February 10, 2010

The Garcia School: Clifton Cooke & Practical Singing

A very curious old book arrived in my mailbox from England this past summer. Its author—a Mr. Clifton Cooke (1867-1938), taught voice in London and was a student of Manuel Garcia and Charles Santley, the latter a highly esteemed Victorian baritone. I use the word curious because Clifton Cooke's book Practical Singing (1913) contains a pictorial representation of an Old School teaching that I have never seen anywhere else.

Light and shade in singing do not consist of singing passages loud and soft alternately; they consist in using various colours of the voice to suit the sentiment of the words.  

With this statement to guide us, a clear conception of the technique involved is the acquirement of command of tone-colour is of the utmost importance. The Italian School of Singing has handed down a vowel scheme of especial value in this respect. The main line in the accompanying diagram is known under various titles; the arco vocale, ponte contore, and as I prefer to call it, "the vowel segement." 
The line drawn from the back of the upper teeth down to the lower end of the pharynx is, like the equator, purely imaginary, but nevertheless of great assistance in giving the student a visible idea of the natural point of location of the principal vowel sounds. The vowel I (ee) is the most forward vowel, or as Garcia has it: "The Italian I (ee) being the most ringing vowel, it may be employed to give brilliancy to other vowels." It is therefore essential that the voice must be trained "forward," or in other words, towards the I (ee) position on the vowel-segment. Of course the vowel I (ee) is susceptible of many timbres, and the brightest timbre must at first be cultivated.  p. 42

A little later on in the text, Cooke emphasizes that training the vowels "forward" is the first work of the student, which leads—in due course—to the acquisition of the frontale voice.   

The frontale voice has always been regarded by the Italian School as the foundation of the vocal structure, and many months may be profitably devoted to its development.  p. 53
When the solid foundation of the voice has been laid with the frontale tone, the cultivation of the centrale, head voice, or mezza voce, as it is variously called, may be entered upon.  It can be safely said that the centrale voice will be present as soon as the foundation has been truly laid.  p. 54

According to Cooke, it might take months before the frontale and centrale voices can be emitted with ease in all the range of the voice. He tells the reader that it is only when this technical ability has been accomplished that single tone exercises for the messa di voce are to be given—the acid test for the mezza voce being the student's ability to swell the tone without slipping into the frontale voice. (A previous post on the Garcia School teacher Emi de Biloli, who utilized the phrase con la fronte, contains further information on singing "forward.")

Interestingly, the messa di voce was the first exercise that Cooke's teacher, Manuel Garcia, gave the student in A treatise on the art of singing (1847). With the aforementioned technical requirements by Cooke in mind, it is safe to assume that Manuel Garcia's inclusion of the exercise at the beginning of his own book is no indication of its simplicity.

Cooke gives the reader the distinct impression that learning to sing beautifully is a lot of work. As my own teacher used to say: we work hard to make things simple.

Enjoy the drawing! It gives one a lot to think about. My take? It's all about listening.

February 8, 2010

Lamperti: Father & Son

Whatever one is to make of the Lamperti School of Singing, one thing is certain: Franceso Lamperti and his son Giovanni Battista didn't see eye to eye. I learned this after combing through old newspapers at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, the clipping below from an undated New York paper (c. 1910) gives some of the particulars.   

New York has always been a center for the world of singers and singing teachers since the mid 19th century. One gets a glimpse in old newspapers just how vibrant with activity New York was, especially in the decades straddling 1900. If anything, the letters and columns written resemble the passionate postings on today's online forums. Curiously, it is the Lamperti exponents that made much more noise, while the Garcia folks seem to have kept their disagreements with each other under wraps. Exponents of the Elder Lamperti derided the teaching of the Younger, quarreling as to who was actually certified, while much ink was spilt on the dreaded coup de glotte, even though Manuel Garcia himself clarified that matter in Hints on Singing in 1894.

The clipping above came at a time when passions had cooled somewhat. What made the difference? Time and—I believe—the founding of the National Association of Teachers of Singing in 1906, which later was renamed The New York Singing Teachers Association (what we now know to be NATS was founded in 1944).

Voice teachers started talking to one other.

February 5, 2010

Remembering Beverly Sills

I count myself lucky to have sung for the great American Soprano Beverly Sills during her last year as general manager of New York City Opera. My audition was on the stage of the State Theater at Lincoln Center (now renamed the Koch Theater), City Opera's home after moving from City Center in 1966. I've never forgotten walking out from stage right past the call board, and looking out into the house and seeing her smiling face about ten rows back. 

"What would you like to sing today?" She said, beaming that smile of hers that got donors to cough up big bucks for the company (she was legendary for going to lunch and coming back with the payroll). 

"Non piu andrai from Le Nozze di Figaro."

I sang, all the while feeling like I was being shot out of a cannon. And to this day, I don't know if it was nerves or a flash of genius, but I forgot all about the fourth wall and sang right to her. When I finished the aria, she nodded and smiled even bigger, and said thank you. That was it. I left the stage feeling euphoric, like I could do anything: The next morning I got a call telling me I was a member of the New York City Opera Regular Chorus. 

