It’s All About Approach : An Interview with Jeffrey Thomas

When American Bach Soloists was founded in 1989 to bring forth historically informed performances of Bach’s cantatas, it was intentionally conceived as a conductor-less ensemble. As its mission expanded to include larger choral and instrumental works by various composers of the Baroque and Classical era, renowned tenor and cofounder Jeffrey Thomas stepped up to take the baton. Now in its twenty-first season, ABS has won international praise for its performances on period instruments with world-class soloists.

Thomas, a former Adler Fellow with San Francisco Opera, performed extensively as a tenor specializing in early music and recorded as a soloist on dozens of recordings on major labels. With his experience as a singer and his education at Oberlin, the Manhattan School of Music, and Juilliard, Thomas is a conductor who understands well the process of becoming a great singer. I sat down with him recently to discuss his approach to music and the particular demands of singing early music.

Tell us about the new summer program for baroque artists that will begin in July of 2010.

We are beginning the American Bach Soloists Academy, which will be geared specifically toward conservatory-level and young professionals. It will be a two-week program in collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music all about baroque performance. One of the nice things about it is that singers, violinists, and instrumentalists won’t work only with their master teachers but will work with other faculty who bring other facets of the experience. Especially in earlier music it’s more easily understood that it’s a great collaborative effort, and singers and instrumentalists think alike in many ways.

I’m glad you mention that right off the bat. In the opera world, the singers seem very separate, both socially and musically, from the orchestra and the chorus very separate from the principals.

I think to some degree that’s a by-product of the way music evolved. Especially, larger operas are conceived of in a more modular way. There’s the ballet, there’s the chorus, there are the soloists, there are the comprimarios, and they all serve more standardized functions. But in baroque music, the writing for the voice is the same as the writing for the violin or for an oboe—the same gestures. It’s a forum in which singers can completely collaborate with instrumentalists.

Who will be on the faculty?

It’s a very small student-to-teacher ratio, about five to one. For singers, we have coming from Yale, Judy Malafronte (mezzo-soprano) and Max van Egmond (bass), who for all those years was on the Bach Cantatas for Teldec. And, of course, I’ll be there. And the other faculty will be violinists and instrumentalists.

Do you distinguish an early music voice or singer from another kind of singer?

No. It’s a kind of intellect. It’s not about vocal weight or range or anything. I mean, of course, it can be. Some singers may find it as difficult to sing a Vivaldi motet as they may find it difficult to sing Isolde. But it’s not about an early music voice or not an early music voice. It’s about the approach.

How would you characterize that approach?

It takes a bit of explaining. Very often, young singers are given the impression that when they see a page of music, their job is to do something special to it—versus those who know inherently that there is so much on the page already there. Here’s an example. A singer might come across a long note in an aria and think, “What do I do with a long note?” instead of looking at it and seeing the word and saying, “What did the composer do with this word? He or she gave it this really long note. And why?” Composers thought about this, but we forget this sometimes. A great composer is one whose decisions about how to set the text are more immediately intelligible by us as performers.

Take Handel, for example. If you look at the words and the notes that are set to them—the height of a note, the length of a note, whether it’s melismatic or it’s an appoggiatura, what happens harmonically—those are all decisions of the composer and they are manifestations of his or her understanding of the subtext, the character, the motivations, and how they transform themselves. It’s all there. It’s no mystery why in “I know that my redeemer liveth” its [singing] “I know” is confidence in that upper [perfect fourth], “that my” is lower (terribly humble), and then this beautiful appoggiatura on “liveth” (an embellishment when it needs something more).

You can look at any of the greatest singers—Lorraine Hunt, Callas . . . There’s not a moment when you’re not absolutely aware that they’re thinking about the text as it’s incorporated into the music. They’re not dreaming up stuff to do.

We are facilitators, and you can facilitate greatly and beautifully and bring to the audience what the composer wanted them to hear and understand and feel.

I was taught that a singer should be like an archaeologist when looking at a score and look for clues and extract all the information that is there. Sometimes I think singers forget to sit down, without singing, and read the score like a book and do just what you’re talking about.

There’s a whole world in there. There’s a world in which the composer lives, in which the author lives, the world of the characters, a world of the musical language of the period. There’s nothing more satisfying for a performer than to be almost buoyed along by all these things that are there. I know what it’s like as a young singer to feel that “I’ve got to do something special, I’ve got to invent a performance somehow.” That’s so much harder than it needs to be. But it’s not easy to dig that deeply and to find it all. That takes a lot of time. It takes years and experience and understanding of the period, the rhetoric.

There’s so much going on, for example, in Bach. We know that he was deeply committed to his theological beliefs. He knew that the music had to affect the congregation. That was his job. He had to make them feel a certain way from what was going on. When you look at the music and the way he set it, it accomplishes this every time. Even when people don’t understand German, they get a feeling from it.

You can be more of an archaeologist—that’s a great term—and go deeper and deeper. There are so many devices built into the composition of music, most of which are lost on us now.

For example, in Bach’s music, there’s this fantastic thing that happens in the Cantatas. There might be an aria that has a poetic text and a chorale tune will be perhaps played by another instrument or even sung by another voice in the background. In Bach’s day, everyone there knew every chorale tune like we know “Row, row, row your boat.” And they knew what it meant. This was slammed into them from Sunday school. Even those in the congregation who were illiterate—many couldn’t read—they heard the words that were being sung, they heard the chorale tune, and they were able to conflate the two. And we, now much more highly educated, don’t get it.

What can you do about that?

We can know that it’s there and know when we approach Bach’s music—especially vocal music—to look out for these things. Every time Bach referred to the Cross, the notes [sings crossing intervals] cross one another and you can see it on the page as a sideways cross.

