This is repost of an article from the New York Times published on November 13, 2005 titled "The End of the Big American Voice". The points made seem very relevant to me, particularly in the development of what we define in the industry as "Big Voices". Definitely worth a read whether you are a professional, aspiring professional or just a fan of opera. A little glimpse of how the system works or doesn't work today. I particularly loved the words of Dolora Zajick... "Whenever I ventured out into competitions," she added, "people would say: 'Oh, no, you're singing too loud. You're going to ruin your voice.' Well, I've been ruining my voice for almost 30 years."
The End of the Big American Voice
Source: NY Times | Published: November 13, 2005
IN March, Jennifer Wilson, an unknown 39-year-old soprano, suddenly burst onto the international opera scene by jumping in for Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde in Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, just a day after singing the same character in a rehearsal of "Die Walküre." Artistry aside, this is a stunning athletic feat. Few people today have the vocal heft and stamina to get through even one of these roles, let alone take on both back to back.
Ms. Wilson not only sang the killer leading role of the five-hour "Götterdämmerung," she also sang it so well, with a huge, beautiful sound and dramatic nuance, that she brought down the house. It was as if a pitcher were called up from the minor leagues and threw two perfect games on two consecutive days.
A baseball-like farm system has developed in American opera in recent decades, as more and more young-artist programs have sprouted up around the country. Aspiring singers now follow a career path from a music degree and graduate school to a residency with a smaller house to, ideally, a place in one of the top programs for young artists: the Metropolitan Opera's Lindeman program, the Chicago Lyric Opera's center for American artists, San Francisco's Merola program or the Houston Grand Opera Studio. From there they are theoretically ready for the big leagues.
But Ms. Wilson didn't go through the "minors." She auditioned dozens of times over 10 or 15 years, but she couldn't even get in. Either her big voice was deemed unwieldy, or she didn't fit people's physical standards, or perhaps they just didn't think she had the goods. So she had been singing in the Washington Opera Chorus.
American vocal training has long been bruited as the best in the world and is supposed to be better than ever. Yet there has been no commensurate rise in great new talents. One clear measure of the problem is the system's inability to deal effectively with large voices and talents like Ms. Wilson's. It seems to favor lighter, flexible voices that can perform a wide range of material accurately, rather than the powerful, thrilling, concert-hall-filling voices on which live opera ultimately relies for its survival.
"We want interesting artists," said Marlena Malas, who teaches at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music and is widely regarded as one of the finest teachers in the country. "Where are they? There must be something wrong with what we're doing that doesn't allow that to come forth."
Gayletha Nichols, who runs the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, concurs. "I think it's us, somehow," she said, speaking not of her organization but of the field in general. "Even in our trying to be more helpful, we're not."
What exactly is being done? It can be hard to talk about. For one thing, talking to singers about vocal technique is like talking to the faithful about religion: views are dearly held, highly charged and difficult to prove. There are fairly objective standards to measure the performance of a young pianist or violinist. But a singer's instrument has to be built at the same time the singer learns to use it, and each teacher might have different criteria for how it is supposed to sound.
"How can you teach voice without talking about the tongue?" asked Sheri Greenawald, a former singer who now runs the Merola program in San Francisco.
"How can you teach singing without talking about elasticity?" asked Ruth Falcon, a New York teacher whose students include the soprano Deborah Voigt. (You can do both, and many teachers do.)
Yet in the upper echelons of this fractious field, the one thing people seem to agree on is what's going wrong. In dozens of interviews with singers, teachers and administrators around the country, the same complaints emerged again and again. Young singers are not being taught the fundamentals, in particular, the proper use of breath. Breath support, the coordination of lungs and diaphragm, has long been regarded as the key to singing, the thing that sustains powerful voices in huge auditoriums without a microphone. Without it, it's difficult to hit the proper pitches (particularly the top notes), modulate from soft singing to loud, or even be heard beyond the footlights.
The conservatory system where most students start out is self-perpetuating; many of its instructors went right from graduating to teaching without acquiring any stage experience. Many teachers are therefore less accustomed to the acoustics of a big opera house than to the intimacy of a voice studio, where sheer volume can sound alarming - not at all like the smaller-scaled, lighter voices on contemporary CD's (like Cecilia Bartoli's or, worse, Andrea Bocelli's). Big voices also take longer to mature, and by the time they do, those lucky enough to possess them may be considered too old to get a foot in the door. Many competitions, for example, are open only to those in their early 30's or younger.
