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Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Art of Listening, Watching, Breathing

I recently posted a status on Facebook:

"Listen with your eyes, watch with your ears, and breathe with your heart."

A friend (aren't we all friends on FB?!) wrote a quick comment, which was later taken down just as quickly --- but I saw it, thank you very much --- that was obviously a knee jerk reaction to my status. It went: "I find it better to listen with my ears and breathe with my lungs."

I just don't think that that's enough. And I don't think this friend was really listening to what I was trying to say on that oft-misunderstood medium known as Facebook. This isn't a blog to defend my status, it is a blog that will take my original sentiment and try to expand upon it, as well as try to explain why I posted that status in the first place.

Listening is a difficult thing to do sometimes, just on a person-to-person basis let alone on a more general day-to-day level. But listening is what I do in my profession. As a stage director, I'm listening to lots of people sing opera, listening to the singers describe their needs, their ideas, their questions. I'm also listening to designers discuss themes at play in the opera, color schemes, fabrics that inspire, makeup ideas, and offering solutions to a myriad of problems. The listening continues when the orchestra players get into their "pit" -- I don't have enough room, we can't hear the horns, all we can hear are the horns, the conductor is too high or too low or too dimly lit, or too vague in their motions.  It's endless listening!

I watch people as they talk. I watch their body language, their eye focus, their facial muscles, their gestures. These tell me many things. I also listen to their tone and volume levels. Low and breathy means something different than high and nasal when the person's tone is normally much more average or bland. There are high breaths, deep breaths, sighs, tensed jaws, teeth clenched, tight intercostal breaths, collarbones exploding with tension breaths. Everyone expresses themselves differently. When you hear the phrase "it is written all over your face", understand that often it truly is written on your face.

These expressions send messages of subtext. The face can be saying "this situation is making me extremely unhappy and I'm about to lose it" but the chosen words might be "I'm fine, I'm happy, everything is alright."  It's an acting technique - playing the opposite. It's also in a director's bag of tricks - playing the subtext.  Everyday human beings do it all the time when they're walking down the hall and a coworker asks "How ya doin'?" and the response is "great" (said in a flat, un-great tone because you've just been handed divorce papers.)

I wish more singers understood their faces. Their thoughts are written all OVER their faces! Many times it's because they are so expressive already in their regular, everyday lives because it's a holdover from their more dramatic or comic characters they embody onstage. Sometimes, it's just part of being a singer. If you didn't know, singers usually employ more facial muscles than most other Americans because singing in other languages demands using more of your lips and tongue than normal citizens of the U.S of A.; let alone the act of operatic singing and how one learns to increase breath control and decibels of sound over large spaces. Get a group of singers together in a cafe, and the others in the room will notice them immediately. They are gregarious conversationalists, even when tired and on a break!

So one can listen with their eyes. Years spent coaching singers has taught me this.  One can see a bad tone being created before it gets sent out into the theatre. One can see a legato phrase happening a bit before it starts to materialize in sound. It's connected, on many occasions, by how the breath is taken, or not taken, from the heart.

Yes, that sounds all touchy-feely, but I mean it.

Breathing is something that happens all by itself for most of our lives. We do not need to breathe from the heart while we are sleeping, or sitting on a bus, or waiting for a number at the DMV, or while reading this blog. However, singers do need to focus on breath in a much more immediate and intimate way. Sadly, breathing is something that doesn't get focused on all that much lately in the teaching studios. That's a different blog perhaps...

When we express something important, or something particularly true to a close friend, a lover, a child, a spouse, or a parent, we breathe differently. There is a connection to our feelings -- for lack of a better place in us: our heart connects to the breath. Because singing is something quite extraordinary, and singing opera libretti text is something very extraordinary, one can't take an ordinary breath and intone "I've loved you since before time began" over an 80 piece orchestra while bathed in soft blue lights costumed in a Grecian toga. All the text leading up to that point and afterwards also demands a special connection to every breath taken.

