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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why Menotti Operas Are Flawed

I'm coaching The Telephone right now. It's an awful piece, for so many reasons.
But not as awful as, say The Medium or Saint of Bleeker Street.

Yeah, you read that right. I'm stating my opinion about something.

Opinions are hard to come by nowadays. So many people try to bend over backwards to see both sides of an argument, or an issue, that they become literally mediocre in their opinions. What happened to old-fashioned opinionated people?

My opinion on Menotti does not stem from ignorance. I've done lots of his operas, lots of times. My undergraduate studies were filled with full productions of Amahl, The Telephone, The Medium, and The Consul as well as scenes from everything from Help! Help! the Globolinks! to The Old Maid and The Thief. We loved Menotti, we also loved Mozart and Britten. Those were the three operatic temples there. I grew out of loving Menotti and so should you.

Menotti really didn't write for opera houses. He wrote for outside of the opera house. Television operas: Amahl (okay, I do LOVE Amahl. It's, in many ways, a perfect opera) and Labyrinth (which does have a cool aria in it); Radio opera: The Old Maid and the Thief; and Broadway stages: The Consul, The Medium, The Telephone. The few he did write for the opera house are rather dull: Amelia, Bleeker, Goya. I give him credit for trying to push the limits of Broadway. Sadly his influence wasn't staying. I think Broadway didn't want his over-sentimentalized stories or his oddly-colored harmonic world. I'm sure many Broadway audiences were confused by his music after hearing years of Noel and Cole.

It's not really his music that bothers me. Although musically the scores are pretty dismal and certainly written at the piano (they fit my hands really well, so I do like playing them), the incessant play of tonality with dissonances overlaid like spice in a generic pasta dish that would do better with actual tasty ingredients in it, just becomes tiring after a few decades. What really gets under my skin are the two-dimensional characters (some are even one-dimensional) spitting out text that is maudlin at best and disconnected from humanity at worst.

The young love Menotti. That's for certain. Young directors especially. I think the melodramatic leanings of Menotti's libretti are certainly one of the reasons why the young think that Menotti is "theatrical", "intense", and "moving".

Examples to back up such awful thoughts about a cherished composers' works?

Here goes:

1) The "Horizons" ensemble that ends The Consul. Sheer and total rubbish. Can you believe they gave the Pulitzer to a piece that ends so horribly?

2) The Telephone's terrible, slightly misogynistic look at a woman obsessed with her telephone back in the 1950s. It's not an uncanny pre-cursor op-ed on why social media is disconnecting all of us from each other. It's an un-funny look at a woman who lies, chatters about without any thoughts in her head, and then is asked for her hand in marriage by a loser named Ben.

3) The Medium's Toby. I just can't even begin... The best thing about The Medium is the chord that gets played when Baba turns out the light over the table. Love that chord. But "Black Swan" or "Monica's Waltz" are two of the most hated audition arias for a reason folks.

4) The libretto to Old Maid and the Thief. "Steal my lips, steal my heart, steal my cheeks, steal, oh steal my breath." And then there's the liquor store scene...

5) The Consul's dead baby moment.

6) Magda sticking her head in the oven moment.

7) Endless use of same harmonies. If you've heard one Menotti opera, you've heard them all. Same should be said for Poulenc, but it isn't. Why is Poulenc so revered? Killing a bunch of nuns to the best music written for the operatic stage should not mean that he is untouchable. Poulenc should be taken to task for simply copying himself in his operas La Voix, Carmelites, and Mamelles. It's fantastic music that he copies, for sure. And it's in French, so it somehow seems more cultured...

8) Menotti's music was written at the piano, it just had to be. Someone tell me otherwise. Good composers don't do that. It's called a table, and the music's supposed to be in your head, not discovered via a keyboard.

9) He wrote his own libretti, and I think some of them have good parts. His best libretto was Vanessa, which was Sam's great opera. Perhaps Sam should have offered a bit more advice from time to time?

10) While most of Menotti's music is really simplistic, he'll put in a measure or two of ridiculousness that comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere. It happens throughout The Medium. Just random awkwardness, musically speaking.

Now, what I haven't said are good things about Menotti. Here goes:

1) His operas are nicely written for the voice. Most young singers can sing them.

2) Amahl has some incredibly emotionally satisfying moments -- from the Mother's aria to the "Oh woman you may keep the gold" to Amahl's miracle. It's a great opera, especially cause it is so short!

3) The Consul has a couple of great moments - the trio in act one, the Magician's scene, and of course "Papers, papers, papers". The role of the Secretary is one of the best roles written in the 20th century and then Menotti doesn't even really give her an aria...

4) Saint of Bleeker Street has some intensely dramatic moments for solo voice that pack a good punch if you have good singers.

5) Domingo sang some of Goya really well.

6) The Old Maid and the Thief is the first time a barihunk role was created. Sadly, it was on radio so no one could see the "beautiful torso" that Bob, the baritone, revealed. Nowadays one needs a beautiful torso to not just sing Bob, but any baritone role it seems from Giovanni to Marcello (and boy it's cold in that garrett...)