"A lot of teachers don't understand that big voices don't settle until 35," said Speight Jenkins, the general manager of the Seattle Opera, which has a reputation in the opera world as a haven for large-scale voices. "Voice teachers in general do not encourage the unique, the original voice." Instead, he said, they encourage "the voice that can hit all the notes and do what is supposed to be done," but without any particular flair, artistry or distinction.
But voice teachers are not solely to blame. Young singers, too, are impatient, and in our "American Idol" culture, quick fame is more appealing than slow maturation. What's more, the vaunted apprentice programs tend to look for singers they can actually use, in small roles, rather than simply train.
However these factors are combined, the result is a preponderance of light, agile voices in young, attractive bodies. They may be pretty to listen to - and certainly to look at - but they are not ultimately as interesting as bigger, more mature voices. Nor do they have the same staying power. Plenty of young American singers have sprung onto the scene only to fizzle within a few years.
"I worry that today many of the people judging singers judge on accomplishment as opposed to talent," said Stephen Lord, the music director of the Opera Theater of St. Louis and the Boston Lyric Opera, known for his careful work with young artists. "If someone walks in and can sing every note of 'Marten aller Arten,' " - a virtuosic soprano aria from Mozart's "Abduction From the Seraglio" - "this is seen as the next coming, as opposed to someone young, struggling with physiology, but with more talent. What you see in front of you isn't really the person with the potential for the biggest career."
Big voices may even be actively discouraged. Take the star mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, who said she "grew up in isolation" studying at the University of Nevada. "Whenever I ventured out into competitions," she added, "people would say: 'Oh, no, you're singing too loud. You're going to ruin your voice.' Well, I've been ruining my voice for almost 30 years." Encouraged, by contrast, was Sylvia McNair, a light soprano a few years younger than Ms. Zacik, who won the Met audition at 26 and went on to a big career. Today, she is no longer singing opera.
Patricia McCaffrey, a former singer now among New York's elite voice teachers, scorns the American conventional wisdom that puts all young singers on a diet of Mozart arias to cultivate lightness and agility. To master those high-lying and florid vocal lines, some singers may have to compress their voices. "I send my bigger voices to Europe," she said, "where they seem not to demand that every singer sing light repertory when they are young. Believe it or not, Mozart is actually bad for some voices."
Vocal training is not only difficult, it is also expensive - for a New York student paying $150 for a private lesson or for a music school trying to provide a full-service vocal program with courses not needed by violinists or trombonists, including language instruction and fully staged opera performance. Richard Elder Adams, the dean of faculty and performance at the Manhattan School, described vocal training as "the biggest challenge at any music school."
And the schools are dealing with students who came to music relatively late. A concert pianist begins studying the instrument in early childhood; a baritone has to wait until his voice changes. Many gifted young singers first come to music in high school; a gifted violinist the same age may already have performed professionally.
"And yet we expect them in four years to be at the same level," Mr. Adams said. "There's no way in an undergraduate program to master everything that needs to be mastered."
But there's a lot of demand, and the more students you accept, the more tuition you take in. "A lot of conservatories use the vocal department as a cash cow," Ms. Greenawald said. And so there are large populations of young singers who can't get the individual attention they need.
"They feel lucky that they're in a school of music," said Diana Hossack, the managing director of the service organization Opera America. "Too often students just take whatever voice teacher is given to them."
In the past, young singers often worked with their chosen teachers every day. Today, students often choose a school rather than a teacher, or they go to a big-name teacher whose particular method might not be right for them. And the weekly voice lesson is only one component of a schedule that is overfilled with classes, rehearsals, mandatory chorus and other activities.
"One lesson a week is not enough," said Marilyn Horne, the star mezzo-soprano who now mentors young artists. "They don't remember."
So the most important component of vocal training, the student-teacher relationship, is often the most arbitrary, or neglected.
"My junior and senior year at the University of Southern California I had three teachers in two years," said Cynthia Jansen, a mezzo-soprano who is starting a two-year contract with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. "If you're not somebody who really stands out, you kind of get shuffled through the system. I finished my degree with a decent education and no idea how to sing." Ms. Jansen found another teacher who, over many years, was able to help her undo the damage.
Whether or not one sustains actual vocal harm, it takes a highly self-motivated person to negotiate the conservatory process successfully. Then again, some argue, it takes a highly motivated person to become an artist.
"What's important is for singers to get their feet wet and survive bad teaching," Ms. Zajick said. "But that is part of the ability to have a career. People say we're ruining all these voices, but the people that have the ability are not going to let their voices be ruined."
