In the Sunday, October 22, 2006 edition of the New York Times, critic Anthony Tommasini wrote an interesting article “A Lamentation on the Dearth of Divas.” He begged the question, “Where are the singers to give voice to opera’s grandest music? Probably tackling a wider repertory.” He went on to say that everyone is singing the repertoire where they feel safe from the criticism of being compared to those great voices of yesteryear. As he says, “Who needs the burden of being compared to legends?” He intimated that these legendary singers benefited from knowing and using the great vocal and interpretive traditions when performing their particular roles. He feels no singer today is being groomed for specific roles, and more pointedly, the Lirico Spinto, Verisimo, and Wagnerian roles. He seems to be looking for voices that can bring to life the storied traditions missing in today’s vocal sound. He closes with, “When you heard Tebaldi as Mimi, Nilsson as Brunnhilde, Ms. Price as Aida or Joan Sutherland as Lucia di Lammermoor, who even noticed the production.”
So what is that vocal and interpretive tradition of producing the drama and emotional character that is talked about and how does one get it?
“Artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs.”
— G. K. Chesterton
As my own students gain technical strength, I introduce them to the concept that dramatic interpretation is not only using your imagination and the passion of the moment. It is also a technique and a traditional one at that. Once they master what seems at first to be a very contrived and foreign technique to the dramatic traditions of the piece, they start to understand the importance of having the ability to perform with tremendous dramatic flair and panache consistently whether they are feeling the emotion or not. It serves them well and allows them the opportunity to grow more confident with each performance as they truly make it their own. Because it is consistent and of their own doing, as they gain performance experience they can try pushing the emotional envelope against something that is solid and secure without going past the point of no vocal return. They don’t have to emotionally reinvent the wheel, so to speak, each time they perform or audition. They don’t have to be inspired each and every performance. They can rely on creating the emotional drama of the piece by using the tried and true traditional technique.
As Mr. Tommasini says of the recent performance of Butterfly, with Cristina Gallardo-Domas in the title role, “Though her singing was sometimes patchy, pale and shaky on climatic top notes, she made up in intensity and vulnerability what she lacked in vocal allure.” The difference between the singers of past greatness and many of today’s singers is just what Mr. Tommasini has stated, the drama comes at the price of the voice. The operatic tradition of allowing the drama, character, and general interpretation to come through the sound of the voice is what everyone is looking for today. When we experience this in a live performance, it stays as a high point in our memory banks forever. It has touched us in some way that is indescribable and deep within. Time stands still. We don’t want that feeling of having been transported emotionally, to be over.
Let’s talk about some of where in history and how this technique of drama came into being
“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.”
— Henry James
In the 17th and 18th centuries, singers were expected to have their own dramatic devices and needed the ability to improvise creating there own repertoire of ornamentation, embellishments, trills, etc. To this day, the operas that require a cadenza are often created to put ones own stamp on a particular role. (i.e. current cadenza books from Joan Sutherland, Callas, Sills, etc.) This is a tradition that I hope we continue to foster as we move further into the 21st century.
And, if we think in terms of what the music is saying, not just the words, you might notice that you can use the brilliant coloratura to express many opposing emotions; anything from fury, rage, vengeance, and resolve, to overwhelming jubilance or victory. Trills and turns can be used to demonstrate anything from laughter to being fearful or crying. Appoggiaturas can bring emphasis, dignity or gravity to a long melodic line. Slurs, portamenti, and rapid scale passages, whether they are diatonic, chromatic, ascending or descending can create power, excitement, weight or pathos to a climactic note.
“I have gathered a poise of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
— John Bartlett
As Richard Miller in his book “On the Art of Singing” says, “No matter how familiar the song, how great the original conception, it must project from the singer with a sense of immediate creation. In an act of recreation, the singer becomes surrogate poet and composer. The text must be born again with the same freshness and reality that inspired the poet; the melodic line, with its particular grouping of intervals and rhythmic patters, ought to spring from the singer’s consciousness at an intensity level at least as strong as that which motivated poet and composer. The singer’s art is a re-creative art. Only the singer can give life to the song. By so doing, she/he renews its existence in time. The song has life only if the singer endows it with life… The re-creator brings to the artwork a greater degree of immediacy, fires it in the heat of instant artistic imagination, and presents it fully formed, giving it life in the present moment.”
