Editor’s Note : Great Art... or Not?

Two blue-haired ladies, as the story goes, were in an art gallery—and one of them, as they passed each timeless painting, would scoff and snort with disgust. Eventually, the curator came over to them and said, “Do you mind if I make a comment? You are looking at great art. It is not on trial; you are.”

As singers, we don’t have the luxury of lecturing an audience, of telling them that they should like this song or aria because it is great art. Humiliating people never did convert anyone to anything. Our job is to make our art accessible to whatever type of audience we have chosen to sing for.

If you owned an art gallery catering to children, for example, it wouldn’t make sense to put all the pictures at an adult’s eye level! You’d have a bunch of bored kids on your hands. The same thing happens when a singer tries to perform an all-German concert for a crowd of people who have little education, such as a children’s group. Your performance isn’t likely to be at their “eye level,” unless you have done some work with program notes, supertitles, or at the very least, speaking to the audience ahead of time!

One suggestion: Consider using excellent poetic English translations when you sing for a less-sophisticated audience. Donald Pippin has graciously agreed to let us include some of his translations of very popular arias in this issue. Always keep your eyes open for beautiful, witty (as needed), poetic translations.

Do you know how to sell a song, or are you still overly concerned about “la bella voce”? It’s easy to lose focus on what a performance is really about! We spend so much time and money working on our voices—but when the time comes, we can and must let all that go, and communicate!

You can tell if you’re succeeding by watching the faces in your audience. Do you know how to make an aria come alive, so that when you sing the audience knows you understand what they are going through in their lives? Can you show that you know their hopes and dreams, that you are speaking for them in a way that words alone can’t?

If audiences aren’t coming back for more, it’s because we aren’t doing that!

At the NATS [National Association of Teachers of Singing] Convention in Baton Rouge, last year, I saw master teacher Craig Carnelia work with very young singers who had not yet learned how to communicate, had not yet learned how to convince an audience that a song was speaking right to them. Their singing was lovely—it just wasn’t moving. Their gestures were memorized and seemed canned.

This was a master teacher at work as he helped the singers discover how a part of their personal life could be used to make the song come alive. Soon the singers had the audience crying or laughing as they sang.

One young girl was singing a love song. The song was lovely; it told the tale of a girl who was being kept from the man she loved. Craig started asking questions, to find how the song related to her life—and discovered that the singer once had a boyfriend her mother had not approved of. He helped her find the emotion of that experience—and she sang more convincingly.

That wasn’t enough for Craig, however. He asked the audience to start heckling the girl as she sang about her love.

“He’s not good enough for you!” “Let him go!” “He’s going to ruin your life!” they shouted.

A new defiance came into her voice—and suddenly the song was born. She still sang beautifully, but with a new defiance and on the edge of tears. Finally, we heard great art. It was great because it spoke of universal feelings we all understood, great because she’d had a breakthrough—and great because we’d seen great teaching.

If you aren’t having these kinds of moments when you perform, consider getting yourself a great coach. Craig Carnelia will be at the Classical Singer Convention in May, as well as Ann Baltz, Janet Bookspan, and others. I advise all of you to at least watch these master coaches at work. You’ll see how to wake up your performances and grab your audiences where they live.

Once you learn to do that consistently, you’ll be asked back.

If you have a question about this article or anything else, please write to Ms. CJ Williamson, the editor of Classical Singer magazine at cj@classicalsinger.com or P.O. Box 1710 Draper, UT 84020. Letters can be used as “Letters to the Editor” if you would like, “Name Withheld” if you’d like, or meant for the staff only. Just let us know. [CJ’s Web site is www.carlawood.com.]

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.