Carol Vaness

Carol Vaness

Ms. Vaness’ generosity in sharing her experience with young singers has touched many a private student and master class participant, and will undoubtedly enrich the upcoming Classical Singer Convention. It was a thrill to encounter such a warm, open, intelligent artist, who not only imparted her wisdom in a candid interview, but also took the time to make the best chamomile tea!

Did you always want to be a singer?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a graphic artist. I was always drawing something. I did sing, though. I was raised Roman-Catholic and always sang in church choir. In those days, we did lots of good music in the Mass: all the great composers of church music. I was an alto and I could read music because I had started taking piano lessons when I was 7. But I didn’t really want to be a singer.

Did you perform in piano recitals at all?

Oh, no, I was terribly shy. Once I played a junior recital for a tenor. But then I kept on studying piano as part of my major.

Where did you go to school?

I went to California State Polytechnic University, where I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts, and then to Cal State University Northridge, where I got my MFA and later, an honorary doctorate. My first major was English and music, with the focus on piano.

Did you take voice lessons?

I hadn’t planned to—but I had a crush on the choir director, a young guy from Southern California. He was really cute, and I took a voice class with him as one of the electives. He started to give me a lot of attention, and when he said: “I’d like to give you voice lessons,” I asked: “What does that mean?” He said: “For one hour a week, you’ll come in and you’ll sing,” but all I could hear him say was: “For one hour a week, you get to be in the same room with me!”

You actually started as a mezzo.

Yes. It turned out I was this guy’s first voice student, so I lucked out! He encouraged me. I always had high notes but he thought that my most beautiful timbre was in the middle and low voice.

When did you switch to soprano?

I switched in graduate school. I walked into an audition for David Scott and sang “O don fatale.” When I finished, he said: “I think you’re a soprano,” and I thought: “How silly! Anyone can tell I am a mezzo-soprano.” Of course, he managed to convince me. I had always done “zwischen fach” [between fach] things. I sang mostly mezzo repertoire, but then I’d sing “Leise, leise, fromme Weise” from Der Freischütz or “V’adoro, pupille” from Giulio Cesare. I think my first voice teacher didn’t necessarily know a lot of repertoire, so if he heard something he liked and thought it was within my range, he would say, “you should sing this,” but whether or not it was the mezzo fach, it didn’t matter.

What was the biggest vocal challenge for you when you switched to soprano?

The challenge was in trying to make the top beautiful and not get nervous when I sang up there. Actually, mezzos need to be trained pretty much the same as a soprano, because it’s almost the same range; just the quality and color are different. My top had always been very bright, so it became a question of adapting the rest of the voice to it, brightening the middle to match the top. The passaggio was not a problem; I could actually sing there very easily and last a long time.

What kind of vocalises did you do?

I did a lot of arpeggio work and anything that would leap over the passaggio into the top. Once the top became comfortable, I did more scale work, fast and slow. But I found that repertoire itself helped my technique the most. By singing “Non mi dir,” I learned more than by doing a scale.

What is your basic singing philosophy?

Sing with your body as a whole! There are three places to sing from, and you have to use all three. Your resonance is in the head; your actual mechanism is in the throat, of course; and your support, or your engine, comes from the diaphragm. The throat is the computer; the body and diaphragm are the electrical outlet, the energy provider; and the head is the monitor, with loud speakers, and all the areas around the computer. It all has to work together.

Your voice is very large and rich, yet you don’t get heavy, as some dramatic voices tend to do. You manage to stay slender and flexible throughout your range. How do you maintain that suppleness?

Well, through breath and support. I also keep in mind that even the darkest, biggest voices should be high-placed, so that they don’t sing down on the mechanism. You have to think of the whole mechanism as a flexible tension, as opposed to just tension and strength. I also think that people can get a funny idea of support as something that needs to be nailed down, but support needs to stay flexible. It’s like singing with your knees slightly bent as opposed to keeping them locked. The reason is: You should be able to move in any direction with your knees bent and still stay strong from the waist down, while allowing your breathing to be free. I always emphasize that with my students.


Do you teach privately?

I have a few students, in California, in New York, in a couple of other places. I’m going to start teaching more and more. I would like to open a studio, but it’s a question of having enough time to dedicate to my students. I don’t believe in just dumping people, you know: start with someone, get them going and then leaving.

Teaching is a wonderful experience. Anytime you can explain to a young singer that they are not alone, that we all go through the same things and have the same fears, anytime you can help someone, it enriches you a lot. What you have to give, gives back to you immediately when you’re teaching.

You have to be careful, however, to respect the individuality of the student. A lot of problems in America come from teachers trying to teach their own method, as opposed to finding what works best with each singer. I find that a lot of teachers will repeat the same exercises with every student. Some may be valid but you need to see how a student is more comfortable.

