These videos are all from Europe. It is annoying to realize how much more fun they are having at the opera than we are. See Reading the New York Times.
In Europe each country has its own tradition with works done primarily in the native language and plenty of government subsidies. Anyone who is interested and talented can immerse himself in the art of his own country, learn its history and its style and come out miles ahead of any American.
They grab them right off the street, teach them the roles that suit their voices and throw them out onto the stage. They get to hear them all full of youthful energy and vitality and, yes, ignorance. They can do Verdi with the raging passion he deserves.
Americans are generally much better educated than European singers. In Ulm I was double cast as Pauline in Pique Dame with a German mezzo named Brune Femar. Pauline accompanies herself on the piano and begins her aria with a few arpeggios. In her first stage rehearsal Brune sat down at the fake piano and began her arpeggio on the wrong end of the keyboard.
It cannot be imagined that an American would do this. They drag us through every kind of class you could imagine, and what comes out the other end is a generic musician—someone who can hit all the notes dead on—someone who imagines you’re supposed to hit all the notes dead on—but someone with all the juice squeezed out of them—someone with no idea at all about the stylistic differences between Bach and Mozart—someone who sings every kind of music in the same bland style and thinks this represents the composer’s wishes.
Don’t get me wrong—America has its own tradition, too, it just doesn’t have to do with opera. Our traditions are blues, jazz, rock, country. The Americans who have been the most successful in opera have usually been black: Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle. That’s because they start from a musical style and acquire their vision from there, adapting technically to the classical environment without losing their own heritage. Of this trio Leontyne Price is both the greatest singer and the most black.
What’s required to be a truly great opera singer is a lot. This person must possess the physical talents, already a rare event, and then acquire the technical wisdom necessary to perform these enormously difficult works. Then on top of all that they must project an artistic vision, a unique perspective on the music they are performing.
I have long thought about why our excellent music schools don’t produce more great singers. A violinist seeking a career in an orchestra needs above everything else stamina and precision. They will find these things in American music schools. But our voice teachers seem to work very hard trying to beat the music out of us.
Seek out where this piece intersects your own personal music. Technique and style belong together. To think that someone must reach technical perfection before attempting interpretation implies that they can be separated. A true understanding of style can be an aid in technical growth. Find something to sing you can get excited about and let yourself get carried away.
What I did on my summer vacation
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