January 30, 2012

The lowdown on Larry

Larry likes it low!" I sometimes say. It can make the student laugh, a good thing since learning to sing can be serious business, the kind of which shouldn't be taken so seriously that it becomes impossible. 

Anyone who has studied Manuel García's works and that of his students knows that the larynx lowers slightly while the soft palate rises in making rounded tone. But there is a huge difference in observing this with the eye or finger and while singing. It's the difference between objective and subjective knowledge. The problem comes when confusing the two perceptions. And what is this difference practically speaking? 

Put your finger on your larynx and speak or sing a clear & rich chiaroscuro tone in the lower range and Larry will be felt to have descended slightly. Make it go down mechanically and then try to sing a rich chiaroscuro tone and it will come out bungled. Why? Because there is a difference between cause and effect. 

The Old Italian School taught that The Italian Singer has no throat. Another way to say this is that being aware of your larynx or throat during singing is a sign that something is wrong. 

It is a fact that one can teach the singer to make beautifully rounded tones and not mention the larynx or soft palate at all. Getting the right tonal value into the consciousness via imitation is the key. It has to be heard in the studio. Once the student's ear has wrapped itself around the experience, the self-aware student may spontaneously comment about where they feel Larry to be in comparison to where he was before. (The student may say the throat is 'open.') Then again, they may not be aware of Larry at all unless you ask them. Should you ask them? That's a good question. 

Being aware of mechanics isn't a good thing in my estimation until the student's singing is very stable. This is why I believe the famous voice teacher Anna E. Schoen-René (a student of Manuel García and Pauline Viardot-García) noted the following in her book, America's Musical Inheritance (1941): "Scientific explanations can only be grasped by singers already educated in the principals of their art." 

Being educated in the principals of bel canto is first a matter of the ear, then the eye. Subjective experience, then objective experience/understanding. One leads the other. Putting the eye before the ear is putting the cart before the horse. 

January 29, 2012

Particia Neway: To this we've come

Strange to say, but the first time I heard Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Consul, I was in high school, babysitting the neighbors two kids. They went to bed early and I amused myself by channel surfing, stumbling on Menotti's opera just as it started on PBS's Great Performances. I was shocked by the story, musical language and the main aria "To this we've come." Its hopeful consonance in the middle of the dissonant bleak work made a huge impact on my 17 year old brain. Menotti's opera was the first I ever saw from beginning to end if you don't count my first performance in opera being Carmen. I was in third grade and sang in the children's chorus, but I digress!

The soprano who created the role of Magda Sorel in The Consul was Particia Neway, who recently died at the age of 92 (see Theatre Aficionado at Large), having sung 269 performances of Menotti's opera. She sang at a time when 'crossover' meant something different that it does now, my point being that Neway sang on Broadway in major roles with operatic technique. She won a Tony as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Look closely and you will find Tatiana Troyanos singing in the chorus.  

The choral singing is full-bodied and womanly, with none of the hooty or straightened approach you find today. All too often, choral directors try to find 'blend' by limiting rather than expanding. This may have everything to do with the fact that many conductors today aren't singers. At any rate, the choral approach of Neway's time on Broadway was classically driven, a very different approach than can be heard today.

Here is Neway accepting her Tony Award in 1960.

You can find Neway in Menotti's The Consul on DVD here. What a beautifully burnished voice. She sang a great deal at The New York City Opera, back when its home was The City Center of Music and Drama on 55th Street.

Postscript 2/1/12: The New York Times finally published Newway's obitiuary which you can find here.

January 26, 2012

Ron Raines

I went to see Stephen Sondheim's legendary show Follies last week which was in the last week of its New York run (it closed on Sunday and is moving to Los Angeles). Among the many luminaries in the cast was Ron Raines. As fate would have it, I went to see my barber yesterday and who was in the chair ahead of me? None other than Mr. Raines. Introductions were made and it was a pleasure to shake his hand and tell him how much I enjoyed his performance. He's fantastic.

Ron Raines has been hitting it out of the park eight shows a week, singing and acting with such authenticity that it makes your heart ache. In the character of Benjamin Stone, Raines swaggers in at the beginning of Act 1, bluster and bitterness on his breath. But by the end of Act 2, when sitting in a puddle of confetti on the floor, Raines as Ben has burned his way into your consciousness. You know this man, especially if you are over 40, Raines making you feel underneath Ben's hard shell. No smoke and mirrors here. How does he do it? With his voice, of course. Rains has real technique, vocal and otherwise, which serve the story. 

