Wesley Balk: : Impact On Any Level

You don’t go to opera or musical theater to see everyday life, thank God. You go to opera or musical theater to have an incredible experience with an out-of-the-ordinary flow of energy.”

Communication, or “radiant performing,” is possible for any performer, no matter what their level of technical development. “When someone with an instrument like Jessye Norman’s has a radiant performance, it’s really staggering, because the voice is so capable. But I’ve seen a number of cases where you become one with performers who may not yet be experienced veterans. It doesn’t last a long time, because the young singer is unfamiliar with the experience, and might be scared by it. It has to do with how much they are able to allow the flow to happen. The lovely thing is when that field of energy has been created, even people who are having difficulties with the instrument can experience it. The performers are open and not criticizing themselves, the audience isn’t criticizing them, and everyone feels fantastic.”

The process that led Balk to the decision to teach sounds very familiar to those in the business. “I realized,” Balk said, “that in the opera/musical theater training environment, there were so few places for people to actually grow and take the risks necessary for that growth process. There was so much ‘product’ orientation, so much judgmentalism, that it was killing off people. As I worked with people coming into the Minnesota Opera Company, where we created a fairly open and free environment, I kept seeing these damaged singers. They were damaged in the sense of being so traumatized judgmentally, and so afraid of exploring and opening to new experiences, I was horrified. They were giving about 25 percent of what they were capable of, which was good work according to general standards, but a small part of what they could have done. I became more and more aware that we have a wide epidemic of judgmental, destructive, controlling ways of working.”
How did Balk propose to help these singers? “I want to help voice teachers to help singers sing, and perform better, by understanding every part of the performance process from a view of the whole rather than as a part all by itself. ‘The part mistaking itself for the whole’ is probably the biggest single error in the training system. There’s an awful lot of distortion, because of over-emphasis on one part, or not considering what happens to the other parts when you ask one of them to do certain things.

“If a singer is feeling something, yet her face is habitually deadpan, the observer can’t know what the performer is feeling. This is because the outer instrument has been rendered incapable of communicating what’s on the inside, because the facial musculature is held and fixed in place. So first you have to open that channel, so it’s available to the person. A lot of people are so locked up that they literally can’t move their faces at first. That causes a real gap between what they’re communicating and what they’re actually feeling. Everybody feels pretty much the same things–sadness, happiness, etc. But not everybody has the instrument to communicate these feelings. You have to go through the process of activating the part of the face that actually expresses that emotion. Someone can’t tell what another person is thinking or feeling unless the face can show it.

“I’ve never met a singer who didn’t have a challenge with the whole gesturing process–never. Anticipatory tension, or what we do when we ‘get ready’ to sing, makes this universally difficult, because the body is tense before it ever starts. I think the body flex and gesture flex exercises, which are explained in Performing Power, can be helpful because they start to isolate the arms from the body, which is necessary to be able to gesture believably. A gesture should look like something you just naturally do while speaking. The only difference is that in singing the gesture is prolonged.

“All singers I’ve ever worked with do the anticipatory entanglement, which means they place a slight layer of tension over their whole system before they start singing. From that place nothing good can happen because it’s always short-circuited. Eliminating that tension is an important initial step. It’s a self-acceptance issue, because the anticipatory entanglement is actually a subtle devaluing of oneself. It’s saying ‘I’m not good enough the way I am, so I have to do something extra to be this model performer.’ Singers trying to ‘do something’ to be better than they are end up making themselves less than they are because of this tension.”

In closing, Balk said, “Opera could be an astounding medium. As it is, it’s generally just ‘kind of nice,’ and it can be quite boring. But it could be electrifying. The singer-actor can make that happen.”

Wesley Balk

Wesley Balk lives and works in the Seattle area where he is associated with the University of Washington as a professor. Mr. Balk is also Director of Performance Development with the Nautilus Music Theater in Minnesota.