Be insistent with your vocal weapon…

I was watching vocal masterclasses on YouTube, keen to glean some ideas on a few issues I’ve been working on in my own singing lessons. Gerald Finley gave a masterclass at RCM in 2003 and I was glued to his first session with a tenor, particularly as I have been working on Un’aura amorosa too (Cosi, Mozart). I loved his choice of words: “be more insistence with the traveling of the air through the sound”. It seems so desperately obvious, but after a few listenings of this opening masterclass student’s session, I could hear what Gerald was referring to. He wanted the delivery of the sound to be completely consistent, a continuous stream of the breath. Gerald was equally insistent on the student persevering with trying to achieve this consistent sound, often not letting progress beyond the opening two notes.

Joyce DiDonato has given a masterclass for the National Opera Studio at ROH, and this was my second YouTube viewing. Another tenor started off the session and lots of good advice came from the mezzo-soprano who openly professes to not being a ‘voice-teacher’. Amidst all the superb advice on breathing (love the tent-poles analogy) and the painting of coloratura, and particularly loved one moment: “the weapon in opera is the voice”. Joyce was discussing the aria, and how the character the tenor was portraying needed to exert themselves not only physically but vocally.

Anyway. This all came to mind, the weapon of choice in opera being the voice, in light of the recent criticisms of opera critics, choosing to dwell on the physical attributes of a female singer. Opera is much more than a voice; it can never be the only weapon. The issue could spark some interesting debates on the nature of the art form and the physiognomy of particular roles: perhaps these preconceived ideas of certain characters’ physical attributes needs questioning? I saw a wonderful ENO Harewood Artists’ Recital in Kensington last year, one singer particularly standing out – Eleanor Dennis. What made her performance stand out was how she was able to become the characters of her songs instantaneously; she didn’t change physically, but her ability to change vocally made us believe she had transformed. It was incredibly impressive and striking. Seeing Anna Netrebko’s face change in a YouTube clip of Elektra’s aria near the end of Mozart’s Idomeneo made me confront again the power of singers to become a role with their voice.

I think what we should be focussing on in opera is the power of the voice to be the role, and not a particular ‘look’. Singers can create the ‘look’ with their voice, and the artistry of the singer should focus on their power to convince us that the same singer can be in one performance a villain, another a hero. Let’s celebrate the voices, as surely these are the most powerful weapons of all.

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