang several of their speeches in the most elevated sort of French organum.  This was almost painfully hilarious when they were pleading for mercy at the very end.

Throughout the Play is the wondrous miracle of a single line of melody  guiding the show.  Individuals and groups participating in a united, perfectly tuned line.  Harmony is often implied by the line alone, and when we chose to use a drone with the voice or voices, it was more than implied.  But there is certainly nothing so beautiful as when well-tuned voices match their overtones in a single line.

At one spot in the video, (which was made at the invited dress rehearsal — the first time we actually had every participant in one place for a complete rehearsal!) — at Darius’s entrance — things fell apart briefly when the long procession left the drum out in another hall and the singers had already entered the chapel.  This cacophony seemed all the more startling because of the unity of the singing and playing in other spots.

The emotion with which I heard the singing in Daniel put me in mind of reading somewhere that voice teachers in the high baroque schools of Naples would not take a child on as a pupil if they had a poor ear.  Anything else was, in theory, teachable.  Years of voice training and teaching have taught me the wisdom of the Neapolitans.  A singer’s technique is only as good as their imagination, and if a student cannot imagine a sound which is beautiful, and beautifully tuned, the teacher might as well go tell all their technical tricks to the stars.  I wish our video of Daniel could be made into a public offering.  While I can’t deny that the thrill of seeing the movement and drama of the show up close in the Fuentendeña Chapel at the Cloisters is not duplicable on a tape, nor can the sound thrill as it did echoing off those centuries-old stones, the beguiling quality of a group chanting together is captured.  Monophony is a perfect place to learn to tune the voice.

Group effort

Last Sunday afternoon (December 20th) I had the enormous pleasure of being a ringer for the superb vocal ensemble Pomerium at their Christmas concert in New York City at All Soul’s Unitarian Church.  I’m not exactly a newcomer to group.  Alex Blachly gave me a spot in Pomerium soon after I moved to New York, in 1980, and I sang with them regularly for my first four “journeyman” seasons as a singer in that city.  Then I spent a further couple of years singing with the group in its more expanded size (the forces generally included a few more singers than in those early years, say 15 instead of 10) in the late 1990s.  Since then, I’ve really missed singing with them, but in this country large ensemble singing does not a living make, and I couldn’t justify the time and long commute from upstate that would have made working with Pomerium possible, so I had to quit when my partner and I moved out of the city in 1999.

On Sunday, being back inside that sound (and if you’re a countertenor, you are nearly always truly “inside” the sound of a choir) gave me the greatest singing pleasure I’ve had in several months.  What is it about singing in a crackerjack choir that gives such pleasure?  First of all, lining up your voice’s overtones inside a perfectly tuned ensemble gives one, me at least, a visceral thrill.  Second, working with singers who are at Pomerium’s level musically (and by that, I mean the highest) puts one on one’s mettle, to say the least.  Though I had sung two of the pieces before, the rest of the stunningly wonderful repertoire (by Josquin, Cipriano da Rore, Byrd, Dufay, Willaert, Palestrina — in short, the towering chefs of 16th century polyphonic yumminess) was new to me.   On only two rehearsals, it was a blast to both know that I could rely on my choral colleagues to catch me in any fall and also that I could be ready to field any small misstep myself.  Thirdly, and most importantly to me, though, the concert was a fabulous lesson in vocal discipline.

For years I have felt my blood pressure rise to dangerously dizzy heights whenever I’ve picked up a copy of the NATS bulletin and read some of their voice teachers’ assessments of how choral singing fits in to the rising classical singer’s regimen of study.  On average, their entreaties go like this:  For heaven’s sake, keep your students out of choirs at all costs, because nothing will destroy their voices faster than being asked to reign in their “natural” sound.  Meaning, as I have continued to read it:  vibrate and sing loud at all costs, and the choral conductor who asks for diction and blend over these things is to be shunned for not recognizing your special timbre.  In addition, admonishment abounds for what sorts of vocal damage submitting your vocal will to the whims of a choral conductor might incur.

So it was with a light heart that I felt like I could have sung the entire Pomerium program — a dense 2 hour production of rich chocolate overtones wrapped in delicious polyphony — easily again from start to finish.  And not because of singing out as fully as possible, or singing with much (in fact, hardly any) vibrato.  It all had to do with the stupendous tuning (just intonation is one of Alex’s strong points, and the possible subject of a future blog), and also singing the true vowels, all in a range which was easily manageable for everyone in the ensemble (though one or two of the tenors might take issue with my making that statement!)  I felt that we were singing true to the music and words, but also true to ourselves and our own voices (kudos to Alex for being able to hear and dispose people to their easy and proper ranges).  Having that inner assurance meant I was vocally fresh as a daisy at the end, even though the music was not all firmly in my mind or body, as something memorized might be.

