Singers Hit Fog City

One of my souvenirs from this year’s convention is a placard that was placed outside the room where I taught a class each morning. It reads “7:30 a.m. Meditation; 9:00 a.m. Marketing Plans.” Nothing could better exemplify the wide range of topics covered at the convention. The placard also bears the little red and gold cap that is the logo of San Francisco’s historic Sir Francis Drake Hotel. (The doorman was required to wear such a cap, along with a red and gold striped outfit—complete with tassels and short trousers—in which he greeted the guests, looking like someone who’d gotten lost on his way to sing Rigoletto.)

Inside, the hotel’s small lobby became a meeting place and bookstore that bubbled with slightly operatic chatter as the sounds of eager spotlight recitalists plying their wares wafted down from the mezzanine. It would have been nice to have more time for chatting and catching up with colleagues, but the schedule was packed, and each time slot offered several options. Like some others, I did a fair amount of seminar hopping to try to get at least a sample of things, so what follows is far from comprehensive.

I was unable to attend the other offerings that were part of the early morning Health Series because I was teaching the class on meditation, but I was very happy the Convention included this series, and especially impressed that so many singers got up early to take advantage of the classes on yoga, Alexander Technique, and meditation. The people in my class seemed eager and curious about meditation, and I enjoyed seeing them throughout the day, knowing that, as one confided in me, when they saw me they were reminded to pause and notice their breath. In . . . Out . . .

The Business Series was at 9 each morning, and since I felt fairly up-to-date on headshots and résumés, I went every day to Jo Isom’s class on websites. Watching Jo offer her critiques of various singers’ sites taught me an enormous amount about making a site useful and readable. For example: use a font without feet. (Fonts have feet? Yes, so use a “sans-seraph” font.) Avoid white text on a black background, except for large titles. Keep important info above the fold (the part that shows before you have to scroll down). Set your screen resolution to 1040-800 so you see it the way others do. Double check the resolution size of your photos—keep them at about 72 dpi—and double check your site on other computers, such as your public library’s. (Just because the photos load quickly on your computer doesn’t mean they’ll do so for the first time on other computers.)

Next, I went to French Arias and Art Songs with Sheri Greenawald. Watching a singer struggle a bit with “Je suis Titania,” she commented, “If a composer has given me a staccato, I feel I have the right to breathe!” Then she helped a native Spanish speaker refine her French on “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes.” It was indicative of Greenawald’s depth of expertise that she not only understood the nuances of the French, but understood from experience the particular mistakes common among Spanish speaking singers working with the French closed “e.” Greenawald, who pointed out that she had sung Sophie to Frederica Von Stade’s first Charlotte, discussed the importance of conveying the tenderness of Charlotte’s character in the first line of the aria, which she said is like a little recitative. The key, she said, is to sing the “Va!” without being rude. Yes, Charlotte is telling someone to get lost, but it’s her beloved Sophie, and she softens almost immediately after saying it. One more gem: an idea Greenawald said she got from Dolora Zajick called “umlauting the ee.” For the word “triste” first sing “True,” then add the ee. (I’ve tried this since, and it really works, somehow. You don’t end up with an audible umlaut, just a very nice “ee.”)

For a sense of humor and perspective that is truly empowering to singers, I have to give top marks to Daniel Helfgot. The author of The Third Line gave a class called “The Singing Theatre.” He lamented the existence of an epidemic disease among singers he referred to as “Fach-itis” in which everyone limits themselves too much. Explaining the financial realities behind it, he explained that in a European system in which singers are under contract for the year, even if a role isn’t in your Fach, if you have the notes they will ask you to do it, just to get their money’s worth. Here in the United States, with almost everyone working freelance, a much more limited sense of a singer’s identity has developed.

When asked about “lookism” and other casting concerns, Helfgot encouraged us to maintain the following boundary: “Whatever you can do with your person, do. Do you have the look? Do you have the notes? Does your voice have the color?” He summarized by saying, “Our responsibility in the ‘singing theater’ is to be as convincing as possible.” (Apparently, when I wasn’t there, he also discussed the casting of the three ladies in Mozart’s Magic Flute for a production in which I had sung the Third Lady. I’m glad I wasn’t there to hear whether he said he had cast us for our looks or our voices, because I fear that either way, I’d have been offended somehow.)

One more little tidbit. Helfgot stopped the first singer right away, after she said “I would like to sing . . .” “No, no, no!” he said shaking his head. “I will sing! Not, I would like to sing, I am going to sing, I might sing . . .” As he went on to work with her on Musetta’s Waltz, he emphasized reading the story and not re-inventing the wheel. Looking at the musical notation “allegro,” he reminded the singer of the importance of the meaning of the word as “happy” (or “cheerful”) rather than just fast.

