A difference of philosophy

 A reader named Carlos wrote the following which I will reply to point by point:

First, I will post every comment that I feel is presented respectfully. And Carlos indeed makes his point in such a manner.

One of my previous comments was extensively critized by you and yet remains true.
It seems people try justifying their failures and the bankrupt of opera business with the hope of better days and their right to stay in Neverland, dreaming awake. I recall a Spanish philosopher (Ortega y Gasset) opinion on music in 20th century: “Music as an art form is dead”.

Dear Carlos, not only do I criticize your comment but I am diametrically opposed to it. You have a right to your opinion, and an opinion as such is simply that. There is nothing fundamentally true about it. That you believe your comment to be true is as much an opinion as anything else you say here. And my blog is a collection of my opinions as well.  I am not here to convince you since your mind is made up and your purpose seems to be to counter the optimism that I propagate here. Your choice.

You claim you are an amateur who loves singing, but when you support your ideas by quoting that: “Music as an art form is dead,” your motives are at least suspect.

Before all what is happening, the saying “there is always room at the top” sound facecious. I see some people who should have never made it for their own good, psychiatrically speaking.
And even if things were reversable, sincerely, we wouldn’t be alive to see it.
As I told you before, I have known fantastic singers who didn’t ever get the chance some rats have had, including scandinavian singers, who are very well-prepared indeed. By the way, I’m not a frustrated professional singer, one of those who have been dropped. I have always been an amateur with a strong love for singing and music in general and for my other profession, in which I earn life.

Where do I begin? Operatic singing requires so many skills, such that no one in the history of the art form could ever claim to have mastered all aspects of it. Placido Domingo is the most successful singer in the history of the field, yet his technique is far from perfect. Does that make his other skills unworthy? Pavarotti had the best technique among tenors of the last generation, yet he had poor language skills other than Italian and by his own admission he was physically somewhat awkward. Maria Callas, considered the greatest singer who ever sang opera might have given her life to have Tebaldi’s voice.  Those who make it in this field make it because of reasons that are very logical. Sometimes, someone has a great audition on the right day and they get the opportunity even if later their skills prove unable to cope with the rigors of the field.

As an amateur, you chose not to face the tough situations that aspiring professionals do. Do you ever ask yourself why they put themselves through these rigors? They do because they are opera singers. They believe fervently that what they do makes a difference and they will fight to get a chance to do it, and in a world where people like you (comfortable in your lifestyle) find it easy to dismiss them for having the passion to fight on.

As for the singers you think should have the chance, if they did not, there is something they did not do correctly. Having a voice is not enough. Everyone does. Developing that voice to a professional standard is one part of what we do. I know singers with well-developed instruments who win competitions get jobs and then do not go forward because they only make sounds. They bring little understanding of the amazing scores they sing, they have no sense of the poetry they sing and have given no thought to their part in the dramas in which they play. A voice is like a lens to a sun of ideas. For a singer, the voice is the lens that magnifies their thoughts, emotions, philosophies, etc. Without thoughts and emotions and ideas, the lens means little. Before a singer asks why they did not get cast, I always ask them what do you think you can improve. Anyone who has time to complain is hardly asking himself the right question. We can only improve ourselves.

Most importantly, it takes courage to believe that there is a way in. The person who stays on the outside of a difficult situation and says: “It’s hopeless, there is no solution,” has nothing to offer in terms of helping the situation.  To believe there is a way in, one must then be responsible for that opinion. No one is daydreaming. Daydreamers do not act. People who believe in a solution work to make that solution a reality and unless you can find a way to help, you who call yourself a lover (i.e. amateur) of the art form, then leave those of us alone who are trying to do something about the difficulties of our field. To be truly optimistic one needs faith that there is a solution, requires courage to find that solution, and the patience to see it through. It is what “we professionals and aspiring professionals” do every day.

And since you have little idea about what we active professionals and aspiring professionals do, and since you do not have the wherewithal to face the music so to speak, from what authority do you speak? 

