The Discipline of Opera: It’s Always Been About Interdisciplinary Competence

Post-modernism, post-truth!  The extreme strain of taking in the vastness of what is human existence is often too much for some of us to take.  In such instances, rather than sifting through the barrage of information that is catapulted toward us via mass media, social media and our immediate surroundings, we often retreat into a bubble of ignorance, which we convince ourselves to be safety.  Ignorance was bliss, before we had immediate access to information about the most remote corners of the world.  I love Brazilian Portuguese and often thought about spending some extended time in Brazil!  But a recent acquaintance, a native Brazilian, walked me through the grave situation in his country’s daily life — that assault at gunpoint is a daily experience. Do we close our eyes to this fact?  Or do we open our minds to how corruption at the highest levels is a worldwide reality that is only contained in countries where the social safeties are in place.  Yet even in a country with powerful safeguards, such as the United States, many social constructs we take for granted can quickly disappear under a president who shows anarchist tendencies through a total disregard for the democratic process.  The same overstimulation from social media, or world-shaking wars that scare many of us to retreat into “virtual” utopias of our own design have profound repercussions in the development of art. And most certainly, Opera.

When I had my first successes as a singer, it made sense when I heard a teacher say:  “That’s too bright!” As a teacher, I do not allow myself to tell a student “too this or too that!”  I prefer to say “not enough of this” instead of “too much that.”  In my own practice and retraining over the past decade, it became clear to me that the interdependency of muscular systems require each system to be stable/strong enough to withstand the forces that other systems exert upon them without buckling. 

One teacher will say:  “Don’t sing too bright vowels or you will lose your space!”  Another will say:  “Don’t make space!  It’s artificial and will make your vowels dull and unintelligible!” 

Who is correct?  Neither!  We need only to listen to the best singers to realise that it is definitely possible to have that feeling of an open throat and still articulate vowels with absolute intelligibility.  However the muscles of vowel articulation (tongue, jaw, lips) do not only counter the musculature that govern the opening of the vocal tract (laryngeal depth and palatal height).  The antagonism between those muscle groups make way for better vowel production.  The systems are complimentary. The depth of the larynx create a better acoustic space for balance between the formants.  Tongue, jaw and lip articulations must neither hamper the ability of the larynx to lower appropriately nor be hampered by it.  Furthermore, the results that we seek relative to vowel clarity and laryngeal depth cannot be achieved in balance without a source tone that is also balanced between vertical contact area, fold lengthening and fold closure.  The stability of the whole is impossible without a constant compression of breath, achieved without collapsing the expansion of the torso as achieved by an inspiratory process that leaves the body flexible (non/rigid).  In short, all the functions that are favoured by one teacher and frowned upon by the next can coexist.  Even more, they must coexist to achieve sustainable balance.

As complex as all of this sounds, some young singers achieve near ideal balance just by listening to a balanced voice that is similar to their own.  The great disadvantage of this is that they often progress with very little conscious knowledge of what they do.  It takes one wrong role to throw that balance off and create a sense of panic in the young singer.  Fifty years ago when the operatic business was still relatively small, singers could have their teachers at their sides constantly and could be rebalanced before every performance they sang.  Today, the constance geographical displacements make that nearly impossible.  Singers must be self-reliant and must therefore learn to know themselves vocally to a fine degree.  Unfortunately few do!  They prefer to limit their scope to what they are able to process and call that limited bubble the totality of information they need to concentrate on, most often avoiding anything that is potentially confusing.  They too often do not realise that it is from confusion that the search for clarity begins.  We teachers do not help the situation when we spend our times trying to make our students comfortable instead of challenging them to develop in every way. Academic and artistic rigor have declined in direct proportion to operatic decline.

Singers do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.

By the same token, the amount of knowledge a conductor needs to amass in order to be truly competent as an operatic conductor is overwhelming at first.  It was so in the past as well.  But the ideology then was that a conductor was expected to take time to amass that knowledge and master it in order to lead others.  Now conductors will limit themselves to “directing traffic wit flair” with very little knowledge of harmonic structure, or phrasing, or how to balance an orchestra by tuning appropriately and how that leads to balancing the ensemble with the singers.  Let us not even talk about the language skills required, or the understanding of how music and drama interlace in an operatic moment.  Seeing young maestros like Alexander Joel and Gustavo Dudamel deal with operatic music in expert fashion means that this is possible.  Too many prefer to limit themselves to the few things they do well, rather than expand their knowledge and continue to grow.  When they don’t know something, instead of admitting it and seek to learn it, they prefer to posture in their authority and blame others for their lack of expertise. 

Conductors do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.

Likewise stage directors need to understand the operatic art from the singer’s point of view and from the conductor’s as well.  Like the vocal mechanism that is complete only when localised muscular systems must be able to function flexibly while withstand the forces exerted by the global instrument, so must stage directors especially understand the forces exerted upon them by the singers’ tasks and the conductor’s tasks and the composer’s music and the librettist’s words.  A stage director’s ability to make constantly viable theatrical choices is only possible when s/he understands the whole and respects and appreciates the complexity of the different jobs.  It is easier to blame the singers inability to do acrobatics while singing, the conductor’s rigidity of the score, the limitations of the score or the public’s ignorance.

Stage Directors do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.

The non-musical administrators that are brought in for their business acumen should be taught to respect the art form.  The complex roles that music plays in an opera, what a bona fide opera singer sounds like, the different vocal and theatrical requirements for success between a Mozart or Bellini or Wagner or Verdi or Massenet opera are a few among the many issues an administrator must be taught to understand over time. 

However, if singer, conductor, repetiteur, stage director have little respect for their process, how can the administrator be expected to have respect for the art-form?  Then there is the casting director!  So many of them have no idea what an operatic sound is. 

They hold auditions in small rooms and think singers unrefined when the squillo needed to carry the voice in the large hall hurts their ears in the audition room.  

There are some wonderful opera experts out there, but for every 1 expert in his/her field there are hundreds who are virtually incompetent.  And many such incompetent people get hired through connections who prefer to insulate themselves in a bubble of underlings that are less knowledgeable than they.  We in the opera world and beyond it have build a house with rotten wood.  A discerning buyer is not going to be fooled by a nice superficial coat of paint.  Nor will an audience be convinced by an opera house’s PR machine touting its productions as great art when they are left uninspired in the opera house. 

Simply put, it is not the audience that does not get it.  We in the opera world present shoddy productions on a regular basis that even we insiders are bored by.  

How can we expect an audience to respond differently?  When I enjoy an opera, the enthusiasm of the audience around me is felt like electricity in the air.  When I am bored, I watch a confused public applaud because they think they are supposed to and ask themselves whether or not they understand this so-called “high art.”

By extension we should not fault social media for our decisions to insulate ourselves with a friend’s list of like-minded people, but rather by our collective fear of having our values questioned, by our fear of engaging our fellow man in a civil discourse that might show the limitations of our individual knowledge.  For my part, I have never unfriended someone from my social media profile because of a difference of opinion.  But I will remove someone who argues without facts to back up their opinions and insults by calling an opposing viewpoint “fake news!”

The operatic machine, the gate-keepers close their ears to the deep illnesses that are rotting the field from the inside.  The fear of the massive work before us as a collective makes those in charge insulate themselves so to only hear what they would like to hear. 

It is uncomfortable to admit that despite a few stellar moments, a few truly well-developed singers, fewer prepared conductors and directors, our field is in crisis, not from outside forces but from our collective laziness and fear of the difficult tasks before us.  It is much easier to say: “fake news!”

© 1/4/2018

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