Thomas Hampson

As an enthusiastic explorer of repertoire, Thomas Hampson generously contributes to the enlightenment of audiences and colleagues alike, enriching our cultural knowledge as very few artists do.

You can take a fascinating virtual trip through the world of Thomas Hampson at www.hampsong.com

The website includes a biography, schedules, photos, musical selections, essays and various informative links and is suffused with poetic quotes.

I am honored to present the following interview as an invitation into the world of Thomas Hampson.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

Well-fed! Well, I don’t remember those childhood ambitions. I was raised in the Tri-Cities in Washington State, in a very fundamentalist Protestant religion, the Seventh Day Adventists, which like most Protestant denominations has a fantastic commitment to music.

I always sang but had absolutely no idea about being a professional musician. Thinking of what I wanted to do, humanities played a large role in my decision.

What drew you to study government and politics, and how does the knowledge you acquired serve you in your artistic career?

I chose political science mainly because it was a way to coalesce all the various interests I had, such as literature, history, and politics.

I met my voice teacher during my program at Washington University in Spokane: Sister Marietta Cole. She was a nun with a wonderful singing voice. She opened a whole new world of poetry and music to me when she gave me a stack of records including Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey and Tom Krause.

From that moment on, my political science studies started to take a more humanistic direction. I shifted my focus from pre-law to government, with the emphasis on public administration, and started a B.F.A. at Fort Wright College.

I was still not thinking of a musical career, but I said to myself, “Well, if music is going to be important, I could remain in the musical world, running an orchestra or a festival.” Of course, everything I learned has helped me. I feel that, as a singer, you need to know as many things as possible.

If you haven’t read history, you’ll have a hard time with psychology and perspective, so what are you going to bring to a role? How does Onegin think or walk? What about Don Giovanni? What is a Byronic character, and why do we use that as a euphemism for the 19th century troubled characters? What is the difference between Classical and Romantic?

If we don’t know these things as a singing community, as a musical community, then we will be the victims of outside influences. People come to the operatic world with no musical culture whatsoever, but with a great theatrical dramatic background, and therefore, opera becomes this sort of theater, inside a musical frame. That’s just nonsense!

Most importantly, I think singers must incorporate and re-create human beings. That means their psyches, their religion, their spirituality, their thoughts, their emotions and their intellect. That was how my educational background, steeped in literature and history, has amalgamated into a bigger picture for me.

When did you finally decide to devote yourself to singing?

In 1978 I went to the Music Academy of the West. There, among other singers my age, I realized that what distinguished me was my innate commitment to poetry and songs.

I considered that a fundamental part of singing. I think it is important for everyone to find his or her intrinsic distinguishing characteristic or perspective. It’s not about talent. To me, talent is something that has been galvanized.

There are a lot of gifted people who are never awakened to their own talent. If I can come out of these various Middle-America experiences, out of a world completely divorced from opera, and go through the discipline and metallurgy of this work, then anybody can.

Anyway, it became clear to me that I needed to move out of Washington state. So I worked different jobs-did landscape work, sold advertising for the Spokane Symphony, waited tables as a singing waiter in a German restaurant-you know, whatever you have to do, you do! It was a great, tough time!

I was already married, and we moved to California. I am very grateful to the University of Southern California for their policy: if you had any degree, you could enroll and pay fees for graduate classes. I did not want to be in the music program, because I couldn’t afford it, and I just wanted to study song with Gwendolyn Kodolfsky and opera theater with Franz Burlage.

Then, in 1980, you were taken into the San Francisco Merola program.

Yes. Back then, if you won their regional and state competitions, you were selected to come up for the summer for a 10-week semi-professional program. At the end, your work was measured, prizes were given and some participants were invited to go into what was the touring Western Opera Theater group. I got a nice mention but was not invited to stay.

In 1980 I also won a bunch of competitions. I had met Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and she asked me if I would come to Europe. The main judge from the Zachary competition, where I had placed second, was an agent who offered to help me if I decided to go to Germany. So I decided to leave the U.S.

The decision had somehow been made for me, and this is something I tell all singers: For talented and dedicated people, things get put together, especially if you are awakened to your possibilities. Never put all your eggs in one basket, either emotionally or career-wise. And one more thing: No disaster is ever the last disaster!

The good side of that is: They can only be disasters if you put something really terrific together. What I mean by disasters is when things fall apart. That can only happen if you work on a project or a goal.

That’s why I don’t think you should be terribly preoccupied with the negative things that happen, because it’s not how often you fall, it’s how often you get up. Not being invited to stay in the Merola program was a mini-disaster.

I have always been very suspect of my own abilities. I didn’t have the kind of voice that when I sang, everybody went, “Oh, my God!”

I was a good singer, able to do things at an early age, but I was not a vocal wonder. I’m still not a vocal wonder. I was never vocally driven; it was more about the completeness of singing.

In the early days of my career, I felt frustrated in trying to get up the ladder and get things going. The big moments in my life came because I was prepared-but they also just kind of came.

Tell me about going to Germany.

Well, I sang two auditions there, got a job in Dusseldorf, and that’s where I started. Actually, I had always wanted to go to Europe, to the tradition, to the country that had this huge system for singers, and find out whether this was really a life I wanted to lead.

The idea of getting on staff as a young opera singer made a lot of sense to me. I always had a particular affinity for the German language and the poetry. Everything kept sending me in that direction. The Düsseldorf experience was very important, and those who supported me agreed.

Speaking of supporters and advisors, how important is it to listen to others’ advice and opinions as opposed to following your own instincts, which are sometimes more accurate? How do you find that balance between listening outside of yourself and paying attention to your inner voice?

Well, that conundrum is part of one’s life. My life has been dominated by concentrating on singing as well as I could, and that included my brain, my health, my languages, my experiences, my teachers and coaches.

Yes, I walked away from some very famous coaches because I didn’t feel what they said was right for me. Now that I am older, I get respected for it, but it is pretty tough to be instinctually stubborn at the age of 28 or 31. In fact, it can have some very bad consequences. Sometimes, things went terribly wrong because I didn’t follow opinions or advice.

On the other hand, when they went well, it was because people admired that quality. Lenny [Bernstein], Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Jimmy Levine, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, as well as others appreciated this seriousness and commitment.

I think that as a young singer, you have to be very protective of a very personal communication with yourself. It is very easy to get distracted by outside influences, by all the things that need to get done, and you can forget the meditative center of your life, which is not some sort of bamboo-waving, obsolete place divorced from life.

I see it more like the inside of a volcano, the hot burning core in all of us, out of which this or that can happen. Instincts are terrific, but on the other hand, instincts that are enlightened become talent! I do not believe that there is a path or a set of answers that guarantee even a shot at fulfillment or success. I do know a few things that are non-negotiable: if you are going to have a career, you must sing well and have a built-in voice saying, “Don’t do this now, because it will shorten your career.”

What I find is very tricky for young singers today, is that most of the world is driven by usefulness and speed: Quick learn, pretty voice, good figure, for both men and women.

So you are saying career building today can be superficially motivated.

Exactly. This is probably the most dangerous cancer coming to the business of music, and eating away at the substance of singing. The substance of singing is not driven by our sense of career. It is driven by our sense of beauty.

I love to work with my younger colleagues, especially over a few days, and create this wonderful warm, cozy, but disciplined atmosphere where singers can step back from those career pressures and just concentrate on, “Is that really what you meant to sing?” I don’t care if it’s a Goethe poem or an opera libretto. It can be Rosina or Mignon’s Lieder.

Why were they written? That has got nothing to do with me, the singer. We are vessels, and our talent is to re-create; we are the doorway for everybody’s imagination.

In masterclasses, sometimes you ask singers, “How many ribs do you have?”

Which is a very silly question; everyone thinks it’s funny… I find it absurd that pianists, and even those who can’t play the piano very well, know that there are 88 keys on it. So, why wouldn’t you know your own body, especially as a singer? It is important. To sing well, you must know how your body works.

Let’s talk about your teachers and mentors and how they influenced you, most significantly Horst Gunther, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and Leonard Bernstein.

I met Horst Gunther in 1980 when I came to California. He was the visiting professor of voice at USC, a lyric baritone, so it was a good idea to study with him. I had never studied with a man before, other than Martial Singher.

Singher was a brilliant performer, a wonderful pedagogue. He had controversial ideas and was a difficult personality, but the older I get, the more devoted I am to him. I think his ideas would get more credit today. He lived in a time when the big, open-throated singing was in.

His was a much more vibrating, centered tone that did not concentrate on huge amplitude, but on the idea and emotion. I only worked with him in the summers, not privately, and he was a very important influence in my life. At the same time, I started working with Horst Gunther.

He helped me synthesize all this theoretical knowledge, all of those wonderful things, and, yes, how many ribs?

Twelve on each side!

Very good! There goes my million-dollar question! When you are onstage, you don’t have time to think about the lifting of that, and the separating of that.

Probably, the most fundamental thing that Horst taught me is: When we are singing, and making those decisions to deal with whatever circumstances we are in that night, we base those decisions more on a world of feeling than a world of sound. Singers listen to themselves too much. I think we sing infinitely more by radar than by sonar.

That is fundamentally linked to your perspective of resonance, and therefore, your perspective of breath control. One of the valid and important paradigms of the old school, that we have wandered away from a little bit, is that legato is a function of resonance and not of breath control.

If you don’t hear what you are going to sing before you sing it, it won’t be what you want. What you hear and what you know you need to do to re-create that sound has to become automatic. It’s your professional key, which is also your sense of beauty, your sense of thought, of re-creation; it is the reason why you are singing in that particular moment.

If you are preoccupied with the state of singing because you are singing, I think you are on the wrong track. So, Günther gave me my professional feet. I was not singing the Barber’s aria when I auditioned for him, but once we cracked that nut, the Barber became a big deal for me.

The first time I ever sang Figaro’s aria publicly, I was sweating bullets, absolutely scared out of my mind. I was not thinking about any internal motivations for the Barber of Seville! I was thinking about one thing and one thing only: “Do not crack, do not splat, do not die! Get through it!” This aria then got me through the regional finals of the Merola program, and I won.

I also had this wonderful coach in California: Jack Metz. He was a natural force to be reckoned with, Leona Mitchell’s vocal guru. I worked with him for two years, at the same time I was working with Horst, and the two approaches were not always compatible.

But Jack was a fantastic coach who understood sound and the release of voice. Jackie [Marilyn] Horne had worked with him, and so did Anna Moffo and Maria Chiara. He was one of the great old coaches! He handed me the aria “Mein Sehnen, mein Wahnen” from Die tote Stadt.

I loved it immediately, because it allowed me to show the kind of singer I was. I was the first to sing this aria in auditions, and now it has become a staple of the lyric baritone repertoire. It was as much the singing of this aria that won me the Metropolitan position later on as anything else.

When you started singing, was it evident that you were a baritone?

Well, even though my voice was never terribly powerful, there has always been this sort of burnished, inner darker quality to it. People couldn’t decide if I was a dramatic tenor or a bass-baritone.

