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Friday, April 10, 2015

Singing in the Darkness

From time to time I think about how I started out in the opera business. I was very naive, very young, but certainly in love with the human voice, the art form, and all of the collaborative elements that poured into creating that operatic sonic thrill.

This happened in Indianola, Iowa. The home of Dr. Robert Larsen and his department of music at Simpson College and Des Moines Metro Opera, for which he was the founding artistic director. Dr. Larsen was an incredibly gifted pianist, an amazing director, an inspiring conductor, and a profoundly tireless professor, mentor, and leader.  We created opera in a very small department that was primarily populated by midwestern kids who'd never seen an opera, let alone knew how it was supposed to sound.  Because of this, we were free to sing it our way, free to make noises we thought were operatic, free to create art and characters (via texts in our own language - all of the opera was performed in English translations, or English operas by Britten and Menotti), free to express ourselves without the world looking on.  In a way, we were singing in a wonderful kind of darkness.

We didn't have a hyperawareness of the world's operatic landscape, unlike today where the light of opera can shine into every crevice of the internet. Working on Puccini's La bohème? There are hundreds of videos and recording to choose from just on Youtube. At Simpson, we had the Freni/Pavarotti LP recording. I loved listening to it when I was preparing to play Bohème for the first time (I was a Sophomore and had only played Hansel and Gretel plus a few scenes before heading into the listening library to take a listen to the whole opera.) I imitated what I heard and listened to my friends in the cast do their best with the challenging music (headed by remarkable singers - the Rodolfo, Mimi, and Musetta ended up working on the Lyric Opera of Chicago stage, as did a few of the younger choristers and myself years later!) It was a great weekend of Puccini; maybe a few hundred people saw it.

I do wish that young singers today had a chance to sing in the same sort of darkness; to be able to experiment, make sounds that don't work, fail sometimes - even in performances, but give it the ol' college try.  Nowadays so much importance is placed on each and every moment that I worry it straightjackets the artist part of the next generation of young singers' talent way too early. They get so worried about doing everything correctly, making no one upset at any of their choices (that thought never occurred to me, since I didn't know there were any "incorrect" choices except making Dr. Larsen unhappy by not knowing my music!), but especially, many are in a constant state of "fixing" something about their talent.

News Flash: Y'all ain't broken. There's nothing to "fix". You need chances to sing, to perform, to work out the wrinkles in your sound, or in your craft, or whatever combination of artisanal/artistic ingredients you need in order to move forward in your career paths.  Perhaps finding a place to work on these things, out of the way, or in non-traditional places/venues might be a better use of time and money? I'm not sure, but I do know that my time in the Indianola "darkness" was exceedingly enlightening, invigorating, and massively educational. I'm fond of saying that my years at Simpson gave me my 10,000 hours of opera, prepared me for doing what I do now professionally, and taught me more than most undergrad, graduate, and post-graduate programs combined.

Dr. Larsen is still living in Indianola, mostly retired I hear. I wonder if he really knows just how special his aesthetic was, how unique he and his students were?  I hope he does. He certainly was a shining operatic light for many. On a personal level, I think of Dr. Larsen as a kind of lighthouse sitting out on the shore of some operatic ocean. Whenever I'm a bit lost at sea, I remember back to those care free days when making music was just something that happened naturally and without very much effort. It reminds me that I can do anything - if I just relax, open the score, and begin.

3 comments:

  1. Lovely post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It seems like you hold Dr. Larsen dear to your heart.

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  2. This is so on point. The amount of self-micromanaging that goes on in the minds of singers today not only creates lesser art, it must deplete the spirits of singers. I hope that the teachers of today pass on the wisdom and opportunity that your teacher gave to you.

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