December 31, 2014

Mme. Schoen-René Travels to Europe


TThere she is smiling at the camera on the deck of the S. S. Bremen in 1935, on her way to Europe with Edward Johnson, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera; Carl Friedberg, the German pianist and teacher; and Keith Falkner—the English bass-baritone who studied with Albert García, the grandson of Manuel García. 

Of course, Mme. Schoen-René probably worked with Falkner, who had much success as a concert artist in America during the 1930's. Like Schoen-René's other students, Risé Stevens and Kitty Carlisle Hart, Falkner starred in several movies during the late 30's. However, those films are now considered lost, which is most unfortunate, since it would be great to see as well as hear him sing (click here to listen to Falkner sing two Purcell songs which were recorded in 1935). 

Mme. Schoen-René would have been 71 when this photo was taken, which survives as a glimpse into the world of a great teacher, who, during her lifetime, was considered the leading exponent of Pauline Viardot-García and Manuel García. 

December 19, 2014

Maintaining the Vocal Tradition of the Garcías

TTo have talked with someone who heard Beethoven conduct, who heard Malibran sing and who was a member of the cast of the first Italian opera given in New York, would almost seem to take one into the realms of spiritualism, for Beethoven died in 1827, Malibran in 1836, and the 'Barber of Seville" was first sung at the Park Theater in 1825. Manuel Patricio Rodriguez García did all of these things, for was he not the son of Manuel del Popolo García, one of the most famous operatic figures of the early years of the last century, and hence a brother of the lovely Maria Felicita García Malibran and Michelle Fredinande Pauline Viardot-García? And, furthermore, did he not sing in that historic performance of "The Barber"? 

They are all dead now, however, García having passed away at the age of 101, and his sister, Pauline Viardot-García, in Paris four years later, aged eighty-nine. Nevertheless, the royal line of García is not extinct, at least as far as the vocal tradition is concerned, and New York, which was a place for such storm and stress for the Garcías has the honor of possessing one of the exponents of the García tradition in Mme. Schoen-René. 

"I had been associated for twenty-five years with Pauline-Viardot-García," says Mme. Schoen-René," and she had been my only teacher. I had been forced to give up my singing in opera because an attack of asthma had left me with trouble in my breathing, and so I had devoted my time to teaching. My pupils had all been women but the question arose of my teaching a man, and I went straight to Viardot with my difficulty. I told her I knew nothing about the male voice and asked her advice. "Go to Manuel," she said. "No one living knows more about the voice than he!" 

Meeting with García

"Accordingly, armed with a letter from her, I crossed to England and made my way to García's little house at Cricklewood on the outskirts of London. While I was waiting, I heard two young men talking in the next room. I could not distinguish what they were saying but could hear only the two youthful voices, so I sat in the room looking at some pictures of Jenny Lind, Lablache, Pauline Viardot and other great ones who had been only memories for many decades. In spite of all these famous folk, I was touched by the simple but cozy interior of the house. 

"Presently the door opened and the two men entered. One was young as the world counts years but the other was Manuel García, then in his ninety-fourth year, yet although bent like an old man, talking with the voice of a boy. 

"When the other man had gone I gave García my letter and told him my story. Coming so highly recommended by his sister, he was naturally interested at once. We discussed the situation and finally he said he would like to hear me sing. I told him I had been unable to sing for several years. He lost interest at once. "If you cannot sing," he said, "and sing perfectly, you cannot teach!" This was said with such an air of finality that I felt that the conversation was closed. As he looked at me he said, 'You have been going to Pauline every summer; what's the matter with you?'  I told him then of the nervous condition that had resulted from asthma, but he finally prevailed upon me to sing for him, with the result that he took me as a pupil.

"I went to García simply to learn from him how to train the male voice, but my own singing and my general health were restored so completely that when I went back to Viardot-García she said. "No more teaching! You go back upon the stage!" 

Forsakes the Stage

"You can imagine how this upset me, but I determined to continue teaching for a while at least and later to consult García. When I took my first man pupil for him to hear, I told him that his sister wanted me to go back upon the stage, but he advised against my doing so. 'If you are very selfish,' he said, 'you will do it, but I think it would be unwise. First and foremost, you have pupils singing in grand opera and you would be competing with them. But much more than this, because our science is dying out, singers are now demanding to be made artists in three years. Isn't it better to bring out ten singers than to sing yourself?' I asked him what Viardot would say and he replied, 'Pauline is a García. She will understand!'

"So, that is why I did not go back on the stage and sing, but continued teaching, and I must say I have never regretted it. When you speak of any of the Garcías, you speak of the ancien régime of singing. 'We have no method, we have no school,' he once said to me, 'we only have science, the science of singing which my father and I worked out!'