From my perspective, the whole thing was something of a fluke. I had a friend, Muzetta, who worked for the opera's Guild, and as we talked one morning (I was living in New Jersey at the time), she mentioned that the opera was having auditions and I should give them a call. I did, and was told that—yes—they did have a time available and it was that day. I threw on a suit, grabbed some music and jumped on a train, getting to Lincoln Center and singing for Chorusmaster Joseph Colaneri an hour-and-a-half later. Bam! He asked me if I could sing for Miss Sill's right hand man Donald Hazard a day later, which I did. A few days after that, I was on the main stage singing my heart out to Carol Burnett's sidekick. What's that adage about being in the right place at the right time? 

There are a few personal memories that stand out. One is standing backstage during a performance of Rigoletto while Faith Esham sang Caro nome onstage.  Miss Sills stood there in the dark, not ten feet from me, with no one else around, quietly singing and pantomiming the part. It was haunting, considering that she had retired nine years earlier. The voice—albeit sotto voce—was all there. I felt like I was witnessing time travel.

And then there was the time I almost ran her over.

We were doing Boito's Mefistofile (a great opera!) and I had to run offstage for a quick change of costume, and run—literally—right back onstage. The passageway to get to the change was tight, and we were instructed to call "Clear!" as we went through. So I ran through calling "Clear! Clear! Clear!" and nearly plowed into Miss Sills who threw herself up against the wall to get out of my way. I didn't stop, and got to my dresser—realizing what had just happened—and started cursing under my breath. "Damn! I almost killed Donizetti's Queen!" Presto Chango. I ran back to the stage, again passing Miss Sills who was still plastered against the wall. "Damn! Damn! Damn!" After the scene, I found her on the side of the stage and started to apologize.  

"Oh no dear!" She said, laughing. "You were doing your job. I was in the wrong place!" Her accentuated Brooklyn accent on the word "wrong" cracked me up—and we both laughed.  

Another time, I got in the elevator on the Promenade level to go down to the company offices, and she was there. It was the right after I had been brought on board, and I was in awe of her, and completely tongue-tied. Miss Sills put me at ease immediately by complimenting my apparel in a rather sly tone of voice: "Nice hat!" She said, with that megawatt smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, looking up at the vintage beret my father had given me. You'd do anything for her after that. And we did. 

She knew the place inside and out. She could—if needed—hang the lights and create staging, which happened on more than one occasion when a director didn't work out.  She did it all—and with style.  

We were on tour in Orange County during my first weeks with the company, and having gotten a call from my mother telling me that my grandmother had just died, I stumbled into the company manager's office in a daze to inquire when—and if—I could be released. Mark, the company manager, told me he'd look into it. Not ten minutes later, he pulled me out of a Rigoletto rehearsal to let me know that Miss Sills wanted me to know that I was going home, and not to worry: the company would take care of everything. A limo came early the next morning to take me to the airport. 

A legendary singer with a heart of gold, Beverly Sills had a charisma that I have yet to encounter in anyone since. The air vibrated differently around her. Really. She was one very special lady, to whom I will always be grateful. 

February 1, 2010

A Concise Biographical Dictionary of Singers

Over the weekend, I went with a friend to see Verdi's Stiffelio at the Metropolitan Opera.  Placido Domingo conducted after having sung a baritone role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra the night before. As my friend and I - a mother of two boys - talked during the intermissions, she mentioned that her youngest, who is seven, has been reading the periodic table. Talk about an interest it the basics of life! I thought about this when a book arrived in the mail today. If there is an equivalent to the periodic table for singers, it is the important but largely forgotten book A Concise Biographical Dictionary of Singers from the Beginning of Recorded Sound to the Present, Kutsch & Riemens, ('62, '66, '69). 

A Concise Biographical Dictionary was translated from the original German by Harry Earl Jones. At the time of its first publication, it was the only English language book to give the reader basic - one might say elemental - information on every famous artist who made recordings. What is elemental information?  Who studied with whom, what they sang, where the sang it, and with whom- a huge circle of knowledge. Though one can now use sources like Wikipedia to find this kind of information, these databases aren't available in a form that makes for browsing-  an important matter itself. How I loved digging through the CD's at Tower Records on Broadway near Lincoln Center - I found revelatory singers I didn't know about.

Kirsten Flagstad as Brunhilde

Sadly, Tower Records is no more. And libraries are taking this book off their shelves (I first poured over this 487 page book at the New York Pubic Library). I know this from finding one at Abebooks.com.  The majority of listings are ex-library books. This is good for the interested reader, who can probably find a copy of this out-of-print book as inexpensively as I did. But is it good for the new generation of singers? I think about this after repeatedly hearing colleagues report that graduate school soprano's don't know who Kirsten Flagstad and Joan Sutherland were.

A Concise Biographical Dictionary of Singers is a window into a wondrous world. Reading about these singers makes one want to listen to their recordings. And that is a real education.