In fact, I think all breath in opera is special and should come from the heart. Otherwise, why sing the text? If it's not important enough to connect the thought with real feelings and emotions, then why is it sung?  I've said over and over that "Opera is never about the day nothing happened."  It's true. Opera is always about the day something happens! And that something is so special and exciting that people are expressing themselves in poetry, in song, through an orchestration, with dance and gestures, and -- most importantly -- through the fragile human vocal folds.  Connecting their breath with their thoughts leads a singer to express text on pitches in a much more satisfying and intense manner. Try it out. Every phrase being led by a breath from the heart!

What about that part of watching with the ears?  That's the fun part!

If you close your eyes and listen to Mirella Freni sing practically anything (my favorite is her rendition of the recitative before Susannah's act 4 aria), or Corelli, or Domingo, or Pavarotti, or just-name-a-great-singer-from-before-2000, and you'll "see" their character come alive through the sheer power of their vocal artistry. I hate hearing that in today's world, opera singers have to be able to "act" as well as sing. I hate that.


What were they doing before the 21st century? Just singing?  Well, they were acting THROUGH their text via their voices. It's what bel canto was really predicated on. It doesn't really mean "beautiful singing", it actually was a style of singing which carried the meaning of the text and the emotion primarily through the voice. One didn't need Method Acting Techniques; one didn't need to make eye contact constantly and sing sideways into the faces of their partners. What a singer did was imbue the meaning of the text, and its emotions, in their singing. You have to really listen to see this acting technique happening. You can hear it in Sutherland's singing, in Callas', in Scotto's, in Hadley's, in Sill's, in Milne's, shall I stop...?

This art seems lost, or at least it is hard to find. It's there at the top, in singers like Fleming, Hvorostovsky, Kaufmann and in the younger lesser known generation like Matt Worth, John Osborn, Alyn Perez, and Sandra Eddy. But many people I've worked with lately seem to not be able to hear this kind of intention in singing or in singers. I'm talking primarily directors and conductors, but young singers included.

If you look close enough and listen intently enough, one can hear the truth coming out of mouths. One can also hear lies.

The lying is what comes out mostly. It's because the truth is harder to find. You have to dig down for it and look for it and listen for it. You have to struggle to understand. You have to juggle many choices and ideas - of others - before you can even begin to find the cave that must be explored.

That cave is deep and dark and scary and unexplored. Even when the cave has a sign that says La bohème over it, it is still an unexplored country.

I'm just in the midst of bringing a Le Nozze di Figaro into dress rehearsals. I've loved this opera for thirty years now. I first heard it in 1984 at Des Moines Metro Opera. I was thunderstruck by it! I'll never forget hearing "Deh vieni" for the first time or hearing the Count ask for forgiveness in Act 4. I cried.

Later, when I discovered what a perfect opera it was, I was in awe of it. I stayed away from doing it. I turned down one when I was in my 20s cause I thought "how in the world could I have anything to say about such a perfect opera?"  Since then, I've coached it tons, I've conducted it, I've performed in it, and directed it (not enough times to even begin to scratch the surface of it.) I'm getting ready to produce it at Opera McGill this January (Nicola Bowie directs, Gordon Gerrard conducts). It is a masterpiece of such depth that I'll never explore its cave.

Here's just one example of a great cast and a great conductor. There are many, many others out there:

The Met 1999 Excerpt of Act 2 Finale

But I have listened to it, I've watched it, and I've breathed in its phrases.  My heart sings just to be swimming in its waters. I hope that everyone involved listens, watches, and breathes it all in, understanding that they are just at the beginning of a long journey into a vast, mysterious cave carved out centuries ago by that great master of all, Herr Mozart.

It is something difficult to convey, this wish.

Breathe with the heart.

Watch with the eyes and ears.

Listen with the ears and eyes.

Then repeat, often, and humbly.