In an interview between Raines and his co-star Elaine Page at the American Theatre Wing's website (which you can listen to the full interview here), Page asks Raines about the difference between singing opera and theatre, which, coincidentally, both have done at New York City Opera: Page in Sweeny Todd and Raines in The Merry Widow and New Moon

Page: "Is there a difference, you know, in terms of the art of it?" 

Rains: "Not for me. I keep trying to learn how to sing and tell a story." 

Page then goes on to relate how Sondheim wants singers to sing, not talk his songs.

"I want you to sing it!" - Stephen Sondheim

Aside from the 'how-much-tone-should-one-make-in-the-theatre-when-singing' matter, it's the "keep trying to learn how to sing and tell a story" thought that interests me. Mr. Raines shows every evidence of doing just that. (Listen to him here.)

Technique isn't something you can buy like a carton of milk on the corner. It isn't a product. It's an art and a craft- a way of life. Yes. You need someone to show you the 'how' of it. But the teacher also needs a great student, someone who does more than stand there, waiting for fame and fortune to come with no effort involved. The truth is: the really great performers never stop learning. And Ron Raines hasn't.

Don't miss this consummate artist in Los Angeles.

January 14, 2012

The Vannuccini School: Part V

William L. Whitney (1861-1950)

William L. Whitney was an exponent of Luigi Vannuccini, one of a handful of legendary singing masters at the second half of the 19th century which included Manuel García, Pauline-Viardot-García, Francesco Lamperti and Antonio Sangiovanni. Vocal giants all, their precepts were inculcated by their students in a manner that has little credence today with the emphasis on repertoire rather than scales and exercises in order to develop technique. This was done in order to establish a grid upon which repertoire was laid.

This grid was rooted in Italian tonal values and the acquisition of "pure vowels," two words that have been supplanted by terms like "formant tuning" and "resonance strategies." While useful in regard to vocal mechanics, the latter terms don't have what pure vowels does, which is an emphasis on vowel quality. This "pointing" of the student's ear is, of course, the stuff of Empiricism, passed from teacher to student in the confines of the voice studio. After all, before you can sing a pure tone, you have to have a teacher who is its living embodiment. In short, you have to hear it before you can do it, knowledge of pure tone's physical conformation being only part of the equation. 

Whitney and his wife, Leta Fulton Whitney

William L. Whitney, a concert and oratorio singer in England, Italy, Germany and America, taught these ideals at New England Conservatory of Music, starting in 1888, his two most famous students being Louise Homer and Eleanor Steber. He also had studios in Florence and Paris, teaching for a time at the Royal Normal and Wimbledon Colleges in London, England. He remained on the faculty of the Conservatory until his death in 1950, an association of sixty years duration. His memorial service was held there January 5, 1950. 

The difficult task falls upon me of trying to express, however, inadequately, our sense of irreparable loss- deep personal loss as well as the shattering loss to the Conservatory. I might dwell at length on what his going takes from us- the characteristics so indelibly fastened in our memories; his boundless energy, his indefatigable spirit and dignity- the exacting demands he made upon himself: his intolerance of sham and the mediocre, yet endless patience with and encouragement for worthy youth; his wonderful smile which reflected a world of kindness; his pungent and penetrating criticism, always softened by a whimsical and delicious humor; the wisdom and just decisions he contributed to the Faculty Council, and finally, the vast accumulation of knowledge and experience in his art which he poured so endlessly into the minds and hearts of generations of pupils, insuring the perpetuation of this great art for years to come.  
To us teachers and students, he leaves then a rare model of maintaining complete and absolute integrity in his art and work - a perfect example of a career which, by his selfless desire to give out, regenerated perpetually his great spirit. Who of us, at the of a career, would not prize this reward above most, to have it said of him, as we can so justly say of our departed friend, — "He was a great artist, an inspired teacher, a devoted friend, and above all, a good man'? 

I wish to thank Ms. Maryalice Perrin-Mohr, Archivist, The New England Conservatory of Music, for the photographs and information on William L. Whitney contained within this post. Her generosity is greatly appreciated. 

January 9, 2012

Mourning NYCO

Amanda Edge

Readers who have followed the continuing saga of the NYCO archives will be saddened to learn that the orchestra and chorus were locked out of rehearsals today after a weekend of mediation- an action which presages the end of the company. This morning, I read (Facebook) the following letter from my colleague Amanda Edge who appeared in NYCO's La Traviata at the State Theater in Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts. I want to thank Amanda for allowing me to reprint her words on this page. She expresses the feelings and thoughts of hundreds of company members who have given their lives, love and art to a once glittering, prestigious and groundbreaking arts organization.

