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Story Telling: The Art of Communication as an Artist

Topic Talk

Conversation between Carol Kirkpatrick and Jose Maria Condemi recorded outside the Santa Barbara Opera, discussing topics such as how operas are cast, maintaining professionalism, how to form an emotional connection with an aria, emotional expression and how to bring out the character, and asking "Why?"

Over the summer I have had many singers ask me the best way to get the emotion, along with their ideas of the character into a role or even just an aria or song so it doesn't seem contrived or as if they were just acting. They wanted to know how to make a piece their own, with their own personality shinning through; they wanted to know how to feel the emotional strength of the piece without going over the edge and still convey it to their audience.

Having a very solid vocal technique, the foundation on which to build the rest of the performance structure, is of paramount importance. Then when it is time to learn the art of telling the story, communicating in a believable way, it is much easier to accomplish. Just how does that happen? That is a really good question that all performers have had to deal with over the ages. Understanding how to make a story real, emotionally meaningful while expressing the character through your own voice and personality is what this newsletter is about.

Because each of us is wired and works differently, the application of how we do what we do will be very individualistic and unique. Here is how I explain the process of good story telling to my own students. I hope some of this will resonate with you.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
~ Thomas Merton

For me there is a process that empowers one to not only get inside the character in a comfortable manner, but allows that character to grow in every way, each time you perform that particular role, or piece of music. It requires time, energy and focus. Much of this you might already practice but if not, here is a great plan of action that starts at square one and builds on that.

  • Have the music well placed in your ear before trying it vocally. That means spending time at the piano playing just the melody until you have it in your ear, and only then sing it. The more you do this the quicker this process of learning and memorizing music becomes. Just learn the notes, the music. This gives you the freedom to focus on just one thing without any of the additional emotional complexities to begin with.
  • Have the music and words completely memorized before thinking about the emotional content.
  • Translate each word and write it down in your music so as you practice your piece, you will consistently see exactly what you are singing about in your mother language.
  • Refresh your knowledge of the composer and the time period in which the piece was written. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about the composer, take a fresh look. What has happening in the rest of the world during the years the composer wrote this piece? Also, what was happening in history during the time this piece actually takes place?
  • Refresh your knowledge of the librettist and where inspiration for the story/words came from. Same for the librettist.
  • Start building your character by filling in a detailed character chart. This exercise is invaluable because it gives you a very personal and compelling insight into the character you are portraying and how your character fits into and relates to the other characters and the overall framework of the story. This process works for any piece that has words. If you are learning an opera role, it's a good idea to go as prepared as you can to rehearsals. There is almost always a time constraint these days with the number of rehearsals for a production. The stage director doesn't have the luxury of spending time on motivation or molding the characters, that gets to be your job, so do your homework before you go.
  • This also gives you a feeling of confidence and a foundation on which to interact with the other characters.

“If you're going to fall off the ladder, do it from the highest rung.”
~ Leonard Bernstein

  • Be true to exact tempo, dramatic, and dynamic markings within piece. (That is one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from my Mentor, conductor Herb Grossman.) Most composers from the late 19th century forward knew how to express what they wanted dramatically through these markings and through their musical line. If you are true to both those elements, you are well on your way to giving a great interpretation which frees you to apply your own vocal coloring and expression your interpretation.
  • That having been said also know that traditional customs have been created over the years that tend to bend some of those rules. Take the time to learn what they are and where one interpolates unwritten high notes, individual coloratura passages, dynamic markings, or tempo changes, cuts, etc. There are books written on this subject or you can google the piece you are interested in for the information. Also, ask your voice teacher and coach.
  • Ferret out the real intent of the text of art songs or lieder. Often times it is really about a romantic or sexual subject couched in acceptable story text.

