Systemic Impatience: The Potential Undoing of the American Operatic Culture

Voice Teachers and Coaches in New York City, the center of American Operatic market, get a clear, on-the-ground view of the state of opera in the United States of America. New York is where it all happens, for the most part. Most of the singers reside there, the viable agents have their offices there, and all the auditions take place there. It is also there that we have a clear laboratory of how American singers deal with the systemic problems of the art form. Particularly in the voice studio and to a certain extent in the studios of coach-pianists, the pressures that young talented American opera singers must shoulder are palpable and very much on the surface. They are also exacerbated by this uncertain economic climate, which sees the bankruptcy of one artistic organization after another.

This week in my studio, I witnessed a capsulated amalgam of the singer’s story within the tragedy and chaos that is the American operatic system. I am saying nothing new when I say it makes no sense, and I am not seeing signs that anyone is interested in fixing it. The few singers who are working will not say anything against it for fear they may be blacklisted. Who can blame them? The agents change strategy with the wind. They must make a living too! They simply represent what opera houses are hiring. And here lies the disconnect! American opera producers with little exception do not believe that American audiences are intelligent or cultured enough to appreciate the art of opera for what makes it virtuous. It is believed that opera must be packaged in a way to pacify the pathological impatience of a culture numbed by Hollywood special effects and the immediate gratification of consumerism gone amuck.
Why do I blame the opera companies? Because that is where the artistic decisions are made. Whether by incompetence or by ignorance, many American operatic organizations do not work because of a fundamental truth: operatic impresarios do not believe that opera in its pure form can be sold to an American audience. So they feel they must in some way water it down to make it viable. Still, the results have been dismal.
It is not the operas, but whether the production teams that are problematic. General Directors are often bureaucrats hired to raise money, but the money they raise do not translate into ticket sales because the artistic product is not viable. Why?
I have already commented on this often. Opera is much more complex musically than the average director or conductor understands. Recently I witnessed the preparation of a production at a major opera house. It took one two-hour rehearsal to realize that the director was thoroughly incapable of grasping the nuances of the music. He was not trained as a musician and did not understand what role the music plays from moment to moment. The function of music in opera changes from moment to moment, from being atmospheric, to choreographic, to aping stage direction, to simulate the sounds of animals, to act as a protagonist or antagonist, to even a deus ex machina. One cannot grasp these nuances (and they are to be found in the most produced operas) if one does not master the language of music. Pitifully, the majority of directors do not. It is not their fault entirely. At some point, it was no longer expected of them. It is believed that a movie director with a name understood musical nuance enough to deal with the complex issues of operatic forms. It is believed that a charismatic personality is more marketable than the operatic product s/he puts out. It is believed that a director who provides scandal, whether artistically profound or banal, would help ticket sales. A knowledgeable, well-trained operatic stage director is rarely found. Where are the Otto Schenks and the Ponnelles and the Zefirellis and the Menottis and the Strehlers?
To be fair, I have had contact with some excellent American directors. My early experiences with such talented directors as Ken Kazan, Jay Lesenger, Edward Berkeley and the extraordinarily gifted James de Blasis leave me even more dumb-founded when I see one weak production after another at regional American opera theaters. What these wonderful directors have in common is musicality. Understanding theater production is not enough. One must know what brings an operatic moment to focus, and for that one must understand both music and theater and how they interact. These directors knew and understood every word of the foreign languages they deal with, another skill that is sorely missing in many directors today. How can they do anything more than skim the artistic surface of operas? I am not speaking from the sidelines. I have had my hand in direction and thus far, even in small venues with shoe-string budgets, I have had personal success. I have the advantage of training as a conductor, as a singer and the luxury of watching those top directors do their work, as well as suffering often the lack of skill of many others. Staging operas depend on understanding the material thoroughly. How can a director do a good job if they simply do not understand the work? This occurs at the highest levels. What does it take to learn all the skills that an operatic director needs? Time and Patience.
Recently at yet another production, I had the luxury of conversing with a conductor I found thoroughly fascinating. I had the luxury of watching him at rehearsals and performance of one of the trickiest operatic scores to be found, namely La Boheme. Like the great conductors of old, Maestro Alexander Joel, the current General Music Director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig, is one of those operatic conductors who give me great hope. Not only did he know every word and every note of that complex and quick-paced, quick-changing score from memory, he had a keen eye for dramatic timing. He was not just conducting a symphony orchestra. He understood the different roles that the music plays, he has a keen sense of vocal line and even a keen understanding of what makes a voice great. In a conversation with him, I was happily surprised by the depth of his understanding of what the singer goes through. he even has a strategy for helping to propel the singers under his care to higher levels in their career. One should be asking how this complete conductor got trained. I must not forget to add that during a one hour conversation we exchanged ideas in four languages. He spoke Italian, German, French and his native English at extraordinarily high levels. The state of operatic conducting has not been unsatisfactory in Europe. I have seen both excellent and weak conductors. Perhaps American conductors are at a disadvantage because of their lack of linguistic skills and the fact that opera has always been an abandoned child in this culture. Either way, the music director in the American opera house, in my experience, takes a back seat. This too needs to be remedied
It requires Time and Patience.
My heart however goes to the singer, since I have opted to make my living being their advocate.
In a way, the same skills required for operatic directors and conductors are required of the singer: musicianship (not just what is called superficially musicality), linguistic skills, stagecraft, besides a voice trained physically to win the resonance battle with a 60-piece orchestra. There is no shortage of singers with the potential to become memorable operatic icons. They have fundamental musicianship, fundamental stagecraft, fundamental linguistic skills and fundamental vocal technique. What they do not have is the time to develop fully. This is what they feel! By extension they become impatient.
These are the stories of a few singers I interacted with this week:
1. A young Canadian tenor visiting New York contacted me for a voice lesson. He has a very high, lighter voice that he had been producing without much support. Some weeks before his arrival he sent me a clip of his singing. I told him that his singing lacked support. He replied that his current teacher was working with him on that. Lucky for him, soon after that he experienced a master class with American baritone, Timothy Noble, who worked with him on the same thing. When he arrived I noticed a clear improvement from his clip, but there was still work to do. We had two 90 minute lessons in two days and the result was quite extraordinary (not blowing my own horn. The young man was extraordinarily intelligent, mature, adventurous and willing to do what was necessary for results). I believe this young man could become extremely successful. Why? Because the system currently favors what he has to offer. He is attractive in a contemporary sort of way; he has a light voice that accesses high notes easily; the light nature of the voice made it possible for him to learn to support it very quickly such that the voice becomes acoustically viable; he is Canadian and therefore already has a linguistic advantage; he moves gracefully as he sang; he is extraordinarily musical; he has a voice suited to operas that are often produced (e.g. Barbiere, L’elisir, Cosi, Giovanni, Flute, etc). In short, it will not take much time to refine his skills including his voice (because it is a lighter voice that is more easily coordinated). Therefore, patience is not an issue.
2. One of my students came to me 18 months ago as a mezzo-soprano. Yesterday, after leaving her for one month, I returned to find the last challenge of her vocal transformation met. The slight intonation problems left from her mezzo days was pretty much gone and she sang Konstanze, Lucia and Bellini’s Giulietta with strength, consistency and the beginnings of well-supported pianissimo. She too is extraordinarily musical and seeing her perform lead roles in Don Pasquale and Sonnambula, she has a sparkling stage presence. Her preparation is always impeccable and she rarely misses a lesson. I have never seen her worry or despair. In my estimation, she has all the qualities to be successful. She will turn 30 soon, but she seems unfazed by what many singers see as the time limit on their operatic viability (a stupid ageism that is completely responsible for the stunted development of otherwise promising singers). I believe that in a matter of months, that amazingly powerful coloratura voice that was mistaken for a mezzo (more common than you think) will be fully-functional. Will she get cast in the United States? I doubt any director will take a change on an unknown 30-year old who has not run the YAP-track. So I recommend that when she is fully ready that she auditions in Europe where a coloratura with an even range, a high G above high C, the ability to learn music quickly and a body that matches her voice, might have a chance to be hired. She has had patience. In the end, with a calm mind and a relentless work ethic, she made an improbably Fach change in 18 months. The same it took me to make mine. It did not take so much time.

