October 9, 2013

Being What You Aren't



It's Verdi Week here in Gotham, and our classical radio station WQXR has been playing the great Italian master of opera for a good deal of the evening. As I was listening, I was also surfing the web, and found myself reading an opera blog about a hunky baritone. In the discussion online, much was said about the baritone's appearance not matching his vocal resources—many commenters deriding the man for not having pipes as thick as his muscles. Interestingly, I heard a guy singing on the radio who seemed to be doing just that.

Having sung onstage at the opera for a long time, I can tell you that it can be very seductive to stand next to a true dramatic voice. Part of you thinks: "Oh... I have to keep up! Time to let it rip!" This thought is always a mistake. The vocal tract rebels eventually. One of the first signs? The vibrato starts to slow and widen. High and low notes disappear, while the middle gets fuzzy. The desire to be "big" can have a strange attraction even for the dramatic singer.

Years ago, I had the honor of singing for a noted soprano who advised me to stick to art song, concert music and arias which featured cantabile singing. "No dramatic baritone stuff for you!" She said, which contradicted the advice of another important teacher. Her astute advice rang true and was a huge relief. I stopped thinking that I had to sound like all the singers I admired. Of course, many young singers don't know this and wind up pumping up their voices in order to impress. Unknowledgeable teachers, coaches, managers and conductors only make things worse. I experienced this myself when I began my career, being advised by more than one person to sing a higher Tessitura. I'd try to please, but each time, my voice said: "No!"

I once knew a gentleman who thought being a tenor meant speaking in a very high voice. As a consequence, his singing had a very peculiar sound. We were talking one day, and I said something that made him laugh, and the sound was quite revealing. It was mellow and an octave lower. Was he aware of this? Nope. 

Then there was the guy who told me his immense struggle to be a tenor was a noble journey. Really? I thought. How did having fun singing morph into climbing Mount Everest? Does it really have to be so arduous?

Being what you are not takes a great deal of energy. It keeps energy from flowing between you and the audience, which can tell—regardless of education—whether you are being true to yourself or not. How do you know when you are on the right track? When you stand on stage and feel like a house with all its doors and windows open to the wind.

2 comments:

  1. Beautifully put! I love the last sentence in particular. Singing should feel liberating, not exhausting.

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