Two things are absolutely essential for anyone contemplating a career as a classical singer, says Lawrence P. Vincent: a good voice and a good work ethic. Without a good voice, there is nothing to work for—and without a good work ethic, there is nothing to work with.
Vincent—the director of opera at Brigham Young University’s School of Music in Provo, Utah, for the past 16 years—knows whereof he speaks. A tenor, he enjoyed a successful career in Germany and Austria, singing his way from a “D” house in Trier, Germany, all the way to the ultimate Austrian “A” houses, the Volksoper and the Staatsoper. [See sidebar.]
Commitment and Attitude
Having a good voice, even an extraordinary voice, is not enough, says Vincent. Singers must have a strong, unflagging work ethic.
“I think young singers don’t understand,” he says. “You have to have a good voice. You have to have a presence. But if you have all of that, if you’re a phenomenal performer, and you don’t have a work ethic—if you’re not punctual, if you’re not dependable, if you don’t know how to take care of your body, if you don’t know how to take care of your mind—that will all catch up with you. You could really shoot to the top with those other things—but if you don’t know how to work, if you don’t know how to be dependable, nobody will want you.”
It is, Vincent continues, a matter of attitude, of wanting it enough to pay the price. The students who make the most progress at BYU arrive “with an attitude that they are really going to learn,” Vincent explains. “They work hard, and by the time they are juniors
. . . they are doing great. And then you’ve got freshman who have been the big fish, sometimes in a big pond, all of their high school career. And they come here thinking, ‘I’m here, and now you can listen to me sing.’ And you work with them and they act like they’re listening to you, but you know they don’t do the work. They don’t come back the next week having learned what they were supposed to learn. You can tell they haven’t practiced. . . . By the time they are juniors, everybody is passing them up. Why pay tuition—why be here—if you don’t want to learn something?”
Inevitably, being opera director means Vincent spends much of his time striking a balance between the high art of opera and the practical necessities, such as allocation of resources. About 100 apply to enter the opera program every year. The program accepts only 10—and here’s where things begin to get practical, in a way familiar to most sopranos.
“We’re always looking for men,” says Vincent. “There may be women that are considerably better, but if you just had a program of women, it wouldn’t work. So, often we’ll take men who have to bump women out who are really, really good.”
Having so few available slots has a bright side, however. Those who get in tend to appreciate it. “I think the strength of the program for freshman is that we are so selective,” says Vincent. “They recognize that and so, consequently, most of them . . . are really here to succeed.”
The Selection Process
Each applicant sends in a DVD or recording. The faculty reviews these submissions on a private YouTube channel and then chooses 25–30 to come to BYU for live auditions.
“We also invite those 25 or 30 to write a short essay to talk about their work ethic, why they want to do what they’re doing,” says Vincent.
The faculty gives each candidate a vocal performance grade from 1–5 and then considers their other musical skills. If two sopranos have equal vocal skills, for example, the faculty selects the one who already has more musical training.
It’s All about the Students
Vincent works hard to keep the focus of the opera program on the students. “We are here to serve the students,” he says. “This is a primary mission statement I have had from the very beginning of my tenure here. We’re here to give the students an opportunity to perform. Unless we have a situation where we absolutely can’t cast a student in a role, I really like to go with the students.”
This can be a challenge, Vincent adds. The BYU opera program does just one major, full-fledged opera performance a year, plus a smaller scale spring opera production (this past year, The Pirates of Penzance), and an opera scenes program. This is another area in which Vincent must be practical. The program strives to select operas that provide for maximum student participation.
“When we do something like ‘Fledermaus,’ one of the things we take into consideration is that it will give . . . [students] an opportunity to perform,” Vincent explains. “I’ve wanted to do The Barber of Seville for years.” (Almaviva was one of Vincent’s principal roles in Austria.) “But, you know, there are four or five men in that, and one woman (well, two—but one, really).”
Likewise, Vincent avoids operas that might hurt young voices. “About as dramatic as we’ve gotten is Traviata or Bohème,” he says. “Wagner we avoid. Richard Strauss we avoid.” Students with big voices, however, may get opportunities to sing scenes from heavy-duty operas in the opera scenes program, without having to sing the entire opera.