A Lincoln Center arts organization representing itself with a black hole. A marketing campaign featuring a smashed car and a man dressed like a gangster. An obscure repertoire with no proven public appeal. A general manager/artistic director with no experience running an opera company. Is it so difficult to venture that the decline of New York City Opera is not the inevitable result of a sagging economy, but is due instead to questionable-to-terrible repertory choices and gross mismanagement? Actually, there is little evidence to suggest that New York City Opera’s current management didn’t purposefully send the company into a nosedive.  
I had the honor of dancing with the company in 2007, as the gypsy in New York City Opera’s popular La Traviata. And my longtime boyfriend Billy was – until this meltdown - the last remaining dancer on contract. So, full disclosure: my interest in NYCO definitely lands firmly on the side of the artists, the choristers, orchestra members, stage managers, and assistant directors. However, as someone with a 20-year performing career (New York City Ballet, Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera, and Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away), and as an opera-goer who has attended NYCO for over 2 decades (long before I ever met Billy in State Theater’s elevator #7) I also think I have a relatively educated idea of what’s good, and what audiences want to see. 
A personal survey of my trips to the theater over the past several years proves that the arts at Lincoln Center – and in the city - thrive when savvy choices are made. While the stock market imploded in 2008, South Pacific played to sold-out crowds at the Vivian Beaumont and extended its limited run. The stunning production earned 7 Tony Awards and ran for over two years. 
The New York Philharmonic continues to present appealing programs, giving us Brahms, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Ravel, as well as Gershwin and Cole Porter. We’re buying tickets. At what will always be the New York State Theater to me, New York City Ballet has been thrilling audiences: Wendy Whelan in Diamonds or the drum regiment of Union Jack; Tiler Peck in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; Daniel Ulbricht in Prodigal Son. What’s not to love? 
The Nutcracker was presented Live From Lincoln Center (on PBS and aired in movie theaters). Someone named Paul McCartney recently composed a score for the company. And, when New York City Opera sold a handful of their weeks to NYCB last year, story ballets like Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coppélia, and The Sleeping Beauty put families in the seats. 
American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle at the Metropolitan Opera House last Spring: The 170-year old ballet was a hit, and the packed house jumped to its feet as the curtain closed. Thunderous applause and appreciative shouts filled the cavernous Met, and a number of fans rushed to the foot of the stage. 
The School of American Ballet’s Gala Workshop at Julliard’s Peter Jay Sharpe Theater: The performance garnered a response that was loud, long, effusive and genuine as the ticket-buyers (who were not just parents!) enthusiastically celebrated a new group of future dance stars. There was not an empty seat at City Center this past November as the dancers of American Ballet Theatre soared in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Billy Elliot, a phenomenal show that closed on Broadway this evening, won 10 Tony Awards and ran for over 3 years. We saw it twice, and would have gone back tonight if any tickets had been available. War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont: The magical puppets have been entertaining a captivated house, and it garnered 6 Tony Awards last year. I think there’s a puppet at New York City Opera too, but he’s of an entirely different sort. 
Last year, while New York City Opera’s sparse, dissonant, and abysmal (and very expensive to mount) Monodramas was critically acclaimed in the New York Times, the glowing review of opening night neglected to mention that the theater was over 60% papered. 
As a 16-year old studying at the School of American Ballet, I often signed out of my dorm room to cross the plaza and see New York City Opera. Standing room tickets were $10, and I attended beautiful productions of Madame Butterfly and Carmen. Charlie Wigler, a counselor at SAB, noticed my interest in opera; he asked if I had ever seen Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. I hadn’t, so a couple of days later he took my classmate, ABT’s Paloma Herrera, and me to the double bill, where we spotted Placido Domingo in the audience. The performance was riveting, and I was hooked. In the following years, I became a regular, attending tremendous productions of The Mikado, The Ballad of Baby Doe, H.M.S. Pinafore, Rigoletto, Brigadoon, Die Tote Stadt, Semele, Rinaldo, Candide, Carmina Burana, Prince Igor, La Rondine, and more (not typical offerings at the Metropolitan Opera). I listened to recordings of Boito’s Classical Sabbath from Mefistofele, and of Beverly Sills singing Villa from The Merry Widow. In both cases, I wept. 
This weekend, the artists of New York City Opera were left to reject an insulting offer of $4000/year without health insurance (while George Steel makes $400,000/year in a true example of the 1% in America). What Steel, Charles Wall, and NYCO’s board have done is unconscionable; the pompous, selfish, elitist group has blithely defaced the people’s opera. The artists of the company, who were offered 80% below the 2011 national poverty level of $22,350, are the casualties of war. It appears that New York has lost New York City Opera, once a vibrant jewel in the artistic crown of this great city.  
Download Beverly “Bubbles” Sills singing Villa. Sip a quality wine. And mourn the loss of her company.

