Category Archives: Singing

Singers’ Block

We’re all familiar with the term “writers’ block.” An author spends days or weeks staring at a blank page, or putting pen to paper only to read back over her words and scratch them out, or throw them in the garbage where they belong.

 

Well, I’ve come down with a severe case of singers’ block. For about three weeks now, as I’ve been preparing for the looming audition season, I’ve been unhappy with nearly every sound that comes out of my mouth, sometimes becoming overwhelmed with frustration to the point of tears. My singing has felt forced, pushed, and labored as I attempt to make my voice do what it is supposed to do—what I know it can do. Occasional moments of beauty get cut infuriatingly short as anxiety returns to my mind, and tightness returns to my throat.

 

How does a young singer overcome this sort of obstruction? I’ve tried returning to simple exercises to reground myself in technical fundamentals. I spent hours practicing until I’m hoarse. I took a day or two off from practicing to clear my head and rest my voice. I spent time studying the masters—listening to my idols, like Birgit Nilsson and Joan Sutherland. I tried singing through simple arias and songs that I know I can sing easily and gracefully. I tried silently imagining my way through difficult vocal passages. And then, when I come back to the audition repertoire I’m preparing, it all goes back to forced, pushed, labored.

 

Shriek. Scream. Bleat.

 

But I know what the real problem is. The problem is that I’m so caught up in the desire to be a successful singer. I’m obsessed with being accepted into this program or cast in that role. And I’m so terrified of the alternative: spending the rest of my life among “muggles,” making a living doing a job that I hate, and drowning in envy for the people who get to travel the world performing opera.

 

These thoughts are so all-consuming that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to just focus on taking a breath and turning that breath into music. I want to be able to just shut off the valve that controls that part of my brain while I’m singing, but the switch is stuck in the “on” position.

 

And I just don’t know how to unstick it.

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The Wrong Ways to Talk About the Body-Shaming Reviews of Der Rosenkavelier

Have you been following the story about the horrendous, sexist, tasteless reviews of Tara Erraught’s performance last weekend in Der Rosenkavelier at Glyndebourne?  Of course you have, but if not, you can do some quick catching up here

Der Rosenkavelier

Tara Erraught pictured on left.

In spite of the fact this story is days old now, practically pre-historic in internet time, I have some more things to say that I can’t fit into 140 characters.  Mostly that I’m not entirely okay with the direction some of the (very-well intentioned) discussions of this issue have taken. 

Let’s have a look at each of the erroneous arguments that have been swirling around one by one, shall we?

1.  “Tara Erraught isn’t even that fat!”

This is most emphatically not the point.  Whether a singer is a little bit heavy-set, or morbidly obese shouldn’t matter if her performance is on point.  It seems to be widely agreed by Saturday night’s audience, and the cruel critics who railed against Erraught’s appearance, that her performance of the role of Octavian was, vocally and dramatically, excellent.  These stick-in-the-mud, middle-aged, white dudes, found it hard to believe that a woman as tall and thin and beautiful as Kate Royal’s Marschallin would fall in love with an Octavian that looked like Erraught.  This perpetuates the kind of bullshit thinking that leads to tales of karmic justice like this one  and the supremely frustrating phenomenon of men who love big women, feeling ashamed of their preference and trying to deny it or hide it. 

In case you didn’t realilze it, here’s the truth:  Women can love short and/or fat men.  Men can love fat and/or tall women.  It happens every day in the real world.  It doesn’t happen nearly enough in the movies, or on TV, or even in opera.

2.  “Skinny people aren’t as good at singing as fat people!”

Even though I adore Alice Coote, and respect her as one of the most intelligent singing actresses in opera today, this is a fairly problematic argument for several reasons.  First, it plays into the super annoying, never-ending discussion about how opera is being “revived” with a generation of young, hot, singers, which I belive to be utter bullshit.

Secondly, I’m not entirely sure I agree.  I’ve seen very thin singers put out lush, theater-filling sounds just as often as I’ve seen fat singers with lighter voices. 

And what about thin singers whose size has changed?  The terrible saga of Deborah Voigt’s weight loss surgery is well documented.  And what about Anna Netrebko’s weight fluctuations?  Does her move into more dramatic repertoire have to do with her new voluptuous figure, or is it a natural maturing of the voice that comes with age?