7) Most of his operas are short, so you suffer little. But I'd swear Monica's waltz is longer than the actual opera it is in.

8) His one acts come in handy when you're trying to pair that masterpiece Gianni Schicchi with something other than Suor Angelica.

9) His operas are cheap to produce, again this is handy for young companies and young directors.

10) It's fun to change the texts to his operas. There is a whole opera re-written to "Amahl and the Night Visitors" that I can sing for you.

Next up: Bach?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Coaches Who Teach... Teachers Who Coach...

I've been meaning to write this blog for a few years now. There have been many drafts, all unpublished. For reasons escaping me, I've decided to go ahead and publish this one.

First, though, please understand that I am not writing about any specific person or persons, nor am I really talking about diction or dramatic coaches when I use the term "coach", nor am I writing about any current or former colleagues. I'm writing about a collective group. I've been in this business for 30 years now, so that covers Montreal, Brevard, Charlottesville, NYC, Cooperstown, Philly, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Tulsa, Des Moines, Kansas City, Wichita, Fargo, Chicago, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Santa Fe, Ithaca, the land of Elvis, and tons of other places in between! This isn't a rant, it is hopefully a thoughtful rumination on what it means to GUIDE a singer.

I just used the word "guide" purposefully.

Here goes!

An Operatic Proclamation (Made By Some Operatic King/Queen):
Be It Known!
In the year 2013, it has come to be established by the powers-that-be that anyone employed by a singer who is a current or former singer is referred to as a VOICE TEACHER and anyone employed  by a singer who is not a current or former singer is referred to as a COACH.

Or put another way, the powers-that-be have established that someone who TEACHES voice is a called a voice teacher, someone who COACHES is a vocal coach. Or put yet another way, singers can teach other singers, pianists not so much.

Or in certain dark corners of the biz: coaches don't (or can't, or shouldn't) teach voice, but voice teaches are free to coach.


Not really. 

Many people I know might define a coach as: a pianistic guru with experience in and out of an opera house who knows (and can play) the repertoire, discuss roles, fach, cuts, conductors, character, breathing and support, and correct diction all the while giving advice on career, auditioning, and life. And I might add that some would say a coach is also a mentor and sometimes a therapist.

Many people might define a voice teacher as: a singing guru with experience performing as a singer in public who focuses on the technical matters related to singing by giving their students vocalises to either create a technique, help out a burgeoning technique, or "fix" a singer's errant technique, as well as discuss roles, fach, cuts, conductors, character, breathing and support, how to keep a tongue in check, and all matters related to the physical apparatus needed to produce a beautiful tone. And I might add that some would say a voice teacher is also a mentor and sometimes a therapist.

Then there are also "répétiteurs", who I'd probably define as pianists who either play rehearsals or teach notes to pianistically disabled or musically at-risk singers.

But like any definition, each of the above statements is way too simple, and certainly doesn't reflect the reality of what truly goes on in a studio. Lots of répétiteurs coach, lots of coaches teach, and lots of teachers coach. Lots of pianists can't play, (or don't know), the rep. Lots of former singers aren't comfortable "teaching" so they "coach", and lots of others - both coaches and teachers - simply think of themselves as gods here on earth. 

I digress.

I like to think that when one is TEACHING voice, one is working on the craft of singing (warm-up & vocal exercises, legato tone, breathing and support concepts, diction, etc.)  OUTSIDE of the repertoire. As in: not while a singer is in the middle of "Come scoglio".

I like to think that when one is COACHING a singer, one is working on the craft of singing (legato tone, breathing and support concepts, diction, etc.) INSIDE of the repertoire. As in: while a singer is in the middle of "Come scoglio".

Following this logic, if one is working from within repertoire, one is coaching. If one is working outside of the repertoire, one is teaching. Neither is more important than the other, I believe they should go hand in hand. That's my hypothesis.

But the crux of the matter is that thing I refer to as "the craft of singing."

I'm careful not to use the word technique. That's too broad a term. Plus it's rather difficult to nail down exactly what "vocal technique" is.

But before one can even discuss what technique is or is not, it is interesting to think about how one studies technique. 

So -- a word on Vocal Pedagogy by the academically astute Wikipedia: "Vocal pedagogy is the study of the art and science of voice instruction." (I like that "art and science" part!)

Wiki continues to create a list of areas of study, that I think pretty much outlines what a singer should study:

Human anatomy and physiology
Breathing and air support for singing
Vocal projection
Diction, vowels and articulation
Vocal registration
Sostenuto and legato 
Other elements such as range extension, tone quality, vibrato, coloratura
Vocal health and voice disorders (I lump speech therapy in here)
Vocal styles (Wiki lists "opera, belt, or art song" !)
Voice classification

Now, all of the above are certainly topics in how to acquire a vocal technique. (It is by no means a complete list.) Yet, how many teachers or coaches are capable of handling each and every one of these specialities?

Try to sit down at a table with anyone in this business and discuss which parts belong solely to the teacher, which ones solely to the coach. Just try. It's impossible.

Yet people use the word technique constantly, almost casually, to describe something they might not be able to actually articulate in any concrete way.

