Kashu-do (歌手道): Nurturing Vocal Talent: A Call to the Gate-Keepers of our Business

I take a break from the meditative discussion of fold vibration patterns to address an issue that seems to be calling my attention very persistently this week.  I attended a performance of Samson et Dalila at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, last week, which left me with a deep feeling of anger and frustration.  Anger not at the singers, who were of a very high caliber in fact; not at the conductor or orchestra who delivered a very riveting and stylistically intelligent reading of the score–Indeed the very best I have heard an orchestra execute the very sparse string writing in “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”; but at this great company that would allow a director to systematically hinder the progress of this wonderful opera.  I felt a particular empathy for the wonderful tenor, José Cura, who despite allergies delivered one of the finest performances I have seen him give in a while.  Here is a tenor made for this role, vocally, temperamentally and physically, yet here is a director who does everything possible to avoid using the innate skills of this talented artist.  Cura’s considerable histrionic talents could only be put to good use in a senseless moment when he and a a little boy who represents his youth (I suppose, who can tell anything from this production) paint each other’s faces with white make-up à la Pagliaccio. Indeed, the Pagliaccio red nose was introduced later in the derision of Samson that occurs in the scene before the finale.  The tenderness with which Cura interacted with this little boy brought me literally to tears.  This artist has such a powerful radiance and presence that at the direction of a truly inspired director, I believe he could make good on being one of the most naturally gifted operatic tenors on the planet.  I kept wondering: “how many such ill-conceived productions has this artist had to endure?”  Frankly I don’t know!  But the question kept ringing in my consciousness.  Did Domingo and Pavarotti have to deal with productions of such extreme incompetence? I doubt it!  How then do we expect to have their successors if the candidates are routinely handled so poorly?

One could call my outrage one-sided and misinformed if not for the Washington Post article that surfaced this week.  The commentary by both Filianoti and Licitra are very telling.  These are not wannabe tenors complaining about wanting opportunity.  These are singers working at the top of the field and having to play a defensive game of protecting their talents because the demands are simply unsupportive of their natural gifts.

The problem is that most administrators are not singers and unlike the great administrators of the past (Rudolf Bing comes to mind) they do not understand vocal talent and consequently they miss the boat on what makes opera riveting.  They are waiting for others to tell them what is good.  Their job descriptions usually have more to do with fund-raising and public relations. Consequently they view the business of opera through such unartistic glasses that the product that ultimately surfaces is of an unartistic nature.

There is such a push to find ways of marketing opera that the obvious falls by the way side.  When we think of opera, we think of names. Names of opera singers: Callas, Nilsson, Price, Norman, Cossotto, Horne, Björling, Pavarotti, Corelli, Merrill, Warren, Cappuccilli, London, Ghiaurov, Ramey, etc!  How does one manage such talents, such that they develop into fully-formed stars?  It is very simple, actually! Let the singers sing music that is conducive to their specific talents.  Do not offer a tenor Cavaradossi who should be singing Nemorino!  Let him sing Nemorino for a long time beautifully and allow his voice to grow into Cavaradossi 13 years later.  Pavarotti spoke thus of himself after his idol, Giuseppe di Stefano recommended he avoid the role.

The standards have dropped so low that it seems to be enough to executives of opera companies if it sounds like opera.  There is a very sad belief that audiences who are raised in a multi-media environment have a short attention span and find opera un-theatrical.  The truth is theatricality on the operatic stage cannot happen without great vocal power.  Imagine seeing Transformers with the sound turned off!  All the visual effects make no sense without the sound effects that accompany them.  In fact it looks busy, annoying and exhausting to watch. Going to the opera when the voices on stage do not come through is exactly the same.  You may have magnificent sets and great physical acting, but without the impact of the voice, it is like going to see Lawrence Olivier with laryngitis!  The physical drama is amplified by the singer’s voice.  The drama is in the interplay of harmonic language, the orchestration, the juxtaposition of rhythms and how the human element, the voice interacts with it all.  The set should support this musical drama!  The theatrical values should be conceived to make the dramatic moment that much more poignant!

The allure of opera is no different than that of figure skating or high performance sports!  Opera is an artistic version of a gladiator sport.  It is exciting to hear a glorious voice rise to its highest notes while doing battle with a full orchestra.  The voice should win!  Then the audience is happy!  Would you arrange a boxing match between a welterweight and a heavyweight? Then why should a light weight voice be forced to do battle with a heavy weight score?  It does not matter if the singer is pretty or handsome.  He or she will prettily or handsomely lose the fight!  The audience will most likely not say: “well he flopped handsomely, or she wrecked her voice prettily! So that is worth my ticket!”

Case and point:  Last season, at the Metropolitan Opera I saw Verdi’s Attila.  Not a great opera but it is full of excellent tunes.  The Thursday night audience I accompanied through that evening had to wait a solid hour until the stalwart veteran, Samuel Ramey came and thundered three lines into the  half empty house, to which a first time opera-goer who had been expressing his disappointment to his female companion said:  “Now that’s what I expect from opera!  Who is this guy?  Why don’t they all sound like that? Isn’t this supposed to be the best opera house in the world?”  Oh how I wished Mr. Gelb had overheard that conversation!

Were the singer’s bad?  No!  In fact I had heard all of them sound wonderful in other operas at the Met!  I am willing to accept a paycheck to tell the casting people there that this particular singer will not sound good in this part, no matter how gorgeous he looks on the poster!  This magnificent soprano should not waste her voice on a role that does not reveal the inherit beauty of her voice!  Other than the thundering Mr. Ramey, everyone got swallowed up by the set that reminded of a sequel to Avatar! Interesting set! But did it add anything to the story-telling?  Not to me, an avid opera fan!  I can find rhyme and reason in the most abstract concept, providing it is a concept!

But I digress (only a little)!  How then do we nurture the talents of Cura and Alvarez and Villazon and Licitra and Filianoti? Like the old days!  Talk to each of these wonderful tenors and their team, early in their career and make a game plan of what parts they should take when, such that their voices grow and not crash under the stress of inappropriate repertoire!

But how do we cast Tosca and Trovatore and Turandot and Walküre? That’s what the audiences want to see and they want to see names they recognize!

Think outside the box, man!  If Lyric Tenor X had just sung the Werther of his life, perfectly appropriate for his  voice, don’t you think the audience would want to hear him in just about anything?  So instead of  plugging him in for a Manrico that he will survive but not shine in, why not unearth a rarely done opera that would be the perfect vehicle for his lyric voice, like had been done with Fleming (Pirata), Domingo (Stiffelio) and Pavarotti (I Lombardi)?

Meanwhile, in the world of American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent, why not pull a Rudolf Bing? Find a solid, experienced unknown with the appropriate voice for Trovatore and publicize his edge-of-your-seat debut?  He triumphs, you make operatic history!  He fails, it’s just another night at the opera.  A worthy gamble that produced the unforgettable career of none other than Magda Olivera.  With this kind of strategy, the sure-fire lyric tenor keeps pleasing his audience with roles that foster the growth of his voice and then before you blink too many times, he is ready to sing a good Manrico and the entire opera world is happy!

Opera is not rocket science!  There are people who have not gone the way of YAPs and turn out to be extraordinary singing-actors!  Fine, continue with your YAPS, continue to work with the big name agents to find your next stars, but why not also have a scout who looks in the minor leagues for a  potential star who just happened to have taken the less visible path?

But beyond being creative in finding new talent, one must do everything possible to nurture them when they start to have serious careers.  This does not have to come from the top executives of opera companies, but it must be supported by them.  There must be a universal ideology again that no one contradicts because it is based on proven facts.  A voice, like a boxer, is a talent to be nurtured.  It requires the right new challenge to grow to another level.  Whether that level be physical, or artistic, the nature of the challenge must be calculated with an eye on the singer’s long term viability and not on the short term bottom line.  The bottom line of opera companies is kept healthy when there are really great artists available everywhere.

It was not that long ago that Corelli, Bergonzi, Del Monaco, Fillipeschi, Björling, Gedda, Vickers, Windgassen and a host of others were living and singing at the same time.  Granted the world was not united by multimedia the way it is now.  So it is a fallacy to think that there can only be one great tenor in a generation.  The truth is we should not be looking for the next Domingo.  We should be looking for 20 more, because the operatic world is much bigger and we need many great singers to keep it healthy.  Imagine the chatter on opera forums and the blogosphere if there were 20 top-notch, fully-developed tenors to talk about, or 30 first-class sopranos to discuss?  There are more singers now than ever before and you’re telling me that we cannot find a few that compare favorably with their predecessors?