Still, all the help available to young singers today has not made the process any easier. Even the apprentice programs, designed to help develop young professionals, create a sink-or-swim environment. Ms. Jansen, who took part in prestigious programs like the Glimmerglass Opera's and Merola, described Glimmerglass as both "artistically a wonderful experience" and an "opera boot camp."
"Those programs squeeze as much out of you as they possibly can," she said. "You start at 9 in the morning and are finished when they say you're finished. It's a survival program. You go through something like that, and you're definitely going to learn about yourself."
Part of the process is input from dozens of different people: directors and voice theaters, coaches and movement teachers, and a new category of professionals, breathing coaches, a field that has sprung up in recent years as voice teachers have ceased to tackle the subject themselves. All of this feedback is designed to help foster individuality, and yet any group program by its very nature places a certain emphasis on conformity.
"Sometimes the black sheep, the odd man out, could very well be the most talented one in the group," Mr. Lord said. "They don't fit into a particular mold. That means that perhaps when they get onstage, they won't be like anyone else either."
To their credit, the administrators of the top programs, like Ms. Greenawald in San Francisco, Richard Pearlman and Gianna Rolandi in Chicago, Lenore Rosenberg in New York, or Diane Zola in Houston, recognize the problems and are trying to find ways to accommodate singers with larger voices and less polish. One example is Marjorie Owens, a young soprano who stayed in the Houston Grand Opera program for three years and is moving on to the Chicago Lyric program, part of a deliberate plan on the part of administrators to give her time to develop further.
In the past, some singers did perform big roles at an early age. Regina Resnik, another retired star mezzo-soprano who now teaches, made her debut at 20 as a soprano, singing Verdi's Lady Macbeth, a powerhouse role. "Her voice was pure, steady, easily produced and of lovely quality," wrote the New York Times critic. "But I was prepared," Ms. Resnik said. "We had more time." Ms. Resnik had been trained under the watchful eye of a teacher who sent her to intense acting lessons and took her to performances. Before she sang her first "Fidelio" at the Met, at 22, the conductor Bruno Walter worked with her three times a week for two months to make sure she was ready. That kind of sustained, intense and highly personal attention from a world-class artist simply isn't available to young singers today, despite the best efforts of the farm- team system to provide it.
The system isn't even a prerequisite. Mr. Jenkins and Ms. McCaffrey advise young singers to skip the conservatory and get a liberal arts degree, learn languages and study voice on the side. Morris Robinson was an English major and a football star at the Citadel, a military college; today, he sings bass roles at the Met. Some older talents who are deemed to be ready for a career, like Isabel Leonard, a mezzo-soprano currently getting her master's degree from Juilliard, are encouraged to skip the apprentice programs and start performing. For the most important element in learning to be an opera singer is something no training program can offer: on-the-job experience.
"Merola is one of the finest programs in the country," said Thomas Stewart, the retired star bass-baritone. "Even if they go into that, what have they got? They still come out unproven."
MR. STEWART and his equally celebrated wife, the soprano Evelyn Lear, have established the Emerging Singers Program in Washington, specifically devoted to the bigger voices that are often overlooked by the standard system. It was at a master class that they discovered Jennifer Wilson, who looked "unprepossessing," Ms. Lear said, until she opened her mouth and sang "Dich, teure Halle" from Wagner's "Tannhäuser."
"We couldn't believe our ears," Ms. Lear said. "We said, 'Where have you been?' " They quickly helped her get New York management, leading to her professional debut in 2002, in the title role in "Turandot" at the Connecticut Opera in Hartford, and on to the understudy contracts that led to her star-is-born moment in "Götterdämmerung."
How are artists made? Ms. Wilson was a pre-law student who chose to attend Cornell because she liked the voice teacher there, then dropped out after that teacher's sudden death. She worked a range of jobs in the Washington area: at Radio Free Europe, singing in a church and finally in the opera chorus. She lived with her mother; learned languages; took lessons in piano, dance and acting; and never stopped studying voice with any teacher she thought could help her. "I have the equivalent training to someone with a conservatory degree," she said, calling her Chicago Lyric debut "the overnight success that took 20 years."
In the end, artistic success depends, as it always has, on intangible factors that no training program can provide. One is luck. Another is stubbornness.
"People who really persevere," Ms. Zajick said, "find themselves in lucky places."
Correction: Wednesday, November 16:
A picture caption last Sunday with an article about opera vocal training referred incorrectly to the singer Sylvia McNair, and the article misstated Evelyn Lear's voice type. Ms. McNair's opera career has ended, not her singing career. Ms. Lear is a retired soprano, not a mezzo-soprano.