January 27, 2010

Reading Jellinek

The book came today, that is, George Jellinek's autobiography My Road to Radio and The Vocal Scene: Memoir of an Opera Commentator (2007).  Having loved his programs since I first tuned into WQXR after moving to New York in 1989,  I thought I should know more about the man I recently blogged about and met a few years ago. 

The book?  It's a highly entertaining read. Wry.  Funny.  Poignant.  Chock full of operatic luminaries.  One passage, about Jellink's interviewing Alexander Kipnis, made me laugh and cry.

Alexander Kipnis (1891-1978)

When I honored the late Alexander Kipnis on his 80th birthday in 1971, he regaled my listeners and me with the following reminiscence: "In my childhood in Ukraine, Jewish parents of musically gifted children had several options.  If they were wealthy, they bought a piano for their kid; if they were middle class people, they bought a violin.  My parents were poor, so I became a singer."  When I asked for his thoughts on why there have been so many distinguished bassos among Russian singers, he quite seriously attributed that fortuitous phenomenon to the cultivation of vodka. 

He's a truth-teller,  this Mr. Jellinek.  Tells it like he heard it.   I like the man all the more.

January 25, 2010

Edward Lankow: How to Breath Right

Handsome, tall and possessing a magnificent basso profundo, Edward Lankow (1883-1940) was one of the first American basses to appear at the Metropolitan during a time when European singers were held in higher esteem.  He made his debut as Sarastro with the Metropolitan Opera in 1912 after singing in Europe for a number of years.  Unfortunately, nervousness and memory slips meant that he was not offered another contract.  Lankow seems to have recovered, however, resuming his career in Europe where he was heard by Claude Debussy who said, "This is the first time I hear the quality of voice I thought of when I composed the music of Arkel in 'Pelleas and Mellisande'.  Mary Garden, who excelled as Mellisande, subsequently brought Lankow to the Chicago Lyric Opera for a series of performances. 

Born Edward Rosenberg, Lankow took the name of his mentor and voice teacher,  Anna Lankow (1846-1908), a founder of The New York Singing Teachers Association.  Her own teacher had been Adolf Brömme, who taught at the Dresden Conservatory and was himself a student of Manuel Garcia.

Lankow put his vocal training to use during the First World War, teaching officers to project their voices without strain.  He did this by teaching them how to breath.  This resulted in a book titled How to Breath Right (1918).

Lankow addresses Officers, Soldiers, Clergyman and Singers, recommending that the latter practice the following exercise (b) which he credited to Farinelli, the greatest castrato singer to have ever lived.   Whether this or true or not, it resembles one given by Manuel Garcia (1805-1906) in A complete treatises on the art of singing (1847), the difference being Garcia does not include a fricative sound.

The Slow Inhalation
In Condensed Form

(a) Exhale "s."
(b) Inhale slowly, drawing a thin air stream through lips and teeth.  "Hiss." Place hands on diaphragm.
(c) Hold breath two to four seconds.
(d) Exhale suddenly "Ha."
(e) Several cleansing breaths.  Pause.
In the beginning not to be done oftener than three of four times per day.

The Climax Breath
Explanation in detail

This exercise is the most difficult of all breathing gymnastics, and should not be attempted by children or the sick.  It requires great endurance.  Even an athlete should not attempt it, until the others are well in hand.

The first part is exactly like Exercise Number Six (a).  But in the second part, instead of expelling the air suddenly, you proceed to exhale very slowly (after holding the breath a few seconds).  Care should be taken to see that the upper chest is held high as long as possible while exhaling.  With the last atom of breath leaving the lungs, drop (relax) the shoulders and whole frame.  Take quickly two or three more cleansing breaths to quiet the heart and lungs.

When one is ready for this most strenuous exercise, it becomes a great force for building strength and depth to the chest, and new inner vitality.

During the first weeks one performance of this exercise is enough for the day.  After the second month two exercises per day, fifth month, three exercises per day, etc., very gradually increasing the number.