I think that, as a teacher, you can have an idea of a method, but you have to adjust your method to each student. The voice is mostly controlled by the mind, so you have to help each young singer get out of his/her own way in order to let the voice go, as opposed to holding on to it and putting it somewhere. But in order to do that, you, the teacher, have to first get out of your own way, so you can be in tune with your student.

You should allow what the student is feeling to come out so that you can realize what he/she needs. What gets them the most concentrated and the least worried? You have to give them courage to try certain things. If you can help them mentally, they can do it physically. Singers search for the right technique, but that only means whatever is right for each individual.

I also love master classes, but I don’t believe in demonstrating for the audience. I know people sometimes go to a master class thinking: “Oh, so-and-so will be there; maybe they’ll sing!” I don’t, ever, because it’s not about me. It’s a possibility for young singers to take what they do in a private studio and be able to do it in front of other people.

One of your specialties is Mozart. You mentioned once that you love the Da Ponte libretti of Mozart’s operas. What is it about the Mozart-Da Ponte combination that inspires you?

I just think Mozart was able to set anything that Da Ponte gave him with great humanity. All of the Da Ponte characters are very real. They’re not just one dimensional; they have major faults as well as qualities. The beauty of the Da Ponte libretti lies in the flow of the Italian; it feels like eating rich chocolate. There are many ways you can read the language, and Mozart enhances that by making the music very human.

Do you have any “golden rules” when singing Mozart?

Well, I wouldn’t change my voice. The rules apply more to the style of how I use my voice. I think the mistake can be to change the way you sing because you confuse it with changing the style. So I always sing Mozart with vibrato and not with straight tones. There are some people who like it more straight-tone. I never use it because that would not be true to my voice. You can’t really hide in Mozart because it’s so exposed, and if I try to modify my nature in any way, it doesn’t work.

I think Mozart was a very direct man. His music is direct, and while the librettos have moments of great ambiguity, because of the interests of the characters, I believe it has to be sung with great honesty.

What do you love about Fiordiligi?

Everything! She is so human. In the end, you forgive her despite her faults, because she has always tried to do her best as a woman, as a person, as a faithful entity. I love her music. It’s really difficult. The challenge lies not in the arias—they are hard enough —but in the ensembles. You have to ride on top of these ensembles and still make her not only feminine but full-blooded. Riding that high for that long is a little tricky, but not impossible.

One of the most thrilling performances I experienced at the Met several years ago was your masterful portrayal of Hoffmann’s three loves. In the span of three hours, you moved from coloratura to lyric to dramatic soprano/mezzo. Tell me about that experience.

Of course, when I was sitting there as the doll, waiting to be pushed onstage, I thought I was the stupidest soprano in the world! I think that Tales of Hoffmann gave me the chance to practice what I believe is important for every soprano: to be able to do some coloratura even if you have a dramatic voice. It’s so necessary to be flexible. Fortunately, coloratura was always something I had, so I didn’t have to work that hard for Olympia. The challenge for me in that production was to be calm enough to perform the doll, because it’s not something that suits me temperamentally!

How did you manage to maintain your flexibility throughout the doll’s mechanical movements, which might lead to stiffness?

The wonderful thing about that particular staging was that it was extremely choreographed. Once you learn the movements, you need to remain in flexible tension, so you could look stiff but not be stiff. Think of any Asian movement, like in Tai Chi; there, it can appear that you’re not moving much, but you’re actually very inwardly active, with a powerful center. You’re very connected to the earth and you don’t have to move a lot to stay active. You can stand like the doll for a long time, and be actively standing, as opposed to holding yourself still. The stiffness and stillness are going to be perceived by the audience.

Do you do any particular exercise backstage to get into performance mode?

Sometimes, when I don’t feel engaged, I focus on breathing and do some panting—not too much. I try not to be too frantic, but just stay controlled and quiet. Some people really like to stay hyper. I am hyper by nature, but I like to hold my hyperactivity in, which is a little painful at times. But the minute I get on stage, I try to really concentrate all that hyperactivity into a single place, staying aware of everything—whether I need to focus on the words here, on technique there, on the breath, or on “oh, the tenor is lost,” or the conductor is doing a slower tempo—that multi-layered cake that is performance. Hopefully, by the time you get on stage, you are able to use everything—your physicality, your vocal technique, your breathing, the words—as the character would use them. So you’re not out of character really, it’s just that your character happens to sing. That’s what I mean about “it has to be all one.”

How do you prepare for a role?