3. A very gifted spinto who like many singers of a fuller voice type require time to accomplish total vocal strength came to me a few months ago. There is no doubt that she is talented. The voice is rich. She too is possessed of great musicianship and a dramatic temperament that is unmistakable even in the studio. This is a spinto with a future. She has won an international competition and has been successful in the Yap-track. She came to me at the recommendation of a friend at the same level who works with me. She felt there were things to work out. She works hard because she is passionate about singing and in the short time we have worked together, she has made great inroads in developing her middle voice (a perennial weakness among female singers). A spinto cannot have a viable career without a reliable middle voice. She is halfway there. She needs a bit more time to complete the strengthening of her voice. Having had a tasted of success, she is particularly concerned about her age. Here is a great talent in every sense who feels she cannot afford the time and patience to finish her training. Such is the plight of dramatic voices. The system does not allow them the time to finish their training. That magnificent singer may not have the time to refine her technique to become a first rate Donna Anna because directors would prefer to give that role to a coloratura who can easily handle the soft high notes and fast coloratura even though their voices lack the substance for the gravity of that role. Will she be successful? I will do everything I can to encourage her to look beyond the limitations of the system and trust in the expanding horizons of her fully developed talent.
4. One of my posse of ex-baritone tenors was ill with a cold and lost some notes on the top. This was a reality check that he is not yet as strong as he hopes. We have to be able to sing when we have a light cold, but when we are still building a voice, a cold could be the difference between hope and despair. He too sang as a baritone for a long time, and this journey to tenor feels like finally the path to make sense of his career. Age, and therefore time, is always the driving force of concern. I honor his courage and faith and he has never flinched from hard work. The only part I hope he will embrace is patience. True patience requires taking stock of the real situation. Age is an issue in our field, there is no doubt. What is my student’s choice then? Give up because of age, or believe that a fully developed dramatic tenor voice has a chance in a world where dramatic tenor roles are being sung by beefed-up lyrics? That is my student’s choice. Either way, any positive resolution requires the courage to face a situation that seems dismal (because the system is upside-down), the patience to develop the talent to its highest level and the faith to know that it matters.
5. The most inspiring story this week is however the following: this singer came to me as a soubrette (as is often the case) with little belief that she would develop her top notes when I told her she was a coloratura. She has had moderate success in the Yap-track and had gotten to a point where she did not know what else to do to be successful. She had powerful teachers, is a hard worker, is intelligent, musically facile and attractive. Seemingly all the things that the business required. Well, a coloratura singing soubrette only lasts so long and only up to a certain level because a coloratura does not have enough middle voice to graduate to lyric roles at a professional level (not that it matters too much since many singer I hear in regional theaters are obliterated by the orchestra any way). Two months ago, she wrote to me saying that she was going to apply to law school and be an advocate for singers. I supported her decision and said that someone who understood the field so well and its problems would be a wonderful advocate for singers at the legal level. Well, she called me a few days ago requesting a voice lesson because she had been sick and was not sure she was singing properly. Having had the time to practice without stress, foregoing the audition season for the first time in her singing life, seems to have had a profound effect, for the girl that did not think she could develop the coloratura notes sustained a well-supported F6 and sang Konstanze with such remarkable ease that she believed herself truly a coloratura. She had not only time to develop her high notes and even out her middle range, but she had peaceful time, without the stress of the career’s ageism and time limits. She was singing for herself and in peace. In truth her Ach, ich liebte, is ready now for prime time. Will she go on? I don’t know! That is her choice and maybe she finds singing peacefully more satisfying than pursuing a career where the amount of work you put into it does not equate with the rewards.
Opera in America is as ill as the health care system, and the bureaucrats that run it either lack the vision, or the aptitude, or the willingness to improve it. If the requirements for true professionalism were higher, the weeding out process would be fair and transparent.
If opera directors had to really know the scores they direct inside and out, there would be a lot fewer of them because sincerely I don’t think many people have the passion and staying power to become truly proficient operatic directors.
La Boheme was the first operatic score I studied under Gustav Meier and I remember how difficult that score was to master. I have not looked at it as a conductor in quite a while, and so I commend Maestro Alexander Joel for being a worthy example. If operatic conductors were truly required to have a dramatic sense, know the singer’s voice and psyche, speak the languages that they conduct (or at least have a fundamental knowledge thereof), and know the score inside and out, there would be far fewer of them to chose from.
If singers had to develop a complete technique and be truly proficient linguistically and be top rate actors and have an amalgam of human experience and knowledge that made them truly believable on stage, then there would be far fewer. I don’t believe that most singers have the staying power to become fully developed artists.
And finally, if the General Directors would demand finish talents from singers, conductors and directors, and produce operas within the limits of their budgets, opera would thrive for what it is, and not for pseudo Broadway musicals, with singers who look but do not sound like opera singers and directors who can read Bb from B natural, etc. But General Directors would have to know what opera really is, have an idea what a good production is, what a truly great singer is and what makes a great director or conductor. But when those jobs are left to people who not artists themselves, it is no wonder we are in the current dilemma.
As for my students in whose talents I truly believe (otherwise I would not teach them), I pray for them that they have the faith that they can will the Universe to support their cause. Only with that kind of faith can they navigate this chaotic system and realize their dreams.
© 11/11/2009

5 thoughts on “Systemic Impatience: The Potential Undoing of the American Operatic Culture

Add yours

  1. I certainly have VERY limited experience in opera, but what I have seen does match what you discuss. One of the biggest problems with opera today, in my opinion, is that the lack of patience you described doesn't permit singers to develop strong acting skills and the ability to project everything they're acting into the sound. I think one should be able to hear a good quality recording of a performance and, without seeing any of the facial expressions or blocking of the singer, still get just as much of a sense of what the singer wants to convey. Yet how often do we hear that?

    What separates opera from recitals is that opera is a form of drama. Yet really, how often is the “play” aspect of opera conveyed through the voice?


  2. Thanks for this. I identify with singer #5; it wasn't until I got off the career-track-treadmill that I was able to find the peace I needed to sing really well.


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