Dame Emma

If there is one singer most associated with—even credited with the re-emergence of—Baroque vocal music in the past 40 years, it is Dame Emma Kirkby. In the early ’70s, the young classics student at Oxford enjoyed singing in ensembles but had no aspirations to become a professional soloist, let alone the superstar of a genre she has come to be. She joined the Taverner Choir in 1971 and began working with the Consort of Musicke beginning in 1973, and it is these working musical relationships and others like them that the British singer seems to most cherish. Other groups such as London Baroque, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Palladian Ensemble have been artistic homes for this singer who most enjoys and appreciates singing music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

In large part, it is the instrumentation of this music, particularly the lute, and its compatibility with the voice that Kirkby cites as a source of great pleasure, along with the necessity in such music of collaboration and cooperation between singers and instrumentalists. At this point in her career, she must deal with superstardom and the fact that on most forms, and when buying airline tickets and such, there is no box apparently to check for the prefix “Dame.” CS caught up with Dame Emma as she was teaching a summer program in England to hear her thoughts on her art and life.
I have heard that you had no ambition to become a soloist, or even a professional singer. Can you describe the moment that changed that for you?

It was a series of moments, really. I sang for delightful pleasure. There’s a big amateur singing scene here as I hope there is in the States, too. I sang at school and at university. There was a very good choir there. Also, I was very lucky because I was at university with some people who were just starting to revive and play the Renaissance instruments and the Baroque instruments we know now. So I was in quite early in that process, and those sounds really suited me. I really enjoyed it.

I became a schoolteacher and I continued to sing in a very good choir in the evenings. It was very lucky. I just happened to be there at a time when quite a few little groups in London were starting up to make music in this way and were looking for suitable singers. I, with my voice not trained in the standard manner to make operatic sounds, suited this music better. So I joined a little group to play around with those ideas of Renaissance music and Medieval song.

I was offered recording work with Decca. The branch called L’Oiseau Lyre had started to patronize these young directors of these new programs, and so I was given a chance to go into the studio and try things with people. It just was so entrancing and fun that after a year of kind of leading a double life, I transferred from school teaching to singing. I was about 25 by the time I decided, “Well, I’d like to give this a go!” If it went wrong, I could always go back to teaching.

You mentioned that your voice was not trained in an operatic style and you mentioned also an affinity with period instruments. Knowing what you know about different kinds of voices, do you think the affinity with the music is what determines if one is an early music singer or do you think that there is something inherent in the voice—that one is born to be a singer of this music or an operatic singer?

I don’t really know the answer to that. There are certain voices that are strikingly strong in the early stages, early teens. Somebody in their teens who has a very powerful voice then, that’s still pretty unusual and it makes a lot of sense for such people to carry on with that very grand sound and go into a context where such a sound is required. But, of course, at the time of the music that I love, there were loud voices, too. There were church voices and chamber voices. That’s one of the ways they distinguished it.

I think it’s a matter of aesthetic and what you’re used to, what you’ve heard. I do think that the average young singer, unfortunately, doesn’t get to hear soon enough, if at all, the alternative accompaniments that are available to voices other than the piano. There’s nothing wrong with the piano; it’s a very fine instrument. But it’s loud. It has its own repertoire it plays very well and it has a huge area of other repertoire for which it is drafted in to provide accompaniments which were not written for it—whether it’s Bach, obbligato, instruments for his arias, Handel opera orchestras, or the lute for Dowland. The piano is none of those things. But, of course, it’s a very clever instrument. It gives you all the notes so you can sort of make a rough guess at what the accompaniment would be, but you can’t in any way capture their timbre or their scale—unless you’re a genius!

So your average young singer learns, really, only one style of singing. It starts at a level of loudness—otherwise it doesn’t survive the piano—and it goes on up from there. Whereas, if early on they get a chance to sing with guitar or lute or harpsichord or these other instruments which are very subtle but are quieter, it’s an extra dimension which is rather lovely and freeing for them. I regret that these alternatives are not more widely known, particularly the lute. I think it’s a joyful instrument and very exciting.

I am, at the moment, in the middle of Summer School here in Dartington [Dartington International Summer School in South Devon] with 300-odd students, all ages, all interests, all levels, and fine singers—some of whom have sung with lute before, and they love this repertoire. They are so pleased because we have a master lute player teaching on the faculty who has six students, one of whom also plays the harp as well. They make a lovely sound. That means that these singers can pick up Italian songs from the seventeenth and early eighteenth century and really have fun with them because the accompaniment is really special and quite different from how it would be if someone tried to render their thoughts on piano. It’s just marvelous to introduce them to these sounds, and they’re really enjoying it. . . . As singers, we can read books about what happened when, but what you hear is what inspires you to give something back in one sound or another.
When you first pick up a piece of music, what would you say is the first thing that you engage with? Is it the music, the text, or the history of the time the piece was written?

