Classical singers love to focus on technique. Practices and lessons explore one type of breathing and resonance after another and tiny shifts of jaw and tongue positions that make all the difference. The goal is free, beautiful, easy sound. All of the diligence and discipline of practice is necessary to be a great classical singer, but I think there’s a shortcut to having a better sound faster. Unfortunately, it’s achieved by what many of us are afraid to do: to go deeply inside ourselves and to openly share that place with others.
The effectiveness of this shortcut was vividly demonstrated in a masterclass with Judy Kaye and her husband, actor and acting coach David Green. Kaye’s career in theatre spans 40 years and includes many Broadway runs, including her most recent portrayal of the well intentioned, if not vocally gifted, socialite/soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, whose concerts were famous—or infamous—in New York in the 1930s and ’40s. Kaye won the Tony for this role in Souvenir as well as a Tony for her original role of Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera. Her varied portrayals include Lucy in The Beggar’s Opera, Hanna in The Merry Widow, Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti, Julie in Carousel, and too many more to mention.
The participants in her masterclass had varying degrees of technical skill as singers. The focus of the class was not on singing technique, but on interpretation, expression, and how to connect emotionally with a song. But the vocal improvements people made were as significant as if the class had been focused simply on sounding better.
Often, after a first sing-through of a song, Green and Kaye suggested the actor/singer sit in a chair and simply speak the words, sometimes focusing on saying the words to a particular person. In one fairly dramatic instance, a woman who had a fairly uneven sense of pitch and seemed worried about her lower passaggio sang quite well when she still felt as if she were mostly speaking. The more speech-like the singing and the more connected the person was to the words, the better the singing. Go figure.
In my case, I sang Stephen Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By.” My nerves increased a bit as I waited to sing and was reminded of Kaye and Green’s depth of expertise. Kaye has sung Mrs. Lovett in Sweeny Todd, has done “Side by Side by Sondheim,” and is intimately familiar with Sondheim’s music. She and her husband referred to Sondheim as “Steve” and seemed to know everything about the original interpretations of his songs and often even his own intentions as a composer.
After I sang through my song, they asked me to sit, and then David Green sat directly across from me. He asked me to speak the words directly to him quietly, as if no one else were there. Then, they suggested that I start much smaller and more internally, saying of my more operatic sound: “You have a cannon, but you don’t have to use it. The less you use it, the more it sucks us in.”
It was a very vulnerable feeling to start so quietly and to stay so connected with my own internal self. At first, I felt almost indulgent in focusing on my own thoughts and feelings to that extent. But as I continued, I palpably felt a much stronger connection with the people in the room. I realized that it was the connection with myself, which came about by stripping away the “acting” and performing for others, that opened the door to a greater feeling of connection with the audience.
Green and Kaye had made the point often during the class. “That’s what I’ve been talking about all day,” Green said to me. “The connection draws us in, and we want to be a part of it. You, as a performer, can feel that. We always know if the audience is with us or not, if we have any sensitivity at all.”
Another main theme of the day seemed to be that “less is more.” Kaye said that as she gets older, she realizes more and more how little she needs to “do” onstage. She gave examples of great singers like Dorothy Collins and Barbara Cook doing great versions of songs without moving a muscle. This is not to be confused with old-school opera stiffness (a.k.a. “park and bark”), but is a true stillness that can be used to find your way into the song. It is a sentiment that great actors seem to embody and learn over time. Normally, actors tend to err on the side of overacting—as singers, we tend to err on the side of oversinging. Again and again, Kaye and Green encouraged people to not move or gesture just for its own sake. When one singer, feeling fidgety, put her hands on her hips, Kaye admonished, “We have a rule in our house about hands on the hips.” The less people did, the more convincing they became. Again, go figure.
During the class, I thought that perhaps the first time through my song was vocally better, but I was so happy emotionally with the second version that I didn’t mind about what I thought were its lesser vocals. When I listened back to it later, however, the second time through was more on pitch, more expressive, and vocally just plain better. Other people in the class also achieved things vocally that I wouldn’t have thought them capable of at first—and without a single mention of the soft palate.
One last important ingredient that played a huge part in making this happen for the participants was Green and Kaye’s immense kindness. Their obvious affection and amiability with each other was shared with all of the students. Their suggestions were never harsh. In fact, nothing they said came off as a criticism. The class had a sensitive, creative, collaborative feel to it. It was an invitation, not a command, to go deeper. And it was a stark contrast to the perhaps clichéd, but sometimes fair, view that operatic masterclasses are often more about serving the ego of the teacher than really helping the singer participants.
Since the class, I have done more acting work with my students, taking more time to have them connect with what they’re saying and practice saying it like they mean it directly to me. It’s amazing how challenging that is. There’s a feeling of “Can’t we please do some really difficult work on high notes?” or “Can’t you tell me that there’s some obscure, esoteric, technical problem I need months to figure out?” That’s the difficulty of this “shortcut.” It means quick results, but with commensurate emotional risk-taking.
The day after the masterclass, I went to see Kaye in Souvenir. The play is a wonderful exploration of Foster Jenkins’ relationship with music and with her accompanist. After two hours of seeing Kaye joyfully brutalize arias from “Caro Nome” to the “Jewel Song,” the play ends with her singing “Ave Maria” in perfect intonation and interpretation. And it left me wondering whether or not perfect singing is more desirable than joyful singing. Her performance embodied the ideas she shared in the masterclass. Her stillness and patient silence before she would squawk out a high note was what made the singing itself so hysterical. Her depth of emotional connection to the music was sincere, and it made the audience understand what motivated Foster Jenkins to do what she did. Kaye’s own sense of play and fun gave you the feeling that she deeply loved the character she was playing. She held the character in her heart with kindness, and that made it impossible for the audience not to love the character as well.
Kaye says that one of the themes in the play is Foster Jenkins’ “devotion to art and perfection and the question of self-delusion.” To which she adds: “How many of us are deluding ourselves? Aren’t we all?”
Whether or not our own singing is any good is tough, if not impossible, to judge. I wouldn’t have thought that the second time I sang my song in the masterclass it would have sounded better but, listening back, it did. But does that even matter? If we can find ways to connect more deeply to ourselves as we sing, letting go of technique and being more truthful, then singing can be less of an achievement and more of a revelation. With the tools that Judy Kaye taught in class and exemplified onstage of stillness, connection, and kindness, I think this just might be possible.