Horst settled those issues for me, you know, are you a tenor or a baritone? The upper baritone, the lyric baritone that they all so loved in the 19th century, is more the first cousin of the tenor than an extension of the bass-baritone.

A lot of people try to push lower voices up, and it never really works, because the point is not to be loud or dramatic. The point is, in the upper middle range of the baritone voice, to have the elasticity that can manifest itself into expression that is either angry or loving, doleful or euphoric.

The building of that voice was essentially bringing the tenor down and saying: “OK, you don’t have to worry about the As and B flats, but you’d better give me one hell of an F sharp, and every palette of human emotion in that upper baritone range, from B flat to F sharp or G.

What I got from Horst was the use of the voice, getting rid of the baggage and understanding that when you sing a high note, you don’t need to prove to everybody that you’ve got all the low notes below it. He gave me the confidence to trust that feeling. He is now the resident professor of voice for the Zurich Opera Theater. He’s still got very good ears.

The world of opera has become something that isn’t part of his tradition, and it’s very hard for him sometimes to see and hear the kind of misuse of the voice that happens today, but he remains deeply committed to good singing.

What is wonderful is to see these kids, when they are 20 or 21, working with a 90-year-old guy who had a 45-year career, and saying, “He’s right. It’s easy, it’s terrific!” These young singers are having their own awakening, even a bit of a revolution in their minds.

They realize, “We work too much at it; we need to sing more!”…I also had Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s advice. She was one of the most charming, innovative and alive partners you could possibly find, to help you discover the truth of what you are trying to sing.

So, what happened after Dusseldorf?

I went to Zurich and became part of the ensemble, singing 25 nights of a specific repertoire.

I was paid on a 13-month basis, which gave me a certain financial flexibility, and a lot more time to guest. Zurich was a monumental change in my life. Dusseldorf had been a great starting point, but I knew I couldn’t stay there.

Nevertheless, I had a great time in Dusseldorf; it was a wonderful learning experience.

How did your Met debut come about?

In the summer of 1985, I sang for Jimmy Levine in Salzburg. My debut at the Met was then planned for 1988 as Schaunard.

In 1986, as Ponnelle was to revise Le Nozze di Figaro, the Met was suddenly left without a Count. I had just worked with Ponnelle, I knew the role, Levine liked me, so all of a sudden, in the middle of a cast that included José Van Dam, Kathleen Battle at the top of her form, and Elisabeth Söderstrom, making her last appearances at the Met, they hire this young unknown lyric baritone!

It was a huge moment of trust that Jimmy Levine gave me, and which did define my career at the Metropolitan, as well as my American presence.

Just like there are very few violinists who didn’t have Isaac Stern’s help, very few great American singers have not been guided and helped by Jimmy Levine in the last 30 years.

How did you then come into contact with Leonard Bernstein?

Well, at the time of my surprise Met debut, Leonard Bernstein was doing auditions, and Matthew Epstein was helping him put together an American cast of La Bohème to take to Santa Cecilia in Rome.

Bernstein had heard about me through his manager, Harry Kraut…You know, my motto has always been: “Fortune favors the prepared mind!” Everything spins from something else. There is always some connection.

What is the constant? Sing as well as you can. Get close to who it is you need to go to the next level. Most of it is somebody showing you what the next level inside of you is.

There is nobody you can hire to tell you how to sing. There are people you can get coaching and information from, and all of this releases and unlocks the secrets of you to yourself.

How you put that together for yourself as a singer is your own personal map. You must sing well…because somewhere, someone hears something you do and then says something to someone else! That is part of the artist’s life, part of public life, and it needs to be held in deep respect.

I don’t mean a paranoia-an “oh, what-do-they-say-about-me” kind of thing-no, rather the permanent awareness of your responsibility to singing. But anyway, I sang for Lenny, and my 15-minute audition turned into an hour and 20 minutes!

Then I worked with him, and for two years, I was part of his inner singing circle. He helped me resolve some of the questions I had about intellectual activity, which I believe is very necessary for singers.

The discipline is iron-clad, and the thought process as clear as can be. Do not leave any stone unturned, do not leave any thought process out, but when you’re going to make music, make music! Do it! Give yourself up!

I think it is always difficult to find the balance between the intellect and the instinctual, emotional side. Sometimes too much analysis and intellectual activity hinders the freedom of the voice, of the artistic act. How do you maintain this equilibrium?

That was what Lenny did for me! He was exactly that perfect equilibrium between the intellect and instinct. I mean, to see Leonard Bernstein come out and start a piece of music with that phenomenal intellect and knowledge, and yet make it all about soul and guts and heart, about the human being, was unbelievable! But Lenny would not have been the kind of soul-and-guts-and-heart person that he was, had he not had his intense intellectual life.

I don’t think some people are only about soul and guts and heart, and other people are heads and brains! We are all the same, and one side of us informs the other. I believe that my soul and guts and heart have been taught by my brain and my ears and my head, and, more importantly, vice-versa.

That amazing amalgamation of heart and mind was Lenny! The other person who is like that for me is Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Bernstein and Harnoncourt had phenomenal respect for one another. Bernstein told me I could learn a lot from Harnoncourt. He said, “Be sure to ask [Harnoncourt] the right way to get from the recitative into the musical part. This is a huge problem with Mozart.”

I can’t think of a more substantially differing approach among conductors than when it comes to conducting Mozart operas. It is tied to the dramaturgical context of tempo markings. Andante is not some decision to be made on the evening; it belongs to a decision that takes into consideration, “Well, if this is andante, then what is allegro?”

There is a structure to that, and I think it is one of the most phenomenal keys to Mozart’s dramaturgy, especially in the later operas.

You’ve referred to Mozart’s music as very theatrical.

Hugely theatrical! It’s there for us to understand; it’s not for us to create! It’s fantastic! It’s about people. I have now taught so many soprano arias from Idomeneo to Cosi.

Fiordiligi is a wonderfully complex young woman. It’s not about the aria, or about a Mozart style. It’s interesting that composers, even today, don’t really talk about styles, they talk about re-creating people and personalities.

You cannot show me a letter from the greatest opera composers that mentions timbres of voices. Rather, they talk about singers understanding the re-creation of psychologies.

If I don’t know why you are singing, then I don’t care how you sing. I am not interested in voice production. It only really makes me excited when it’s emotionally connected!

One of the most phenomenal things I’ve ever heard in my life is this pirate recording of Leonard Warren at the age of 29 in Town Hall, singing “Cortigiani” for the first time with all that young enthusiasm.

Speaking of pirate recordings, what do you think about them?

I think it’s wrong. I don’t believe in stealing music, but I believe there are two sides to it. Records are just too expensive.

The monopolizing control of the big record companies has created this problem, and in some ways, alternative methods, such as piracy, are a revolt against that.

There are many websites from which you can legally download music. Right now, there is a huge development happening on my website: www.hampsong.com I am also creating a foundation for song and hope to offer a lot of information on new technology as well as singing in general, especially in the world of song.

You enjoy teaching very much and call it a “sharing of knowledge.” You don’t refer to those who participate in your master classes as your students, but rather as your “younger colleagues.” How has teaching enriched you?

You know, I sing like a bird for the first 10 days after a class. There is something so purely positive about trying to articulate what you think about. You also remember the fundamentals.

So much with young singers is getting them to settle down, stand up straight, let their body be their body, hear what they’re going to sing, think-that’s always an issue! Think it, hear it, breathe into it, and then sing. But so much of singing today is concentrating on the idea of air becoming some sort of power source to vibrate the cords to make sound for somebody else’s purpose.

I think that’s a negative way to look at it. It’s sad that my activities as a human being focus on propelling something into a public forum for which I will then be measured and approved or rejected. That will destroy your nerves. It has to be an internal process by which you become the singing entity.

People come to hear you be what it is that you’re going to be; you do not go out on stage to convince them of what you know. “Projection” is probably the most vulgar word I know in singing! To project a personality is obscene.

To project a voice is acoustically and physically impossible! It is also wrong to try. You can project a broomstick, a bullet or a paper airplane, but a voice resonates. Take the word for what it means: re-sonate. It re-sounds. So what is sounding in the first place? If we are concentrating on resounding, what is it that is sounding?

Well, you can imagine it is already there, the sound, the music…

It is already there! Exactly. And we are the ones who call it into being. Our voices, however, are much more about how we are built. I love to work technically, especially with singers who are having crises: young, old, whatever.

But you don’t teach privately.

No, because I think there should be consistency, and I can’t offer that. I’m here today, in Zurich tomorrow-I like to have four or five-day symposiums where I can get about 10 singers. Everyone sings every day. We develop our own language in the first couple of days. I talk a lot, and then we let the pony run.

Unfortunately, I see that fundamentally good singing, and technically based singing are becoming less and less of a priority. I am dead set against this idea of concert singer versus opera singer; it is ridiculous! It would be such an abrogation for the opera singer not to sing lieder in concert!

The same goes for a concert singer who doesn’t even look at opera roles. The problem is that concert singers have a hard time getting into the opera world. But on the other hand, people who are active operatically seldom bother to sing recitals. There are plenty of places to sing concerts, if you are willing to go out there. In the year I made my Met debut, I did a recital tour, and if I got from zero to zero between the costs and the income, I was happy-I considered it a success.

We need to support the whole recital experience. What Marilyn Horne is doing with her foundation is fantastic. The arts and the humanities are the blueprint of our existence, the diary of how we have been as human beings from time eternal to time eternal. If we don’t know what has been before us, how can we possibly know the fantastic possibilities of the future? I think it is also important to know who your God is, whatever that may become for you. The spiritual goal is a very personal decision.

It is where you live; it’s the “ohm” of you. The path to enrich that inner core, however, is a wonderful dialogue of various influences. That human recognition of being a human, and believing, searching for a spiritual “Why am I here?” answer is enlightened through the arts and humanities.

That is why they are not divorced from religion.

That is why I sing Don Giovanni. Giovanni is a nasty piece of work, but there are few greater places to confront the dark side of your soul than this character. It’s about power and sex, society, nature, and God. The problem with a modern production can be that you walk around in your own clothes, and it takes the story out of its social context. To simply come in and drape something on top of it in order to make it something it isn’t, works very little in operas that are so specific about social context, like the Mozart operas.

That is what really fascinates me…concept-driven opera is very seldom successful…it is sometimes box-office successful, but only for one or two seasons, and then, who cares? That is why you can have some of these rather monolithic 40-year-old productions with dusty furniture, because it’s not about that. What you want on that evening is: What is that person singing to me? What intellectual emotional experience is being conveyed through the music?

To me, that is the genius and the miracle of opera.

What was the hardest part of your voice to master, and why?

Well, there wasn’t one part specifically. Certainly, keeping the upper “zing” in the middle part of my voice so that it carried, and doing that without pressing or grabbing in the throat has always been a challenge. I have always preferred to err on the side of, “Don’t grab, don’t push, don’t yell,” and as a result been more lyrical than I perhaps wanted to be. I had to limit my repertoire at certain times, because I simply couldn’t maintain the resonance and constancy of sound, so I was patient. Whatever problems you have, you must be patient.