"I have often been asked whether I have improved the method and my reply is invariably that I couldn't if I tried, and, what is more, I don't want to. The further back I can go, the better, because García was the founder of the art of singing through the perfect knowledge of technic and control of the voice. That is why I have never attempted to 'improve' on what García taught me. I have all the exercises and the cadenzas which he and Viardot-García wrote for me and they go everywhere with me. 

"I could write a book about García and his wonderful personality, as well as about his teaching. Never a day passes but but that I remember some quaint phrase that he used in talking to me. I remember once when we were in his garden, for he was a passionate lover of flowers, he lifted a particularly beautiful rose on its stem and said: 'The rose is the most grateful of all my pupils. You search for a perfect tone: here it is!' He was disappointed in many of his pupils. He was very intense in teaching and gave his heart and his life to them for art and art alone, so that when he died he felt only about $11,000 and his little house. 

García and Wagner

"García and his sister were a proof of the fact that singing Wagner's music does not injure the voice. I do not mean that either of them appeared in Wagner opera but many of their pupils did. Wagner claimed that his music required more vocal study that the Italian music because a great technic was necessary. After all, the ultimate limits of expression such as Wagner demands can be reached only by singers whose technic is prefect. Wagner, you know, could not find a German baritone for Wotan in the premiere of 'Walküre' so he chose García's pupil Scaria, to whom he also confided Gurnemanz in the world premiere of 'Parsifal' at Bayreuth. After the first rehearsals of the Bayreuth Festival in 1876, a number of the artists went to Viardot-García for lessons, amongst them the great Wagnerian tenor Neimann, who was afterwards heard at the Metropolitan in the first season of German opera there. Viardot-García was said to have been the greatest musician of the Nineteenth Century. The old Emperor William established scholarships for all artists singers of his royal opera houses to go to her and practically all the great singers of note of that era were either García or Viardot pupils. 

"When Pauline Viardot-García died in Paris in 1910, the last of the royal line of García passed away. Manuel died in 1906, but at the celebration of his hundredth birthday he said that his greatest sorrow was that Pauline would not sing for him. 'But I cannot sing any more!' she protested. 'Ah, my dear,' he said, 'if you had practiced every day you would still be singing!' She was then eighty-four years old!

"And so, it is the greatest honor, I can assure you, that I am able to carry on the work of this great family of teachers. Pauline once said to a pupil of mine who is now singing in the Metropolitan, 'You may consider yourself my artistic grandson!' So, that is what I tell my pupils, that they are privileged to consider themselves the grandchildren of the Garcías!"  —John Alan Haughton 

Musical America, May 10th, 1924. 


*****


Anna E. Schoen-René joined the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music in 1924, the same year in which this article appeared. Her student, who appeared at the Metropolitan Opera and is referred to as Pauline Viardot-García's musical grandchild, was undoubtedly George Meader. 

December 9, 2014

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve plays an essential role in the act of singing as well as in speaking. It has several tasks. Usually, nerves are either motor with direct command over muscles, or sensory if their task is to refer perceptual information. Some are both somatic motor and sensory. For instance, the fifth cranial nerve gives the face its sensitivity but also allows the mobility of the jaws. 

The vagus nerve combines all of these functions. It is somatic, motor, sensory, and parasympathetic, giving it the ability to regulate the abdominal viscera. Moreover, it spreads over an immense area of the human body. Its contribution to phonation is fundamental. It is by design asymmetrical, with the right branch being shorter than the left. It emanates from the base of the skull, sends several sensory fibers to the dura mater covering of the brain, and then divides into various branches. 

Let's begin with a closer look at the right vagus nerve. It is most important to remember that one of its branches innervates both the lower part of the external auditory canal and the tympanic membrane. This is its only external point of emergence but it plays an enormous role. It is also important to emphasize that the vagus nerve extends a sensory nerve fiber onto the muscle of the stirrup, which receives its motor activation from the facial nerve. 

From The Ear and the Voice by Alfred A. Tomatis, Scarecrow Press, 2005. 


*****

"You will never get a bright tone with a dull face." —Harry Gregory Hast. 


December 7, 2014

The Tragedy of the New York City Opera Archives

It will come as no surprise that the two most read posts on VoiceTalk concern the demise of New York City Opera and the drowning of its archives in hurricane Sandy. 

The drowning itself erased 60 years of New York City Opera's history; submerging photographs, recordings, scores, orchestra parts with annotations, playbills, original drawings, set designs, financial information and god know what else under 8 feet of water. Of course, no one really knows what was lost because the archive was uncatalogued when water poured into the basement at 75 Broad Street, where it was taken after being removed from Lincoln Center. However, reports made to this writer by those who handled the material suggest the loss of priceless information. 