Conductor Valéry Ryvkin’s class was a treasure trove of good advice and historical knowledge in the form of personal experiences and anecdotes. Without affectation or ego, he spoke generously and candidly about how to work with a conductor. “Look out for mean conductors,” he said, and told a story of a conductor who insisted singers look at him all the time—if they looked away, he would deliberately change the tempo.

Most of Ryvkin’s presentation was much more positive and pragmatic. On the subject of who is leading, “it has to be done together,” he said. He told of how Toscanini would work for weeks with singers at the piano and said that opera is made that way, not with orchestra. He suggested, even though this is a dying practice, that singers could ask for time with a conductor and offer to bring a pianist—an invaluable thing if you can manage it, he said.

Preparation, Ryvkin continued, is essential. It is better to spend three hours with a $100 coach than 10 hours with a $30 coach, he said. On the delicate subject of how to ask the conductor for help or for a change, he said that timing is the most important thing. You can ask for some things as the process goes on, for example, that you can’t ask for the first day. It’s OK if you’re having a problem in rehearsal to say “Maestro, I’ll take it home and work on it.” Then, you can come back and say “I worked on it at home and it’s not working. Can you help me?” This is a far more tactful way of saying that a tempo isn’t working—the conductor will be more likely to feel inclined to help, Ryvkin explained.

On the subject of timing, Ryvkin said to try to resolve all problems either before the Sitzprobe or after. The Sitzprobe is the worst possible time to bring up a problem, because the conductor’s focus is necessarily on the orchestra.

Ryvkin stressed the importance of being able to get your pitch from multiple sources, in case a chair squeaks and you can’t hear the oboe that night, or, as happens occasionally to even the best, the conductor brings you in early or not at all.

On the subject of marking, Ryvkin said that the dress rehearsal schedule should be spelled out in the contract, especially with a young conductor, and that you must do what you need to do to take care of yourself in the final week. If you’re having problems with too many rehearsals before a performance, it’s best to have your agent sort it out, but as a last resort you can simply say “Maestro, I’m not feeling well and I have to mark.”

With regard to style and shaping phrases (hopefully worked out together in advance with the conductor) Ryvkin echoed Helfgot’s words, saying it had to be “convincing.” In the end, he made a clarification that you cannot really know what the composer wanted, but he’d like to hear “what a talented singer thinks the composer wants.” Quoting Martin Katz, Ryvkin said “What is style? Style is how much to play or sing what is not written on the page.” Verdi and Tchaikovsky, for example, cannot be sung “straight,” but singers must be artistic with their choices, Ryvkin said. One more reminder: It makes the conductor uncomfortable to have to say “sing only half of the aria” so please avoid long arias for auditions unless you are auditioning for the role.

A high point for me was enjoying some lunchtime “Opera Improv” led by Ann Baltz. She emphasized the importance of play (as did Andrea Huber in her masterclass on operetta: “American singers work hard, sometimes too hard.”) When taking questions from the audience, the singers were asked how they could improvise while still maintaining their technique. Tenor John Duykers answered that “once the technique is mastered, ideally, the position of the instrument doesn’t change that much,” so it is possible to improvise within your technique. (I was fortunate enough to be in the audience last weekend for Duykers’ tour-de-force performance in Paul Dresher’s one-man opera The Tyrant. Anything Duykers has to say about technique, I will listen to with both ears!) All the singers agreed that to be freed from the “right and wrong of what’s on the page” for a while is great fun and a genuine relief.

The AudComps ran parallel to the ProSeries, so if singers at the convention ever found a spare moment they could duck in for an aria or two from singers in the Young Artist, Emerging Professional, or Professional divisions. I happened to step in just in time to hear some very lovely Strauss from the woman who ended up winning the Emerging Professional Division. The concert featuring the finalists for the Professional Division was quite wonderful, and a welcome part of the weekend. After so much talking about and analysis of singing, it was refreshing to sit back and just let the music speak. All in all, it was an embarrassment of riches. [For a full report on this year’s AudComps, see “AudComps Strikes a High Note” on page 14.]

The moment it all came together for me, however, was at the closing-day brunch. We listened to the winners of the three divisions, socialized, and after a slideshow tribute to colleagues who had passed since the previous convention, we sang together. As “Va pensiero” rose up into the room, I felt a deep feeling of coming home. The reality of being a singer is a very strange one. Even at the theater, some cannot understand what it means to care so much, to have such a big part of your joy and sorrow dependent upon these tiny folds inside your throat.

Standing among my fellow singers on that day was a special gift. (Yes, there were some conductors and pianists, but they were way outnumbered!) It was in that moment, with Verdi’s help, that the convention realized its deepest aspiration: creating a sense of community for classical singers.

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.