There is no person, program or étude that you can do today that will fix it tomorrow. Vocal production is always linked to the complex physical structure of the entire human being. You have to learn that what you can’t do with one part of your body or your brain has little to do with that particular part.

Most troubles of the high voice come because you don’t know how to sing the middle voice. Schwarzkopf told me very early on, “Take care of your middle voice, and it will take care of your high voice.” You’re not going to find high ringing notes by singing high ringing notes. You are not going to find low, relaxed, and vibrating notes by singing only them. Do you know what I mean?

Yes. You are not going to “find” anything by creating an inner idea of it and aiming for it specifically, separating low and high from one another, for example…

Exactly! Low and high are not separated from each other! It is always a cause-and-effect relationship. You must be patient, disciplined and organized. My own little definition of discipline is not that sort of, “Oh, my God, I have to strap myself in and beat myself!” No.

Discipline is the ordering of the random. In singing, there is absolutely nothing that is random! Only through this discipline can you actually be in a place where you could be spontaneous. Spontaneity is not randomness, and vice versa. A lot of people think that coming out with this emotional, big-heart, “Aaaah, here I am!” means some sort of spontaneous emotional experience. “Oh, my God, wasn’t it moving? She started to cry singing ‘Vissi d’arte!'” No! That was pure selfishness! Nothing else but!

What is the first thing you do when you feel a cold coming on?

Well, first of all, make sure that you recognize the symptoms early! There is probably no product in the last few years that has caught more people’s attention, and rightfully so, than Zicam. It is a gel you put in your nose very early on; it sinks right back through the nasal pharynx, and it has zinc and B12, which will fight an infection on the spot.

It’s terrific. The chicken-soup-go-to-bed-shut-up rule is always a good idea. It is the hardest one, because it means pulling yourself off the conveyor belt for a while. Sleep is without question the singer’s best friend. Most of us have problems with sleep. I have problems sleeping; I get my big energy in the evenings. My most important thing is to sleep after a performance. Don’t get up too early. Sleeping long the day of a performance doesn’t do me too much good. In fact, speaking and taking care of things are probably better to get me awake and energized. Sleep off the performance!

The question of a career and of theatrical energy is not about how many volts you can get going. It’s how deep is the reaction after the volts you applied? Long distance runners are not concerned about speed, they are concerned about the valleys and peaks of their energy-stamina, endurance-and that’s the same with singing. It is more athletic than people think. That has as much to do with cold remedies as anything…Menthol of any type, in any form is dangerous. That means any cough drop that has menthol or eucalyptus in it.

Bad news! What does it do and why does it feel so good? It dries the membranes, so if you are horribly sick, menthol can give some relief to all those swollen tissues. For that purpose at that time, you’re going to be fine, because there is so much fluid involved that it’s OK. But otherwise avoid it.

As a rule, you are much better off with liquid and sleep! These little black currant tablets of glycerin are great; so is honey, and horehound, which is one of the old herbs starting to make a comeback in alternative medicine. A singer should be well-versed in alternative medicine: homeopathic remedies, vitamin therapy, aromatherapy, massages, all these things that ignite and enrich that physical, alive feeling.

What about exercise?

It’s number one! Movement, air, exercise plus a good diet. Thin is actually not the goal of losing weight! It is a question of fitness. A sumo wrestler is an obese person by physical visual standards, but you’d be hard put to be healthier than those guys! We could learn a lot from the fitness and diet gurus—the good ones—because there are so many out there in this billion-dollar diet business.

But it’s not whether you eat more protein than carbohydrates, or whether your fat levels are this or that. It is always a question of balance and sanity. It is also very personal, linked to your own metabolism. This means that the diet gurus who actually want to know about your blood are probably the most serious and helpful. As for exercise, there is probably no better physical discipline to know about today than Pilates and yoga. But a lot of people think yoga is about finding that calm, disengaged center somewhere in there. The most interesting aspect about the calm center of a singer is that it is a volcano. It is a burning, engaged core, which ignites when you want it to ignite for the purpose you choose.

Some yoga teachers actually refer to stillness as not being still. It is similar to a wheel that spins so fast that it looks still, yet the energy there is incredibly intense.

Yes. That also involves vibration and resonance. It’s like a gyroscope, exactly! Well, we are talking about laws of nature. It is all so incredibly connected, it’s fantastic! So, exercise, jogging, anything that heats up the muscles to get them awake, and the blood pressure going, is important. I tend to low blood pressure, so I need to run. I will go out and run a little bit this afternoon, just to get going.

So, you do run before a performance?

Oh, sure, but not a lot. Just jogging.

Have you sung any roles that were hard to recover from psychologically and/or emotionally?

A lot of them. That’s also a question of, “Do I know where home is, so that when I become Hamlet, I can go back home? Do I know where my sense of truth is, so that when I go to the very edge of that with Don Giovanni, I can recover it?” I am inevitably in a bad mood after Don Giovanni. I need time to blow it off. And I am not trying to give an oh-the-troubled-artist kind of image. We let a lot of big-time stuff inhabit us.

After a big lieder concert of any repertoire, you are exhausted; you’ve emptied yourself. Onegin is a very tough evening. If I’ve done the role well, there is just an overriding sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach about Onegin, because it is such a phenomenal potential lost—as a human being, as a love story, as a society.

The novel has as much to do with the bigger social paradigm as it does with the specific story. The age of the nineteenth century was the waking of the feminine. The feminine was always the new life, a positive energy that could temper the mundane and the banal of the male leading to so much destruction.

That was why Mozart was so unbelievably ahead of his time. All of the protagonists in his operas who carry the essence of humanity are women. Most of the men are fodder! In the Don Giovanni story, the women become the true protagonists… Some of the roles I do are thankless anyway—the baritone roles—because people want to clap for the good guys and be indifferent to the bad ones or the idiots! But there are also roles that have a profound influence on me, like Simon Boccanegra. This is a very beautiful human being! Posa is a wonderful guy. But he is ambiguous. With Posa, you have to ask yourself, “What is the difference between zealous behavior and a being a zealot?”

You mean, how much does he actually believe in his own behavior?

Right. Is he just a fundamentalist or is he a revolutionary?

As the audience, you are never really sure of what he is after.

Yes. Though I don’t think he’s duplicitous or dishonest. We know how far he’ll go, and that’s what so beautiful about his story. When he sacrifices, he knows what he has to do.

You referred to the French Don Carlo as conveying more of Posa’s ambiguity than the Italian…

Well, there is a difference between “Don’t forget me” and “Remember me.” That is also one difference between the Italian and the French versions. In French, he says, “Remember me”—“Souviens-toi,” and in Italian, it’s, “Non mi scordar.” I prefer the idea of “Remember me.” This goes back to the fantastic ambiguity of Schiller’s novel.

The theatrical tool is that every scene transforms itself into the next, and nobody ever leaves a scene in the drama the same person they were. It is actually a very modern technique. The popular writers today use that. People didn’t write like that before Schiller; it was more dramatically episodic.

Well, Shakespeare is perhaps the exception to that. So when I say ambiguity, I refer to something that also contains its opposite. That is crucial for singing too. For every matter, there is anti-matter, for every effort, there is non-effort…Schiller was a master at that; he illuminated the world of ambiguity and compromise, as well as the other natural rule that in the absence of activity, there is activity. Something is going to happen.

The question is, are you determining it or not? Also, as wonderful as the Italian version is, Verdi set every word of Don Carlo in French, except for a little fragment in the middle…The musical structure of Posa is very interesting. He sings everybody else’s music, and he sings in language that can be understood by every character. He is a great diplomat. Don Giovanni also has no music of his own.

The only endemic music to Giovanni is an ascending fourth. This fourth comes in Mozart’s music for baritone characters, especially when they are trying to be seductive, because the fourth is a perfect interval, isn’t it? It is also interesting that when the Count seduces the Contessa wrongly, he sings this ascending fourth upside down. Isn’t that great? I don’t think these things are by accident. But Giovanni speaks also in different languages to Elvira, to Zerlina, and especially to Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, since their language is also musically different.

When they come back in the sextet, you have thirds and sixths in the music…they are not by accident. Unless you take these kinds of things seriously, then the characters won’t find their center of musical gravity for you. You can set it in modern times, put them on motorcycles or on a bus, but you are still stuck with thirds and sixths. It is the essence that counts, not the so-called interpretation.

You referred to Gérard Souzay’s statement that “interpretation is for people who don’t get it in the first place.” What do you think he meant by that?

Isn’t that a wonderful quote? I think he is just warning people against over-intellectualization and thinking that the essence of a musical moment is to be found through bone-picking analysis. If we look at the word “style” as a very healthy representation of a body of experience after its composition, then that’s OK. But to define what the composition is because of a notion of style is somehow incomplete.

Style is a past-tense label. What is a Schumann style, what is a Schubert style, and where do they coalesce? We are trying to order things to understand them better. OK, that’s fine. But is that what “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” is all about? No. When we use the word “style,” we inevitably refer to the composer.

This is, especially in the Lieder repertoire, a fundamentally wrong perception of the use of word and tone. There are some wonderful people, such as Susan Youens, writing on this subject. She gives me the feeling that the purpose of all her analysis is only to understand better what the real message is. And that message will change in various performances. So, I think what Gérard Souzay was saying is: If you can’t, either as public or artist, allow yourself to dance the dance, to realize the moment, then probably reading about it or studying it isn’t going to help you a lot.

The musical artistic experience is in that moment in which it happens. As long as we know anything about humans—whether they were carving on rocks or flying around billions of light years away in Star Trek—whatever we project into the future, whatever we read about the past, we know one thing: Humans communicate with one another.

We tell stories and jokes, we sing to one another. We are always trying to ignite each other in an emotional, intellectual activity. I think Souzay was right. What he said is a wonderful idea, and not a polemic. Quotes like that sometimes give the feeling that someone is wagging a finger. It’s not that. Besides, if you try to teach by wagging a finger, you won’t get very far. Teaching is simply the sharing of knowledge and it should be taken as such. Afterwards, what you do with this knowledge and information is your personal responsibility.

How to Make an Impact as a Singer

One of the dreams we all have as musicians is to make an impact on audiences, large or small. Sometimes, as I’ll show you, it comes in the more unusual places at the most unexpected times.

A mentor and friend of mine, JoAnn Ottley, has been leading me on a different kind of a journey—helping me to see that music can have a powerful impact in a whole new way…much more powerful than I just described. And helping me see that singers, all of them, are having a huge impact on audiences even when they don’t hear “the big applause.” The audience may not know “it” even happened, and the singers may not be aware they did it! So many singers are sitting at home depressed, not using their power, because many don’t even know they have it.

We want to perform in such a way that audiences are greatly moved—lives are changed as a result of the art to which we’ve just poured our souls. There is that moment of pause when the last note hangs in the air, a moment of anticipation before the applause begins, before a performer knows if “it” happened.

