Monday, September 21, 2009

Just How Versatile Can You Be?

Getting down to some brass tacks this week. The outline:

  • Monday - Depth vs. breadth
  • Tuesday - Standards vs. fresh fare
  • Wednesday - Cuts and alternate versions
  • Thursday - Stretching
  • Expert Friday - Don Marrazzo, Glimmerglass Opera; & Joshua Winograde, LA Opera

Jack of all Trades? Master of One?

Depending on when you ask me to address the issue of versatility vs. specialty / breadth vs. depth, I'll give you a slightly different answer. If I've just been treated to a series of superficial and glib performances by artists who know a little bit about everything and really not much about any one thing, I'll rail against spreading oneself too thin. If I've spent time with a young singer who refuses to show any interest in anything except the one genre/composer that speaks most easily to him, then I'll go on and on about how important it is to immerse oneself in all of opera history and styles.

Here's the good news: American singers are the best-trained, most versatile singing actors out there. Having wide-ranging interests and a smattering of training in a broad range of styles is a wonderful thing. You avoid the trap of specializing too soon, possibly before you have a chance to discover your unique strengths. And to an extent, everything you learn - no matter how far afield from your core knowledge - has the potential to make you a more vivid performer and a more interesting artist. This acquisitive spirit is the essence of liberal arts education, and it has its place in the development of a performing artist.

But, at the age of 25 or so, when you hope to move beyond the classroom, can you really be good at everything the YAP industry expects you to demonstrate? Italian, French, German & English at a minimum. Maybe Russian, Czech or Spanish, too. Baroque improvisation, Mozartean elegance, bel canto fireworks, lush Romantic lyricism, and contemporary 20th- and 21st-century musicality and stagecraft. And on and on.

We on the other side of the table demand versatility. The specific requirements vary across different companies, but we invariably ask for multiple languages and styles. And face it, you're going to be better at some of it than the rest. So let's think about it critically and do some triage.

In my brief stint in the mental health field, we would think in triage terms on a daily basis. It seems cold and clinical, and it probably is. (It's of medical origin, and Wikipedia tells it pretty straight if you're interested in learning more. Not strictly necessary, so feel free not to link.) Triage helps any time you have to face what seems to be an overwhelming task.

Divide what's in front of you into 3 categories:
  • 1) Your undeniable strengths. What speaks to you. What you're intrinsically good at. The music that will continue to grow and improve because the pursuit of it is intrinsically rewarding. This is probably where your bread and butter will lie once you get past the point in your development where you have to be all things to all people.
  • 2) The challenges within reach. A step removed from #1, these roles and styles will form the periphery of your career. If you open yourself up and work honestly, this music can become a part of you. But it won't be as comfortable as the first category, and it will take longer to find a level of familiarity. You ignore it at your peril, though, for stretching in this way keeps you sharp, and it just may give you enough diversity to make a living.
  • 3) Music that makes no sense at all to you. Don't bother. Really. For every singer there is a subset of the repertoire that is a bad fit. There is no shame in this.
Now, the dangers of this approach are not insignificant. This exercise is not static, nor is it ever really over. You will grow and change, and these three lists should be allowed to fluctuate. Something that makes absolutely no sense to you right now may smack you upside the face in amazing clarity in two years, and you should be open to it when it does.

What's important is that at almost any point in time, you should have a decent instinct for which music lies at which point in this spectrum. At this moment. Then craft your aria list accordingly.

No comments: