Audience Impact : What Is It? Who Has It?

Singers today are technically better than ever,” says Alfred Hubay, one of our experts quoted below, “but there is something missing.” Singers train and train, then complain that opportunities aren’t open to them. The companies and the audiences complain that singers don’t move them anymore. If singers don’t learn to communicate–to bring their art to the audience–why should anyone buy tickets?

In the pages that follow, we’ve brought together some of today’s most notable voices of experience and expertise to help identify the components of audience impact. We also have the one “voice” which is the most important but too often missing–that of the audience.

We asked Diana Soviero, one of the top-rated communicators, to share her experiences and to discuss her process of preparation for maximum audience impact. We talked to conductor Eve Queler, known for bringing together some of the most communicative performances anywhere; Wesley Balk, on the actual process of learning how to be a communicator; Alfred Hubay, member of the boards of several opera companies and a consultant to the Met for the past 55 years; Craig Rutenberg, one of the top coaches in the world; and several others. We conducted an informal Internet poll asking audience members to vote for the most communicative singer and to add their comments.

This issue cannot begin to completely cover this topic, but our hope is that in addressing it, singers may begin to think about how they can increase their communication skills. As you read and absorb these comments from experts, singers and audiences, listen to the voices that ring clear in your ears and in your mind. Post them over your practice space, in your dressing room and regard them as a blaze along a new trail. This, not perfect technique, is the way we will bring back the Age of the Classical Singer.

What the Experts Say…

Eve Queler, founder/conductor of the Opera Orchestra of New York
How can a performance be enjoyed without communication? How can an audience feel the music if the performer doesn’t express anything? Singers are the most fortunate of all performers, because they have both words and music. Actors have words; instrumentalists have music. Both have the possibility of facial expression, but singers have the most opportunity of all performers. How is it that many of them sing only syllables? Nothing is less interesting than a singer who is wrapped up in what they are saying until the high note comes. Then the face turns from love to fear.

All of this is called maturing in your artistry, and combining all of the elements at your disposal. Truly beautiful singing is rare and wonderful, but it isn’t enough. Remember that you are out there to move your audience, to involve them in your suffering or your joy. Try to sing a phrase and intensify the tone as it gets to the climax of the phrase, to express even more love or more suffering, with the most emotion coming at the climax of the phrase. Don’t push to make it louder, just let it out, or try to get softer to get to the core of your voice and let it spin on the climax of the phrase to express such happiness that you are afraid to utter it. Play these games with yourself. If you are someone who can work at the mirror, try that, but I think another person watching and listening is a better barometer as to whether you have connected.

Alfred F. Hubay, Board member, Glimmerglass Opera and others
Singers are technically better than ever, today, but there’s something missing–as if they don’t understand what it is they are onstage to convey. There are so many who have the voice, but the interpretation and individuality are missing. It’s almost a cookie-cutter mentality. There is a lot of money to help young singers, but there aren’t a lot of old-fashioned coaches–the great coaches that used to be able to work with these singers and mold them. Frankly, an excellent coach is as important as a great teacher.

Craig Rutenberg, coach and accompanist
There’s no doubt that communication is the essence of this art. How do you get a singer to communicate, to bring out the heart of a piece? The only thing you can do is to get the singer to go as deep as possible into the soul and dig it out. This is very basic stuff, and demonstration is useless.

There’s one other problem–television has ruined us all. The countries that produce the most imaginative singers are those which still have a viable radio industry, in addition to (and sometimes still more powerful than) television. Radio requires that you let your imagination take over, and television does everything for you.

Jeffrey Gall, countertenor
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and dealing with it onstage. It seems to me that what is most useful is knowing your text and what you’re saying, and that means every word. Know the reasons for the musical gestures (key, because it helps the singer to subdivide into pauses and phrases), and find the emotion and thought. Too many people settle for a general mood.

Another thing I like to see is allowing the audience to see your thoughts through your eyes–to follow your eyes through the play of emotions, the inner play of the soul, the psychology of the piece. This can be reflected in the intensity of the eyes–telegraphed quickly to the audience. You can experience performance on a variety of levels; the singer can realize that many different levels are possible.

Michael Rosen, manager
Renata Scotto would let you know everything you needed to know about the character in one single phrase, and that’s lacking all too often in singers today.

Ann Baltz, director of OperaWorks, San Diego
In a performance, audiences know only what they see and hear. They do not know what a performer is feeling or thinking. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that a performer use their entire instrument–not just the voice, but the face and body as well. Once a performer has control and flexibility in their instrument, then their internal emotions and thoughts can be expressed.

What defines a truly exciting performance? Singer-actors who bring their own unique combination of vocal color, physicality, musical/dramatic instincts, and, most importantly, their creative spirit, to create exciting performances. On stage, they don’t “show” me what a good singer-actor they are, they simply behave as a human being would.

It is this instinctive response that I want to see in auditions and on stage. To me, music is the shaping of sound, whether it’s written or not. Words communicate emotions, and mood and dramatic intent are inherent in any piece, written or not.

Improvised performances are almost always the most thrilling, real, and the most physically and vocally free of any performance! It proves over and over that communication comes naturally to nearly every singer. To transfer this freedom to written music, they must learn to let go of pre-conceptions, trust their own impulses, have the courage to step away from the pack and be different!

CJ Williamson

CJ Williamson founded Classical Singer magazine. She served as Editor-in-Chief until her death in July, 2005. Read more about her incredible life and contributions to the singing community here.