Looking back, one cannot help but wonder if Lankow's book -aside from its instructional content - also served as astute public relations.  He was, after all, a fine example of 'physical culture,' to use a term from his own time.  We are much less veiled about the physical beauty of male opera singers nowadays, considering that singers such as Nathan Gunn have appeared in the Wall Street Journal with training tips and websites like Barihunks.  Audiences and managements now put a premium on opera singers who look the part.  It's part of the 'package.'  In that regard, Edward Lankow might be considered ahead of his time. 

Edward Lankow in How to Breath Right

January 22, 2010

Lablache's Complete Method of Singing

Luigi Labache is the most famous bass to have ever lived. And if this seems like an exaggeration, I encourage you to spend some time reading about him. Everything about Lablache was big, from his voice with its large compass, flexibility and ability to trill, to his physical size and out-sized comic genius that had audiences laughing before he opened his mouth. He sang everything—dramatic and buffo parts—to great acclaim, taught voice (to Queen Victoria no less), and fortunately for us, wrote a book about singing. You can read it here.

I first read Lablache's book at the New York Public Library, and subsequently found a hard copy at Abebooks. In terms of vocal pedagogy, it is a very desirable book. Why? Because, it contains simple and easily understandable instructions in the Italian School of Singing, from the formation of the mouth to the manner of vocalization. That may be why it was reprinted many times. 

This book is also unusual because as it is—to my knowledge—the first manual written in English to show the student how the tongue should be used during singing (the plate used by Lablache in his treatise that shows the placement of the tongue first appeared in a manual written by Crivelli twenty years earlier). Other authors of the period wrote about the tongue's placement in the mouth, but Lablache was the first to give the reader a picture. And what does it look like? Flat and grooved. My own thought is that Lablache's representation may refer to the feeling involved as well as the physical conformation.


Up until quite recently, you had to trudge to a good music library to find this book. Now it is click away. Amazing when you think about it. Instruction in the art of bel canto singing is right at your fingertips. 

Lithograph of Luigi Lablache: Courtesy of Yale University. 

January 21, 2010

Manuel Garcia: the birth of a legend

Manuel García, the legendary tenor and voice teacher, was born on this day in Seville in 1775. His son, also Manuel García, recorded his teaching in A complete treatise on the art of singing (1847), and in doing so, revolutionized the teaching of singing.

James Radomski, in his excellent biography Manuel García (1775-1832): Chronicle of the Life of a bel canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism (2000), notes that García the Elder was born on the eve of revolution (France & America), a fitting beginning for a legend. Timing, as they say, is everything, and Garcia had a knack for it; after experiencing much success as a singer, he traveled to Naples at the age of 36 and began study with the tenor Giovanni Anzani, an Italian singing master schooled in the secrets of bel canto. (It seems the old master lived next door.) Whether their meeting was by chance or design, this is when the fireworks really took off, both vocally and historically.

The appellation of García being a revolutionary is born out, considering that García's teachings, as transmitted through his son, are still a force to be reckoned with.

January 19, 2010

Spoleto & Umbrian Serenades

This past Sunday, I braved the rainy weather and went to St. John the Divine to hear my friend Paulo Faustini sing in the 4 o'clock Evensong service with two choirs from Philadelphia. The singing was beautiful, especially  Stephen Paulus' Even before we call on Your name, which was sung from behind the choir at the start of the service. James Buonemani's  Oh Lord, open thou our lips was exquisite too, the tight harmonies resonating gloriously in the vast space. And Paulo's tenor solo in Moses Hogan's This Little Light of Mine was very fine, his clear and agile voice expressing joy and hope.

Paulo and I both went to Westminster Choir College in the 80's, and were in the Concert Choir which served as the opera chorus for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston SC and Spoleto Italy. My summer in Italy was life-changing, none the least of which was singing the baritone solos in Fauré's Requiem in the Duomo on the town square. My first professional gig. I was ecstatic! 

As part of the opera chorus, I ran around the stage of the Teatro Nuovo with forty other men in Puccini's La fancuilla del West, climbing scaffolding in ninety degree weather while wearing a Fendi fur. That was fun! 