Performance Techniques and Moving on Stage
The program’s annual opera workshop is one of the occasions in which Vincent can give students the direct benefit of his experiences. “One of the passions I have with the opera program is the opera performance techniques class, or the opera workshop class,” he says. “ . . . We talk about techniques of performance, little rules you can follow that will not only look better on the stage, more relaxed and more natural, but also project the sound out to where it belongs and prevent [students] from singing into the wings or backstage,” despite any iffy blocking.
Teaching students to move comfortably on stage is another big thing for Vincent. Students who have gone on to successful singing careers have told him they learned most of what they know about stage movement and being comfortable on stage at BYU, he says.
Freshmen—Challenges and Advantages
Most freshmen face three major challenges, says Vincent: a misperception about the reality of live performance, impatience, and lack of musical training.
Perfection versus Reality
Studio recordings give students perfect examples to hear, says Vincent, but that degree of perfection, impossible in a live performance, is intimidating.
“We’re humans,” he says. “You might have a little crack in your voice. You might have a slip in your memory.” Students need to go to live performances and see how professionally the pros deal with these little ‘oop’s, to see how, if you didn’t know that was a mistake, you’d never notice, they are so good.
“This is one thing I try to get through to my students all the time,” he adds. “Whether it is in a masterclass or whether it’s in a performance, you never show you’ve made a mistake. I kind of have this thing that I teach: if you make a mistake, you stand up a little straighter, hold your head a little taller, and say to yourself: ‘That, through my research, is how Schubert meant it to be.’”
“I think the problem for many young voices is that they want to hurry themselves,” says Vincent. “There are students who would do very well in a comprimario role or a comic role, and I hear them singing “Nessun Dorma.”
Hollywood, he adds, has helped propagate the highly unlikely fantasy of discovery and instant success. “The only singers we ever hear about are the top 5 or 10 percent. . . . You can have a healthy career and not be among the top five media magnets.”
Getting a Late Start
Classical Singer readers are well aware of the third major challenge confronting freshmen vocal students entering the BYU opera program: being late off the music theory starting line.
“The high school senior,” says Vincent, “ . . . who, through no fault of his or her own, has never been involved in music, has never had piano, never had violin or anything . . . arrive[s] at BYU wholly inept with theory skills. That’s a concern. If they can’t grasp that in a short amount of time, they are in jeopardy of losing their position here.”
The solution, says Vincent: learn everything you can before you start college. It all comes back to that work ethic.
“If you’re really serious about this, learn how to work,” he says. “If you’re really serious about wanting to be a singer, learn to play the piano. If you’re really serious about singing, listen. Listen to the greatest. Go to performances. Surround yourself with it.
“Look how long it takes for a doctor to become a doctor,” he continues. And once a doctor goes through all the training, “You never work as a doctor. You practice as a doctor—always practicing, always learning. . . . If you are interested in really pursuing this, learn languages. You do not have to take a university class or a class in high school. If you have the determination to do it, you can learn these things.
“Check out DVDs or go on Netflix and listen to foreign languages. Watch foreign films. Above all, look for opportunities to go over to Germany or Italy or France. If you’re really serious about this, about being a classical singer, you’ve got to step out of your American shell, and you’ve got to surround yourself with where opera came from. [These] are things that people can do long before they start college. If you’re really serious about it, you’ve got to look for it.”
By the time they get their bachelor’s, the opera program expects the students to have achieved a well-rounded vocal experience singing oratorio, opera, and art song. This includes completing a repertoire list of about 56 required and elective songs and demonstrating their skill in languages; coloratura; and Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary singing in both a junior recital and a senior recital.
The Magic Moments
So, what is the real payoff for all this effort? Those performances, says Vincent, when everything clicks.
“There is nothing like it . . . where you have the audience right in the palm of your hand . . . . You finish an aria and you don’t let down from your stance for just a second, and they dare not make a sound. And then you relax a little bit and the place just explodes. Or you’re singing something and you see people on the first row or two crying. There is nothing like it.”