Did the audience “get it” this time? A concert or opera singer’s dream is that there will be a sudden maddening rush of applause, standing ovation, shouts of brava or bravo—tears, even. In that magical moment you know that all the years of preparation were worth it for that one performance.

People—audiences and performers—talk about these performances for years because they happen so rarely. It’s a great disappointment for performers to go through their whole lives and never feel that—not once. And yet I think most performers never get “the big one.” They go through their careers never feeling they really made an impact.

To understand what I’m talking about, you’d probably have to go back to the reason why you got into music and remember the first time music touched you—recall the feelings. I remember hearing an opera singer for the first time in a rather closed space. I thought the atoms and molecules inside my being were going to burst—I’d never heard sound like that before. It did something physically to me. I wonder if you had an experience like that. I felt something on a very physical level that almost made my dizzy. I wonder what your story is. Think back!

It’s probably not a new thought to you that the reward for all your years of training can be found in more than simple applause. Most of us have had experienced other people being grateful for what you do and the incredible feelings it generates.

But I’m talking about music having a much more powerful impact than that. I’m talking about the healing power of music. Music therapists have known about the healing power of music for a long time, but haven’t known how or why it works.
I wanted to experiment a bit on my own. I’d already had one incident years before singing “Ave Maria” to my grandmother with severe Alzheimer’s and having her grab me and lock onto my eyes in desperation as if from a far place for the whole song. It brought her back for the duration of the song.

Knowing music is powerful, I wanted to test what I’ve been reading. I have a nephew, Jason, who is severely autistic. No speech, no eye contact, wheelchair bound. Can do nothing for himself. His hands are curled up, and he lives in a world of his own.

Last Sunday I went to see him. His parents told me I should expect to stay about 10 minutes. The nurse brought him to me in a large waiting room with other patients sitting around. Jason is a beautiful red-headed young man with gorgeous fair skin, and his condition is heartbreaking. His head was on his chest, but he was awake. I gave him a hug and talked to him for a while, hoping that some part of him could understand who I was.

No response, of course. I tried to hold his hand, but it was curled tight. Self-consciously, but remembering all I’d been studying about the power of music to heal, I started to sing a children’s song to him, very quietly. Another couple in the room were trying desperately to communicate with an elderly man who was a very recent stroke victim, and I didn’t want to interrupt them.

The singing at first felt embarrassing, but soon I noticed that Jason’s hand was beginning to relax in mine a little, and he was letting me hold it. The stroke victim and his family stopped their anguished attempts at talking and were smiling and listening. The stroke victim looked relieved at not having to talk, so I switched to well-known hymns and began to sing louder. The man smiled. The family stopped trying to make him talk, which he couldn’t do, and just let feelings come. It seemed to me a wonderful warmth permeated the room.

I soon learned the healing power of the voice works better when you don’t sing with an “air-voice,” because as I started to sing louder, in a more trained voice, an amazing thing happened. Jason lifted up his head and got the biggest smile on his face! He started looking around as if he were surrounded by a group of friends I couldn’t see. He turned his head from side to side and grinned while I kept singing.

I patted his cheeks with my free hand. That lasted three minutes or so, and then his head went back down. I’d heard his family talk about him doing that before, but it was the first time I’d ever seen him alert, and it moved me. I kept singing, and by this time his whole hand had relaxed into mine.

But then the most amazing thing happened: Jason looked up right into my eyes with that beautiful smile. He looked at me with the most searching look I’ve ever seen in my life. I’d never heard of him doing this before! I got tears in my eyes, put both my hands on his face, talked to him and told him I loved him, but then just sang as earnestly as I could while touching him.

It felt like the singing was reaching him and pulling him out of that blank place where he goes. After about 30 seconds, his gaze fell and he was gone again. I kept singing, and soon a crowd of patients gathered. A boy with some speech ability came and asked for Christmas songs. He wanted “Jingle Bells,” so we launched into that.

This time, I tried being very silly with Jason as you would a little child, emphasizing the words with tickles and little pokes and got smiles out of him! He liked that one a lot, so we did it several times. I hadn’t heard about Jason showing that he liked anything, so this was new to me as well.

I sang for a full hour for him and other patients and had another episode of Jason looking at unseen friends and another with him locking on my eyes and smiling that big smile. It was very emotional for me. He was getting tired, so I kissed him goodbye, said goodbye to the other patients, and left profoundly moved.

It’s been a week, and I can’t wait to go back. I’m wondering what could happen if Jason has this kind of input on a regular basis. I aim to find out.

You know, I sang at the Met this year—rehearsed for weeks. And I sang in a nursing home last Sunday—no rehearsal—I just walked in off the street and started to sing. The best performance was at the nursing home. It was so wonderful to feel like my voice, my training, all those years (!) really made a difference.

If my voice singing simple songs without accompaniment had this effect on Jason who is terribly ill, what do you think is happening to audiences when you sing—applause or not, whether they are willing or not, whether you cracked that high note or not?

The research shows that atoms and molecules inside their bodies could very well be forming perfect, beautiful patterns as a result of the vibrations you are setting in motion. Think about it next time you open your mouth and use that gift you have, or the next time someone thanks you but has no words to express what they heard and felt. You caused something to happen inside them they can’t even comprehend.

The voice is a powerful instrument. Ancient myths about how the voice has been used are astounding. True or not, some of what I’ve been learning about is that people believe the voice has amazing power. Here are a few examples of the lore of voice:

An ancient myth that says creation was “sung” into existence.

Another ancient myth says the stones at Stonehenge were moved into place with the voice.

Tradition says Jericho’s walls were knocked down by the voice.

Groups appear to be doing healing by encircling the ill person and singing random pitches.

Sherry Edwards has been documented as healing serious illness by singing.

Beautiful music causes water to form the most beautiful crystals [http://www. hado.net]. Interesting because the human body is largely water.

Musical tones vibrating on a diaphragm cause sand to form itself into beautiful patterns and shapes. It’s called Cymatics, the study of wave phenomena.

Legitimate scientific research is currently being done on the effects of music on the physical world, especially the human mind and body. I’ve included in this issue an article that explains some of the work that is going on in this field. (See page 56.)

Your voice is a wonderful gift. I hope you can get out there where people live, and sing. The world needs you.

Do you have an experience you’d like to share? Write to CJ at cjw@classicalsinger.com or P.O. Box 95490 South Jordan UT 84059. We love to hear from you.

Conductor Edoardo Müller

Edoardo Müller loves singers. When you are on stage, he smiles at you as if you can do no wrong-and suddenly, he’s right! Your voice floats out like never before and he beams his pleasure!

Offstage, he is even better as he coaches and gives you cadenzas and ornaments that perfectly suit your voice and temperament and tells you why your particular instrument is so unique and wonderful.

After performances, he and his wife as a team go from performer to performer congratulating them and making sure everyone feels wonderful about the night.

World-famous though Maestro Müller is, the editor of CS doubts there is a single performer the maestro has worked with who feels differently: Edoardo Müller is a singer’s best friend.

On the morning of Tuesday, April 22, 2003, Maria Nockin spoke with Maestro Edoardo Müller over coffee while they enjoyed a panoramic view of San Diego and its harbor from San Diego Opera’s beautifully furnished 18th-floor boardroom.

Maria Nockin: Maestro, how did you begin your career as a conductor?

Edoardo Müller: As sometimes happens, I was preparing an opera for a conductor who did not come, so I had the chance to perform. That happened at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 1973 with Rossini’s opera Mosé. Georges Pretre was the scheduled conductor. He first asked permission to come one week late, then he asked for two more days and then two more again. Finally he said, “I cannot come.” At that point the management had to decide whether to go on with the production or not. They gave it to me, and it was not too bad…and not too good. (He says with a chuckle).

I learned a great deal about conducting from experience, from watching what conductors were doing. I learned what to do and what not to do. I learned a lot from the bad conductors, not just from the good ones, you understand? (Maestro laughs heartily).

My philosophy is that before art in conducting or singing can take place, a lot of craft time must be put in. By that I mean practice time. You must first know the job. Only then can you fully express your feelings. I see too much of the opposite. I consider myself a different kind of conductor from many other, often very talented conductors, who immediately want to involve everybody with their ideas. They say, “This is my idea, and you have to do this.” It can be great, but it should not be the normal approach to opera. I consider opera production to be teamwork.

What do you do if you do not like what the stage director has in mind?

He also has a right to express his point of view. Sometimes you like what he has in mind and sometimes you don’t, but the first approach must never be to say “no,” because the result of that would be a disaster. If you just can’t agree, then at that point it’s better to leave or to go to the general director of the opera and say, “It’s him or me.”

I am open to change my approach. There is more than one way of doing music, but I must be convinced that the approach suggested to me has some artistic value.

I am generally happy with the productions with which I’m involved. It is a great experience to produce an opera. Sometimes it works very well chemically, and at other times it doesn’t. When one of the singers wants to be the prima donna or primo uomo, the way of working together is not that pleasant.

I also find that I cannot do the exact same thing with two different sopranos. A lot depends on the qualities of a particular voice and its weight. For this reason putting an opera together is a process, and we don’t know at the beginning exactly what the result will be.

Do great singers make great teachers?

Teachers will always tell a pupil to do what they did, because that is their way of singing. If the teacher sang well, he will tell the singer to do good things. Great singers do not always make the best teachers. Tebaldi, for example, tried to teach someone, but then she realized that she was really not able to do that and she stopped. Sometimes comprimario singers have had to conquer problems from which they learned a lot, and as a result they can be excellent teachers.

In order to learn how to sing, technically, it is not enough to get a great teacher, you must also have the right instinct. You must be eager to work hard. You must try to analyze what a given singer does in performance, and why, what he does well and what he does badly. Then you must try things for a short while to see if they work for you.

What can you tell us about working with large voices?

The technical development of a singer has to be taken very seriously. His artistic growth has to be considered as well. If you start with excellent material, a large voice of great quality, there is still no guarantee that the singer will have a great career. It is not enough to focus on just one aspect of a singer’s career. Great singers are complete artists who use their voices as part of their full talent. Their personalities must also be developed.

Working for a few years in a chorus, particularly an opera chorus, helps a lot. You can see what a professional singer does and learn from that. You don’t want to imitate that singer, but to arrive at your own interpretation of the role.

Discovering a great voice is like finding a huge, beautiful pearl. It is a blessing, but the problem is how to use it. It’s a major responsibility to nurture a great voice. There are sacrifices to be made, not just by the singer, but also by the people who have the job of seeing to it that this gifted singer becomes a great artist.

There are techniques that work for one singer and not for another. Finding a singer with a great voice is the greatest blessing you can have. It is extremely difficult, however, to work with this kind of voice without destroying it. When a voice is very big, it takes much more work to produce a finished product. It’s not that people don’t know how to do it, it’s just that it takes much more time and effort than working with a smaller voice.