Here’s a fun game to play with your voice students, when they’re tying themselves in knots with misspent energy pushing their voices or trying to sing in inappropriate ways.  I learned it from a kinesiologist I worked with in Paris years ago.  Have them raise their writing arm and test their muscle response by pushing down and asking them to resist.  That’s to get a baseline for their strength level.  Then have them resist your pushing down while they say their own name, “My name is [their name].”  Their response will be normal, strong.  Give them a second to shake their arm out, and then repeat the exercise, only this time have them say, “My name is Groucho Marx” (or Sting, or whoever, as long as it’s someone they are not).  You will feel their resistance to your pushing evaporate!  Why?  The body doesn’t believe it!

The lesson?  If you truly believe in what you’re singing (or saying), you’ll say it with your whole body, and your voice will not suffer.  Just like a baby’s being able to cry for food for hours and hours until it gets satisfied.  Of course, that’s like the first line I used to read in one old singing treatise after another, back in my university days when I was trying to figure my own way out of many vocal tangles:  “If you can breathe fully and speak properly, you can sing well.”  Well, of course.  But there are a thousand ways to skin that cat.

Last Sunday, I skinned the cat with twelve others under the superb leadership of Mr. Blachly.  And the wonderful thing about it?  It was a genuine group effort.  We all kept each other solidly on the ride.  Singing solo is fun, and nobody who does it would deny that the adulation of an audience is very gratifying after you have personally given them a good performance.  But being a soloist can easily acquire an element of artistic masturbation in front of onlookers.  In fact, I’d be willing to venture that there is an element of any audience that is in attendance for exactly that kind of thrill.  In group work (choir and chamber ensemble), the audience is grand, and it’s great to share the moment; but sending those rumbling, perfectly tuned sonorities into the cosmos, something only possible when other voices are riding the same wave, is a thrill I wish all those NATS detractors could experience.  I’d liken it to great sex, and not masturbation.  It’s perhaps a little scarier and certainly requires more control and care for others.

Greetings, Fellow Singers and Vocalists!

And that means:  Everyone reading this!  If you can speak, you can sing.  If you can write, you have a voice.  The “voice” I hope to explore with this blog, however, is the organ in our throats, and all its many astonishing abilities and permutations.

I’ve longed wished there were a forum like this:  a clearing house for all manner of topics having to do with the human voice:  how we hear it, how we use it, how we take care of it.  Two things pushed me over the edge recently:  sitting in Starbucks, held hostage by abrasively sung Christmas carols playing over the sound system; and attending the “opening” of La Scala almost two weeks ago.  I saw it, a live opening night performance of Carmen, in HD, in a movie theatre in Schenectady — amazing, eh?  The latter experience made it clear just how differently we all experience singing.  The exciting tenor Jonas Kaufmann, as Don José, rose above an abysmally misconceived production, which was appropriately and stentoriously booed  when the production team appeared at show’s end.

The misguided director Emma Dante laid it on thick with the Roman Catholocism.  I wondered if she ever bothered to read the Merimee story which inspired the opera.  Or if she actually understood the goings on in the opera itself, the musical choices Bizet made, what he chose to point out about gypsy life in  Spain (known at his time almost entirely from Gustave Doré’s illustrations).  In the end, aside from the ridiculous dramatic choices Dante made, it was the ineptitude of the actual stage actions that were most distracting:  big doings that fizzled out — like huge placards or tables having to be set up during the beginning of a musical scene, but which required an elaborately long taking down as a scene was peaking; as the music arrived at a climax, the stage action just petered out.  This happened in scene after scene.  The set itself was hideously dark and ascetic, rather reminiscent of the Met’s tediously stark and also much bombarded Tosca.  I was happy to read that Zeffirelli himself spoke out against the irresponsibility of Dante’s Carmen. I think it deserves every bit of vitriol it gets.