That’s why, reading your post, I could not believe you were refering to this guy Kaufmann as a great singer. I heard him live in Germany and he is nothing more than a bureaucrat of singing with a faulty technique. 

I have heard him too, and like many who came before him, he is far from perfect. His vocal technique is imperfect, and I have personally criticized his choice of repertoire. But that aside, he is an inspiring musician who understands the relationship of text and music and how to imbue it with his humanity. I believe he could become a legendary singer if he had better vocal technique and if he chose appropriate repertoire. His imperfections do not make him a dilettante. I am able to criticize what he does wrong and still be able to recognize what aspects of his total package are commendable. You as a side-liner have the luxury of making black and white judgments.  Professionals who understand the complexity of the field must have a nuanced sense of criticism.

There are hundreds of those singers I call “bureaucrats of singing” in those opera companies in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, singing roles they don’t like at all (or have not the voice and preparation to sing) because they have to.
Let’s face it: very few are in position to chose what they are gonna sing. And being not in position to decide what one is going to sing is slavery to me. That’s why I would never even think of an operatic career. And I’m happier this way. I can lead a peaceful life, with financial safety, time to travel and I can really feel free to sing with pleasure. I would never be glad to submit myself to intendants, conductors or the worse type of worm infesting opera world today, stage directors, just because I need to make money.

Your argument is at least hypocritical.  You like your financial safety and all the pleasures it brings you. Is your job absolutely perfect without any downsides? Are there not things about your job that you wish were better? Yet you do it and you revel in it. Why not allow the singers to deal with the negative issues in their own field and allow them their happiness.  No one forces anyone to be a singer. Singers who are inspired to sing chose to do their job with all the negatives that come with it.  I am a strong critic of the excesses and idiocies of opera, but I seek solutions.  I actively do several things every day to better my field. If you love this field than subsidize it in some way instead of vilifying every thing about it.

I understand being optimistic is a comprehensible necessity. Otherwise, half of global population would have comitted suicide. However, ignoring reality and fueling hopes in vain is something I cannot put up with. Let’s put the cards on the table. All of them.
You show knowledge of showbusiness and you must know a handful of singers in desperation. Sometimes too late to turn the course of their lives…

Will anyone tell you how you should lead your life? What seems desperation to some is a worthwhile journey to others.  In my 25 years of teaching I have observed one rule:  I do not tell anyone they cannot.  I simply put all of the obstacles before them that they will face and I let them chose.  As I said before, optimism is not a passive philosophy. To be truly optimistic one must be willing to prove his positive vision.

This weekend I experienced two exciting musical events: 1) an operatic production where many of the singers sang poorly and the stage direction was poorly conceived. In the middle of it all there were too young professionals who sang as well as the very best in the field today.  They are both having carefully managed careers that allow them to grow (so I found out later). Every time they were on stage, the people around me sat up more attentively in their seats. They could tell the difference and they would rather (as I did) to have those two singers sing all night.  Those two singers have managed to put it all together to give breath-taking performances despite the less than ideal situations around them. They are professionals. They inspired an audience to bravos by their skills. They are optimists who made it work in a difficult situation and in the process made the audience feel that their money was not spent in vain. They got the big bravos, the rest were politely applauded. The audience understood.

2) The next day I witnessed an inspired performance of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony conducted by a brilliant young conductor that I had seen before in an equally inspired performance of La Boheme in Cologne. He is consistent. As a conductor myself I recognized how well he new the scores he conducted. There are major conductors at the top of the game who do not do their homework as well as this young conductor does. He conducted a pianist who did not play so well in a Beethoven concerto. With optimism, the conductor used his skills to find a way out of that less than perfect situation.  That is what professionals do. When it came time for the Bruckner, he kept an audience of close to 3000 people spellbound.  They applauded him heartily. Their Sunday afternoon was well-spent. And this was not in a great metropolis but rather in a relatively small town in Germany that boasts an A level opera house and symphony orchestra.

These people left me inspired, Carlos. I feel inspired to go on helping great singers complete their package such that a few years from now they will be even better than the singer you chose to judge so categorically. Despite your fervent belief, the operatic field is not going to die so easily.  There are many of us who are on this journey for life. It was 11:30 pm when I read your comment and I was in my studio practicing to make myself better. We believe that the arts feed the human soul and that our work, while it may not always make us rich in money, fills our spirits in ways that you obviously have not considered.  We know the challenges we face and we are engaged in meeting them. We plan to build Carlos, and if you want to help then grab a shovel and get to work. Otherwise, do us the favor of not distracting us with your side-line pessimism.

Respectfully disagreeing with your premise,

Jean-Ronald Lafond,
 Singer for over 30 years, teacher for over 20 years, experienced professional singer and actor, stage director and conductor, who speaks 6 languages well,

BUT who (like all the real professionals he knows) asks himself every day: “What can I do better today?”

9 thoughts on “A difference of philosophy

Add yours

  1. I see you defend your point passionately and leave some balance facing some issues far behind in the process.
    I do not remember claiming unquestionable authority to anything I wrote on your blog.
    Notwithstanding, quite on contrary to your assumption, I'm someone who actually studied to be a professional and who could have made it for a living.
    I auditioned to important houses and had offers at a time when competition was grueling because the business was full of good singers and many of the great were still active.
    Yet, I was never satisfied with the state of things. I dropped simply because I was not achieving the fulfillment I was looking for: the possibility to have a freelance career and thus, freedom. At that time one could only sustain it through a recording contract. Even today one must be supported by a recording company or a powerful agent.
    I ask you, why a singer like Fischer-Dieskau would say bitterly in a radio interview to Lebrecht that if he were beggining today he probably wouldn't have a career at all? He thanks God for being an old and retired singer now. And nobody here can ever dispute the importance of this man to western culture and german music.
    The only remark I made about what you write here is not to mislead these youngsters. And the veiled statement that professional singers and musicians of great capacity are being dropped because they are incompetent and do not look for improvement is unrealistic, untrue. The only way out to these people is teaching and doing some gigs here and there, many requiring singing things they are not fond of, simply because of their Fach and because they need to earn a life.
    You have the right to pursue your quixotesque quest. But do not assume everyone will find romantic and pleasant facing difficulties as I have seen very dear friends of mine.
    And money is the most easy to solve. Depression, voice problems, painful health issues, frustration and failure are much more difficult to deal with.
    You are partially responsible for those you teach, I know you are aware of that. And I understand you are a good teacher and someone infused with enthusiasm.
    Do not get me wrong. I don't want to put down what you write at all. I'm just considering things as they ACTUALLY are, and not “in the best of the worlds” hypothesis, as if everyone will be the exception. THE CAREER as it sold everywhere, especially in America, is just that: a hypothesis.
    Regarding Kaufmann, I put him on fire and I have the right to do so, because I payed a high price for the ticket and precisely because I know what takes to be an international (high level) singer. He let himself be publicized as a singer of a certain repertoire and he is not, at least to my ears. I had the honor to see singers like Corelli, Hollweg, Lorenz Fehenberg at opera houses and I know how a dramatic (or a lirico-spinto, if you prefer) tenor sounds.
    Moreover, there is nothing politically correct about operatic audiences. You are old enough to acknowledge it.
    All the best.


  2. Indeed, Jean-Ronald. The artist is fighting every day, not striving for a distant goal somewhere in the unknowable future, but for the daily fight itself – and that is the point. Even if we never reach a legendary status or artistic nirvana, we will not have lost, since the way of the artist, as the way of the warrior, is not towards final victory, because there is no such thing, but to constantly fight, with honor and dignity.


  3. Part 1

    Dear Carlos,

    Thank you for a very excellent response. Yes I am passionate about my response while acknowledging your concern.

    What you have to say is nothing new to the singers I teach at least. You fail to grasp perhaps that the singers who are doing this are not going in with “wide eyes shut” to quote that unsatisfying Kubrik film.