I think Jenny Rivera put it best on this week’s Opera Now! podcast when she said that a singer is at his or her best when their body is in its natural state.  That is, if you are someone who is naturally thin, then being thin probably won’t harm your singing, but if you’re someone who is naturally a little more meaty, then, in my opinion, pushing yourself with intense dieting and exercising to look like a model might have a less than desirable effect on your voice.  Basically, opera singers need to be healthy and strong, two words that are not necessarily in my mind synonymous with either fat or thin, in order to be able to perform the vocal athletics that our art form calls for.

3.  “The original Octavian was also zaftig.  That’s how Strauss/Hoffmansthall would have   wanted it!”

What if I said, “Verdi never intended for La Traviata’s doctor to be lurking silent on stage througout the entire opera, calling Violetta’s attention to a giant clock that is ticking down to the end of her life!”? (I know I reference that production constantly, but it is just my favorite, okay?)  My point by saying that is this:  Richard Jones’ interpretation of Der Rosenkavelier for Glyndebourne was hardly what you’d call “traditional,” so it is fallacious to apply the kind of curmudgeonly anti-regie arguments that get used so often to lament the increasing popularity of so called “eurotrash” opera productions.  Opera is a living, breathing, evolving art form, and we should keep experimenting with new takes on our favorite works, whether that means Valkyries on motorcycles, Gilda stuffed in the trunk of a Cadillac, or (gasp!) an Octavian who isn’t tall and thin.

When Tara Erraught went onstage as Octavian last weekend, she didn’t look the way some critics expected an Octavian to look, that is, tall and thin.  But why should she?  She is not Joyce DiDonato or Susan Graham, she is Tara Erraught bringing her own interpretation to the role as Richard Jones directed it.  Do we really want to live in a world where every Octavian (or Marschallin, or Sophie, or, for that matter, Mimi, Aida, Siegfried, or Peter Grimes) looks or even sounds like a cookie-cutter cut out of the one that came before?  Art is about exploring possibilities.  It’s about imagining a world that could be, or a world that can’t be, or a world that we hope will never be, or even the world exactly as it is.  But it certainly isn’t about fitting in to a prescribed notion from some stuck-up opera critic about how it it ought to be.

Finally, to Terra Erraught and the fat and thin and tall and short and dumpy and black and white and latina and asian and gay and straight and trans opera singers of the world, I dedicate this song to you:

Singing in Church: The Musician as Tradesman

I don’t particularly like singing in church.  I don’t believe in god, and I don’t think that religion is a force for good in the world.  But I often find that I don’t always mind singing in church either.  The kind of skills required for church choir gigging feel to me like they are the very essence of what it is to be a professional classical musician: You are handed a piece of music, and, along with the rest of the ensemble, must be able to perform it successfully with little to no rehearsal.  There’s no applause.  No one person is in the spotlight.

This must be what it feels like to practice a trade that takes a great deal of study to learn and master, but once you do, it is routine.  You’re like a computer coder asked to write a program that will perform a certain set of calculations, or a surgeon tackling his 500th appendectomy, or an auto mechanic fitting a Honda with a new set of brakes. You know what to do, it’s a fairly simple task, and you try to execute it as elegantly and efficiently as possible.

And sometimes it feels like being in an exclusive secret club.  We have coded messages that we read from; the incredibly complex language that is musical notation.  There is a person at the front of the room, waving his hands in a semaphore you learned to understand in middle school choir, and learned to perform yourself, rudimentarily, in college.  And then there’s the subtler skill of finding yourself among a group of musicians that you’ve rarely, if ever, performed with before, and managing to integrate into a single organism by listening and sensing breath, pulse, harmony.

Of course, sometimes it just doesn’t click.  Last night, I was singing with a choir I’d had the privilege to join a few times before.  We started in on a wandering, ethereal piece of renaissance polyphony.  It quickly became apparent that we were not in agreement about tempo, thus the harmonies didn’t line up and fell out of tune, and the whole thing fell apart.  The conductor motioned us to stop. He signaled that we would try again, this time he would break up the pulse into four short beats instead of two slow ones. On the second try, the choral machine’s gears fit together to turn at just the right pace. When it was over, we exhaled, congratulated ourselves on the recovery, and went home

How my Body Issues are Negatively Affecting My Singing

Hint:  Not in the Way You Might Expect . . .

