Jul 04 2011

Happy Fourth of July!

Here in the States we are celebrating the birth of our country. I just wanted to wish everyone a happy and safe celebration with friends and family.

I am now back to my normal schedule after being away much of the last two weeks. So if you have been waiting for a reply from me I’m getting through them now.

The first week I was at the Jussi Bjorling Society Conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. If anyone wants more information on the JBS organization you can visit www.jussibjorlingsociety.org.

Last week I was on vacation at a resort on Rainy Lake on the Canadian border.

I shared this singer on my Facebook page last week and I wanted to share him here as well. He is another discovery of the “Got Talent” franchise that gave us Paul Potts and Susan Boyle. This time from Korea. The story is better than the singing. But his singing is still better than most that comes across these “talent” shows. I’m not a big fan of the cheesy stories they come up with to pull on our emotions to get viewers, but see if you don’t think about your own dedication to singing after you hear his story.

  1. The young man’s singing is pretty good, but not perfect. I suppose proper polishing would come from getting a good teacher. What is your opinion on his overall ability?

  2. Well, that is kind of the point. He has basically no training, and on top of that has had a life that none of us can even imagine. So I think it is pretty good.

  3. The question of talented singers is certainly an interesting one. Some such singers have some of the important factors of singing in order, but are lacking in others, or sometimes they just need some guidance in the right direction to bring everything together. Others use their voices in abusive ways, but manage to sound good in spite of their incorrect vocal behavior.
    I have a friend who clearly sings with a lot of strain (you can see a bulge under his chin on the high notes, a spread embouchure, tightened neck and face muscles, a raised/unstable larynx, etc.), yet he sounds phenomenal. I’m sure many of us know somebody like that, whether personally or in the published singing world. So what is the main underlying factor that brings together these singers who sound good when they’re doing some or many things wrong? Is it the shape and size of their vocal folds? Or perhaps the fact that they’ve managed to make due with what they have through compensating?

  4. Compensation is a big part of it. But this is an example of what I often talk about. Training is not just about sounding good. As you point out, plenty of people can sound pretty good with poor function. But how long will they be able to do that. If it is unhealthy but sounds good, they may think “why should I change? I sound good this way.” But if the voice deteriorates and becomes unreliable or changes quality. Then that will be bad for them. So I will say it again, good function isn’t just about sounding good. It is about being able to do the things you want to do with your voice for the rest of your life.

  5. There have been many opera singers who have began with great sounding voices, but who ended up being forgotten before very long. Some even became famous (Elena Souliotis for one) but the improper way of singing eventually took the bloom and then the voice away from the singer, and a career ended. Even the legendary Maria Callas with all her great performances, her musicality, her impressive stage presence, and her acting (which was not as animated and pronounced as the younger generation who only have her recordings think; she was a person of economy, and didn’t move unless that movement added to the meaning of the words) did not sing in a way that kept her voice going. After her weight loss, her voice was only half its original size. What she gave opera cannot be disputed, but what price she paid cannot be denied.

    One can actually go through roster after roster of singers, performances for various theatres, etc. and see many names one never reads again. They had great beginnings or they wouldn’t have been able to sing the roles assigned (very few great singers can do Norma well, even though now days it seems everyone sings the role). One can see many singers who sang big roles at the Metropolitan, but have long since left the stage. Some because they ultimately ended up hating the career (even though the voice lasted — it is a horribly hard career with only small moments that really satisfy, and the back stage pressures are simply not for everyone, and are not endurable for some for a very long time, and definitely not for a lifetime), others left because the voice gave out. Often they become teachers who also teach their own mistakes to others.

    The point is, just a good sounding voice is not enough, not enough if you actually want a career that lasts. So many stand before us, even famous, who didn’t have good function, even if they had good voices, and their voices didn’t last, couldn’t take the strain, and couldn’t manage for very many years. It is so tragic when such a thing happens, for such singers usually did and do give their all to their art. But all that giving, forcing, pushing, and enduring was all done in vain, and against proper principles of singing.

    Now days we seem to speak of singers, like the Legendary Maria Callas, as if they could do no wrong, that what they gave MUST be given by all in order to be even good. We excuse their faults and failings and we pretend that their geniuse was what made them. Perhaps it did, for in most cases, especially Callas’, they did have to use their wits and genius to combat themselves, to battle their voices into submission. Yes, the results were astonishing. The drama was incredible. But the voice died quickly. The person died thereafter alone.

    Personally, I believe she was on a course of self-distruct even before she began. Her own insecurities, of which she had many, ruled her emotions. Yes, they may have added to the vulnerability of her portrayals, but what a price. To live such an unhappy life, and transer all such inner sadness into the character one was portraying. And in the end, to destroy the very gift that was the only thing giving life.

    People look at that now, and they think that is what ALL singers must do to be great. But they don’t have to. Maria was just as tragic a character as the great Greek character, Medea, that she sang.

    That is not a goal for anyone.