    It is interesting that you should call my process Quixotic. I thought earlier on that you sounded like the nay-saying Duke in the Cervantes story.

    To decide to be an artist is a Quixotic enterprise in the first place. And you may either take the Duke's part in reminding us of the reality of the situation without any suggestion as to how we can remedy it, but rather that it is desperate. Or you can consider Quixote's attempt to change the world to what he envisions.

    Those with little faith or no faith do not understand the artist's capacity to change the psyche of his audience, reader, onlooker. Artists know this! You seem to make no distinction between entertainers and artists when it comes to singing.

    If entertainment was everything that was on an audience's mind they could go to a broadway show, or go to a concert of the Irish tenors or something of that sort. A great many people come to opera because they are looking for an artistically life-changing experience. The fact that opera singers, directors and conductors on the whole are not educated about the nature of the art form they practice is what needs to be changed. This requires leaders who know the issues at hand and are willing to risk to resolve the problems…


  4. Part 2

    Dieskau like every retiring singer says the same thing: “Don't know if I would do it today!” This is nice interview talk and while he may believe it, I am more interested in those icons coming together and using their fame to change things, or at least give the current bureaucrats running opera something to think about. If they are not going to do it then it is we the currently active who will do it.

    The people I work with are not victims waiting to be saved. No teacher is in a position to save anyone. They are artist who want to have a realistic chance at making their career. As their teacher, I point out their weakness: technical, psychological, physical, emotional, etc, and then make a plan to address those weaknesses and turning them to strengths. None of my students will claim that I make any unrealistic promises to them.

    They are hard working people without exception. And they are committed to this job. Most of them are already working in theaters. They have no illusions. They also know that their state of mind has everything to do with the quality of their performances.

    You enter a room with a pessimistic mindset, you will leave it empty-handed.

    You made a choice for yourself and you are now a happier person for it. I congratulate you on that. But do not assume that every singer would make the same choice as you. Your talent aside, the simple fact is that you are committed to a different covenant than many of the artists I work with. Treat them with respect and do not assume that because they dream of making the world a better place through singing they are deluded or unrealistic. The world needs inspired artists, in my opinion much more than most occupations around.

    If you are a lover of music and opera, then I am waiting to hear what you think you can do to save the art form rather than hoping that your your doomsday prediction will come true.

    As for singers like Kaufmann, it is my hope through teaching to give the world a better alternative. A singer with such musicality, intelligence, physical presence but with a voice truly suited to this repertoire. My challenge is to get this young man out at a time when big agents are still interested. I am meeting it. I say, beat the bureaucrats at their own game.

    Let me end by saying I thank you for your very articulate writing and I think our two opposing points of views will give singers much to think about. It will make their life-decisions much more conscious.

    Indeed I also wish you the very best.


  5. Don't you think those in position to change something are the famous artists? And what they do? They accept working with certain directors, and even call them (cinically) geniuses! Seldom you see some singer voicing his discontent on the current situation as Dieskau did.
    I remember the 2006 Salzburg Festival in honor to Mozart. Few singers had the courage to cancel. Almost all productions were dreadful. DG released most of them in DVD. And I doubt they sell that much. To whom all the garbage produced interest or feed spiritually?
    Theaters in Germany are emptier each year. I think opera administration is to be guilty. All is reduced to business. Intendants are a result of political placement, few of them really understand the needs of an artist and what it takes to put an valuable production onstage. Following the battle friends have fought in Europe, I lost faith and decided not going to opera perfomances anymore. What do you think of that? An excellent 48-years-old soprano with 13 years of house as first singer is told a year before getting her stability she is not needed anymore and her contract will not be renewed. This is not fair. How to earn a life? Teaching. Trying auditions. She, as many others, believed in the ensemble professional life. I praise God I have not followed this path, for I would have not stood.
    I would love to see things changing. And I think people enthused over singing, loyal to the great tradition are needed.
    I wish you and your pupils good luck to promote that.


