This is a stream of consciousness post written while sitting at the Chicago airport, wishing for some variety of comfort food. But alas, there is no macaroni and cheese at O'Hare.
The further we get into the tour, the more there is to say and the fewer brain cells with which to articulate it. Forgive the rambling.
The Missing Pieces
We heard some really good singing during this Chicago weekend, but some frustrating moments, too. So often we hear folks who have so much going for them yet are missing some crucial piece of the puzzle. I'm going to generalize shamelessly (and with impunity, I hope) about some typical scenarios. Please indulge me, bring your sense of humour, and perhaps find some new resolve in these paragraphs.
If you specialize in the “inas” and “ettas” of the opera world, you have possibly more of an extra-musical mandate than some of your colleagues. You must possess an indescribable thing that arguably cannot be taught: charm. Charisma, sparkle, magic. Often your music is not in itself particularly attention-getting. You must get and keep our attention with the sheer magnetism of your personality. Do we hear soubrettes that need a charm infusion? You bet. I’m sure that nerves and inexperience take the edge off the force of your personality. But we must be convinced that during the course of a 3-hour opera, we’d cheer every time Despina came onstage.
If you aspire to singing more than soubrette roles (and for a career that has depth and staying power, this is advisable), then you must get the top of your voice in order. Duh. It’s not that we often hear light sopranos without high notes, it’s just that so very rarely does this top part of the range have the required expressive capability. It’s not enough to have a D. You have to have a D that can turn on a dime and be in turn exciting, sexy, impassioned and wistful. And this is where many ladies in this Fach don’t progress to the next level in their careers.
Trying On the Trousers
Many sopranos masquerade as mezzos. Some for good reasons, some out of fear, some in an ill-advised career move, and a few out of ignorance. What is a good reason? There are (rare, mind you) big force-of-nature soprano voices that are still maturing and aren’t ready to grapple with the spinto soprano rep right out of grad school. A smart teacher guiding you through some mezzo or Zwischenfach material will allow you to refine your linguistic, dramatic, and musical skills while getting some stage experience masquerading as a mezzo. But these ladies are, as I said, rare birds. It’s far more common for a lighter soprano with high note troubles or a soprano who doesn’t like all the competition in her natural Fach to take refuge in mezzo territory. And some get away with it. I’m not judging, really. Just saying that depending on the natural color of your voice, where the passaggio sits, and where the money notes are, you may not get hired as a mezzo. Many folks won’t be able to tell you what’s wrong, but they’ll know that something doesn’t sound quite right. It’s as if you’re a pleasant but out-of-focus picture.
My colleague introduced me to Ham&Cheese, and now it seems ubiquitous. Faced with the dilemma of what to do with your body (read: arms), you might find yourself doing this: Phrase A, right hand out, palm up. Phrase B, left hand out, palm up. Phrases C and D, extend both arms toward the listener and raise. It’s freaky how often this gesture substitutes for real physical integration and communication. Variations on the above include Prosciutto&Brie (a particularly artsy variation) and Pork&Limburger (useful when your character is pissed off.)
Or Barking Baritones. The monikers sound flip and/or mean, but if this is you, please please see yourself and do something about it. We hear singers with absolutely drop-dead-beautiful substantial instruments who never sing below forte. OK, never below mezzo-forte. It’s as if it takes us 10 minutes to get the idea that you could fill a 4,000 seat house if you wanted to. That’s useful, for sure – we certainly aren’t interested in voices that would never get past the footlights. But even the biggest voices in our business aren’t one dynamic and one color all the time. If you can only sing loud, roll up your sleeves and figure out what’s wrong. If you can shape a phrase that contains multiple dynamics and inflections, then for the love of god, do it.
Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto
(I’m not hip enough to know the Styx song, but my traveling companions are.) The vast majority of the singers in the young artist demographic still haven’t made friends with how to use their bodies onstage. It’s an awfully hard thing to do, and a very common thing to assume (wrongly) that you’ve mastered. Singer after singer comes into the room and spends the entire audition with the brain not connected with the throat not connected to the torso. I have no idea how to tell you to attack this, for I think it’s such an individual thing. Dance class, martial arts, yoga, theatre arts, whatever it takes. Some (very rare) actors and singers are naturals. Watching them is an inspiration, and their physical presence onstage is often as vivid as their voices. If you’re not one of them, don’t despair. You too can inhabit both your body and your character at the same time. But it’s going to take sustained unflinching work, and the job is never going to be done. Yes, there are successful singers who haven’t conquered this obstacle. And maybe you’ll join their ranks if your instrument is world-class and your musicianship is breath-taking. But today’s world is not just about the voice. (Arguably the opera world never was, but misconceptions die hard.) You do not want to saddle yourself with this liability.
Remember Paul Simon and his “nice bright colors?” We are hungry for detail, for vividness. I find myself reverting too often to calling an audition “monochromatic.” I depend on the description too much, but I haven’t found a better way of describing it. Even the most celestial shade of blue is not enough for a palette. And even I wouldn’t want to eat tiramisu every day. (Well, homemade macaroni and cheese, maybe…) We ask for contrasting arias, and that doesn’t mean that you need to do everything well. Go ahead and specialize. But even within a subdivision of your Fach, there is variety to be found. Humor is not mutually exclusive with solemnity, and rage doesn’t preclude wit. Above all, don’t try to play pity. It doesn’t read. It’s our job to read the emotion; it’s yours to find the action and the arc. Pity does not read across the footlights. "Gloom, despair, and agony on me. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” (Thank you, Hee Haw. Those evenings in front of my grandma’s TV set were not wasted.)
Well, I've ranted my way from Ililinois to New York. Finishing this on the Upper West Side, where at 11:30pm I did score some mac 'n cheese. :)
So happy to be in New York!