Look out for these things and be excited by them. Whether or not our audiences get it—and we can’t expect them to—you as an artist know that you’re really doing your job. I know that there’s not a conductor or colleague anywhere in the world that doesn’t relish these kinds of artists who still sing beautifully (that’s the top of the list) but understand how happily broad and informed the approach can be.

Speaking of the quality of singing, do you think that young singers need to wait to do the sort of excavating of meaning and deeper work you’re talking about until they have solved any technical problems, or can they begin from the start with this sort of work?

We were talking earlier about some opera being somewhat modular. In a way, I think, these things are modular. Historically, singers were trained technically. They were trained to sing messa di voce, to sing fast notes. In the Baroque era, they learned dozens and dozens of combinations of figures and melismas, and they would practice them all so when it came along on the page, they had no trouble.

So, I don’t think that getting the voice in gear is contingent on any other element or that the other elements are contingent on that. I think they are by their nature separate components. When you have in your chest of vocal technique the ability to do all the expressive gestures that you would ever call upon, then you need to know when to use them—and that’s the part that comes along with intellectual, rhetorical understanding of it.

How do you go about that?

I would say look at the singers whose artistic careers you really respect. I don’t just mean financially successful careers, but singers you really respect as artists. Figure out why, and I bet it’s because you believe in their performances. That’s the first step.

The second step is to know that when you’re trying to come up with your version of something, try to base every decision on something that’s on the page. It might be the word, it might be the passage of notes, but always try to express something that’s there. And if it’s not there in ink on the page, then is it there in the period, in the history? If you’re having to invent something, you haven’t dug deeply enough.

What about some of the particular technical challenges of baroque music—for example, melismas? Baroque instrumentalists are just amazing for their speed and precision. How can singers match that?

This is advice for younger singers. Just mastering the melisma on page three of that aria is not the point. That’s not going to help you with page four of another aria that is different. In other words, to actually incorporate into your studies technical exercises rather than just trying to make it work in the context of the piece. We all do this. We may change a vowel on a pitch that doesn’t work in our voice. We find these solutions to mask a little lack of a complete ability to do something. And we must try not to do that. Band-aids and doing something cleverly inventive to bring something to performance level when it’s really presenting problems isn’t going to solve it down the road. So you want to look at the underlying issue and rehearse that, study that.

What about breathing in Bach?

One of the most wonderful baroque instrumentalists I know is Sandra Miller who is now in the Juilliard Rome program. She’s played with ABS for 20 years. Flute players, like singers, have to take breaths, and Bach didn’t write breaths for them. We always ask Sandy “How do you do it?” And she says, “I take hundreds of breaths all the time.”

Breaths can delineate phrases or groupings of notes just as a violin’s bow change can. What you have to look at with a long melisma is where are the groupings? Where would a natural articulation happen? Maybe another secret is to not go so long that you need to gasp and that takes too long. Use breaths as a phrasing. There’s no rule that ever said, “You must sing a whole long phrase in one breath.” I’ve never come across it. Try to breathe when you want to rearticulate, not when you need to breathe.

What do you say to singers about learning how and when to ornament?

I think what’s good to do with ornamentation is to take it back to the single most important ornamentation, which is an appoggiatura—sometimes called a sospiro or sigh. It’s the most elementary human expression. Usually the notes on the page are enough to be expressive. But adding an appoggiatura has that quality of something extra, or adding another ornament to be expressive. That is one context.

The other context, and we know that Handel singers did this, came in the da capo [section of a da capo aria]. They walked right down to the edge of the stage out of character and let it go.

Now, I think any singer would want to bear in mind what kinds of ornaments did the singers use and, in that case, there are countless really good examples. The singers that have worked with Marc Minkowski or Bernard Labadie. I’m talking about singers like [Magdalena] Kožená, for example, [or] Anne Sofie von Otter—brilliant! I don’t want to use a boring word, but they’re highly authorized. Also, you want to use something that you would find in the music of the period.

So there are those two kinds of ornamentation. One is from the meaningfulness of the text—and it’s not enough by itself and you’re compelled to enhance it. The other one is flat-out, self-aggrandizing display. They’re both appropriate, but never switchable.

Do you think it is ever appropriate to go well beyond the range of the rest of the piece when ornamenting?

I’ve certainly heard people make up rules like “never sing a note or two higher than anything that’s printed.” That may be kind of good advice. On the other hand, in the operas, the singers were the driving force behind opera seria. A singer might have been known for his or her upper range or lower range, and the audience wanted to hear that. But that’s an absolutely operatic context and something that was pretty specific to opera seria. The best [advice] is to bear in mind a sensibility and to consider the listener. Will the listener be jarred or taken out of the experience?

Many singers seem to be attached to the idea that there is an early music voice and an operatic voice. What can you say to encourage young singers to not have this narrow view of different voice types?

It’s really an outdated theory. It was definitely true a while ago. For many years early music singers were not able to sing on a big operatic stage. Now, you see all over the place these singers who are crossing all those boundaries. Why? Because there are these great artists who are doing it. Kožená, we mentioned before, sings all kinds of repertory.

And Susan Graham.

Exactly. The trick is that some people in the opera world will never get engaged to do something that requires a different kind of intellect, which is so necessary to bring out the rhetoric of early music. You can be too monochromatic and not employable in early music if you don’t embrace this broader approach of “what’s the music about?”

The musical experience with early music, when you’re shaping it and putting it together, is so fun and satisfying. That’s what the early music world can do. Being able to cross over from the standard repertory world backwards to early music, that takes something special and not all singers are able to do that. Vocal things aside, it’s approach.

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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