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Helene

Speight Jenkins on "What Makes a Great Opera Singer?"

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So what is this topic -- "Speight Jenkins on 'What Makes a Great Opera Singer?' -- doing in the ballet forums?

http://www.artsjournal.com/operasleuth/2015/08/what-makes-a-great-opera-singer.html

I posted it her because of this comment,

I think the problem with audience comes in part from something James Levine said quite a while ago. He pointed out that the coaches who worked with Puccini, Verdi and Wagner are long dead. Even their grandchildren are gone so the contact with the composer and what he wanted is pretty much non-existent. All through the letters and writing of Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini are comments about the need for singers to convey emotion, to express feelings, but opera today is too often coached and prepared by those to whom technique is valued over expression. The American singer is almost always well trained, but correctness is where the training stops.
While my preferred aesthetic is closer to Balanchine's, if I substitute "movement quality" for "expression," I think the comment is as pertinent to ballet, especially as coaches get farther and farther away from Balanchine, Ashton, and Tudor and training seems to be more about technique than movement quality.
To substitute a name, would anyone hire Lynn Seymour today?

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(for those who are in Seattle, and are opera fans, Jenkins is teaching a class at the University of Washington this fall -- a history of opera through the repertory -- it should be a total smash)

This topic reminds me tangentially of Kevin McKenzie's comment in the recent ABT doc about the schizophrenic nature of being a performer, that you need "hubris and humility" to go out on stage and ask people to watch you perform a significant role while you are, still, working every day to improve your dancing. The trick is finding a way to work on the qualitative stuff as well as the quantitative stuff -- how you do something, as well as what you do.

Honestly, I like to think that Seymour would be honored for her particular skills in any generation, but she might not be working in a classical ballet company today. (and she might not want to)

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Oh, gosh. It seems that lately I've been lamenting publicly about everything I dislike about ballet today, and here comes another little bomb. (Honestly, I have been trying to fight my natural inclinations and be more positive!)

It's sort of fitting that this piece was written by Jenkins because I remember that scene near the beginning of The Audition where he expressed his admiration for the courage of the young contenders, since he wouldn't dare to get up and sing "Happy Birthday" at a party. I can't tell you with what shock and horror I reacted when I heard that. "How dare he? He admits he can't sing a note, but he's going to judge and in some way determine the futures of young singers?!!" For someone using dance as a frame of reference, this was utterly inconceivable. For me it was a given that auditions and competitions were presided over by people who were or had been performers themselves, among the very best, who understood the art form inside and out, and who had an intimate understanding of technique.

But increasingly I'm beginning to wonder whether this isn't a problem in ballet, because I think it is infected with a strain of "not seeing the forest for the trees." The imperative to execute the steps correctly is so great, that ADs and coaches somehow don't seem to notice that some of their dancers can't move. Nearly every ballet company I've seen has principal dancers who, I think, can't dance according to the basic dictionary definition: "to move your body in a way that goes with the rhythm and style of music that is being played" (Merriam-Webster). Almost always these people are expert technicians, but I couldn't describe what they do as real dancing. Sequences of steps that are executed perfectly, but which don't connect together into a larger and more meaningful whole, are not dancing in my book.

Of course, ballet is exceptionally detail-oriented, and naturally, a dancer should be able to perform the choreography accurately. But personally I do not require more than that--all sorts of extra levels of technical difficulty--because I find things like beautiful "dance quality," musicality and style much more satisfying, and they're not to be found nearly as often as they ought to be.

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Diaghilev couldn't dance, and he couldn't paint.

Jenkins was an impresario, much like Diaghilev. As General Director of Seattle Opera, he made careers. He didn't have to be able to sing to be able to recognize whether the vocal output was good, whether the singer had been properly trained/had solid technique, and whether the singer had a shot at a career, because, unlike a ballet Artistic Director, he didn't have to teach anyone to sing or perform, and he traveled enough to see performances around the world in all kinds/sizes/ranks of opera houses that he knew who was available and how to rank and evaluate what he heard.

