Blowout on the Mainstage
Michael J. Davis
Picture this: You’ve just paid $340 for a 3rd row center ticket to see the new production of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC. Now imagine the excitement as the curtain floats up and the orchestra plays the first strains of that oh-so-familiar overture. You and everyone else in the house are ecstatic to be able to witness this time-tested 145-year-old warhorse of an opera. Even if this is your first time at the opera, the music of this piece has permeated your life even without your knowledge. Commercials, movie soundtracks, kids cartoons, it’s everywhere and you know it well. Then everything starts sliding downhill, excitement gives way to heartbreak as you realize you may have just wasted half this month’s rent to listen to people massacre some of the most beautiful music in the Operatic cannon. Don José is wailing at fortissimo when he could be gingerly breaking your heart with the softer dynamics written in the score, and every time Escamillo comes out of the wings you are terrified you might actually witness someone hemorrhage their vocal chords right there on stage. As you sit there mortified, you think, “Why? Why is this happening? Why the hell did I pay so much money for this swill? AND WHY ARE THEY YELLING AT ME?”
The answer is because those singers are about to burn out. The sad fact is that those singers have stepped beyond the bounds of their voice type and their training to sing bigger roles before they were ready. They put the proverbial cart before the horse and now they are crashing, in super slo-mo, right before your very eyes and ears. Singing opera is a sport and an art. It is dancing with your voice, and just like a poised ballerina, singers have to undergo rigorous training to balance and coordinate all the musculature that goes into singing: the abs, the chest, the back, the knees, even the balls of your feet – all of these and more – play into Operatic singing.
Now, let’s think about how much force (via air pressure) you could produce with all of those muscle groups combined. Now put all that force behind two tiny pieces of membrane no bigger than your thumbnail (your vocal chords) and try to make a beautiful, balanced, easy, and above all musical sound. This might illuminate why so many young singers are blowing out their voice, even before they even reach the prime years of an Operatic career. Those years, for the uninducted, are from about 30 years old (35 in bigger voices) all the way to the mid 50’s in a well-coordinated, judicious singer. Many great singers, both past and present, have gone on to sing successfully well after those years. Giuseppe Taddei, an Italian baritone, sang a glorious Falstaff at the Met at the ripe old age of 70! Birgit Nilsson, the acclaimed Swedish soprano, was singing the most rigorous trials of Wagner well into her 60’s. The history of opera is brimming with these examples. But will the history written tomorrow be the same as the history of yesteryear? I wager it won’t be. Why? The answer is complicated, but it boils down to two things: poor training and unrealistic staging demands.
In years past, promising young singers were hand-selected early on and groomed for the trials of an Operatic career. They received daily lessons and those lessons started from the very beginning: first the breath, then one note, then scales, then more scales, then even more scales, and then – maybe – an art song or two, but always with the firm grounding of routine; a routine that builds up slowly over time, not in one heroic burst. This routine builds technique, and technique is the toolbox that singers use to undergo the increasingly demanding schedule of flying all over the world, and laying your heart out on the stage. It allows them to hold up through the passions, exhaustions, and exhilarations of public performance. Solid technique is what is missing in so many singers of today. Opera is a marathon in singing. Would you run a marathon without first learning how to walk? I think not.
In today’s world, opera is viewed more and more in the fanatical way that the Hollywood movie industry is viewed. The industry is flooded with singers who think, “My friends and family tell me I should be in opera, and if I try real hard I might just get my big break.” After finishing a degree in Vocal Performance – and sometimes even before – they dive right into the deep end and start into the biggest composers: Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, and all before the age of 28. They are bolstered by a community of voice teachers – most of which are burnt out singers themselves – who are eager to have that one student who makes it big. Many voice teachers today have sacrificed the old Italianate way of singing, where clear tone, regular vibrato, smooth legato lines, connection to appoggio, and a capacity with florid coloratura were key. Those essential building blocks have all been put on the back burner while the teachers push for more power, more range and more stamina. Singers have begun to forego mastering the virtues of singing a simple clean scale in order to take the fast track to more overt “emotional” expression. As a young singer in the money-sucking world of Classical conservatories I can say for certain that one thing is true: opera, and the training that goes with it, has become big business, and the nuances of proper training are slipping through our grubby little fingers.
The world of opera, is filled to the point of bursting with young hopefuls who are all paying out the nose for graduate-level educations, auditions, summer opera programs, and young artist programs; all vying for that one shot – their big break. Now, with such an immense talent pool, why would it be fact, in 2015, that the most common gripe in the reviews of shows at the world’s best opera houses is that the singers are overblowing, pushing, and singing well beyond the scope of their fach (A specific categorization system related to size, color, timbre and flexibility of a voice)? Why wouldn’t the singers with the soundest technique be the ones who are chosen for the big leagues?