So again the question, how does one make that happen without getting so caught up in the emotion that it distorts the vocal technique?
I am going to try to give you on the written page several ideas of how to make at least some of this happen. It is easy to demonstrate, but putting it just into words is more difficult. I also want to say that once mastered, this technique allows the singer to have the greatest probability of truly expressing one’s individual style of drama. It gives you the tools to become the re-creator of the song or role, infusing it with your own unique and authentic signature. I myself learned many of these techniques at the very beginning of my career from my Mentor, Maestro Herbert Grossman.
“How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling.”
— Claude Debussy
Here we go——-!
- The first and most important element of learning an aria or role is to adhere vigorously to both the exact note values and to the composer’s dynamic markings. If everyone would simply follow that rule, you would find that much of the dramatic work is done for you. This helps give you the structure and flow of the drama of the piece.
- One can actually dissipate the dramatic intent of the music, story and text by over pronouncing the consonants. Good diction does not happen by giving each and every consonant of a word more time value than the vowel. It makes for a very choppy and stilted vocal line. Because consonants are usually not voiced, they can be made quickly and precisely, allowing the breath and sound to open into the vowel. This is what is known as bel canto singing. It helps create a long, fluid, seamless vocal line, and excellent diction. I also know from my own experience as a singer that over using one’s lips to form consonants can tighten the throat, bring the voice too far forward taking one off breath.
- Having just said that, if you want to “on purpose” use a consonant to emphasize or accent a particular note or emotion from time to time, simply and without closing your throat, use your lips to hold back the consonant like you just can’t get it out – it’s stuck, and then when ready, allow it to explode with the air pressure, into the vowel. As you master this, you will notice that if done quickly and on purpose it becomes a great expressive tool. My Mentor used to have us hold a consonant until he came along and gave us a loving, but firm smack on the back of our heads at which time we moved into the vowel. It works.
“The mission of the theater is to change, to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities.”
— Arthur Miller
- It’s important to understand whether the orchestra/accompaniment is simply supporting your own emotional message or whether it is telling the audience that you are just putting on a front with what you are saying while actually feeling something quite different inside. (We use this technique all the time in real life when we don’t want anyone to know how we are really feeling.)
- What instrument or instruments will be giving you your entrance pitch? That could also help you know your emotional intention as you begin singing.
- It is incumbent upon you to know what and where the traditional cuts, rubatos, fermatas, etc. are within each piece. One can do this by listening to different singers and conductors from different eras including our current one, to understand better what the traditions are.
- It is OK to make a tiny rubato or stretch an important word or words within a measure, as long as you can start and end that measure without distorting its rhythmical meter. In other words if you make one word or note a little longer, you have to shorten what comes before or after a little to keep the correct rhythm as you move into the next measure.
- Here is a traditional method of entering a phrase with great drama without wasting your emotional energy. The example I will use is from the soprano aria “Morro,” from Ballo in Maschera. You simply put a “HA” quickly in front of the word “Morro” creating a new word “HaMorro.” This added “HA” of the new word is pronounced just before the beat you would normally enter on, thus adding great pathos and emotion to the phrase.
- The technique for creating a cry in the voice is to slide from one note to another adding a slight “h” as you land on each note.
“Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, it means that the dead are living.”
— Harold Macmillan
- To make a spectacular ending to an aria which usually ends on a high note, sing the note forte; then just before you come off the note, especially if the note cascades down to the actual ending note, start to crescendo making most of the ff sound actually happen during the portamenti down to the lower of the notes. Or if it is just one high note held until the end, do a very slow and steady crescendo until the end. It is a show stopper. (It’s like moving slowly down a river and starting to hear sound of the waterfall up ahead. As you get closer it gets louder and then when you are actually there it makes a lot of sound. Then you realize that most of the sound is actually made when you get down to the bottom of the gorge.)