If it’s something I’m totally unfamiliar with, I sometimes listen to a recording a little bit. But when I actually start to learn it, I just go to a pianist, or I pound out pitches and rhythm myself, marking it, translating it. I start with the bare bones and try not to jump to interpretation before I am technically ready. I have it almost memorized by the time I start to interpret. Roles attach themselves quickly in my mind because I do associate a pitch and a word with that character. So by the time I get to be the character, the music had already moved me to understand what the character really needs.

Of course, it’s all in the music and the words. One doesn’t have to exclude the other. You should be able to make the words perfectly understood and still sing well. That doesn’t mean you have to sing a pure “i” as high as you can go, but you should be able to approximate a good sound close to an “i,” so that the word is understandable.

You participated in the inaugural year of the San Francisco Merola program. What did you learn from Kurt Adler?

He taught me something very valuable: When you take a breath, you don’t just take a breath! You take a breath depending on the type of phrase you will be singing. There’s no point to gasp and inhale fast, if you’re going to sing a really slow phrase, or to inhale slowly if your next phrase is fast.

Breathing and the silences are just as important as the music, the diction and the support. It’s all connected together as part of the Zen whole, so to speak.

He also taught me that you don’t have to be the most perfect singer and you are allowed to have bad days. But you need to really work hard at being consistent within a framework, so that you don’t have extreme highs and lows. I learned to always think ahead, be prepared, and be consistent in everything I took on.

Another of your favorite roles, besides Fiordiligi, is Tosca. What is it about her that galvanizes you into such inspiring performances?

Her personality and her music. It just suits me physically and emotionally. She is very active, and I like to be active on the stage. I mean, you get to live through everything: passionate love, rape, murder, suicide. What more could a performer ask for?

Moving from verismo to bel canto, I heard a beautifully moving excerpt of your recording of Anna Bolena. How do you fit your dramatic temperament into the more subtle, legato form of bel canto?

Just as with Mozart, I don’t make any great difference in my voice to adapt to the style. The words are shockingly important in bel canto too. I think the mistake people can make with bel canto is when they come to cadenzas, thinking that cadenzas are just pretty. I think that if you remain within the character dramatically, the cadenzas, the fiorituras, the coloratura—all the things you associate with La Sonnambula, Anna Bolena, Norma—have great intent.

That was the magic of Maria Callas. It seemed as is she invented the cadenzas and coloratura in bel canto, because she made a statement with each one. A long melisma could be like a word, an emotion of anguish, sadness, fear, happiness, anger, whatever she had been singing about.

It’s important not to avoid the drama within the long bel canto lines. The long legato lines are part of the style, but the drama must be there, too, or the style has nowhere to go. It becomes a mechanical sequence of long lines. When you come to melodrama or verismo, the long line is important too, but it is punctuated differently. The utterances may be shorter. There are sounds that are not necessarily meant to be beautiful. However, you can also find that in bel canto. I don’t believe that all of Norma should be pretty because that is not her character. When she has the big confrontation with Pollione at the end, it’s the beauty of the drama that comes through the singing, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. When she says: “Trema per te, fellon!” that is not pretty!

There are some sopranos who believe in making it all beautiful, but I’m not one of them. I think that singing is more attractive when it’s full of emotion. There is a lot to be said for perfection, but great emotion is perfection to me.


Another important figure in your career was Beverly Sills. How did she influence your path?

She is just very nurturing. I sang the small role of the Queen with her in I Puritani, and she helped me get an audition for Julius Rudel for the New York City Opera. It happened in the middle of my second year at Merola. Kurt Adler wanted me to return for a third year. But when Maestro Rudel offered me my debut in New York, I wanted to do it, even though it was much less secure to go there with only some performances of La Clemenza di Tito and no other work under my belt. But I sold my car, and went to New York. I was very blessed because I didn’t have to go through the German Fest system. If you go into that you’re doomed to whatever fach they hire you for, which would have been tough for me, since I always jumped fachs.

How do you keep in such great shape?

I do a lot of walking; I go to the gym. At the gym, I do the elliptical machine, sometimes treadmill, but no more Stairmasters, because I’ve had back surgery. I also can’t do weightlifting because of my back, and it’s not too wise to do too much with the upper body anyway. I think you can do enough everyday things, by not overeating and taking care of yourself, so that you don’t have to do major weightlifting. Of course, weightlifting can be helpful, as long as you don’t engage the throat muscles, so that means lifting very light weights.

What happened to your back, and how did surgery affect your singing?

I had an injury and blew a disc. Of course, I had to cancel singing for a while. Then I had to re-find the way to tilt my pelvis forward to make sure I was totally supporting, because I believe in getting underneath my voice, and avoid sticking my butt out. Tilting makes me stay active and aware of support. Initially, my back was very uncomfortable after the surgery. It took me a couple of months to recover.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I enjoy reading, seeing friends, going to the movies, hiking, goofing around, planting things, playing with my dogs, being home, doing normal things.