For instance, when you ask a singer about their technique,they'll tell you they work on it with their voice teacher. When you ask a singer to describe said technique, it becomes more difficult to articulate. Then if one continues the interrogation, and asks about where the study of the non-technical aspects of singing happen, then the waters muddy quickly. Teachers and Coaches should talk about both the Science (Craft, technique, whatever you want to call it) and the Art (phrasing, textual meaning, compositional structures, emotional content, dramatic elements, etc.) Most of the great ones try to focus on both sides of this vocal coin.

Still not clear what I'm saying?

Another example --
When a singer puts their entire tongue onto the roof of their mouth to creat a double "l" in a word such as "bella", I have to talk about their tongue, how it moves and why they need to rethink their "l".  That's technical. When a voice teacher asks their student singing "Deh vieni non tardar" where Figaro is in the scene because it's obvious the singer is singing to no one in particular, that's coaching. 

Is coaching, then, more of the artistic portion? No, just as teaching voice is not just the technical portion.

Now... The big question:

Why can voice teachers "coach" their way through a lesson and it's called teaching? Yet when a coach "teaches" their way through a lesson it can be seen, like the Rowling's Forbidden Forest, as "out of bounds"? I've never heard a singer complain about their teacher coaching them, but I've certainly heard singers complain about coaches who "try to teach". It immediately feels a bit contentious when one tries to either discuss this or write about it.

Nowadays, a newly minted voice teacher with maybe a decade of experience singing and a few hundred lessons under their belt, is respected as a voice teacher simply because they are, or were, a singer. They may not know the first thing about how to teach or how they actually sing. Yet the middle-aged coach with eons of experience working with voices is not thought of as having any technical knowledge because they aren't, or weren't, a singer. Since when did being able to sing define what makes a voice teacher qualified to teach technique? 

What is meant by technique? I guess anyone's answer might depend on your own individual definition of what important elements should encompass vocal technique. It also might depend on your own path as a singer or pianist. I studied voice longer than many singers who are out there getting paid to sing. That doesn't make me a singer. I sang an actual role on the professional stage -- Emperor Altoum -- at the age of 24. That doesn't make me a singer (I had a large, yet ugly voice). However, from 1983 to 1993 I played for hundreds, maybe thousands, of voice lessons with dozens and dozens of teachers -- some good, some bad, a few great, and I've coached thousands of singers who've studied with close to a hundred different teachers. 

That's a lot of diversified knowledge and THAT'S what makes me able to talk about and teach the craft of singing. There are tons of coaches out there with even more experience and knowledge than me. Some humbly say they don't know "anything" about "technique", but I bet if one defined vocal technique with the above Wiki list, they might admit that, yes, they actually do know quite an awful lot. 

Tossing the word technique around casually is not helpful either. But perhaps if another concept were introduced to define technique? How about: Everything is technique! Whatever you might say to a singer about ANYTHING they are doing, from how they're standing, to how they're pronouncing a word, to how they are trilling from below, to how breathy their tone might be, to how a note is too sharp or flat, to what their subtext might be, a singer chooses to respond by altering HOW they're producing tone. How one produces tone is rather a big part of technique. So it's all technique. How 'bout them apples?!

If I, or any coach, were to sit at the piano and warm up a singer with a set of vocalises (by the way, that's something all Choral Directors do with their choirs, but that's not seen as "out of bounds") and then spend the entire coaching not having the singer sing any repertoire but just work on building their voice through exercises, that'd be a VOICE LESSON.

Conversely, if a teacher were to spend the lesson listening to a singer sing through a role, or an aria or song, and then point out better places to breathe, offer alternate traditional cuts or ornaments, discuss diction points, and talk about the character's objectives, that'd be a VOCAL COACHING.

So the truth is that all good voice teachers coach and all good coaches teach.

The people who were instrumental in my development as a coach: Robert Larsen, Nico Castel, Debra Birnbaum, Marlena Malas, Donald Palumbo, Reed Woodhouse, Michael Ching, Tim Hoekman, Dan Saunders, Rachel Lampert, and a few of my musical theatre students at Ithaca College (yep, you can learn a lot about coaching Rodolfo from coaching Superstar) were fantastic humans, amazing coaches, wonderful performers, and superb teachers. They blended diction with breath with pop tunes with acting choices with stories of golden ages with energy and emotion with actual technical craft that inspired me to create, perform, grow and learn.

Ah, inspiration. To become inspired "as if arising from some external creative impulse" or "(of air, or another substance) that is breathed in." (That's a google definition.)

To be inspirational is really the goal, eh?

Call it what you will: a coaching, a lesson, a great hour with my teacher, a $225 expense, a revelation, a good rehearsal, a run through, a cry session.

But in the end, a singer is employing their coach and/or teacher. Money is exchanging hands. Singers are not there in our room for us, we are there for them. We are there to ignite a spark in them, to guide them, to pass on our knowledge - whether that be craft or artistry or hopefully a little bit of both, to breathe inspiration into the air.

At least that's what all those who taught me did and it's what I try to do every time I'm lucky enough to be in a room with a singer!

I'm a coach who teaches and a teacher who coaches.

I believe everyone who guides a singer is, or should be.