- Know that a recitative is simply a dialogue between characters. If you pay attention to your daily conversation, you will notice that often you jump right in just as the other person is finishing his/her comment. Recitative can be modeled after speech, so you don’t have to wait a beat before you come in with your line.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
— Scott Adams
- When you sing an aria, are you actually speaking to someone, just being outwardly reflective or is this truly a dialogue we often have in our heads that we are simply allowing the audience to share with us? Knowing this automatically helps color the sound you are making to match the intention of the dialogue.
- To create drama and tension in a soft ending note, have the sound start as if it is moving through a 3″ hole which gets increasingly smaller as you decrescendo, until the sound feels like it is moving through something about the size of a cocktail straw. As this happens add a faster vibrato almost like a trill. Then just before getting off this small laser like sound at the end of the phrase, add a tiny crescendo for a spectacular dramatic ending.
- Breath too can be used technically as a dramatic tool. If you want a phrase to sound like it is the end of a thought, don’t take a noticeable or quick breath in preparation for the next phrase. On the other hand, if you want to hold the audience in suspense, take a breath and hold it a little before you enter the phrase. A quick, noticeable breath is also a very good way to let the conductor know that you are ready to come in. It’s like preparation for the down beat.
“Tradition simply means that we need to end what began well and continue what is worth continuing.”
— José Bergamín
- When you have the same words within two phrases, one right after the other, make sure you use a differing intention and color for each. An example might be to perhaps give more emphasis to specific words within the second phrase to let the audience know that the first time you were perhaps saying it more to yourself and that evokes a stronger emotion as you repeat the same words in the next phrase. I was taught to think the words, “I said”, between two phrases with the same words to create that different intention.
- Some of the best advice I ever received was to actively listen to the person who is singing to you, whether you are in the chorus or a soloist. It is a very powerful tool.
“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.”
— Winston Churchill
- Of course, filling out a very detailed character chart, not only about your own character, but for all the characters in the opera, will give you a lot more to work with as you express who you are and how you feel about each character through the sound of your voice.
- People are tired of hearing singers having only one dynamic, LOUD. Learn how to crescendo and decrescendo. Learn how to spin soft notes so they can be heard at the back of the house. Learn how to modulate and color your voice technically. Then and only then can these traditional dramatic techniques be used as tools. This will better allow you to sing through an entire opera more easily.
- Always remember that the mind-body connection is a powerful tool. It works both ways. It can also be a body-mind connection. So if you want to emulate someone you admire as an artist, imitate the same body movements and notice that your interpretation changes as well. Notice closely and imitate only the body posture, facial expression, etc. Don’t try to imitate the voice. Always use your own unique and authentic voice. Pick your favorite actor or actress and act “as if” you were they singing the part. Again, don’t alter your own authentic sound.
“Acting is not being emotional, but being able to express emotion.”
— Kate Reid
It is vital to understand that what counts is not what you feel on stage, but what you make the audience feel. Experienced people in the theater know that the performer, who allows his emotion to carry him away, is likely to lose his audience. Your job is to take the audience on a magical journey to a different place in time to experience a familiar or unfamiliar set of emotional circumstances.
I hope you will take some of these techniques for portraying an emotion to heart and try them. Having to rely totally and only on what you feel or are thinking in the moment doesn’t really give you room to experiment with the emotional range of a character. It’s important to have had the actual emotion so you are able to portray the feeling as you take a step back and use your drama technique. Experience it for yourself. Learn how to build this disassociated emotional technique structure for expressing your character without having to pay the price vocally. Once you understand the dramatic structure of the music and start applying this traditional drama technique to your music and roles, you will have the ability and confidence to add the emotion back into your interpretation without sacrificing your vocal technique. And the best part is that it will come through the sound of your own authentic and unique voice; then is up to you to keep this amazing tradition alive by passing it on.
“It’s my guess that those cutting-edge artists who attack tradition secretly believe tradition will survive to enshrine them as the wild and crazy geniuses who destroyed it.”
— Brad Holland