Relax and breathe!”

My voice teacher has said these words to me a thousand times.  Sometimes it’s, “Relax and breathe!” and sometimes its “Relax and Breathe!” 

The funny thing about studying something as finely detailed as classical singing is that your teacher can say the same thing over and over again until finally one day you suddenly understand what she means.

“Relax and breathe.  Relax your belly and breathe!”  She said, and with the addition of those two extra words it hit me. 

You see, as a woman, a kind of big woman, a woman whose body tends to store extra weight front and center, a woman who has on at least one occasion been mistaken for pregnant, I have trained myself to “suck it in.”  My default, as I go about my day, is to hold my abdominal muscles in a way that pulls my belly as much as possible in toward my spine so that it appears slimmer.

I never realized that this was holding my singing back.  In the privacy of my teacher’s studio, I allowed myself to consciously relax my “suck it in” muscles and let my gut out.  I inhaled.  I sang the phrase again.  It was stronger, cleaner, and easier.  It was a major revelation.

And I realized, that I’ve got a major hang-up to get over if I want to be able to sing well.  If I’m going to release those muscles in order to take a decent singer’s breath, I’m going to have to learn how to not be ashamed of my pot belly, something I’ve been trying to hide for my entire life.  Even when I’ve been at my thinnest, I still felt like I had a bit of a gut.  But when I let go of it the difference it made in my singing is undeniable.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to feel comfortable enough to “let it all hang out.” I don’t think of myself as a woman who hates  her body.  I’m generally pretty comfortable in my skin, and I have learned how to find clothes that are flattering, and I own more than one pair of Spanx.  I’m rather proud of my breasts, I’ve got great hair and I often get compliments on my complexion.  I’m not model-thin, but I’m not huge either, and I’m healthy.  I’ve just got this one issue.

I think the first step is just to make a habit of releasing when I’m alone in the practice room.  Maybe then, that habit will unconsciously carry over to the concert hall.

 

One Singer, Two Masters

This week, I had the opportunity to participate in a couple of private master classes, one with a singer who is in the midst of a fairly prestigious international opera career, and another who is retired from one. For the first, I sang In Quelle Trine Morbide, from Manon Lescaut.  It’s probably my best aria right now.  For the latter, I sang Non Mi Dir, an aria that I’ve been struggling with.

It was a wonderful opportunity to get feedack on my singing from some experienced mentors who know the biz.  I’m so grateful to these singers for taking the time to listen to me and two of my fellow students and offer their advice and wisdom. 

Here are some takeaways:

  • I need to work on breath control and support.  I knew this.  Now I know it more.  “You’re not supporting well and it’s causing pitch problems.”
  • Nerves are also a problem.  I also knew this.
  • I should put Non Mi Dir on the back burner, and spend some more time with Dove Sono.
  • I need more coachings.  I should start doing them regularly.  I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for it.
  • I have potential to be a proper dramatic soprano, but I need to stick to lyric soprano rep for now.  For the second time in my life I was told that I could sing Turandot one day.  In the meanwhile, I could look at the lighter soprano role from Puccini’s final opera, Liu.
  • “Get a girdle.”
  • I asked whether I ought to look at Mimi. “No one’s going to cast a big girl like you* as Mimi.  You don’t look consumptive.”
  • “You’re tall, good looking, and you’ve got a big voice.”  Thank you.
  • I need to trust my teacher. 

*I’m nearly 6 feet tall and 200 lbs.  Total Amazon.

Showdown: Birgit Nilsson vs. Jessye Norman

Jessye, You’re Goin’ Down.

There’s a little cocktail party game that we opera fanatics just love to play.  We’re sort of always playing it, whether we realize it or not.  It basically amounts to Who Sang It Best?