    But that is often what we are told, even by the sob-stories about these “wonder discoveries” on these talent shows, is what makes a great voice, a great singer, a great performer. That sense of history and tragedy may contribute in special ways, but it cannot replace sound vocal production as a way of really communicating through music.

    Believe me, there is nothing sadder than talking with someone who had a career, but lost it all, and so early in life, all because they didn’t have good vocal form and function. The very talent that gave them life is gone. They spend years, in some cases a lifetime, living in the past, mourning the loss, and in time the decades pass, and all the while the world that once loved them forgets.

    Those who quit because they simply came to hate the career, never seem to mourn the loss. Their voices are still great, they work well, they are still filled with joy, and they love life. They just move on to something else, or use their talent and voices for different things that don’t involve all the crap that the professional opera world thrusts at you. They stay balanced in life, just as they were balanced in song.

    Really it is a question of doing it right, learning how to sing correctly, so that you can enjoy that experience for life. To ignore that fundamental truth sets one up for the disappointment of everything coming to a crashing hault. It is not just devastating physically, but also emotionally.

    Many people have a great sound right from the beginning, and even sing with very correct principles, but there is always more to learn before one is able to face the real stresses of a career. That is what I disapprove of in these “talent shows.” So many are instant winners with instant fame, but will be like a flash in the pan in the end.

    Now days we have so many children also singing as “professionals” and marketed as if they are the best opera singers alive, that those who sing take decades to sound like these children. Sadly, these children have neither the ranges nor the skill to even sing a note of opera (and they seldom do, but they may sing some religious songs, or some sort of semi-classical music, and the public is bowled over with the New Operatic Discovery).

    Again, it is just a “pretty sound” with no technique at all. One can see it in the flapping jaws that match the loose vibrato. One sees it in the overly rounded mouth that turns all vowels into an OO sound. One sees it in the lack of any distinct diction. One sees it in the bobbying heads. One sees it in the shrill and poorly produced high notes (that aren’t really high at all). But they are marketed by the “people in the know” in popular music. And almost every one of these “voice of an angel” children dries up to become a has-been before they really had occasion to really be a been. But because they are children, and they sound sort of OK, people think they are witnessing a miracle. But the problem is, many many children sing well, and can sing very “high sounding” and can sing simple religious music. But they simply do not have the body structures, strength, or know how, to do things correctly. They end up being exploited and destroyed.

    I personally believe this happens to most people who win these talent shows. They are here today, make a bunch of money, and gone tomorrow. And in reality, no one cares.

    But we MUST care about our own voices, even if the world hardly cares. For if we don’t take care of them, and learn to use them correctly, we will not have them for life. And isn’t it being able to sing for life that we are all seeking to do? I think it is. Without good function, we cannot accomplish that goal at all, no matter how good our sound may be.

  6. This is just a further point. Just because a great artist learns to use their flaws, rather than fix them, for dramatic affect doesn’t mean that is what should be done.

    Now days there is a great ignorance of this fact. Back when Maria Callas was alive (and I am not bashing her, as I admire her greatly, and she did have great influence on how I perform, but not how I sing) she was seen as controversial. Not everyone approved of her, nor did everyone even like her. Her career was not quite as international as people think. Her performances in the US for example were not all that often. Her artistic home was La Scala. Yet, even there she was often booed. Many people claim it was her intensity of drama that people couldn’t endure, but that is not the case, for other singers of that time sang with just as much drama, and were just as good actresses. But their voices and vocal production was “acceptable” and more balanced. Maria’s voice was strident, pinched, at times hooty, at other times like she sang in a bottle. Her “three voices” were never wedded together into one. At any time in her career her voice could be wild and all over the map. At times her upper voice was strongest, other times the lower voice, but her middle voice was most often that bottled sound.

    Her artistry as a performer cannot be questioned. Her musicality and the way she spun a phrase is remarkable. The intensity she gave words was spine tingling. But unlike people think, she could have done all that just as she did it even with a well balanced voice. Those things did NOT depend on her flaws. But since she really couldn’t work through her flaws, she was forced to use them to advantage.

    Maria’s voice, according to her sister Jackie, who also had a super lovely singing voice, much better than Maria’s, but who never sought a career, said her voice when young was evenly produced and had no shrillness, no bottled middle, and no growling quality.

    There is even a clip on YouTube of Maria as a child singing in Major Bows talent hour. The name is false (she didn’t use her own name), but it is believed to be Maria as a young girl. She has a well balanced voice, very clear diction, and if that sound had matured would have been a very exceptional singer, with a very easy quality, but still able to put in all her dramatic effects easily (as those come from the inner person, not the music per se).

    I know it is considered blasphamy to speak ill of Maria Callas. It is seen now days as simply evil to think anyone could do better than she. Yes, she was unique. Yes, what she brought to opera was incredible. But those great accomplishments do not erase the fact her production was not balanced. She often worked against herself just to achieve what she wanted to do.