 That's me on the right

Not forgotten is Leonard Bernstein sashaying into the middle of a dress rehearsal, cigarette in hand, like a king before his subjects. He held court with a handsome man under each arm for forty-five minutes, every inch the raconter, then swept back out into the bright sunshine while we went back to work in the evening stage light and fake snow, mouths gaping in wonder.

Paulo is still going to Spoleto each summer having founded the Umbrian Serenades program with Holly Phares, another Westminster friend. 

I envy them both. Spoleto is a special place. 

January 18, 2010

George Jellinek & The Vocal Scene

When I heard the announcement on WQXR this morning that George Jellinek had died at the age of ninety, I remembered two things; meeting him at the Centennial gala for The New York Singing Teachers Association at the Kosciuszko Foundation in April '06, and the sound of his voice on The Vocal Scene, which was rich and warm—a tumbler of cognac on a cold Winter night.  

The history of a people is found in its songs 

- George Jellinek

I was standing right behind Jellinek when he gave the toast at NYSTA's gala.  He raised a champagne glass in his left hand, stood stock still, and worked a quiet sorcery on everyone in the candlelit room, invoking the names of great singers and voice teachers in that distinctive voice.  Afterward, we clinked glasses and I introduced myself (he inquired about my Hungarian last name), and quickly found myself in a discussion about Herman Klein, NYSTA's first chairman (a history of NYSTA's founders can be read in VOICEPrints, May/June 2006), and one of the personages Jellinek spoke about.

The fascinating thing is that Klein and Jellinek furthered the art of il bel canto as though cut from the same cloth; Klein with his many books on singers and articles for the Gramophone; Jellinek with his radio program and articles for Fanfare Magazine.  It is not an exaggeration to assert that, between the two, one receives a comprehensive overview of singers and the art of singing.  The wealth and breath of intelligent commentary and insight is astonishing.

George Jellinek introduced several generations to the world of beautiful singing through The Vocal Scene.  One can only hope that these legendary broadcasts will be aired again (or at least available in some form) to nurture, educate and inspire future audiences.

It's great listening. 

An article in The New Yorker commemorating Jellinek's last broadcast can be read here, while an interview with Beverly Sills can be heard here.  His autobiography, The Road to Radio, is available at Amazon.

January 16, 2010

Libraries: Actual & Virtual

My library sprawls across two built-in shelves on either side of a big mantel, which is rather imposing for the size of the room.  The nine foot tall book cases are scaled to keep up with it (the ceiling is almost twelve feet), and practically every inch is stuffed with books.  The larger, heavier ones are on the bottom shelves.  The music books and scores are on the left, closer to the window, desk and sofa.  And the big books on interior design (they are always big) are on the right, near two comfortable chairs.  The rest of the books, a mish-mash of everything and anything written by Gore Vidal,  have found a place next to each other according to size and category.

While my library at home is nearly full, the one in my ibook is not.  If you have not already heard, Google is funding the scanning of 20 major libraries - an ambitious project.  This means that a vast amount of material in the public domain will be available online.  Only last week, I did a search and found a book that I read at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center.  This is going to make research a lot easier, and I dare say, a lot more fun.  You will able to sit at home in jammies, with tea and toast, and download dessert (it's rather sweet to be able to perform a word search on a digital file).  That said, there are many materials that will not find their way into a database.  To find them, you will first have find a librarian.  And a good one will save you a lot of time and effort.  My own modus operandi is to dress nicely, smile, speak clearly and in complete sentences.   It can make a big difference.

January 15, 2010

The Garcia School: Emi de Bidoli's 10 commandments for beginning students

I love old books, especially old books on singing. My bookshelves are filled with them. And I've been lucky to have acquired a few that are rare. One is a slender ninety-four page volume by Emi de Bidoli - a student of Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Aglaja Orgeni - titled Reminiscences of a Vocal Teacher (1946). It is remarkable for several reasons, the first being that the author gives the reader detailed instruction in singing that augments that which is outlined in Manuel Garcia's A complete treatise on the art of singing (1847) and Hints on Singing (1894). The second is that it contains letters from Viardot-Garcia on vocal technique. Thirdly, de Bidoli describes her studies with both teachers with candor, revealing their character and humanity. A little book with a great deal of information!