It can be dangerous to ask a singer with a heavy voice to sing a light role, because instead of that voice developing properly, it may get smaller and the singer’s throat may close. A singer must always have a fully open throat that will let the voice come out in its full richness of harmonics. All the support must come from the diaphragm, the breath. The singer must ignore the fact that he possesses a throat, and that is very difficult.

A conductor usually likes a singer who obeys immediately when he says, “Here, do this little fermata, do this crescendo and do this diminuendo.” For big voices, making an extreme diminuendo is very difficult, so a musician working with a great voice must respect the nature of the singer who possesses it.

You cannot just say, “You must do this and that.” You must try to stimulate him to discover new solutions to the problems of how to sing, how to phrase and how to hit a particular note beautifully. It’s not abstract; you have to work with each singer and his way of singing.

Did you study singing yourself?

No, but I played the piano for many singing teachers when I was young and made some money that way. I heard all the lessons and learned a lot by listening to the advice given by great singing teachers to their pupils. Thus, I developed my own ideas on singing technique.

When you coach singers, you have to sing, and you have to try to see if the singer’s technique is good. I’m proud of the fact that I can give some technical advice, but I always leave the final choice to the singer. I only say, “Why don’t you try this?” or “If you do that, it may be that you will find it a little easier.”

Good Italian pronunciation helps a lot in shaping a beautiful sound. The Italian “a” and “o” are much easier to produce than a German “uh” or an American “uh.” It is fascinating work and I love doing it.

Do singers with large voices always have difficulty recording?

It is very difficult for singers with large voices to make good recordings. The recording industry adores small voices. Recording a big voice is a technical problem and, on the recording, you don’t get all the overtones that you hear in the opera house. Big voices need the open space of the theater, because there the voice goes out and comes back. With the microphone the voice only goes out.

How early should singers begin to sing heavier roles?

It is very dangerous for a young singer to assume a heavy role. For example, I would never recommend that a 24- or 25-year-old sing the role of Norma.

What do you think about Adina Aaron, a lyric soprano, having sung Aida in Busseto?

First of all, that was a very small theater, and all of the singers were more experienced than those in a Young Artists program. It was a unique experience and a big success.

I worked with the tenor Scott Piper who sang Radames in that Aida. He did Nabucco with me in Cincinnati. He has a beautiful voice, but it’s not an Aida voice. He knows it and will not repeat the role. Actually, because of the success in Busseto, they made a tour of bigger theaters, but Scott did not go. He did the TV broadcast, however.

How do you get singers to perform at their best?

Sometimes you learn what not to do. I learned that if a conductor is not good, if he gets hysterical and screams, then the singer is not comfortable and cannot breathe. Then the singer becomes nervous, so the color of his voice and his phrasing are bad. Even if you are nervous, which is often true in our profession, you have to fake it! (Maestro laughs knowingly.) Restrict your tantrums to just one per week! Then people won’t fear you but will respect you instead, and they will know that you have a personality, too. You want to show your own personality, but not too often.

Maestro, should there be an age limit for Young Artists programs?

By age 30, a singer should already be formed. After that it would be difficult to become fully professional. Singers are athletes, and after the age of 30, they no longer have much new territory to work with.

The aim of the Metropolitan’s Young Artists program is to form singers and make them ready to have first-class careers. Unfortunately, they cannot take 200 singers, so if they take someone who is 32, they have to reject one who is 22. There must be a turnover of singers. When a participant is finished and is singing well, opera companies will hire him.

I can speak of this, because for some years I was the director of the La Scala program for young artists. Their cutoff was age 35 for men and 32 for women, but it was not a program for learning how to sing. It taught Italian style and gave the singers a chance to be coached in the great Italian repertoire. Only fully formed singers were accepted, and we did not change their technique. We only worked with their style and attitudes.

The Met program is much larger, much more interesting, because the young artists participate in the life of the company. They can attend the rehearsals of other singers and conductors, and they can observe the workings of the company. The La Scala program was more restricted, but there were interesting exchange possibilities for Russian singers. La Scala sent dancers to the Bolshoi Ballet, and the Bolshoi Opera sent singers to La Scala. We had a bass, Paata Burchuladze, a tenor, Yuri Gegoriam, and a soprano, Marina Mescheriakova.

One of the most important aims of a Young Artists program is to give those young singers who are not rich enough to afford expensive lessons the chance to work with great coaches.

What are your thoughts about passing on operatic traditions?

You hear a lot of bad things about tradition and I agree with many of them, but traditions come about for some reason. The danger is in overdoing them. You must not become a routinier. Even composers at some point accept a little rallentando that is not written. There are documents which show that Verdi accepted different notes, for example, the famous high C in “Di quella pira.” He said that if the tenor had a good C he should use it. I am not a purist; I look for the emotional values in a production, and I don’t necessarily take a strict approach.

How do you contend with all the stress of your profession?

I consider meditation a great way of finding your true personality and learning what is inside of your human soul. We should all meditate sometimes; otherwise our life just passes by. Why do we live? We have much more inside of ourselves than what we use. We are much richer than we know, and each of us could really be a different kind of person.

Playing music is a kind of meditation. When you prepare a show, a production, you organize it, and you also have to do a bit of improvising that is suggested by your personality. Hopefully, you are in tune with the personality of the person singing. There is even an exchange of personalities with the orchestra. This is the ideal way of performing music, not imposing, but always suggesting and keeping track of the response. It is a two way street. That is why I usually have good relations with singers. I love singers, and they feel my attitude toward them.

Tell me about your family.

I have a wife and two grown children in their thirties. My wife, Giovanna Manetti Müeller, was a singer, a soprano, and at one time a pupil of mine. She has an extremely beautiful voice and she won many competitions, but she gave up singing professionally because it is not easy to manage two careers if you want to be a real family. In my opinion one of the careers in a two career family will always have to defer to the other.

Ricardo Tamura

Brazilian tenor, Ricardo Tamura, graduated from the University of Sao Paulo with diplomas in geology and physics and worked as a computer science teacher and chess instructor. Although he loved to sing, there was no early indication of a possible operatic career.

Endowed with a natural talent, which he first tapped in his early twenties, Ricardo Tamura abandoned his life in Brazil and traveled to New York, where he came to the attention of the masterful Licia Albanese. Mme. Albanese’s encouragement and guidance strengthened the young geologist/physicist’s then barely formulated resolve to explore his vocal possibilities.

One year at Juilliard followed by studies with Carlo Bergonzi brought Ricardo to the Zurich International Opera Studio and into the hands of agents who immediately threw him on the traditional European career-building path: the German Fest system.

I have known Ricardo since his first days in New York: an optimistic, adventurous spirit radiating a sense of wonder, joy and surprise at the sudden turn of fate from geology to opera. I have also experienced a desolate Ricardo in trans-Atlantic phone calls, as he came dangerously close to giving up singing, trapped in unfortunate situations in a German opera house.

It was a difficult journey from Sao Paolo to Osnabrück, but this “survivor” of the German Fest system has now developed into a happy, confident singer. He agreed to share his thoughts and hard-earned experience for the benefit of all singers who are considering following the path to Germany.

The Zurich Opera studio was the doorway to Europe for you. Tell me a little bit about this program.

It was mostly an audition preparation program. You had three months to prepare repertoire for auditions according to your type of voice. After those first three months of audition preparation, we auditioned for agents from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

About four agents took me; the one that worked with me the most was Inge Tennigkeit. She sent me to my first auditions in Germany, in Kassel and Lübeck. Both houses gave me an offer. In Germany, they have A, B, C, and D houses, and Kassel was an A house.

What is this rating based on?

It’s based on the size and salary of the orchestra. So, theoretically speaking, the A houses have the best orchestras, and the D houses have very bad orchestras normally.

In the A houses, you’d expect to find the best singers, in B, the second best, and so on. That’s not always the case. So since Kassel was an A house, and Lübeck was a B house, I decided to go to Kassel, as a beginner with a Fest contract.

For how many years was the contract?

It was for two years. The first two years you work in Germany, you are considered a beginner, unless you come as a guest, but you can only do that if you have a name already.

As a beginner, you don’t do much. You learn the language, you coach a lot and you do some small roles. You get paid per month.

What happened to me was that I was put to work right away, to do the main role in an operetta-Maske in Blau-in German with a lot of dialogue.

Then I had to do the Rossini Stabat Mater. My second production was Zar und Zimmerman where I had a main part again, and I was supposed to do Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni right after that. I got completely overwhelmed!

I couldn’t speak German, so I had to memorize the dialogue for the operetta, but you have to interpret, not just say the text!

So, it was a lot of work. It was all choreographed, so I had to dance, learn the music, struggle with German…just everything at once! I had never had dance lessons before, so I couldn’t handle it!

Because of that, rumors started that, “Yeah, he has a nice voice, but he cannot move onstage!” I did the operetta anyway, but because of this rumor, all the new stage directors that came already said, “You cannot move, so we have to do something else with you.” I started becoming angry about that.

I also had some problems with colleagues who were not nice to me in the beginning, and I had a coach there who didn’t like me and never really taught me any role. I was scheduled to work with him many hours, and everyone expected I would learn the parts, but he never taught me these roles musically.

But what happened during these coachings?

We repeated the same bar for the whole hour! So I had, like, 40 coachings with him, and we just did the first page of an aria! I came unprepared for the next productions.

Then the rumor was as well, “Not only can he not move, he is also not musical, because he is slow in learning his music!”

But there was nobody to help you besides that coach?

They have three other coaches, but nobody knew-including myself-that what was going on was wrong.

You thought the way he worked with you was normal?

Yeah. I thought he was really precise and wanted everything to be right, and we had plenty of time, but we really didn’t have that much time.

Why do you think he held you back? Was it that subjective?

I cannot exactly say what happened; it was probably a chemistry thing, but it never worked. When he was in a good mood, we would do two bars, but never more than two pages of any role in all the sessions I had with him.

So, there you were in the middle of Germany with no knowledge of the language, no idea of how a coach in an opera house should work with you, and creating an undeserved reputation for yourself! Tough beginning…but a good warning for other singers who follow the same path, not to get stuck like that.

Oh, yeah! And also, when you are a beginner in Germany, you have to learn-and I am still learning, although I am not a beginner anymore-to set your territory.

Once you get there, you have to make your own space. That means you cannot let people walk over you. Say you make a mistake and you apologize, and that happens several times, then at some point, you become the idiot who only makes mistakes. Other people, even when they make mistakes, always have a reason to shout back and say, “Yeah, I made a mistake, so what?” When they do that, people somehow respect them.

Then you can’t be too nice and apologetic.

Not at all! If you are nice and apologetic, people start thinking they can do anything with you because you are not going to shout back. You have to fight back! At some point, you have to learn to put your foot down and say, “No, that’s not the way it is! It is this way!”

You don’t have to be mean, but you have to be strong and say, “What is my right is my right, and I’m not going to let anybody take my rights away!” There was a colleague there who was not very nice to anybody, but when I came, new and inexperienced, I was the perfect target for him to torture.

Every time he said something bad to me, I always laughed, but I never shouted back at him. The same with some stage directors-they shouted at me, and I said, “OK, sorry, it’s my problem!” but I didn’t react. I had learned that even if it is not your fault, you just assume it is; it is a rule of good education in Brazil. But in Germany, you don’t do that!

The stage directors are also part of the theater ensemble?

Not necessarily. Some, yes, but most are guests.

And they can be so aggressive?

You have all kinds. Some are the nicest and most supportive people. I learned a lot from one stage director, and I am grateful for the work he did with me.

But you also have lunatics. Sometimes their psychological problems make them good stage directors, so you have to put up with the fact that they are not stable, but if they are not stable and they are also not good stage directors, it’s a nightmare. Then, especially, you have to fight back!

So, I actually got to the point in Kassel where I couldn’t sing anymore. It wasn’t a technical problem; I just didn’t have the nerves. I felt that every time I moved, everybody was watching me, and even if I did it right, they were going to blame me anyway. I couldn’t learn my music anymore. I was at a dead end!

How did you manage to go on?

Well, there was one person there who said, “I’ve got to work with you!” He was the first Kapellmeister, Bernhard Lang.

In Germany you have the general music director, and his assistant is the first Kapellmeister. Our general music director was never there, so the first Kapellmeister filled that position as well. I started working with Bernhard at a time when I couldn’t do anything in the theater, just very small roles, because I had been hired for two years and they had to put up with me.

Although Bernhard is a conductor, he has a lot of ideas about vocal technique, and he has worked with singers all his life. So, he did some vocal work with me and preparation of arias plus the musical preparation of the roles, which I wasn’t getting from the coach I mentioned before.

Was he charging you for this work?

No, because we had a deal. I didn’t have to pay anything until I got a good job. He does that with some people. When I start being paid more for singing, then I should give him 10 percent of the first 10 performances of each role that is really well-paid.

Moreover, he went to the office and got himself assigned to me as my coach, so most of the hours we did were through the theater. At the beginning of the second season, I was doing small roles. But gradually, I started getting more confident, and they decided to risk giving me bigger parts.

So, I did a couple of main roles again. Then, all of a sudden, I could move and I could sing, and it was a shame I had to leave, because at the end of the first year, they had decided they would not renew my contract after the second year.

The problem was that when you start as a beginner in an A house, you cannot then go directly to a better house. If I had had huge success in Kassel, and done all of the main roles, maybe someone from a bigger house would have heard me and taken me.

But the rule is, after those beginning two years, you should continue in the same level house, then later on try for a bigger house.

So, is there no rating anymore above the A houses?

No. Above are the top international houses. But you could say, there are the A, the A plus, and the A minus houses. Kassel was an A minus.

So from there, I had to go to a smaller house. And that was also what I wanted. When you go to a big house and don’t have a lot of experience, you don’t learn that much, because there are three or four people who sing exactly the same roles you sing.

So, being triple cast, you get very little rehearsal and very few performances. If you go to a smaller house, you are the only person in your Fach, so you are the lyric tenor of the house, for example. You have no double cast; you have to do all the roles, all the rehearsals, all the performances.

It’s the best school you can get, especially if you have not performed a lot in your life. So, I went to a smaller house, to Osnabrück, which was officially a B-C house. But of all the smaller houses, it has possibly the best standards; they really want to have a good quality ensemble and productions. In many C houses, they don’t care. They just want to put something onstage.

But in Osnabrück, I would say they have standards as good as or better than some A houses. I didn’t know that at first; it was an accident that I went there. I auditioned in many houses, and Osnabrück took me.

First, I went there as a guest for Butterfly, then I became part of the ensemble.

And your status changed.

Yes, because when you don’t go as a beginner, it doesn’t matter what happened to you in the past, you’re immediately seen as a professional singer.

So, you have to go through those first two years no matter what happens, and how hard they are…

Yes. That is normal for Germany.

What was the difference in treatment, when you achieved the status of “Profi,” or professional singer?

As a beginner, you are expected not to be good. As a professional, you are expected to be good, and if you are not good, if you have any problems, it’s, “What can we do to help you?” If you are a beginner, it’s more like, “Why the hell do you have these problems? You shouldn’t have problems!”

Of course, your behavior has to be different too. As a professional, you really can’t give anyone a chance to step on you; otherwise you will be treated as a beginner again! You have to say, “No, I am a professional now, and I am doing my thing, so you take care of your own things, and let me take care of mine! And if I sang the wrong note there, it was not because of me.

It was because the light wasn’t right or the costume was too tight.” Of course, you can’t do that if you keep making the same mistake; then it is obvious it’s your fault. But do not apologize if you happen to make a little mistake that you won’t make again! So, in Osnabrück I did main roles in many operas, as well as small roles. When you are Fest, you also have to do small roles, because you are the only tenor in that Fach.

What is your Fach?

Lyric to spinto. That means roles from Don Ottavio up to Tosca. But in Osnabrück I also did roles that were beyond my Fach, like Ernani, which is considered a dramatic tenor role in Germany.

They gave me the chance to do that because they thought it was a good role for me.

Are they somewhat flexible with Fachs, and cater to your individuality?

In Osnabrück, yes, as in all the good houses. But there are many houses in which you are just put in a drawer with a label and you have to do everything.

There are theaters that even do it in an evil way! They write in your contract “tenor” or “soprano,” and they don’t put down any Fach. And if you are hired as a tenor, it means every opera that has a tenor role is for you-Rossini to Wagner!

I have heard of a soprano who had to sing everything from Zerbinetta to Butterfly in one season, because it says in the contract that she is a soprano.

What a dangerous trap! Then you’d better examine these contracts very carefully.

You have to have a good agent. If you don’t have one, there is always in the theater one singer or actor who represents the union, and he can help you not only read the contract but find the tricks written there. It is a very tricky situation; there are many sentences you read and think, “Well, there’s no problem there,” and it turns out, that in a particular situation that can be a very strong weapon against you.

Don’t get enthusiastic, don’t sign; get someone to help you read it!

But why would the theaters do that? Is it not in their best interest as sellers of art, that this art is high quality, and therefore that you sing your best in the roles most suitable for you? Why would a theater make you sing Tosca if you are a coloratura?

There are two problems. One problem is that there are many houses in Germany that don’t have enough money.

So, if they have to do a production, it doesn’t matter how the production comes out. They cannot do any better, because they cannot afford to hire different people, and they have to deal with what they have. So, “It’s your problem how you are going to sing that, but you are in, because we are doing that production, and we don’t have anybody else!”

The other problem is that in many cases the production decisions are controlled by the stage directors. It doesn’t matter for most of them what singers they have. It’s just, “I want to stage Otello next season. If we have the singers or not, it’s not my problem! We have a tenor, a soprano, a baritone, so we can do it!”

So, it’s between the Intendant who wants to stage certain operas, the Operndirektor who is also a stage director and wants to stage other operas, and the guest directors for the operas the audience wants to see. Sometimes the GMD [general music director] wants to conduct his preferred operas. So, they put all of these in a season.

If they don’t have the singers, they just get a guest. But it might turn out later that there is nobody to guest, so they either have to drop the project or force the house singers to do it anyway.

If your Fach is specified in the contract, you can turn down a part that is not in that Fach, but if it is not specified, they might force you to do it.

What if you refuse?

You can get fired, because you are breaking your contract. It’s not that they do it on purpose; it is mostly money related. There are many situations.

Sometimes they already have a guest who is a friend of the house and will do it for less money. But if that guest cancels, to get a new guest would be more expensive, so they get the person in the house who doesn’t have a specified Fach.

But in houses like Osnabrück this doesn’t happen a lot. That is why I stayed there for so long, because I like the way they work. But I have heard many nightmare stories from other colleagues, just because they didn’t watch what was put down in their contracts.

So the houses don’t have every Fach filled?

They normally don’t. Not even the big houses. For example, a coloratura soprano is a Fach that doesn’t appear in most operas. You can do a whole season without needing a coloratura; that’s why in most cases coloraturas are guests, and there are very few houses that have a Fest coloratura.

Every opera house has to do two or three German operas, one Verdi or Puccini, sometimes a Wagner opera, as well as a modern piece.

Who dictates what repertoire they have to do?

Well, they have to keep a certain balance to serve all the tastes. That’s why it is harder for coloraturas to be Fest. But they can make a living just singing Queen of the Night in all of the houses, because they do Zauberflote everywhere. Same thing with basses.

I actually heard that basses are badly needed.

They are. You have three different Fachs there: the high basses-let’s say, the Mozart bass-baritone-the low basses, and the comic basses-the buffos. But in the small houses, you are never going to find all three.

They have one, maybe two, and one of them covers the third Fach. There are some bass-baritones who can do buffo parts; if not, they get a guest. Then they have a light and a heavy mezzo.

They have a light, a heavy and a buffo tenor, and two baritones-lighter and heavier. In the soprano category, they have a bunch of them, for all possible Fachs, except coloratura. The lightest is called a soubrette.

Would the soubrette Fach cover coloratura as well?

Sometimes. If you have a soubrette who sings coloratura, it’s great! But most of them can’t sing coloratura. The soubrette appears very often in German operas before Wagner. They always have stuff to do-that is why there are always Fest soubrettes. Then they have a lyric soprano who can do Mozart as well as some Italian operas.

Like Bohéme?

Well, Mimi is considered a little heavier than a lyric. The whole concept of Fachs in Germany is a bit different from Italy and America. They have a book called Kloiber Handbuch der Oper. It’s an opera guide like any other, but Kloiber writes for each opera what Fach should sing each role.

This book was adopted as the Bible in Germany. That means what is in the book is the law. It can be problematic. In Italy, for example, in the tenor Fach, you have the leggiero, the lyric, the spinto, and the dramatic-you could even add the Heldentenor. But Kloiber divided the tenors into lyric, jugendlich [youthful] Heldentenor, and Heldentenor.

So, because you have only these three categories, that means a lyric tenor in Germany has to go from the leggiero-which includes coloratura-up to Butterfly and Bohème.

So, when I was a lyric tenor, I was supposed to do coloratura roles as well-that’s why I also had some problems in Kassel. I was never a leggiero; I am a lyric, but according to Kloiber, if I am a lyric I have to sing Almaviva in Barbiere and other Rossini parts.

They tend to follow that guide blindly?

Yes. In my case, I have arranged to change. They do that sometimes; you can create a new word-and get them to write that in your contract-that describes your Fach.

A sort of sub-Fach?

Right. In my new contract I have something like “Italian spinto.” This is not in the Kloiber guide, so they cannot force me to do anything because there is no definition of “spinto” there.

So you can beat them at their own game. If they can trick you by writing just “tenor” in your contract, you can trick them right back with undefined terminology!

Yes! You have to, to protect yourself! So, this new Fach would mean I can sing roles belonging to the spinto Fach in Italy, like Cavaradossi, Andrea Chenier, Ernani, Turiddu, Hoffmann-well, Hoffmann is more spinto dramatic, but I’ve done it before.

According to Kloiber, the Heldentenor sings all the Wagner roles, some other German operas, and the really heavy Italian stuff like Otello, Calaf, and Radames-although Radames I wouldn’t consider a Heldentenor. The Fach I did in Osnabrück more or less was the jugendliche Heldentenor-from Bohéme to Andrea Chenier-although the contract was for lyric. The Kloiber guide was out of print for many years; now it has come back out again. Any singer who wants to come to Germany should take a look at this book.

[Editor’s note: CS has ordered a copy of the book from Germany and hopes to be able to offer it to singers in North America soon.]

So, for example, if you are a lyric soprano and audition in Germany, don’t do an aria that you think is for you, if it is not referred to in the Kloiber as a lyric soprano aria. If they want to, they can create problems for you if you don’t stick to one Fach.

They don’t like to have people do more Fachs, at least in the beginning. (When you are famous you can do whatever you want!) You might think that singers covering more than one Fach is a good thing for the theaters; some theaters even like that!

But most directors think that if you are doing two Fachs, you don’t do any one of them well.

When you audition as a beginner, does it count if you list roles you’ve simply studied?

No. Of course, if you have a good résumé, that’s better, but it’s actually not that important. And it’s not good to lie!

Many people like to show off. They are not going to believe that if you have done so many big parts, you are now auditioning to be a beginner in Germany. Even if you have a résumé that doesn’t show much, the audition is the most important.

What counts most is when you walk on the stage, when you introduce yourself, and the first three bars, unless they wait for a high C or something.

But they don’t stop you after the first three bars…

No, but they have already made up their minds. That’s why the arias that have a long introduction are not advisable. Or an aria like “Che gelida manina,” for example, where the first bars are not that interesting, so they need to wait for the high C. The problem is that once they get bored, they don’t hear you anymore.

Your image plays a huge role as well.

Image is very important, which doesn’t mean that you should dress up. You cannot give the impression that you desperately need the job. For example, I started doing auditions in a suit with a tie, like a schoolboy!

They looked at me and said, “Yeah, he’s a good boy, but that’s not what we need. We need an animal!” Normally, the spinto tenor roles are very passionate. So they want to see the lover in you! You have to show the animal, you know, chest hair, and open shirt…just kidding, maybe not that extreme, but along those lines. I’ve seen some baritones audition in T-shirts and jeans, and Wagnerian tenors in leather!

Of course, everyone has to dress as they like, and it should be comfortable, and not look like you are begging for the job, or dressed especially for that occasion. You are there, and if they don’t hire you, that’s their problem. You have to be-what’s the word?

Cool.

Right! You dress like you normally would, maybe a little finer. I see a lot of sopranos come in evening gowns with the make-up and the hair.

The Intendant and opera director are sitting there in jeans and T-shirt, thinking, “What is she going to look like as Georgetta in Il Tabarro?” for example. It’s just like being a model. They are going to pick you as a top model if they can change your look in any way they want.

So, as a singer, if you come natural, and they can see everything they can do with you, the chances are better they will take you than if you already present an image.

There are some people who have a way of walking on the stage so the directors think, “He is going to play verismo-I need somebody who walks like a peasant!”

So acting during your audition is not recommended?

Well, everything I am telling you is not universal. There are some stage directors who appreciate it when you move, and for some Fachs it is even desired.

A buffo tenor has to show he can move without being a clown, because in every opera he’ll be doing, he’ll be dancing and jumping. But in most auditions, for most types of voices, you should not move or act. Just stand and feel everything that you sing; they should see in your face that you experience what you are saying.

In Germany, whenever they do a new production, it is usually what they call a modern staging, not a traditional staging with old costumes and old movements. So, you can do La Traviata in jeans, and you are not going to be a courtesan, but a biker or a mermaid. If in the audition you show that you can only do Violetta as a courtesan, they will think, “But our production is not like that, so I am going to have a lot of work changing her image, so I don’t want her.”

Then you have to get rid of set gestures or movements and be sort of tabula rasa, so the directors can then draw their own concept on your slate, so to speak?

Yes. You just have to be you, so they can see if they could imagine you doing that part.

You mean, their vision of that part.

Yes. I’ve seen people used to singing an aria sitting on a chair, so when they go to an audition, they ask for a chair. So, the stage director thinks, “But in our production, he is not going to be sitting on a chair, he’s going to be hanging from the ceiling, and if he can only sing that aria sitting, I don’t want him!”

Mark Belfort always said: “When you sing, if you have an urge to do a movement or a gesture that it comes from inside of you, and you are going to die if you don’t do it, then you do it. But never do a movement because you think it is right, or someone has told you to.”

Who listens to these auditions in the theaters?

It’s different. Normally, the Intendant, the GMD [general music director], the Operndirektor, and the stage director who is going to do the production.

What is the difference between the Intendant and the Operndirektor?

Every opera house in Germany has three departments: opera, theater and ballet. That is called a drei Sparten Haus.

The Intendant is the boss of all departments. Below him, you have a director for each department, so the singers’ direct boss is the Operndirektor. Parallel to him is also the GMD, who is a conductor.

In some theaters, the GMD has the same status as the Operndirektor; in others, he is above and can have almost the same status as the Intendant. If the GMD has the power to make the decisions in a particular house, they are going to listen to your voice and your musicality, and not care so much about your looks.

But in general, the Operndirektor makes the decisions, and in most cases, he is a stage director, so he is going to base his decisions on your looks. Of course he will hear if you are really bad. But if you look good, and are not extremely bad, he will take you. This then becomes a problem, because if he has an image of the person he wants, that means everybody else who walks in and doesn’t fit that image is already out.

But what about the Intendant and the GMD? Can’t they overrule decisions?

Yes, they can. If they like someone very much, they can persuade the Operndirektor maybe to try them out for one year. But the Intendant is also a stage director, normally, so he has the same views as the Operndirektor in most cases.

Then it is up to the GMD, who can veto decisions. If the GMD says “no,” then most of the time the person will not be taken. But if he says “yes,” then it is between the Operndirektor and the Intendant.

Do they make decisions based on age?

Well, of course they prefer younger people, because they are less experienced, they require less money, and they are easier to persuade to do things they don’t want to do. Older people are harder to bend.

When you say “older,” what age are you referring to?

In Germany, it is very hard to find singers below 25. So, 25 to 30 would be young, 30 to 35, even 37 would be medium young to mature, after 37, it’s already older. Over 45 is old.

Would they hire somebody over forty?

Yes. If they are good enough, even at fifty they can be taken. But unfortunately that mostly applies to basses.

I would think the agents would be the first problem for mature singers.

Many agents don’t want to work with older inexperienced singers because they need to know that these singers will be engaged so they can make money.

It costs the agents money to represent someone, so they like to feel they have a guarantee that the singer can be hired.

So, the solution for a mature singer with little experience would be to audition at the opera houses on his/her own.

Yes. The problem is that you never know who is looking for what; the agents have control of that. Unless you have some money put aside and you just go and audition in as many theaters as you can.

What about being overweight; does that play a huge part in auditioning?

If you are overweight and can move, it’s OK, but if being overweight causes you problems moving, you are going to have a hard time, because most of the productions in Germany have a lot of movement. The stage directors will want you to jump or do other things. But there are exceptions.

In Osnabrück, we have had people who are overweight because our Operndirektor does not have a problem with that. But it will be tougher with the agents because they know what most directors are looking for. The rule is, if you are extremely good, it doesn’t matter what you look like, you will be taken.

If you are good, but the agents don’t want you because you are overweight or mature, the best thing to do is to try the opera houses directly, and keep auditioning until someone takes you. There is always going to be some opera house among the hundred-something theaters in Germany looking for your type.

You can call the theaters directly and send your materials. Some theaters prefer you to have an agent, but most are open to direct contact.

What is the normal percentage that you pay the agent once he gets you a contract?

Well, first of all you have to know that no agent in Germany is going to ask you for money or an exclusive contract in the beginning. They might ask you to sign a paper where you agree to give them a percentage when they get you a job. If you get a Fest contract, the agent gets 10 percent of your salary for the first one or two years.

If the theater renews your contract after that, then the agent doesn’t get paid anything. I stayed over that period of time in Osnabrück, so I don’t have to pay my agent anymore. He would have to move you to another theater to get more money. Of course, the agents will also watch how you are doing, and if it is not going well, they are going to try to push you somewhere else. If they get you a guest job, they take about 12 to 15 percent from your guest contract pay…it varies.

Sometimes the theaters pay for your hotel and trip, but you have to have that in your guest contract, otherwise you will have to cover the travel costs yourself. What happens sometimes is that they pay for a certain hotel which might be very bad, so if you go to a better one, you pay the difference.

Is it true that as a guest you get paid in one or two evenings what you would normally make in a month as Fest?

Yeah. As a Fest you get paid every month plus vacation-13 months in a year.

Thirteen months?

Every theater closes for about 45 days in the year. So during that time, you get two salaries: the normal monthly salary and another extra holiday salary, so technically you get 13 salaries in a year.

Now they have changed that; you get two-thirds of your extra salary for vacation and one-third at Christmas. You get medical insurance, paid partially by you, partially by the theater, retirement funds, as well as other insurances you share half and half with the theater.

So, when you have a Fest contract, you don’t make too much money, but you don’t have anything to worry about.

What would be the average monthly salary for a beginner?

According to the law, the least you could get as a beginner used to be 2,400 marks; that’s about 1,200 dollars per month. But since the Euro came, things have changed, and I think it went up a little bit.

Can you get by in Germany on $1,200 a month?

Well… When you get the minimum wage, taxes are smaller. But if you get a little bit over that and you are single, after all the insurances and retirement costs are deducted plus the taxes, you are left with half of your income.

So that means if you are making $1,500 a month, you are going to get $750 at the end of the month. And you have to pay your rent, transportation, food, clothes. It is very little money.

Everybody who goes to Germany has to take that into consideration. You have to have some money saved.

I would also imagine it is hard for a beginner to get a guest contract right away.

Right. A beginner can count on a guest contract only if it is in a very small theater or if they have done a certain role many times.

Nobody is going to hire you as a guest for a role you have never done in your life, unless you have already been singing in Germany for a while, and they have heard you and really want you. The exceptions are, in most cases, singers who come from the States and have a great agent there, so they come directly as a guest in a big house, although they have no experience. Sometimes that can be overwhelming-but once you do a guest production in a big house, then you can be a guest in any other big house.

However, most beginners start with a Fest contract…Now, if you are married and your spouse is with you and doesn’t work, then you get about 65 percent of your income after taxes. But if your spouse stays in America, it doesn’t matter if they work or not, you are considered single in Germany so you pay the higher taxes.

If your spouse is with you and works, then one of you pays less taxes and the other much more than if he/she were single. If you don’t have a Fest job, and you work as a guest, then you are going to be taxed normally, as single or married.