I think it’s sort of all those things. It depends on the piece, obviously. If it’s a movement from the Mass, then the text is going to be less of a challenge to you. Then it’s a question of what that composer did with those words we all know so well. In other cases, it might be very interesting, like a poem by an iconic poet.

Can you describe one of your favorite collaborative relationships with a conductor or other colleague and how you begin together?

I do meet conductors sometimes but, to be honest with you, not very often because I’m really more a chamber musician. Even if I go and sing, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, still, when it comes to it, in my pieces there are four or five of us working at once. Within the larger context, they’re still chamber pieces. 
So how does that conversation take place?

It depends on the attitude of the conductor. The ones that I like to work with best are versed in these sounds they appreciate. With luck, they have picked marvelous players. . . . They offer some ideas of tempos, but they will defer to some extent to the collective decision of the players because something like the Baroque oboe is quite a tricky thing to play and there are idiomatic ways and less idiomatic ways for it to be used.

One thing I will say about the composers of the period I love, in terms of voice, they pretty much all started as choirboys. They all began singing. That was their childhood. So, they tend to write very idiomatically for voices. . . . Bach’s pupils in Leipzig, they studied a lot of rhetoric, so that’s good for the text as well. But also, they played all the instruments. Most of the composers of this period had a very good knowledge of voice and the instruments—dare I say it, perhaps rather more than some composers today who have a more grand and overall approach to the music and haven’t necessarily concerned themselves with the absolute detail of what works on one instrument or another. Of course, some of them will have done so, but I think there was a general shared knowledge everyone had of these things and I do think that’s very helpful.

When we get together to realize these pieces, each person brings their own explanation and filters to things. I was recently making a recording with a very nice group of mostly German players of seventeenth-century music. I had a very good friend with me who was a conductor, and he was really quite shocked at how the recording sessions worked. He was just amazed at how much freedom everyone had to put in their opinions. It was interesting because things went slowly to start . . . but by the end, when the trust is there, you can work really fast.

What is required of the directors and how much individual players can bring to the business really depends very much on the material. Obviously, the most congenial recording environment gives a certain amount of time because things do mature as they come together. If somebody’s there in the beginning with a strong idea that they impose on everybody else, the result may end up being a little rigid, a little less interesting than the result you arrive at with this kind of trusting consensus of individuals. The numbers are smaller; that makes it possible.

Of course, there’s nothing more exhilarating than getting exactly the forces together that you need for something huge. . . . For that, you really need someone who has got the overall view and keeps things pretty much under control. But having said that, I’m sure the best people are those who enable their players rather than dictating to them. The conductor has to be an animateur rather than a dictator.
What do you make of the re-emergence of Baroque and Renaissance music over the last 40 years? Why do you think that happened when it did?

I do think there is a searing joy in this music that you can’t miss if you listen. I’m not surprised that it speaks very directly to a very wide audience. [The music of] Hildegard of Bingen, for instance. It’s unlike anything else, but it speaks of the heart and people just love it.

Then there’s the delight of taking a well known piece, taking an extra look at it, and exploring what extra subtlety you can find if you get hold of the instruments of the time. For things like Lieder, for instance, if you have a chance ever to sing Schubert with one of his pianos, the pianos he knew, they’re about half the dynamic of the average piano. They do have problems sometimes with maintenance and so on, but the best ones are exquisite. They give you so much freedom and you can serve the text with such ease. You never have to fight to be heard. Having said that, there are consummate artists around who cruise along at the perfect dynamic to balance a beautiful modern piano and give the song everything it needs—but not everybody can do that. I think with the quieter instruments, it would allow more people to have a go, and that would be nice.

Having said that, the number of people who are aware of this way of doing things is much, much greater. Students now come into the business able to make a choice. They can either stay with the standard twentieth/twenty-first-century approach and bring that to the selection or they can try the other route with historical instruments which may lead to some challenges. But it’s a colorful route, and for some people it’s very exciting.

I have met quite a few Baroque fiddle players who have said: “I worked so, so hard learning to play the violin the other way and whenever I came to a period instrument, I found that I could play the phrasing on the violin the way I had always wanted to. I spent years and years and years suppressing my natural instincts and finding another way of phrasing. Now I can go back to square one.” Some people always wanted to play that way. Not all, but some. And for them it’s a joy. The idiom is different. In some ways it’s simpler and less contrived and worked over.

At the Carmel Bach Festival, about half the time they use period instruments and about half the time they use modern instruments.

I’m aware that in Switzerland there are quite a few what you call “bilingual” players there. And I’m always in awe of that. It’s easier for us as singers because you just respond to what you hear. Your instinct may well be to put in a bit more vibrato to play with mainstream players.

In terms of vocal health, do you think a lot of students would do well to start with quieter instruments?