    She openly admitted that her voice was not to everyone’s liking. She knew her sound was painful to many.

    Only she could ever enlighten anyone as to why her voice matured into the sound it did. Her embryonic sound was balanced and beautiful.

    Her teacher was a great singer, and one can hear many of her recordings also on YouTube. She was a definite coloratura with a very strong high penitrating sound. Her high notes were incredible, not huge, but focused. Her vocal skills she did teach Maria well. But Maria didn’t sound balanced in comparison to her teacher. Really Maria does sound like a mezzo singing coloratura compared to her teacher.

    It is a known fact her teacher, when doing little operatic productions for her students did not cast Maria in the coloratura roles she so desperately wanted to sing, but in more dramatic roles. Was there a reason for that? Only Heldalgo could answer that one.

    But when you compare their coloratura work, Heldalgo is quick, bright, effortless, and poised, all is well balanced and the voice never does what it naturally cannot do. Her trills are like Sutherland’s, beautiful and even, and sound like real trills.

    Only in the very beginnig did Maria sing really beautiful trills. For most of her famous part of her career they sounded more like wide vibratos. Her coloratura and staccatti were much slower like the weight of her voice, or the weight she brought to her voice, was simply too much to allow speed. Yet, in other things, Maria surpassed her teacher. Her descending chromatic scales were like pearls and incredibly lovely. Her use of dynamics and her diminuendo gives goose bumps.

    Maria did combine coloratura with meaning. Old Bel Canto masters did want coloratura to have meaning, but not necessarily to the extremes of emotions we think. Still, she was able because of her musicality to make the simplest turn seem emotionally meaningful.

    I have often wondered what she could have done were her voice balanced. She would have lost none of her ability to sing so musically, to form emotional meaning out of the words, or any of the wondrous things she was noted for doing. But all that would have been combined with a vocal beauty of incredible expression.

    That is why I say we can learn from Maria, from what she did dramatically, how she used words and accents, how she “spoke” a recitative. How she infused emotion into every syllable along with such depth of meaning into every word. Obviously, she believed in what she was saying. She used the words to infuse her message, and the music to convey it.

    She is a marvelous example of such artistry. One we can all look to with pride, and one we can all learn from. BUT we don’t have to copy her mistakes vocally. We don’t have to sing stridently, pushed, bottled, or in an angry fashion (which so many “Callas immitators” seem to do). In private maybe she was in some ways the “Tigress.” In her music, she was anything but. She was living music, living words, living emotions, and living sorrows (and most all of this stemmed from her extremely unhappy life and her longing to feel loved, which I personally doubt she really ever felt). But she was not vocally secure. She didn’t have or at least didn’t use a balanced approach in her singing.

    We don’t need to ape her faults to be as good, but we can learn from her impressive example in other ways.

    I am still left asking the question: what would she have been like if she had balanced vocal approach wedded to her incredible other gifts? We will never know. But having seen Callas in my youth (and Sutherland as well in the beginning of her career), I can honestly say, she moved me greatly with what she gave. So did Sutherland, but for a completely different reason.

    Perhaps she too may have overdone some things (her vocal cover to the point her diction was not always clear), but here we had a voice that inspired, moved, and set people into a tissey, not because of her great drama, but because of the increbile beauty and mastery of the voice. Maria never came close to Sutherland in her coloratura ability. She never had such a trill (in my view, the only other singer with a trill as fine as Sutherlands is Adelina Patti’s recordings, and she was a old woman when she made them; one is left wondering what she was like in her prime, and can see exactly why the public considered her the queen of song).

    It is so sad that now days so many people think that truly dramatic interpretation MUST come at the expense of proper balanced singing (I consider Natalie Dessey a perfect example of this idea; in fact she cares less if people condemn her singing, but condemn her acting and she is ready to go to war). That simply is not so. But we seldom hear good singers who actually combine the wonder of great balanced vocal approach with dramatic truth. But the two are not mutually exclusive by any means. There have been many singers who have done just that. Two of them have been showcased on this site. Jussi Bjorling was another. Dramatic truth is much more than just “acting and moving on the stage” which is now days far overdone for opera and often makes what we hear appear silly because of what we see with our eyes.

    Dramatic truth can require no movement at all, or such carefully thought out movement that simply moving one finger can infuse the entire phrase with intense meaning. Maria’s eyes were the soul of her interpretations (and she was blessed with large eyes that really were incredible to watch from the audience). Eyes, they say, are the mirror of the soul. How many singers eyes reflect “method singing” while their voices proclaim emotions? More than we wish to think about. But that comes because they are concentrating on technique, which by then should be second nature. They still have not achieved balance in their production.

    This long essay simply is to show that one can sing with all the dramatic intention they want, with all the beauty of tone they desire, with all the musical skills possible, with all the freedom of coloratura imaginable, and it all can be done without conflict by singing with a balanced function. Nothing good need be sacrificed ever to achieve excellence in all aspects of singing and performing. Nothing good need be lost.

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