Do you invest a lot in the visual aspect of the business: websites, headshots, business cards?

Me? No. I have the same pictures since 10 years ago. But I spent decent money on the photo to begin with. I went to one of the best photographers—Christian Steiner—so I got great photographs. If I get to the point where I really don’t look like that, I’ll change them.

I think you have to be willing to spend the money on a really good photographer. You don’t necessarily need to go for the most glamorous shot. You want something honest that shows who you really are, so when they look at you, they are able to see what you can bring to a character. As for business cards, if you send one with your resume, don’t put “so-and-so, soprano”!

Why not?

That’s my personal view. I can’t stand that. When I look at such a card, I think it defines you only as that, and I find it very limiting.

So what would you put on a business card then?

I would put just my name with my contact information, agency, etc. It would be clear from your résumé that you’re a soprano or a tenor.

How do you deal with stage directors and difficult stagings?

I first have to get out of my own way and see if I am uncomfortable with something just because I’m being rigid, or if it’s really a stupid idea. If it doesn’t hurt the music or the character, then I need to try it. I try to always give it a go before I refuse. But if I really find it’s going to disturb my character or my voice or hurt me in any way, then I refuse to do it.

You run across directors who put you in those situations. You must have the guts to stand up for yourself without being a dope about it and just saying “no” because: “well, I can say ‘no’, so I will say ‘no!” I think that attitude is very stupid because it cuts off a whole avenue of being able to grow. If you try it differently, you may actually make progress. But of course, there are times when you really need to say “no.”

What about conductors?

It gets trickier with conductors. You have to be flexible and have a voice that can do what is asked of you instantly: depth, height, flexibility, softness, loudness. You try as much as you can to do what they ask without hurting yourself. Even if it’s not your interpretation, you can learn something. Of course, with some conductors, you just hate their guts! You still have to try anyway, until you want to blurt out: “Oh, forget it! I hate your guts, I’m not doing that!” Of course, you can’t really say that to a conductor, even if you want to; it wouldn’t be appropriate behavior. It’s really meant to be a collaboration, and if some conductors don’t want to collaborate, you have to stick up for yourself and take care of yourself, because no one is going to take care of you, but you. Nobody else cares if you sing or not. You have to care the most!

What is your basic philosophy of life?

It’s short! So, just remember that!

What would you advise singers to do or not do when in the process of studying?

I would say: never, ever self-criticize. Don’t be overly hard on yourself. Don’t negative-speak to yourself. Certainly, be diligent but not harsh. Then, when you enter the professional field, be prepared to continue studying, and don’t think you’re ever finished. It’s always a work in progress. Each performance is a rehearsal for the next performance, which is a rehearsal for the next performance! That’s all. Never stop going forward!

What do you think American singers bring to the opera world?

They bring energy and flexibility. However, we still need to encourage Americans to let their voices be individual and not try to sound like someone else. It’s important to stay true to yourself, so if you have a fast vibrato, don’t necessarily struggle to erase it out of your voice, if it’s not technical flaw or a problem of balance. I mean, if your voice just has a fast vibrato because that is its personal color, well, then that’s what you should use, instead of trying to sound like someone who has a slower vibrato. Don’t make your voice darker or brighter, but rather find what it naturally is, and make it the healthiest and most balanced it can be. Thus you will be an individual voice. You will not be a clone: “Oh, she sounds like Leontyne Price, and he sounds like Jon Vickers!” You’ll be compared to others anyway, but don’t aim for that.

The greatest singers have instantly recognizable voices. It’s because they are individuals, and that means you get to recognize their flaws as well as their greatness. I’m not saying: “cultivate your flaws,” but don’t beat yourself up about them. Just continue to work and try to be better—but don’t think you’re terrible because you have a flaw.
Above all, we should avoid, in America, having assembly-line singers, all formed to sound the same. No two operas are alike, no two singers are alike, and no two interpretations of a part are the same. Every singer who has the guts to get up and take that first breath to sing deserves to be heard. Whether that person will have a long career or not, who knows? The greatest voices in the world have not had careers, and some minor voices have had major careers.

What do you think is the secret to a career?

I don’t think there is a secret. It’s fate and preparation, along with how much you are willing to give to it. You have to love it more than anything, because there is a lot of great pain involved, and a lot of stress. There is also a lot of joy that you can’t get anywhere else. But in the end, this profession has to fulfill your soul so completely that you can’t imagine life without it.


This article is from our archives and was re-published in anticipation of our upcoming CS Music Convention. Some edits have been made.

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the books “The Don Carlos Enigma,” “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.”