I would say that, yes. Because I think for a young singer, with a piano, the area you really can’t compete with is the middle. Your young soprano middle register notes—it’s going to be very hard to hear those through the piano. You may have an absolute genius at the piano who manages to be so, so quiet that everything comes through, but by the law of averages, most of the time you’re going to get someone who’s pretty good but hasn’t really thought about just how loud they should be. Also, the piano wants to express itself. It has its own area where it makes sense, and soft pedal all the time isn’t going to help—it’d be odd. I think for such people to supplement the piano would be such a revelation and makes so much sense, with the lute particularly. As one of my colleagues says of the lute [in Yorkshire accent], “It starts at nowt [naught] and tapers off!” It’s a quiet instrument and it’s dying all the time.

Having said that, there are lutes that come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the long ones can make quite a loud noise. But in the nature of a plucked instrument, it’s not sustained. It’s going to die. That’s the beauty of the plucked note. It draws your ear away into silence and that’s what it’s supposed to do. And if the voice is there at that moment, every time it happens the voice is going to show—which is both scary and very educational. You never need waste a single sound of your voice, but neither can you hide any of your flaws. That’s a very healthy way to get to know the core of your voice. If you [don’t have]to get past some other sound, you can . . . experience your own center of resonance without struggle. For me, that’s a very obvious and natural way to start. Once you’ve got that core sorted, start using more air, start making louder noises based on that center.

Do you think sympathetically when you sing with an instrument like that to follow suit and “draw the sound into silence” so that the voice also tapers off?

Yes. It shapes it. The last consonant, for example. If you’re with a loud orchestra, there’s only one way you can get a last consonant heard: you spit it out. But there are many ways you can shape something. Genius singers can project through anything, no question, but they are people with a lot of experience. It’s very difficult for young singers to do that.

When did you first have voice lessons?

I had a few when I was 21 from a lovely lady who used to train priests to intone. The first thing she did was to work on my speaking voice. She said my speaking voice was too high and she did this Lady Bracknell thing to get my voice lower. Then (I really did it completely the wrong way around), I started getting these bits of recording work and I thought, “I’d better get a technique.” I was lucky at that point because I found Jessica Cash. I’m thrilled to say that because I can’t be here for the last day of Summer School, she’s going to come and take over my students. I wish I could be here to hear her because she’s always compelling and inspiring and there’s always something new to hear.

So you’ve stayed with her?

I did. While I was doing all these things, she was in the background helping me. With a singing teacher, you learn hugely from them—but at the same time you have to teach yourself. You’ve got one hour a week with them, and all the rest of the time you and your voice are together without anyone. So you’re the one who has to work it out. Obviously, the ways a teacher can help you are extraordinary. I do a little bit of teaching myself, but I don’t consider myself a proper teacher the way these people are, those who nurture you from week to week.

She [Cash] used to say, “Oh, that’s what you want to do? Well, I wouldn’t do it that way, but if that’s what you want, then here’s how to do it healthily.” She didn’t share my aesthetic, necessarily, but she absolutely honored my objective. That’s why she’s a wonderful teacher. She teaches people, not some trammeled pathway. She spots what people aspire to do and helps them to achieve it. She’s as wonderful as she ever was, and I’m very grateful to her.

I’ve also had a couple of lessons with Janice Chapman who’s a genius as well. She has written a brilliant book called Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice. It’s riveting. 

What do you think is at the core of a good technique, particularly for this repertoire?

I am, as one of my colleagues put it, a hit-and-run artist. I meet someone, I sense what they’re trying to do, and if I hear something, I hint what it might be. I drop a few ideas in and then I run. I am dependent on the people who are there at their side on a weekly basis. If I say something to which the student says, “Yes, my teacher says that too,” I’m very happy. What I want most is to validate what’s going well. I don’t particularly want to come in and say, “No, that’s all wrong.” I think that’s the best way of going about things.

I’m a huge Alexander Technique devotee. I’ve been having lessons for years. I think the way they talk about how the support system works in the body is riveting. . . . Singing is just one of the things you could be doing that that is useful for.

What I do tend to do is really check that people know what they’re doing with vowels and consonants. Voweling is such an interesting thing, to get the back of the tongue doing the right thing with the vowels. One thing that Jesse [Cash] gave to me years ago is using a “y” to check if the back of the tongue is free. If you can get a good “Yuh” as in “ye” or “yay” and find the vowel from it, that will help you find exactly the right position of the tongue. I spend a lot of time checking with singers that they know that and, especially with coloratura, that they know the vowel and stick to it. Then, with coloratura, you let the fluttering happen lower down. It is not the thing that scares voice teachers in the larynx, it’s lower down, but it is a fluttering of the wind pipe.

The other thing is consonants. They cause dreadful problems when they’re under water. They have to be allowed to shape the line, to interfere. A good consonant gives you a good vowel, and you can’t do a good legato without one. . . . A consonant has to be an active thing, but it mustn’t interfere with what Janice Chapman calls the noble posture. You’ve got to have a grand uprightness. You’ve got to have that. Once you’ve got that, you can be very active with your articulators. The things that need to work hard must be free to do so, and you mustn’t be afraid to let them work.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.