Of course, the administration announced that the sunken soggy mess would be restored, an arduous and expensive proposition. However, as of this writing, nothing more has been heard of the archive's fate. All this comes to mind as New York City Opera is slated to emerge from bankruptcy court in the first weeks of 2015. 

The situation is all the more tragic when one considers that the New York City Opera archive was offered to the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, not once, but twice. However, those offers were retracted by the last administration, which thought itself better equipped to administrate its own history and then housed it in the worst possible environment—the first law of archives being the utter avoidance of basements, where water damage is a real and present danger. Hubris, abject ignorance, dumb luck or stupidity, it all amounts to the same thing: the cultural history of New York City Opera now lies in the memory of the diaspora who performed and worked for the company.

I believe it's time to reassess the business acumen of the self-appointed masters of the universe.

Note: January 13, 2016. While the company formerly known as NYCO has emerged from bankruptcy, the fate of the NYCO archive has not been reported and is presumed to be lost. 

December 5, 2014

When Hearing Becomes Listening

Everything about singing is organized around the ear; it is the superior regulator. The buck stops there. How does this come about? The ear has a double role, based on two polarities. The vestibule organizes the motor activity involved in singing. This is linked to the act of listening carried out by the cochlea. The process begins with assuming a listening posture to which the singing posture will be added. 
But first we need to discuss singing in the context of communication systems. All communication entails a speaker and a listener. When the listener replies, he becomes the speaker and the speaker becomes the listener. As soon as either one of the two decides to enter the dialogue, there is an element of control, allowing that person to monitor himself. Consequently, the speaker is the first listener of his own speech. In fact, upon deciding to speak, his brain activates phonation so that a message can be emitted. Control is activated simultaneously, regulating different parameters such as intensity, timber, articulation, attack and release of sounds, the melody of the phrase, and the choice of words. Every aspect of language is monitored in this way, and with singing there is even greater control. This control resides in the ear, where three pathways insure this function. 
In reality, we are describing three circuits, two of which arise in the larynx. The first and best circuit is bone conduction. The second circuit, air conduction, relies on muscles and tendons. It gives poor results, and you must avoid using it. By knowing the various loops, you can understand the mechanics of phonation. The two channels you will be using are the internal bone conduction circuit and the external mouth circuit. Each has a completely separate role and the use of each is entirely distinct. The first controls the voice and the second controls articulation. The second depends on the first. Without bone conduction, there is no emission, even if articulation is good. 
The mouth circuit does not permit good control over phonation because of its anatomy. Any sound emitted is always complex. It contains a fundamental tone and an associated gamut of harmonics. Once it is launched into the air, the sound is dispersed and no longer subject to control. The high partials travel in a straight line. This effect is even more pronounced at higher pitches, also called directional. The low frequencies, contained in all sounds that are emitted, expand in a circle, bathing the outside of the ear.  So when we hear ourselves we hear a preponderance of lows. 
When we listen to our own voice on a recording, we are alway surprised to hear how we sound. While making sounds in a room with good reverberation, the feedback we get allows us to control high and medium frequencies as well as lows. This is an example of cybernetic control. Singing obeys the same laws of regulation and hearing becomes listening.  

From The Ear and the Voice by Alfred A. Tomatis (Scarecrow Press, 2005)

December 1, 2014

Cognoscenti

Persons who have superior knowledge and understanding of a particular field, especially in the fine arts, literature, and world of fashion. 

I know quite a few voice teachers who project this persona to others, especially to colleagues and students. It's what the latter pay for actually, isn't it? And with good reason: Doesn't everyone want to study with someone who knows the ropes as well as how they are made? Of course (to continue the rope analogy), it's a good thing if the teacher has made ropes at some point, and has made them well; but this isn't always the case, especially as "coaches" are concerned. And this is where things get sticky. Anyone can "know" a great deal about the voice—stacks of facts as I like to say, but this knowledge isn't helpful to the student if it isn't grounded in functionality: that is, if the coach can't sing, if only because being able to sing is the principal means whereby information about singing—and singing itself—is really learned.  

"Learn to sing! Learn to sing! Learn to sing!" Pauline Viardot-García cried to an interviewer who asked what composers should do in order to restore the art of beautiful singing. But how many composers do you know who can sing? And what about the coach who has set him/herself up as a voice teacher? I can put both categories together and count the number who can on one hand—a sorry state of affairs.  

We'd think it really odd that someone could know all about the English language, it's history, grammar and literature, but not be able to speak English. Yet many who teach, write and pontificate about singing can't sing.

What's up with that?