The Singer’s Library : Master Singers: Advice from the Stage

The Singer’s Library : Master Singers: Advice from the Stage

Many consider the 1982 book Great Singers on Great Singing to be an important resource—if sometimes a bit confusing. Operatic bass Jerome Hines conducted interviews with 40 of the most successful singers of his time. Dedicating a chapter to each singer, the interviews offer a window into the minds and voices of these professionals while also highlighting just how different singers can be in the way they approach their vocal technique. In fact, the book begins with a tongue-in-cheek warning that the material “may be injurious to your vocal health,” especially for anyone hoping the text will miraculously transform them into a “vocal superstar.”

A similar book, written in 2002, is called A Spectrum of Voices: Prominent American Voice Teachers Discuss the Teaching of Singing. In this publication, author Elizabeth Blades-Zeller organizes the comments of 20 teachers by topic, allowing readers to make back-to-back comparisons of the various ideas expressed on issues like “Strategies for Teaching Registration” or “Strategies to Combat Tension.”

Now, 33 years after Great Singers on Great Singing and more than a decade after A Spectrum of Voices, authors Donald George and Lucy Mauro track down some of the preeminent singers of the current generation and compile their thoughts in Master Singers: Advice from the Stage from Oxford University Press.

The authors bring expertise to the book as performers as well as educators. George is a lyric tenor and a professor of voice at the SUNY Potsdam Crane School of Music while Mauro is a pianist and associate professor of piano at West Virginia University.

Like Great Singers on Great Singing, all of the individuals interviewed for Master Singers have enjoyed years of success, including established veterans like Ewa Podleś and Thomas Hampson alongside younger singers like Lisette Oropesa and Jennifer Rowley.

Following a similar format as A Spectrum of Voices, chapters are divided by subject rather than by singer. Chapter 1, for instance, begins with the question “What is your approach to breathing?” and we hear from all 21 featured singers. Topics range from the technical (“How do you manage the passaggio?”) to the collaborative (“What advice do you have for working with conductors?”) to the physical (“What are some of the things you do to stay vocally healthy and fit?”) to even a bit of the hypothetical (“If there were one thing you wish you had learned in your student days that would have prepared you more for the professional stage, what would it be?”).

As explained in the preface, the authors asked each singer the same questions, meeting in person to discuss their responses when possible. Due to hectic international schedules, however, much of the communication occurred over e-mail, “snail mail,” Facebook, Skype, Skype chat, and even text messages. Each singer’s response was limited to approximately 150 words.

The wide range of opinions on any given subject is demonstrated by one particular question asking about “ideal placement of the voice for resonance and the most beautiful tone.” In her response, Nicole Cabell says that “while forward placement is very important, I cannot shut off back space, or a connection with the openness of the whole head.” But Eric Owens replies, “I’ll add height to it from time to time, but I never feel that this space is in the back. If anything, I’ll feel like the space is through the top of my head, in addition to the forward placement.”

Alan Held believes, “Placement is the most important aspect of my singing,” but Jonas Kaufmann posits, “The goal should be not to ‘place’ the voice anywhere, but release it so that it can unfold as it needs to.” Meanwhile, Stephanie Blythe responds, “I do not need to think of [placement] anymore, fortunately.”

Later chapters go beyond technique, asking in chapters 2 and 3 about the differences in singing opera versus singing in recital or on the concert stage. Chapter 4 is called “On Maintaining a Career” and discusses career longevity, recordings, the business side of the career, working abroad, and approaching contemporary music. Chapter 5, “On Teaching and Studying,” addresses practice routines and techniques for memorization, asks how often the singers work with voice teachers and coaches, and seeks advice aimed at both students and teachers. A final chapter, “Extras from the Experts,” serves as a catch-all for topics not covered previously, like singing through illness, overcoming nerves, and building confidence.

Though the book is divided by subject, the index lists page numbers by singer as well so those interested in reading one particular singer’s comments can jump right to his or her thoughts.

Writing the book for a diverse audience, the authors indicate that they devised the questions with the college student, studio teacher, emerging artist, professional singer, and opera lover in mind. Hoping to be informative and educational as well as thought provoking, the book aims to give all readers “a broader understanding of this great art.”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /