Kashu-do (歌手道): If It Quacks Like a Tenor…: Why We Singers Are At Fault For Letting Others Define Opera

A duck quacks! A dog barks! A snake hisses! An Operatic Tenor…???  No there is no one word that describes what an operatic tenor does.  On the coveted high C on a vowel resembling [a] (more than likely a neutral vowel that sounds closest to [a]) an operatic tenor, singing with a fully developed voice excites the surrounding air at over 500 vibrations per seconds, producing a dominant overtone at over 1000 or 1500 vibration per second and another one around 2800 vibrations per second, exciting the human ear with great intensity, while expressing emotions commensurate with that kind of vocal power, without the tone degrading into an unbalanced scream, through the most extraordinary music ever written and poetic texts produced by some of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, and looking elegant in the process.

Opera is nothing short of an Olympic level feat akin to a figure skater doing a Quad Axel while skating on an iced tight-rope.

It is that breath-taken when you hear a real tenor do it.  Luciano Pavarotti often used the term “real tenor” to describe his singing as opposed to that of tenors who sang reinforced falsetto in the top voice.  If Pavarotti felt a need to distinguish “a real tenor” from the “not so real tenor” it is because he had cause.  His teacher apparently told him: “hurry and start! You are probably the last tenor!”

The degradation of operatic standards began almost immediately.  Late 16th Century pedagogues were already complaining of singers not adhering to the principles of the Old School.  As Claudia Friedlander expressed in a very inspiring article:

I believe it is now time for another course correction to steer opera back in the direction of its essential purpose. 

Dr. Friedlander makes a good case for the definition of Opera’s core mission of emotional transference.  A worthy endeavor!  She also makes a point that we singers must seek to better ourselves first in order to better our field.  I could not agree more.  The central job in my opinion is defining what an operatic voice is!  Opera is the Olympics of Singing.  Keeping the human voice balanced while performing in a very wide range, without electronic amplification, with great breath pressure and resonance manipulation in order to be the dominant presence in the company of a symphonic orchestra, is indeed an Olympic level endeavor!  It is breath-taking and it is inspirational…when it is the real thing!

Franco Corelli was a real Opera Singer!

Mario del Monaco was a real Opera Singer!

 Andrea Bocelli is an Italian pop singer with a lovely vocal color and a love for his native country’s art of Opera.  He actually took a few lessons with the legendary Franco Corelli as he explains in the next video.

Bocelli studied with one of the greatest tenors of all time and learned to mimic operatic sounds. It’s wonderful and it makes his popular singing healthier, stronger and more varied.  His love for opera aside, if we take Bocelli’s microphone away, in the presence of an operatic orchestra he would be over-powered if not inaudible. Yet in an age virtually totally electronically amplified when it comes to music, the average person does not know that Bocelli is a pop singer singing opera and not an opera singer singing pop.

Michael Bolton is not an opera singer!  He is a rock singer who developed a love for opera and with a voice not trained to sustain opera, he tries his best to do something beautiful.  But he could not be confused for an opera singer.  But many would say Michael Bolton is singing opera.  Being able to sing the notes is not the same as maintaining optimal vocal balance and dominating over an orchestra without electronic amplification.

“I think we have a case of a little lump of coal here that is gonna turn into a diamond…” says Amanda Holden, one of the judges at this circus that has turned the world of music upside down.  That was the pitch!  Take a guy who looks like the ultimate underdog, have him sing the most popular aria, made famous at the first concert by TheThree Tenors and draw sympathy for an otherwise lost cause.  Not that Mr. Potts is a lost cause, but that he was played as such!  There is a basic material there that with a lot of work could develop into an operatically viable instrument.  The patience required for this is the total antithesis of what American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent and such shows represent.  The narrative is that “…you too can become famous quickly by appearing on one of these shows, even if you are the most unlikely person to win.”  Yet millions of people probably believe that Paul Potts won because he has an operatic voice.  Mr. Potts is not an opera singer.  He sings an operatic aria with a wobbly voice in a show that makes no difference between him and Luciano Pavarotti, with judges who have no competence whatsoever to judge whether he can sing opera or not and an audience so lacking in basic arts education that they might not be able to distinguish between Potts and Pavarotti on the same stage.

Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bolton and Paul Potts and all the pseudo- or wannabe- opera singers are not the problem.  It is the fault of the opera industry, so insecure about its own viability, that it would embrace any gimmick that brings attention to our sorry state of affairs.  It is the fault of us opera singers, who are more interested in any kind of notoriety that we would sell out the art form for our own short-term glory. It is the fault of us singers who are so afraid of not being able to walk on stage at all, that we would do anything to get to sing this music even if the circumstances are totally against the principles of our art form and at the disservice of the music we claim we love.

Between Corelli and Del Monaco on one extreme and Paul Potts and Michael Bolton on the other, there are too many opera singers whose development fall closer to Bocelli than Corelli and they themselves do not know of the poor quality of their instrument.  Why should they when agents and casting directors are more interested in their 6-packs and the size of their breast than they are interested in the quality of their voices.  The democratization of Opera has been to reduce it to its least common denominator.

That narrative reads thus: “…if the average person believes that s/he can sing opera with little work, maybe s/he will be likely to come to it…  If they see the opera singer as a normal person, then they might find the art-form more approachable.”

The opera singer is a normal human being doing something superhuman, like Cristian Ronaldo or Michael Jordan.  These abilities take great dedication and work to accomplish and surpass human expectation.

Surpassing human expectations sells!  

I have produced so many low budget operatic productions that people still talk about.  My little Academy/Festival in Northern Sweden is successful, not because of anything except that we believe in the transforming power of the fully developed human voice combined with the greatest music ever written.  It’s that simple!  People embrace it because they experience it for what it is.  They are not being sold pseudo-Musical Theater.  Real Musical Theater is more powerful than fake opera wrapped in a Musical Theater package.  Opera aping the movies or productions attempting to shock with poor theatrical worth are only killing the art-form like a cancer from within.
Take the Stage Director out, you still have opera–  The singers will use their ingenuity and figure out a staging. It happens in so many productions anyway!  Take the sets down, you still have opera– The singers will use their imagination and transport the audience via text and imagination to far away lands.  Take the agents and the casting directors out, you still have opera!  Take the Opera Singer out, there is no more opera! 

And yet we take no responsibility for this power but rather walk about like sheep afraid we will be taken out to the slaughterhouse unless we play nice.

What can you do you ask?  Simple things!
1.  Gather some great opera singers who like you are not finding an agent to listen to them (don’t make it just your friends unless they have great, fully-developed voices and radiant personalities) and present a concert in a local venue. (Make sure that your singers are musically independent and don’t need a lot of rehearsals and coaching to get their pitches, rhythms and language right.
2.  Find the most charismatic of your team of singers and have them approach the venue and sell the idea!  Convince them to put it in their advertisements. Convince them your presence is good for them and they should not charge you for usage of the hall.
3. Find a top level coach-pianist and pay him/her to play the concert (prepare your notes on your own or with the help of a lower level coach, so you don’t have to pay said top pianist a high fee for coaching you the basics.  Use top pianist for one or two coaching sessions and dress rehearsal.
4. Blow the audience away with your great voices and personalties.  Make them say it is better than what they heard at the MET or Covent Garden or the Wiener Stadtsoper! On many nights this would be true.  Make sure audience members leave contact information and contact them to ask how they enjoyed your performance.  Now you are beginning to create a following.  
5. Video-tape everything and post your best efforts on social media (Youtube, Facebook, etc…)
6. Repeat 1-5 until your local theaters cannot ignore the fact that you are getting more consistent audiences than they.   Don’t be co-opted by them!  They want to hire you because of your success. Great!  But don’t take their job with the condition that you stop producing.
7.  Grow in quality not quantity–Better programing, maybe a reading (off-book) of an opera.
8. Find an inventive stage director who loves opera and is a musician and gets it!  Stage a production when you’re ready, but don’t sacrifice your core values.  Keep your costs down by concentrating on basics.  Frills are unimportant until you can afford them!  Be patient and let things grow!
9.  Save parts of your profits to develop the next level of quality.  When can you get a chamber ensemble?  Can you find a skilled conductor who loves opera and gets it, but for some reason could not find work in the current chaos?
10.  Suddenly you are the alternative to the company that has lost its soul and no longer believes in the viability of the art form—
11.  Be careful not to become what you just replaced!
That is just one strategy!  
Never forget! Opera Singers have super powers!  We can blow someone’s ear out with our voices at close range or we can caress their souls with our voices in the Opera house.  Anyone who tries to reduce that power is not a friend of opera. Singers use your gifts responsibly! 


© 11/11/2015

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