Not being a singer was an advantage to him in many ways: he didn't have confirmation bias based on his own training, he didn't favor singers in his own image, like many ballet artistic directors do their dancers, and he wasn't disproportionately or inappropriately dazzled by technique. He was broad in his tastes -- he has no patience for the Tebaldi vs. Callas vs. Milanov wars, because he prized each for what she brought to the table -- and the only things he seemed to be against were singers who were 1. boring and 2. bad colleagues (which he learned over time).

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I've had wonderful experiences of going to the ballet with musicians, actors and painters, people with who know a great deal about art, but who aren't versed in the nitty-gritties of ballet. Their big-picture perspective can be very illuminating, even disconcerting when I realize I've become too preoccupied with particularities to recognize more fundamental problems.

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Yes, when we become far too acquainted with a certain art form we start to pick it all apart and become clinical and I think we stop enjoying it to some extent. That has happened with me with opera. There are few singers I care to listen to nowadays. My jaw drops at the raves Radvanovsky gets in Bellini's Norma. In my mind, poor Bellini is rolling in his grave! But many enjoy her Norma. I think this might be because I have loved the opera for over 20 years and collected over 100 bootlegs and still mainly return to Callas. An opera becomes memorized in our minds and we have tiny 1 minute moments that put us in ecstasy when we hear them sung the way we want to hear it. I look for the tapering off of lines in Casta Diva and long phrases without breaths (many take obvious breaths in the long lines of Casta Diva where the greats did not). I am disappointed if the trills are not managed in "Adalgisa fia punita nelle fiamme perira!" (the soprano must sing the trills very fast and with fury in her voice which is very difficult)......Can a singer do a "decent" or "good" job without the trills in that line? Yes. It is only seconds in the entire opera. Am I disappointed when she fails to sing them? BIG TIME!!!!

That is what artists contend with.....people who know the repetoire and know it WELL and we judge them in impossible ways. A soprano DARING to take on Norma must have the ferocity of Maria Callas, the technique of Joan Sutherland, the pianissimi and breath control of Montserrat Caballe, etc. We are unreasonable in our demands once we know the opera backwards and forwards. But it is the way of the world, I believe.

When I am in my grumpy mood I actually feel like technique is what has suffered in opera, not the big picture......too much big picture with skinny singers who look like actresses or models and lousy technique and no projection. But then I will hear Kaufmann or Stemme (whose Brunnhilde in SF will be a treasure of my opera-going experience) or Beczala, and I realize there are greats out there still.......

So, yes, I think we become picky and we have our expectations sky high many times and stop seeing the overall picture and stop enjoying the experience. But how do we go back to the days when it is new and everything seems lovely????

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You don't, but you rejoice in the good when you see it, and you try to value the things that a particular performer brings to the stage. (Although if it is only pretty legs and feet, I'll be rather unimpressed.)

I know it's not easy with opera. I'm as frustrated and disillusioned as you are, and watching can feel like a salvage operation at best. For example last weekend, as I was watching director Fabio Ceresa's zombie I puritani on television, I was hard pressed to find anything positive. But while Antonio Siragusa was little more than efficient, he did hit all the crazy notes, and Gianluca Buratto sang with actual line, something I'd given up for lost. The production was a travesty, and the baritone was execrable, but at least Buratto, whatever his limitations, was determined to sing the music as beautifully as he could manage to try to make it up to poor Bellini.

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I have to say that many opera productions are hard to take today, although occasionally I actually like a wacky production. I loved the Copenhagen Ring (on dvd). It is crazy, but the Ring Cycle lends itself to crazy productions, because it is basically a fantasy world. I attended the L.A. Ring Cycle and loved that too even though most people hated it (the singers had these big masks most of the time that probably made it hard on them). The finale had the sets and everything flooded away leaving the backstage scaffolding and lights shining out onto the audience as if to say, "Okay, you got the message about greed and power......now it is up to YOU to renew the world....." and I think that was actually a spectacular ending.

But some postmodern or crazy productions are just plain ugly or ridiculous. At this point they are here to stay.

As for the singing I used to go to a lot of regional opera and the voices were decent and occasionally amazingly wonderful and I would say, "Why is this singer stuck here?" But often today the singer opens his/her mouth and you know they will never sing at the Met. ALTHOUGH......the emphasis on Hollywood star looks and buffed bodies has even brought quality down at the Met!!! I miss the fat ladies who could actually sing and blow you away!!!!! LOL

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