I got into it on Twitter not long ago when I declared that the very best Turandot is a 1965 recording with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, and Renata Scotto.  One of my followers replied declaring that I was wrong, the best was an earlier recording, also with Nilsson, but substituting in Jussi Björling and Renata Tebaldi for Corelli and Scotto.  (Oh, hell no.)

We do this all the time.  It’s kind of like our own casual version of Fantasy Football.

Now, the other day, my friend Rameen declared that his favorite Liebestod is sung by none other than Jessye Norman.

Excuse me?

Setting aside the fact that Birgit Nilsson is my spirit guide, I’d like to break down why there are many, many singers I’d rather hear sing the Liebestod than Jessye Norman.

First of all, I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t like Jessye Norman.  I just don’t think she’s suited to Wagner.  This excerpt from a 1973 recording of Aida is gorgeous.

But let’s talk about the Liebestod.

The term Liebestod refers to the finale of Wagner’s star-crossed lovers tale Tristan und Isolde, in which the heroine Isolde rapturously admires the visage of her beloved lying dead at her feet.  And it is also some of the most spine-tinglingly, toe-curlingly thrilling music in all of opera.

And there is a very specific reason for that.

You see, the ground breaking musical landscape of Tristan und Isolde is built around an unstable harmony that the composer leaves unresolved for about three hours, something unfathomable when the opera premiered in 1865.  This opera is musical foreplay, and when the harmony does finally resolve a very specific moment of the Liebestod, the result can be literally orgasmic.  (More detail is here)

Here’s my spirit guide performing it in a concert in 1962.

(WordPress isn’t allowing me to embed YouTube videos for some reason.  In the meanwhile here’s the link.)

Wagner starts to really tease you at 4:00 and then the moment comes at the 5:00 mark.

Cigarette?

Now, here’s the thing, I talk a lot about vocal focus.  That is the idea that the voice sort of becomes a laser beam of sound.  Birgit Nilsson did this better than anyone.  I think this is so necessary in music like this because of how the thick, swirling orchestral texture contrasts with the steady, resolute vocal line.

Now listen to Miss Norman sing it.

(link)

Gaudy.

The thing is, this music is already so, well, so Wagner.  So romantic.  So lush.  It doesn’t need anything extra.  The Liebestod is chocolate ganache cake with a scoop of hand churned vanilla ice cream, and Jessye Norman feels the need to add caramel, chocolate syrup, pecans, whipped cream, and a cherry.  And then all of that extra stuff just blurs the release in the crucial moment.

Rameen, here are five singers, in addition to La Nilsson, that can do it better than your wide-mouthed homegirl.

1.   Kirsten Flagstad, 1936

2.   Shirley Verett, 1977

3.   Deborah Voigt, 2003 (There used to be a live recording of this with video on YouTube, but it appears to have been yanked.)

4.  Waltraud Meier, 2007

5.  Nina Stemme, 2007   (If you ask me, she is the best one singing it today.)

So go listen to Jessye Norman sing Aida.  The bitch is fabulous.  But Isolde belongs to Nilsson.

Some Things Never Change

“He expects to find the woman singer at least passably good-looking, graceful in bearing, well gowned, and generally attractive.  The fat, ill-dressed, phlegmatic prima donna of the early sixties, who had a good voice and a pure trill, is no longer tolerated. (. . .) too many opera goers have learned to admire a new sort of prima donna, a person who has a robust voice and an exceedingly robustious style, who rushes energetically from one side of the stage to the other, who pants and puffs from the violence of her exertions, but who projects passionate temperament into the atmosphere much as a fire engine squirts water from a hose.  This sort of prima donna is typical in Germany, where she is worshiped with an adoration quite blind to the fact that she knows no more about the laws of singing than a bull-finch does the rules of mathematics.”

An opera fan who reads this passage might assume that it came from the vicious commentariat of Parterre Box or, perhaps the frustratingly narrow minded horde who frequent this Facebook page throwing shade at yet another “eurotrash” opera production. So you might be surprised to learn that it is from W.J. Henderson’s introduction to Ten Singing Lessons, by renowned pedagogue Mathilde Marchesi, published in 1901.

It seems that there always has been and always will be cause to lament the dying art of high-quality bel canto singing.  It keeps dying, and dying, and yet it still isn’t dead.