The singing was mostly okay, if largely overblown, with Erwin Schrott (Escamillo) and the newcomer Carmen, Anita Rachvelishvili, leading the pack of the stentorian brigade.  I wondered if they didn’t suffer under the microscope of video, and if I might have enjoyed their performances a lot more at the remove of twenty or more rows.  Few opera singers are detailed enough to withstand the camera’s scrutiny.  But Jonas Kaufmann did, and does, with his Don José.  His tenor is strong and robust (he will soon be taking on the Wagner heroes).  The timbre reminds me at times of that vocal god of the tenor world, John Vickers (whom I was lucky enough to hear as Peter Grimes, Tristan and Florestan — each portrayal unforgettable).  Kaufmann has the same intensity and commitment that was a hallmark of Vickers.  It’s even maniacal at times — a quality which fit the desperate José.  Kaufman sings with a very low, some would say dangerously low, laryngeal placement, and that makes his soft singing sometimes grainy and strange.  It can also make it haunting and otherworldly.  But it makes the big singing a thrilling, full-body experience, and his arched lines and climactic notes are overwhelmingly exciting.  The same could have been said of Vickers.

What blows me away with an artist like Kaufmann is not just the visceral frisson of the timbre, but the way his voice is connected to his emotions.  And how clearly those emotions are conveyed in his vocal choices.  And how precisely he mirrors the vocal choices that are indicated clearly in the score.  Callas had this precision.  Stratas cared this much.  Fischer-Dieskau did it with poetry.  A care for the score and the truths that lay within it that pushed them to manage their voices, to  command their voices to do the composer’s bidding!  It’s much more rare than people imagine.  I heard many singers who blew me away with portrayals and vocal feats that were their own (where to start?  Rysanek, Van Dam, Caballé, Kraus are just a few).  But to really submit to the role and the composer’s vision takes a total musicality and commitment to an even higher level.

It’s amazing that our voice, combining as it does the coordination of muscles with incredibly complex mental commands, can respond to the infinite variety of ideas that composers arrive at.  Of course, not all composers have an adequate understanding of voices to create within reasonable limits. But the best composers did and do, and I’d say they have all worked with the best singers (available!) of their time and were influenced in their compositions by the singers they worked with:  I think of Handel, Mozart, Rossini.  The superb understanding of the human psyche their vocal music can portray is the key to their immortality on the opera stage, and each of them wrote for the best performers of their time.

Which brings me to the subject of the abrasively sung Christmas carol.  I’d venture to say that there isn’t a Christmas carol around that wasn’t written with a gigantic dollop of sentiment at its core.  And whose voice embodies this sentiment best of all?  Bing Crosby, of course.  A voice of supreme richness and caressing gentleness.  It’s a voice with smootheness and slancio, a voice which never bites or slaps.  The epitome of the avuncular and the paternal.  As if Santa Claus himself were lulling you on his lap.

Only a few days ago, I found myself in Starbucks assaulted by their soundtrack of carols played at an overly high volume.  One pushed voice after another slammed at familiar tunes, though it often took me several phrases to identify a well-known carol, because the tone was often so harsh and unmodulated.  Sometimes the sound was haunting, and there were times I could respond to the juxtaposition of a rock hard, speech-belt voice slamming a carol.  Sting’s take on “The Angel Gabriel” has for me a certain hauntingness as an experience — pushing his larynx up high and singing without a trace of vibrato (because his larynx is never allowed to relax enough), it has a certain quality of pronouncement that references Gabriel’s appearance.  And I can take a certain perverse joy in the seductive rhythms of Dietrich’s “Little Drummer Boy.”  But then Der Bingle (as my brother-in-law lovingly refers to Crosby) came on with “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and my heart just melted.  My shoulders relaxed.  The tension I had acquired during the day seemed to drop, and I also noticed the dynamic level of the Starbucks conversations going on around me drop perceptibly.  The arched phrases that Jonas Kaufmann also understands were there.  The climactic notes were full, honeyed, burnished.  Never pushed, always in stride, like a gentle snowfall on Christmas Eve.

There’s plenty of great singing out there (and plenty we could say falls short of achieving its goal of communication).  So, readers, I hope you’ll be moved to tell about experiences where you have been touched by the voice.  Topics down the road include:  Different Voices for Different Times (Martha Feldman’s superlative work on the history of Castrato voices has wakened endless thoughts on this subject); Vocal Hygiene and Technique (some contemporary technicians that interest me are David Jones and Steve Smith — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a blast to rehash the ideas of Lamperti, Caruso, Marchesi, Garcia and the rest of our forbears); and How We Hear voices — for instance, I hear them elementally, as a combination of fire, water, earth and air (and ether, too).  Tell all and here I hope you’ll give your thoughts VOICE!