Schools are driven by what they are told directly or subliminally by the gate-keepers of our business: the managers and the intendants.  Most singers are on some unhealthy diet, popping PPIs and learning one of only five roles they believe are worth learning, namely Puccini and one famous French opera on a Spanish theme.  How boring have we become!

Some schools are bringing out viable operatic voices, but often without an artistic philosophy.  I meet some wonderful young talent from a particular school in the Eastern United States, who routinely feel that they will get noticed by working on their 6-pack, give off the attitude that they are temperamental divas, even if they are not, and maintain a provocative sexual energy that some directors apparently think will translate dramatically on stage. O I forgot and they must sing loud all the time. I have heard this more times than I care to think!  Let me see! If as a director, I had a choice between an intelligent, creative artist, with a personal investment in the music she sings and a temperamental, empty-headed bimbo who can sing loudly, which one would I chose?  But wait, this is the era of Britney Spears pole-dancing, so there must be some worth to that load of bull!

Pardon my rant!  These young singers are not temperamental empty-headed bimbos by the way!  But some elements of our field think that giving that impression is somehow going to help because it is all about having a personality.  There was a time that having a personality was a euphemism for being unattractive.  A powerful stage-presence in opera is a result of readiness, period.  When a singer is technically secure, musically and dramatically facile and prepared, physically healthy (and I don’t meant anorexic) and singing music conducive to his/ her native talent, in a production environment that is professional, helmed by a competent stage director and conductor, the result is magic!  There is no mystery in this.  The only mystery is why on Earth are we cutting corners at every level of the business? From high-school voice teachers to intendants, everyone is in a hurry to package an unfinished singer and then we wonder why they do not sound finished when they get to the great stages of the world.  The most adaptable and resilient ones are the ones we call our current stars.  They are good people, they are hard-working, they had innocence and idealism, they loved opera.  But when they get there, they realized that nothing is the way they expected it and they just struggle to survive.

My friends, we need a systemic overhaul in opera ideology at every level of our business.  If we are honest with ourselves and do the hard work we are all afraid to do, opera can reclaim its position as the noblest of art forms requiring the highest skills from all areas of art and science and business. Or it will keep dragging along, as an unlikely money-making venture for a few (not the singers, by the way), badly riding the coattails of modern pop culture!

© 05/28/2011

9 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Nurturing Vocal Talent: A Call to the Gate-Keepers of our Business

Add yours

  1. Excellent rant, to which I only add my mantra that modern producers, intendants and theater stage directors do not trust their singers, the music or their audience to what they are there to do. When we add the trend for music schools to hire teachers right out of grad school who have Phd's but no practical performing experience, we end up with a cheapened art form.


  2. Excellent rant, to which I only add my mantra that modern producers, intendants and theater stage directors do not trust their singers, the music or their audience to what they are there to do. When we add the trend for music schools to hire teachers right out of grad school who have Phd's but no practical performing experience, we end up with a cheapened art form.


  3. Hello Jean,

    I want to apologize, since my comment does not really relate to Your last posting, but I wanted to ask You, wheter there is a way for You to show me (us) what a full-voiced lip trill sounds like.

    I read that this was an issue in April, but I could not find any samples since. Have I overseen them?

    The idea to have a full voiced lip trill as some kind of corrective tool for the “right” sound, since the trill gives us a feeling for the “right” amount of voice, the correct apoggio feeling and a sense for flow and vibrations in the mask,
    Did I understand it correctly?

    So,hearing would be very helpfull in this case. Especially examples of how it is not done.

    Hope to see You in July in Berlin!
    All the Best,



  4. Dear Orfeo,

    It is fine to write your comment here. I have promised to post the exercises here and they are coming soon. I have dealing with a complex dryness issue over the past few months, which prevented me from posting clips. I could have done it with my students but I wanted to do them myself. I believe I have isolated the problem to too much salt intake. Food in the US and Germany are very salty in general. Because of so much travel I eat out more than the average, which means I am a victim to extreme salt intake. I am recovering nicely and I think I will be able to post the clips in the next week or so. Thank you for your patience.



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