Emi de Bidoli (1870-1952)

The Austrian-born mezzo-soprano, Emi de Bidoli (1870-1952), began study with Aglaja Orgeni at the Royal Conservatory in Dresden after hearing Orgeni's American pupil Edyth Walker sing Brunhilde in Graz. While Orgeni was a good teacher, she had a neurotic personality, which De Bidoli found difficult to deal with. Wanting the same system of teaching, De Bidoli sought out Orgeni's teacher, Pauline Viardot-Garcia in Paris. Her tuition with the daughter of Manuel Garcia lasted four years and resulted in a career that started with a bang in Vienna. But this promising start was halted by her mother's illness, and then the First World War, where she served as a nurse. After the war, she taught voice in Graz before immigrating to the United States in 1921, settling in Cleveland, and teaching voice at a studio in Carnegie Hall.

Trained to be a singer, De Bidoli spent the majority of her professional life as a teacher of singing. Fittingly, she starts the reader off with the basics in chapter seven, which is devoted to vocal technique.    

The 10 commandments for beginning students are as follows:
1. Stand erect.
2. Keep perfect balance (one foot in advance).
3. Chest High, shoulders in natural position.
4. Head free and straight (feel your head like a flower and the neck as its stem).
5. Breath deeply, without moving chest nor shoulders in the least.
6. Tongue flat and grooved, tip of tongue leaning on the roots of the lower teeth,
7. Mouth open moderately and with friendly expression.
8. Upper lip never to be drawn over teeth.
9. Soft palate in the high position.
10. Chin never protruding- lower teeth behind the upper teeth.

While these ten points seem simple enough, execution of the same is a whole other matter. Emi de Bidoli recounts how, at her second lesson with Orgeni, a tongue depressor was shoved far back into her mouth. This nearly gagged her, and tears ran down her face. Orgeni's sarcastic outburst, "Oh you are one of those delicate spoiled children who are always under the tutelage of their ma-mas!" added insult to injury, and De Bidoli would have fled the studio if not for the presence of her fellow students.  

I exerted my willpower and resumed my practice until I could keep my tongue down flat in my mouth and even make a furrow in it. This was my first triumph and I was duly rewarded by feeling that the pressure on my throat had been removed, giving my voice more freedom.

Aglaja Orgeni (1843-1926) 

(This reminds me of the words of the renowned pedagogue Margaret Harshaw: We work hard to make things simple!)

With the basics established, Emi de Bidoli goes on to give the reader an exercise in breath control, which entails inhaling for 4 counts, holding the breath for 4 counts with hands on lower ribs, then exhaling from 4 to 24 counts on "ZZZZZZZZ,  like a humming bee." She suggests that students then practice singing single tones in the middle/lower range on "OH" or "OOH", or by humming." From breath management to vocalization, Emi de Bidoli then addresses vocal placement in language that is strikingly similar to that of Anna E. Schoen-René, who also studied with Pauline Viardot-Garcia.

In the old Italian "Bel Canto" school the phrase "con la fronte' means that all tones must be directed towards the forehead, at the juncture of the nose. However, little can be derived in this matter from written rules and explanations. Only a capable teacher can make the pupil understand what the requirements of correct placement are. An ounce of practice and example is worth more than a ton of theory. 
She maintained that the attack of the tone had much to do with correct placement and was facilitated by 'pure' Italian vowels and the use of the phoneme 'M'. Above all, she valued a clear voice, a quality that was brought out by her own training, as evidenced by a letter she received during a break in her studies.

My dear Emi- 

Come back to me as soon as you can. I'll make you work very hard. You have to prepare a nice repertoire. It would be too bad to drop your work just now when you are at two steps from "très bien." Take care of your voice because such pure and clear qualities are becoming more and more rare. In singing so much modern music, people think it not necessary anymore to make the voice supple and light- and how wrong they are. They don't realize that the more the voice is agile, the more it gains in volume and the better a person can sing expressively and sustained- and the less the voice becomes tired. This is true even in singing modern music, which is often very beautiful, but almost always fatal to the voice.

