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Monday, July 19, 2010


What is style?

Tell me. Write in, weigh in.

I've heard a number of young singers over the years worry if they are singing in the appropriate "style"; i.e. singing Britten in the style of Britten, singing Mozart in the style of Mozart, etc. Typically this worry causes them to sing in no style, or worse, something akin to "correctness" that functions as words&music sung where/when/how the composer wanted them. This results in that lovely mediocre performance where nothing is wrong, but sadly -- nothing is right. Lots of people I meet like that sort of thing.

"Style" is defined by Merrian-Webster as "a distinctive manner of expression." It can also be defined as "the state of being poplular." I think the two are linked when it comes to music.

Style, in music, changes over the years. As well, how musicians view a certain time periods' "style" also changes with the years. Remember Raymond Leppard? His 1962 production of Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea" set the whole baroque opera craze in motion. Yet, many of my close and most-respected friends in the Early Music wing of this business can't abide the mention of his name. This is mostly due to the fact that his score has fallen massively out of fashion.

Now some of this is due to the fact that so much has now been learned, written, and understood about early music that we no longer need someone like Mo. Leppard to "translate" a baroque score for us -- with all those confusing numbers and little-to-no actual musical notation being put down for us non-Early heathens who can't figure out figured bass.

I grew up on Leppard's "Poppea" and certainly enjoyed IMMENSELY his rendition of Cavalli's "La Calisto" that was presented in 1989 at the Santa Fe Opera with Tatiana Troyanos and James Bowman (and a young Joanne Kolymejic singing Juno as well as a young Elizabeth Koch singing a Furie in the chorus, complete with electronic lights catching her costume on fire one night!) Now, was it stylistically correct? For 1989, barely. For 2010, not really. I would label it "romantic baroque" now. Particularly Troyanos' full-throated (and gorgeous) voice blossoming next to Bowman's thrilling counter-tenor. It's a performance that made me LOVE baroque opera and music, inspired me to investigate it further. It was EFFECTIVE. However, now it would not be considered CORRECT.

So what is the correct style of singing Mozart? What is the correct style of singing Donizetti? Really, these are important questions.

If the answers are about appoggiaturas, or about trills starting from above, or about cadential ornaments, then I'd venture to say one is searching for pieces of the style -- like buttons on fashionable pants that come and go with the winds of the runways of Paris. These are arbitrary rules and/or collections of rules that one uses to dissect art or music. I find them useful, but not the point.

It's much more interesting to try to get into the head of the composer. To get into the time period in which they were writing. To know and understand who the singers were, (and perhaps what their voices were like), that were in the ears of the composers as they were writing. It's also much more interesting to think about what sort of individual style YOU might have that could connect into another composer's sensibilities.

And, if that fails...worry less about style. Think more about being an effective communicator of music, text, character, vocal line, and emotional subtext. That would be my advice.