I believe that lies in a shift in the way opera is viewed by the public. This shift was marked by the meteoric rise of Maria Callas in the mid 1940’s. Callas, or as her adoring public dubbed her “La Divina,” has since become the archetype of the diva, known for being difficult to work with, but a beast on stage. Callas was the first of her kind, not only because she broke through the stuffy confines of the opera house to become a household name, but also because she was flawed. Moreover, she was vocally flawed, a fact that has been hotly debated since her debut. Her voice has been said to have been frayed and uncontrollable, but it is argued by the majority that this was all for the sake of the drama. On stage, she was visceral, raw, magnetic. You simply couldn’t take your eyes off her, and the flaws suddenly became incidental. She was able to sacrifice even tone, pushing the boundaries of her voice in order to better convey the raw emotion that was more present in the subtext of the drama and less in the score. She, nearly single-handedly, killed the old tradition of “park and bark” singing. Suddenly, opera had to engage you on a new level; it had to be a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
Since then, opera companies have become a battleground. On one side well-intentioned singers who know what they are capable and incapable of onstage, while singing and still producing a beautiful legato line. On the other, sanguine stage directors who, for the sake of the drama, are pushing singers to jump through flaming hoops of vocal prowess while running across a steeply raked stage and wearing a corset. Singers are increasingly being pushed to do things on stage that would be unspeakable to directors of the late 19th century. A tragically funny example of this was LA Opera’s 2010 production of Wagner’s massive cycle of four operas Der Ring des Nibelungen. In this production, Achim Freyer, a German visual artist turned director, put the singers on stage in comically large costumes complete with huge face-masks that sometimes limited their vision and their hearing. Those not wearing masks wore clown paint that utterly expunged any expression given by the singers face. So the singers were left to give any emotion they could with only their voice.
Now, the orchestration for the Ring is 120 pieces at the very minimum (including SIX harps). Someone that is singing over an orchestra that big is already at the end of their vocal tether in the bigger phrases. So, pushing past that would obviously do some real harm. Oh, and did I mention the whole production was on a 45-degree raked stage with a moving turntable in the middle which was striped with fluorescent light bulbs, which spun to represent the passing of time. It was also performed entirely from behind a scrim (a curtain of thin material that can have images projected onto it, but that also plays double duty as a sponge for sound). Celebrated Wagnerian soprano, Linda Watson, who has sung the ill-fated Brünnhilde with great success at A-level houses around the world, spoke of the production calling it the “the most dangerous stage I’ve been on in my entire career… Your whole neck is tipped wrong. It’s very painful to do it for hours.” She also spoke of Freyer’s focus on the visual aspects as opposed to the music and the vocal artistry, “It takes years to be able to sing a Ring, and to just toss this all away – he doesn’t say it in words, but his gestures speak louder than words. To have that not be important to him is very insulting.” A member of the chorus and a close personal friend of mine reported enthusiastically that Ms. Watson at one point stormed out of rehearsal after stepping on a fluorescent light and nearly tumbling off stage. So you see, opera has become so much about the spectacle of the thing and so little about the art that it has become life threatening; both literally and vocally.
Gone is the era where a singer can simply object from singing a particularly trying passage from all the way upstage – let alone with a mask on that blurs your vision and hearing. Now, if you aren’t prepared to give the directors anything they want, they will simply find someone who will. Even more unfortunate is that those directors are usually the ones making the casting decisions. So naturally, the sly singers have learned to play to their audience, sacrificing good, even tone for the sake of grabbing a listener’s attention. Pushing a voice beyond its natural limit has become “exciting” instead of “dangerous.” Singers who get on stage for an audition and push the boundaries of what was once considered musical, can now catch the director’s eye and are getting placed in those most sought after positions, many times well before they are ready for the strain of such a large role. The young hopefuls who sidestepped the foundation of natural, healthy singing in order to gain size, power and range have been given a place in the spotlight, while the methodical well-intentioned singer is still back in the practice room singing scales. Not to say that those diligent singers won’t have brilliant careers of their own, but in time, they may also find themselves having to sacrifice healthy vocalism to be heard over an orchestra in an outlandish “post-modern” reboot of a classic opera.
The unfortunate side effect of this new wave of staging opera as visual art with music, or as a movie might be staged, is a dramatic cut in vocal longevity and quality to singers who aren’t vigilant. It is now commonplace for an Operatic career to go down in flames before the age of 40. Wide wobbles are endured by audiences the world over. The most gut-wrenching moments of barely audible beauty are bowled over, sung at a dynamic of loud and louder, because the art of singing softly was left somewhere in a dark practice room, collecting dust with the scales.
In light of all of this, there is hope. A movement, led mostly by the Italians, to return opera to its former glory, allowing the singers to shine, with the set and staging working as supporters of the music, has been born – or reborn, rather . Proponents of this school argue what I have always known to be true, that opera is the highest form of singing; first and foremost. All the other elements of the production should serve to better convey the beauty of that art, not to alienate it in the name of something “new” or “exciting.” My most exciting moments at the opera have been the moments where an expertly executed vocal line rips into my soul, sending chills to my core. I cannot recall a single moment where I got chills from the staging, and the smoke and mirrors that might go along with it. Opera is supposed showcase the art of singing, not the art of staging. My sincere hope is that the rest of the opera community comes to realize this sooner rather than later, preferably before we have destroyed some of the most promising singing artists of our generation. But until that fateful moment, here we are, back at the Met, actually paying to be subjected to what can only be referred to as caterwauling in costume. Is this really what’s exciting? Or is this actually what’s terrifying? I’ll let you be the judge, but try not to pay too much for the tickets.