“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”
~ Henry Miller, "The Wisdom of the Heart"

  • Look to your own past emotional experiences that are similar to that of the situation and character within the story even if it is an art song or lieder. In opera, for example, with composers like Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, etc, the romantic leads are usually young. It's your job to discover, for example, the differences between now and then in ages for specific events like marriage, child baring years, what is and was considered old age. With that discovery in hand try recalling an event in your own life at that same age so you can remember how you viewed the world and how falling in love at that age felt, then give it to your character. Or if you are playing a character that is older than you are, start watching older folks and how they behave; how do they walk, sit, stand, etc., then try those same behaviors and gestures on for yourself as the character. It's the old mind-body connection. What the mind thinks is echoed by the actions and movements of the body.
  • The music offers many wonderful insights into how a situation within the story is unfolding. Trust your instincts about how you feel about the music and let yourself go to fully experience it. You will start to experience the emotional pull of the story. Singing the exact note values will also help you understand the emotional content. Sometimes the accompaniment is saying one thing and you, the singer, another.
  • Practice with an accompanist the real emotional impact of what you are doing, funny or tragic. Go through it enough, maybe over several days or weeks, so you can finally step back and just portray the emotional impact without going over the line of no return vocally.

“Acting is not being emotional, but being able to express emotion. ”
~ Kate Reid

  • If you are working on just an aria for audition purposes, knowing the jest of the entire opera will help you know how and why the aria fits into the overall story and what the character has gone through till this moment and will go through after the aria is over.
  • Understand the emotional content of the musical prelude, interlude and postlude. They will often set the emotional tone for the piece and help give it structure.
  • Be aware of where the emotional emphasis of each phrase is going. That helps keep you from singing just note after note. It helps move the music forward and creates a phrase, a legato line. It helps the listener to understand where the story is going.
  • Recognize in the piece, whether you are talking to yourself, or are conversing with someone else. Think about how you behave when you are talking to yourself even if it is not out loud. Your body is involved; your eyes usually look inside even though they are open. When we either talk to ourselves internally or to someone else, we pause now and then to think about how we want to say the next thing. Or we can just rant. Watch others to get some insight.

“Acting deals with very delicate emotions. It is not putting up a mask. Each time an actor acts he does not hide; he exposes himself.”
~ Rodney Dangerfield

  • If performing a complete operatic role, remember to use one of the most powerful tools for any stage work. Actively listen to the other characters when they are speaking or singing to you.
  • Understand that recitative is really just dialogue so the small rests between thoughts in a sentence or between characters is usually non existent. Talk it through as if it is just spoken dialogue. Get a friend to speak the other parts so you can practice the fluidity of conversation. Then put it to music. Go back and forth until you get the hang of it.
  • Only listen to a CD of someone else performing the work after you are done with your own exploration and preparation. Don't imitate someone else; make this your own interpretation of what the composer and librettist put on the page.
  • Make sure it is your own unique voice shinning through.
  • Always remain flexible and curious. This relieves many unnecessary emotional ups and downs when working with others.

It is only after you have the piece well placed in your ear and voice, completely memorized and ready to bring to a coach or work with an accompanist that the rest of this process can start to take place. Yes, there will probably be much input by the coach, accompanist if doing a recital as this is a collaboration, stage director and possibly the conductor, but if you go as prepared as possible with your own understanding of the character whether you are doing a recital, audition or complete role, life becomes less stressed and you not only appear polished and professional, but you will actually feel polished and professional. You have to remain flexible in your thinking when working your colleagues. For example, because of budget cuts, there is usually less time available for both musical and staging rehearsals. Having done your own research and homework, you can maintain artistic equilibrium. You have the confidence to contribute when appropriate, to rounding out your character and truly making it your own within the framework of the entire piece or program. You become the story teller.

“You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try ”
~ Beverly Sills
Even as a novice, you have to bring something to the table. You have to come to each new experience with an agenda of what you want to learn and what you have to contribute at this stage of the game. Remember to remain flexible so if someone throws you a curve ball you are ready. After catching it, getting knocked down by it or if you were able to hit the ball out of the park, check in to see just what it is that you learned from that experience. And of course, the more practice you get the easier this process becomes. With each new event you will be able to contribute more of your artistic, emotional and genuine self in a positive way helping to create a memorable performance for yourself, your colleagues and the audience.

Ciao until next time.

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