March 19, 2015

The García School: Sigrid Onégin


Though I am not a collector, I do interest myself in things "García" when they come my way, which happened this week in the form of a rare (signed) photograph of Sigrid Onégin—a student of Anna E. Schoen-René—courtesy of Harmonie Autographs and Music, Inc. The interesting thing, of course, is that this photograph was owned by Madam Schoen-René herself. 

(While it is not clear to me when Onégin began studying with Schoen-René, it is clear from existing records that she studied with her in New York City in the 1920's. However, it is possible that Onégin began her studies with Schoen-René in Berlin, who taught there until 1919.) 

Onégin was a Franco-Germanic contralto who was known as an operatic singer in Europe before coming to America in the 1920's, where she was known as a concert artist. 

If you listen to Onégin's recordings at Youtube, you will find a very beautiful voice which exemplifies a kind of vocal training few receive today. Onégin's Mozart singing alone, which demands "perfect placement," shows the listener just how high the bar was set—her clear, unforced manner and gorgeous trill a model of old school singing. In Gluck's doomed Orfeo, the listener hears something which is not heard on stages today—an expressive use of portamento. Going deeper, Onegin's Verdi reveals a dramatic vocal quality, while her Saint-Saens is a pristine example of legato singing with rich, round tone. 

Does Onégin change her technique in the pieces described on this page? No! She does not. She reveals a mastery of technique which too few singers possess in our information-overloaded age. Mozart to Wagner, Onégin did it all—which is what García School singers were trained to do. 

How might the modern student pull this off? For starters, I suggest the following exercise from García's Hints on Singing (1894) which can be found in the chapter on timbre (and which you should see for yourself since García goes into greater depth). 

Q. What exercise will give command over the various timbres?
A. This: In the same breath, on the same note, and on each of the vowels a, e, i, o, the student must pass through every shade of timbre, from the most open (or bright) to the most closed (or dark). The sounds must be maintained with an equal degree of force. 

The real question is whether the student can practice this exercise smoothly with nary a change in natural vibration of the voice and the requisite "voice placement." Most cannot if only because the bar is set much too low from the get-go. 

Did you notice that García omits the vowel u in the exercise above? Knowing why means knowing how. 

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