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.