Write to me soon as possible, my dear Emi, and receive my best wishes for yourself and your dear ones,  

Pauline Viardot

Pauline Viardot-García (1821-1910)

It should be noted that the new music that Viardot-Garcia was speaking of was most likely that of Debussy, Puccini and Strauss!

Published by in 1946, five years after Anna E. Schoen-René's America's Musical Inheritance (1941), Reminiscences of a Vocal Teacher gives the reader what Schoen-René's much larger book does not - vocal instruction. And this is no small matter: to my knowledge there is no other book with this kind of material by a student of Viardot-Garcia. A rare thing indeed!

You can locate a copy through WorldCat.

January 7, 2010

Kiri Te Kanawa's voice teacher

I've been watching and listening to Kiri Te Kanawa on Utube recently, finding her apparent lack of physical effort, beautiful tone and elegant phrasing fascinating. She's had a 40 year career and still has the 'goods' as a recent posting in October '09 reveals. Curious about her vocal training, and after some digging, I found two voice teachers that figured prominently in her development: Vera Rózsa and Sister Mary Leo.  

Te Kanawa pursued vocal studies with Rózsa in London after receiving instruction from Sister Mary Leo in New Zealand. Sister Mary Leo gave Te Kanawa the technical foundation that Rózsa later developed, bringing out the upper range which catapulted Te Kanawa to fame as Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. This - and more- I learned from Margaret Lovell-Smith, the author of a very curious book entitled The Enigma of Sister Mary Leo.  

Lovell-Smith devotes chapter seven of her book to Sister Mary Leo's teaching, and of course, that is the part I turned to first when the book arrived in the post! (I found a copy at Abebooks.com from a bookstore in Australia.)  Reading it over, it's clear that Sister Mary Leo was a dyed-in-the-wool empiricist, relying on her ear to "discriminate unerringly between a really beautiful sound and one that is just not quite right." Her method was more conceptual than analytical, and centered on the student's imagination rather than the mechanism. Lacking an understanding of physiology, she once remarked...

 ...no one knows how tone is produced except the Lord himself. We're all working in the dark. I don't know whether it's produced by the vocal chords or in the sinuses, but I take the sinus method because I think I've had more success that way.

One of her basic principles was the idea of "thought notes', which she stressed along with breathing and support. These were tones that were sung with the thought of the frontal sinuses of the head. She would instruct her students to put a finger on the bridge of the nose and imagine the sound "floating out above it or from between the eyes." 

A 'thought note', if rightly placed, would carry, and to test this she would send her pupils out of the building or along the corridor to sing from a distance. She used the same technique when judging the quality of a violin, because she saw the voice and the violin as being very similar. "A well-produced voice will travel- it's like a violin," she said. Putting a finger on the forehead between her eyes to think 'thought notes' was another important part of her teaching. She also developed a concept called a 'cat sound', in an attempt to get resonance. After telling a pupil to sing a 'thought note' she would tell her to 'connect up with the air' in the sides of her face and sing a cat sound, a proper sound: 'Sing into the nose with the nose closed. Then when you open the nose you get the correct thing; what you're aiming at.'
In Sister Mary Leo's words, she used her 'sinus teaching' to get a 'head tone' which gave a youthful tone or ring to the voice that was not achieved by singing 'down there in the vocal cords'. She gave her pupils a lot of exercises aiming at developing their head tone, including imagining the voice exiting through the forehead, or thinking of the notes floating in the head. She also asked them to imagine the sound coming from the top of the head, down the nose and pulling the sound down to 'hit the floor'. It was singing with the head tone which produced the pure, bell-like, almost disembodied kind of quality in the upper register that was evident in many of her students' voices. 
Another technique she used was to ask the pupil to raise her hand and draw it back towards the nose and face, saying 'Draw it in, draw it in.' This gave the effect of singing in a very contained way, with a more focused and concentrated tone and appropriate breath energy. Another technique was to tell her pupils to imagine a string going from their forehead to the far wall, and a series of stars on the string. As they sang they had to draw the stars in towards them. She would also tell them to place a hand on the bridge of the nose and draw the sound in, letting it 'ring' in front of the eyes.  - The Enigma of Sister Mary Leo, p. 158-159 

Sister Mary Leo's instruction to 'draw it in, draw it in' is in keeping with the 'old Italian school' expression inhalare la voce, also translated as 'inhale' or 'drink the tone'. It's a concept that I have found in many places, one being the Marcella Sembrich Papers at the New York Public Library in a document titled Reflections of a Concert Singer (1928) by a unnamed student of Sembrich,  perhaps Alma Gluck or Louise Homer, who's notebook from lessons with Sembrich makes for fascinating reading. 

In approaching legato phrases, Madame has often said to me "Drink dearie, drink" with a coaxing tone in her voice and an ineffable smile upon her face that only her pupils, or as I can imagine those who saw her in her great moments on the stage, could possibly understand. This one expression has influenced my development beyond measure.  - from Reflections of a Concert Singer (1928)

Madame Sembrich studied with Francesco Lamperti and his son Giovanni Battista Lamperti. And Sister Mary Leo?  Margaret Lovell-Smith places her teaching firmly within the "tradition of the Italian school of bel canto singing", tracing it back to Manuel Garcia through Leo's lessons (her birth name was Kathleen Niccol) with the New Zealand contralto Irene Ainsley, the latter having studied with the famous Nellie Melba, as well as Melba's teacher Mathilde Marchesi, herself a student of Manuel Garcia.  Lovell-Smith speculates that Sister Mary Leo may have also had lessons with Melba's first teacher, Madame Christian, a Sister of Charity and student of Manuel Garcia, who established the Garcia School of Music at Potts Point in Sydney, since Leo traveled there in the early 1920's. Whatever the source, Sister Mary Leo's instruction, like that of Marchesi, produced many successful singers- all of them women.

The question I am asking myself after reading this book is this: Did the Garcia and Lampert schools teach the "voice placement" taught by Sister Mary Leo? My own connection with the Garcia School via the teaching of Margaret Harshaw suggests that they did, though you will find little reference to this aspect of vocal pedagogy in a primary source (you will, however, find voice placement written about in detail in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García (VoiceTalkPublications, 2013). Sister Mary Leo's methods are remarkably similar - and in some cases identical - to that of Margaret Harshaw, who also taught her students to sing from the bridge of the nose.

Schoen-René told me, 'Every note you sing should come from the bridge of your nose.' I had three weeks to master it, or I was threatened with loss of my scholarship. It was rough, but you did it - or else. She was called the Prussian General. Believe it! - from Miss Margaret's Way by James A. Van Sant, Opera News, March 2, 1996

January 5, 2010

A Visit To Garcia

Lillian Blauvelt (1873-1947)

on one visit to his home, I took with me the young American, Lillian Blauvelt, who was at that time studying with me. Beautiful and possessed of great personal charm, she also had a lovely lyric voice which is still remembered by those fortunate enough to have heard her sing. Garcia was charmed with her. When we went into his little garden, through the open door of his studio, he cut some flowers and laid them on a chair where she had placed her parasol. Later, he gave her his autographed photograph, a fact which made me a bit envious, because he had not yet given one to me. All his attention on that occasion was for the beautiful young woman. Quite unexpectedly, however, he turned to me, holding a half-opened rose in his hand. "Here child," he said, "this is the expression of the perfect tone. Every nuance of beauty, color, fragrance, and form is in this God-given creation, not yet abused by human treatment."  From America's Musical Inheritance by Anna Eugénie Schön-René , 1941,  p 108-109

An exhibition on Lillian Blauvelt was presented by Gettysburg College in 2007.  Fortunately, a gallery with a recording can be viewed here.  Her trill is exemplary.