  6. Carlos, I agree with everything you say in this comment. I know singers who were let go before their tenure because the theater is hoping to get some younger person in that they will pay less money to.

    The problem is systemic in our society. There is a doomsday mentality that “It is all over, so I better make my quick money now!”

    One thing has not changed and I tell my students who are fortunate enough to be working the following: “Reinvent yourself every day! Do not do the same performance twice. Find the truth of the moment each night and create something new.” That is also important about one's career in general. In the eyes of the bureaucrats, a singer is a product. As long as it remains sell-worthy they will keep selling it.

    The common wisdom has always been age is a bad thing particularly for a soprano, the ones that challenge that ideology survived to very long careers. They were able to show that age is not an issue because they have something to say in a way that no one else can. An artist has a responsibility to be uniquely true and of the highest caliber in order to remain relevant.

    The paradigm has changed. To keep this train from derailing we have to be in it. Sounds dangerous, no?

    You sound like one loyal to the great tradition and you are very articulate as proven here.

    We need your help in whatever way you can help. You need to go to the opera and write to the people in charge and let them know what you think is good and what you think is bad.

    Perhaps a letter complimenting some wonderful 48-year old soprano might be the thing that saves her job. Who knows!

    I agree with all your observations, I only do not subscribe to the victim mentality. That everything is in the hands of others. We cannot do everything. But we can do something.


  7. When a young singer of mine auditions, I tell him or her always, do not give them a reason to not hire you. Make yourself a choice. If they have to say no to you, make them regret it.

    The bureaucrats are people too and I am sure that in their minds they think they are doing the right thing. They are getting desperate and trying everything they think will get an audience in.

    There is hope. I am working with a young director I believe will have a profound influence on the field in a few years. She is brilliant, she understands singing and music. She is very traditional minded but understands how to use modernity to enhance the truth of the music. Such a director is needed.

    When directing opera I look for the truth and I look for a different way to tell the story. I cannot copy Zefirelli's Boheme or Strehler's Boccanegra. I have to find my vision and that comes from the music. Many directors today don't even read music. So this is a major problem because their productions get very superficial. So what do we do about it. We criticize it, we call it what it is and we try to support those making great opera.

    If you have not seen the Barber of Seville from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, I suggest it. I saw it twice and both times loved it. I wanted to go back. The singing was very good overall and the staging really helped the progress of the opera. The production was the best use of technology I have yet seen in an opera. It was sold out every night this year and for good reason.

    The attention span of youth today is very short. Opera does need to come into the 21st century. A balance needs to be struck between modernity and traditional principles. Along with hiring directors who are musical and conductor who are dramatic, we also need voice teachers to do their part.

    Just because the old school teachers got good results because they had 12 years of daily lessons with their students, it is not a reason to be victims of trial and error teaching. The original idea of this blog was to help translate some of the “science” that is now available. Science means knowledge and I will go as far as saying that 90% (and I am being generous) of current teachers do not know how the instrument functions. The old school teachers did not have this knowledge available to them. Today we do. If teachers would do their jobs, we would have a better quality of singers in general and this would go a long way in changing the current scene.


  8. “A voice is like a lens to a sun of ideas. For a singer, the voice is the lens that magnifies their thoughts, emotions, philosophies, etc. Without thoughts and emotions and ideas, the lens means little.”

    You put this so beautifully and clearly, TS. This is really why I sing, and try to sing at the highest level that I can. Thank you for your blog, and for your teaching (I'm one of your students). I've never commented here before (I'm just not really a commenting type of person), but I was just really moved by what you said.

    I may or may not ever have a real professional career as a singer, but in fact, singing has already given me other things which are immensely valuable.


  9. To Nikola: That is why you are the singer you are, my friend. You live the battle and you always fight a good fight. I wish you a glorious audition.

    To Deirdre: Comment more. You have a lot to say and should say it. Make yourself the best singer you can be, then we will see about the career. Your story is only just beginning.


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