January 5, 2012

NYU International Voice Symposium

I took the train downtown from the West Side to West 4th Street, walked a few blocks to the far side of Washington Square Park and plunked down in a seat in a half-darkened oval shaped room for the next eight hours. What was I doing? Listening to my fellow wizards hold forth on everything from lip trills to a comparison between Classical Western Singing and Classical Indian (Hindustani) Styles. Fascinating stuff in you are into that sort of thing. And I am. 

Conferences are an excellent way to keep abreast of the latest research as well as hob-knob with those of like mind. That is exactly what happens during breaks: everyone is brought up to date, makes contacts, shares ideas and observations and dishes everything that is served. Warm, hot and cold: it's a generous meal of presentations, original research and thought provoking information. Something for everyone if well-designed. And this conference seems to have all the necessary elements under Brian Gill's direction. 

Tomorrow will see presentations by Johan Sundberg and Ingo Titze, two giants in Voice Science. I've read their books and can't wait to see them in action. 

January 4, 2012

Ferdinand Sieber

His book is on Kindle now, did you know that?  Yes-sir-ee.  You can now download Ferdinand Sieber's (1822-1895) book of vocal exercises for baritone for your Kindle (he wrote many books of vocal exercises which you will find with google). While you may have used Sieber's books of exercises in the past, or saw them on a shelf in a music library, I am guessing you didn't know who he was.

I remember seeing the book below at Patelson's Music Store behind Carnegie Hall some years ago before it closed. But I didn't know who Sieber was until I starting doing research on Anna E. Schoen-Rene (1864-1942), the musical daughter of Manuel Garcia and Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Schoen-Rene had lessons with Sieber in Berlin as a young woman before studying with PaulineViardot-Garcia in Paris in the 1880's.

Sieber also wrote a book on singing titled Katechismus der Gesangskunst (1885). I found a copy of the English translation  - The Art of Singing, and Voice Culture (1908) - at Abebooks. Reading it, one gleans that he was an Old School boy.

Though Sieber did not have the enduring fame that has been accorded to Francesco Lamperti and Manuel Garcia, he was considered one of the foremost exponents of the Old Italian School.

HERR FERDINAND SIEBER, the famous singing-teacher, died at his home in Berlin on February 18th, from inflammation of the lungs. At the time of his death he was the greatest living exponent of the old Italian method of voice-culture. He was called by Leo Kofler the "apostolic successor" to the old masters, for he could trace his pedagogical descent directly from the days of Porpora. A short time before his death, Herr Sieber published a new book of vocal exercises, planned to bridge over what seemed to be a break in his voicetraining series already issued. His exercises are not only admirable for the voice, but they are also exceedingly tuneful, many being melodious enough for songs. Werner's Magazine 1885

Ok. So perhaps the 'greatest living exponent of the old Italian method' was stretching things a bit. After all, Manuel Garcia and his sister weren't dead yet. And they could trace their pedagogical descent through their father, Manuel Garcia the Elder, who studied with Giovanni Anzani, a student of the great Nicola Porpora. What was Seiber's lineage? He studied voice with Gorgio Ronconi, the famous Verdi baritone. And Ronconi was a student of his father, who had studied with a Venetian vocal master in the late 18th century. No small potatoes that.

January 3, 2012

Time Travel

While visiting my parents over the weekend (New Year's Day is also my father's birthday) I found a cassette tape in the bottom of a box. A talisman of time travel, it was a recording I had made in 1990 and had totally forgotten about. 

I had been singing at New York City Opera for two years and was approached to record a song - She Walks in Beauty- that had been commissioned by a patron for the New York Philharmonic. I met with the composer Joseph Turrin, coached the song and then recorded it at a studio in midtown in two takes a week later. Another piece - Lullaby - was added at the last minute and was recorded in one take. That was quick! Being a busy thirty-two year old, I put the cassette in a box when it arrived in the mail a few weeks later and went on with my life. 

It's a curious experience hearing yourself after so many years. You hear not only the voice, but who you were and weren't, what you knew without being taught, and what you had yet to learn. In this case, I hear that my right ear had not yet fully awakened, a process that began after I went to the Listening Center in Toronto in 1999.

Oh, but I was a young man. Unlike Benjamin Stone in Follies, I do remember him. He idolized Gerald Souzay and listened to everything he recorded.