When "The Real Thing" Ain’t

For every Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Thomas Hampson, Anna Netrebko, Stephanie Blythe or Juan Diego Flores, there are hundreds, no, probably thousands of wanabee opera singers who don’t make it. There is also a group of people who work constantly in opera, sometimes in leading roles, who are not stars. Some of these people can really sing. They may be equal to their famous counterparts in terms of sheer talent, but lacking in some key ingredient that makes a career take off big time……vocal prowess, personal charisma, lack of drive and ambition, lack of money to sustain themselves, or lack of the ability to keep going in spite of success without fame. It takes all of these ingredients, plus luck, of course, to put fire under a career and make it “world class”, even if you are a very good singer.

There is yet another group. Those folks are the ones who manage to have careers, big and small, in spite of the fact that their singing isn’t really very good. These people manage to show up in major houses, and in major roles, all over the world, and when you hear them, you wonder, “how did THAT person get to sing at X?”

Of course, one can say that about any and all of the other places where people sing, and of all the CCM styles. There are plenty of people who don’t sound good (have “good” voices) with singing careers, perhaps because the sound for its own sake isn’t so important in CCM. A good voice is helpful, but it may not be enough, especially in certain styles. Sometimes a style doesn’t want a good voice…..what good would it do someone singing heavy metal?

But opera is supposed to be about “bel canto” if you read the articles, even if the people singing are in a “verismo” production, or singing Monteverdi. No one who is just bellowing or wobbling or woofing is singing in a beautiful manner, but you can hear voices like that in just about any operatic production. Go to any major house and really listen. You will hear for yourself.

I have a theory about why this might be so and it is that many people are taught to deliberately manipulate their sound for the sake of resonance. They believe that the only way to sing is to make the voice go where they want it to go, and consequently have no idea that it can be freed, emancipated and released. They do not understand that the muscles involved in vocal production should not be held still or squeezed while singing but rather think that this is what a singer is supposed to do. Classical singers can be very diligent about producing a certain kind of “ringy” resonance at the cost of other things, up to and including not actually noticing that the sounds they end up with are down right ugly. (Heaven forbid that they actually be encouraged to listen to themselves).

Another reason is that people can start out sounding good but think they no longer need to work on their instrument and its technical capacities once they are working. If that happens, over time, habits creep in, and before you know it, what was once a great voice is a not-so-hot voice and the person singing doesn’t even notice.

I remember once attending a debut recital here in NYC of someone I knew who had coached with some very high power people — experts in art song and opera that were recognized world wide. She was herself a fine linguist and pianist and had worked long to get her mezzo soprano ready for this big event. I was eager to hear her and was hopeful that this would “put her on the map”, but from the moment she opened her mouth all I could do was think “gee whiz and oh dear”. The voice was caught, cloudy, merky, and unpleasant sounding. She had clearly been taught to get those vocal muscles to go to that “resonant spot” without the requisite adjustments to make the voice lovely and beautiful. The recital was nice, all the songs properly sung, but nothing came of it, as without a radiant voice, frankly, who cares? The saddest thing was that it didn’t need to be the case. All voices can become beautiful, if the teacher knows how to guide the student there and the singer is willing to go and is patient.

Some of the people who don’t sound very good and manipulate thinking “that’s the way it’s done” do not have careers on the stages of the world. They go instead, to teach. They go to faculties large and small where they pass on what they do not really know or understand to their students. Because they have studied, have pieces of paper to prove it, and because there isn’t any standard about hiring teachers who actually sound good as teachers, this mis-information gets perpetuated. It ain’t the real thing, but the poor students don’t know that.

I think that is very sad.

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