But if you already have a Fest job and you get a second job as a guest, when they deduct the taxes, you will be left with about a third of what the guest contract promised you. So, it is true that as a guest, you are offered for a performance what you would normally get in a month as Fest. But from that you lose two-thirds to taxes-either they deduct it immediately or you pay at the end of the year.

So, that’s why you are paid so much! It doesn’t matter if you are married or not. If you have two jobs, the first job is taxed normally, and the second job falls into the worst tax category! So you have to be a really well-paid guest to make money. Or, just guest!

But the only possibility for that to be profitable is, in most cases, to spend a number of years as Fest, to get well known so that more and more theaters call you for guest jobs, then after five, six years, you could go off as a freelancer.

So, those initial two years would not be enough?

I would not risk going completely freelance after only two years, because that can go well for a while, but you never know. You have to give yourself a number of years as Fest to make contacts and guest all over Germany.

Please don’t quit your Fest job too soon to become a freelancer, because you’re going to starve! And this is very important too, unless you are really well-known-when you are a freelancer, you will not be listed in the book of singers from Germany.

They have a book with the names of all the singers who are working, so if you are not there, how are people going to call you?

I suppose, also, you can’t get too enthusiastic if one month you get a lot of calls.

Right. That happened to a lot of people I know. They started getting a lot of calls to guest while they were still fresh in their Fest job, and they quit. In a year, they made a lot of money, but that was it. Then there were no more calls, or not enough.

Does your income increase with your years at the theater?

The first contract you get at an opera house, whether as a beginner or not, is going to be limited for a certain number of years.

So, in those years-usually two-the contract says how much you are going to make. My first contract didn’t have the amount written for the second year. That’s a mistake, because then they can pay you less in the second year. According to the law, it has to say how much you will make each year, and normally it is already a couple of Euros more for the second year.

Then, the theater has up to October from the previous season to fire you. So, if I have a contract that goes to 2004, if the theater hasn’t fired me by October 31, 2003, my contract extends automatically for another year. So, in 2004 to 2005, the income I will receive will be the same as the last year of my contract. And so on.

When you are there a certain number of years, your salary goes up a certain percent. If you move to another theater, you keep the income from the last year of your contract at the previous theater, and you have to negotiate with the new theater to get more.

Let’s talk about these modern stagings. How difficult is it to deal with them?

Very. The less you know about the opera you are doing, the easier it is. But if you are somebody like me, who really cares about the background of the opera and what you are saying, and why the composers wrote it that way, then you get angry most of the time. There are many stage directors who do modern productions totally different from the libretto, but they still make sense and are very logical. It is still very hard to work with that, because you expect La Bohème to happen in Paris with a girl who has tuberculosis and a guy who doesn’t have a job, right?

But when they do a production where suddenly you are an astronaut and Mimi comes from another planet, or if it is wartime and you are some SS officer and Mimi is a war prisoner, how do you deal with that? Most of the time it is a logical new take on the libretto, but there are always those productions where the director doesn’t really care if [his concept] fits the libretto. So, you have to play dumb and work exactly with what is in front of you-unfortunately. That is the only disadvantage of working in Germany.

There are many stage directors who are just beginning to stage operas, and they don’t really understand what the spirit of a modern production is, so they might ask you to do something totally inappropriate to the story.

Do the stage directors explain their concepts to the singers?

The ones who know why they are doing that production are going to tell you their reasons. But if somebody doesn’t have a reason at all, but just wants it like that, they won’t explain. Then you have to find a reason for yourself so you can decide how you are going to act.

For example, if the director sets Bohème as a TV show where all the characters live together and know each other, that doesn’t make sense. You know at the start of the opera that Rodolfo doesn’t know Mimi, so how would you play that? They give you some stupid reason, that you are drunk or on drugs, or something, and that’s why you act as if you just met Mimi. But try to sing your text and give some emotion to it and act as if you are drunk!

What does the audience think?

The audience normally doesn’t like that. Normally, they love the traditional productions, or at least those productions where nothing extreme happens. But then there is a group of audience members who classify themselves as “intellectual” and want to see something modern.

However, it has to make sense. But because in Germany the state finances art and culture, then you can do with art and culture whatever you want. The more extreme you get, the more art you are doing! A traditional thing is considered kitsch; it’s not art because it’s old-fashioned!

If you do a Wagner opera following the pages of descriptions and indications he wrote, that’s not art! To make it art, they have to modernize it and give it their own interpretation. If it is a good interpretation, the audience might like it, and the singers might have fun doing it. But if it’s a bad one, it’s your problem as a singer-you have to do it.

Is it true that a lot of directors come mostly from theater, and they don’t have an understanding of vocal production?

Yeah. Most stage directors come from theater, but normally, they are not beginners. They already have experience with what the singers need. It might happen that you get somebody who is doing his first opera.

But unless he is a real jerk, he will ask for your help. If you say you cannot do it, he will usually understand and try something else. This problem of understanding the singer is also true in the sense that directors don’t want to make the singer the star of the show.

It is very rare that a director will put the singer downstage center and let him/her sing from there. Usually, whenever a singer has to sing an aria, he is all the way in the back. It can get physical too; you have to jump or dance or move. Or they do stupid things-they don’t make you move, but all the time while you are standing there singing, there’s some clown doing crazy things on the stage.

That must be annoying.

It’s very annoying, but it happens sometimes. But no stage director is going to force you to sing to the back, or in a position in which you cannot sing. It is not going to be a problem that will damage your voice. As a singer in Germany you have the right to protect your voice and your body. You might have a problem with heights, for example, and then you can refuse to sing five meters high.

Tell me about the rehearsal process-the day-to-day work as a Fest singer.

Working in a small house in Germany is very hard, but it is a good school. Before coming here, I had a lot of problems with things I could not eat before a performance, and the care I had to take three days before.

Once I arrived here, I had to get rid of all of that. When you are the only singer for your Fach, you have to do all the big and small roles for that Fach. In a season, the small houses usually do about eight new productions, so you might be in about five or six of them.

At the end of a season, you start rehearsing musically for the first role you’ll perform in the next season, after the summer break. If you are new in the theater, you are responsible for already knowing that role when you come. The first six weeks of the season, the theater is closed and you rehearse the staging of the first production. They want the production to develop as you work, so they try different things and repeat a lot-that’s why they need six weeks.

So you are part of the production from the onset?

Right. Sometimes what comes out is different from what the director started out with. In the big houses, you work six hours a day for those six weeks. That means from 10 to 1, and from 6 to 9 in the evening.

In the small houses, where you are a single cast, you rehearse eight hours a day, during the day from 10 to 2, and from 6 to 10 in the evening. In the four-hour break, you have to do your banking, shopping, eating, resting, and everything. So, you eat whatever is available, because you have to fit everything in. Then you get over the notion that you cannot eat or drink this or that.

Self-imposed restrictions?

Oh, yeah. You don’t have time for them. You have to learn to sleep immediately when you lie down, especially before a performance, because on a performance day, you have rehearsal until 1 or 2. It’s not like, “Oh, I have a Don Carlo in three days, so I need to rest.” No way!

You will be rehearsing up to and including the performance day. And during the stage rehearsals for that first production, whenever you have free time, you get musical calls to prepare the music for the second production. Then, once the first production has the premiere and the performances start, you also begin the stage rehearsals for the second production, and again, whenever you have a moment, the musical rehearsals for the third production, and so on.

You are constantly busy.

Yes. Especially those Fachs that exist in every opera, like a soubrette or a buffo tenor- they have to be in every production.

So, it’s normal for a buffo tenor to have up to a hundred and twenty performances a year! There are three hundred and twenty days in a season altogether, so that means practically a performance every three days, and eight-hour stage rehearsals and musical calls in between.

When do you take a break?

In the summer and on Dec. 24. On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day you usually have to perform, in La Bohéme or a New Year’s concert. The summer breaks change sometimes. This season is four weeks longer than last, and everyone is already dying in the house; we cannot keep going anymore! But that’s when you push your limits, and you lose all restrictions such as, “Oh, I cannot sing because I need my rest and my special diet.”

Oh, please! When you are in a situation like that where you have performed the whole year, you have four weeks longer to go than normal, and still many performances, you manage to do it. Or you don’t. If you don’t, at least you know that you are not fit for this business.

That is why I like the system in Germany, because it tests you. Either you die-but you die soon enough to realize that you are not made for this type of work-or you survive. And if you survive, you know you can do whatever you want. You can sing Monday in Sydney and Tuesday in New York, because nothing can disturb you anymore.

What are your plans now?

Well, I’m going into my sixth year in Osnabrück. I’ve been doing more and more guesting. Last year I did a whole production in Düsseldorf, which is one of the big houses.

So, you weren’t “guesting” just for one performance, but for a whole production?

Yes, that can happen too. It was a Wiederaufnahme-a revival of an old production-so I rehearsed with them for two weeks. Once you start guesting in the bigger houses, you start getting more possibilities.

My career is now at a point where I could probably survive from guesting. But because I like Osnabrück so much, I am staying longer as a Fest. I have a new contract now, with reduced activity and many opportunities to guest. I had actually quit for next season to be a freelancer, but then I got a bit scared, and Osnabrück made me a good offer to stay. But I hope that in a year or two at most; I will become a freelancer or get a Fest contract in a really big opera house where they have five tenors that do my Fach.

Then, when you get a contract for only 20 performances a year, it is great to be Fest! You have your monthly income and financial security, but you have more time to guest or simply to enjoy life!

The Vocal Wobble

I am writing to ask about my vibrato and how it is visibly apparent when I sing. I can clearly notice a pulsation underneath my chin when I sing, even to the length and pulse of any trills I do. It is also noticeable to my audience if they are close enough. It worries me, because I do know that excess tension can develop in the sublingual region if one does not use proper breath support (but I believe I do). I am 40 years old and teach voice also, and I have noticed this phenomenon with a few of my older singers – maybe this has something to do with decreased elasticity as you grow older? -Anonymous via e-mail

What is vibrato?

The acceptable vibrato, the factor that is heard as the ring and spin of the tone, is the result of the breath energy, the vibrator (vocal cords) and the resonance system all working together synergistically.

When does simple vibrato cross the line into a wide vibrato or wobble? Has anyone measured the speed or the “width” of a good vibrato?

Much research has been done on this factor. Richard Miller’s book The Structure of Singing addresses this subject in great detail. It is measurable on a spectrograph analysis. There is a measurable difference in the rates of various vibratos: i.e. slow, fast, wide, uneven, inconsistent, etc.

What are some early warning signs that a voice is headed for future wobble trouble?

The visible pulsation of the mylo-hyoid muscle (the muscle under the chin) is most often a result of root-of-the-tongue tension or sublingual tension. If you put your thumb under your chin and you can feel movement and tension in the mylo-hyoid muscle, that same pulsation will be evident in the tone – the physical touch will help you to be physiologically aware of the vibrato rate.

What is the real underlying cause for the wobble?

I don’t think the basic cause of the tension has as much to do with the cords not approximating correctly as the breath not being used properly. I like to picture a ping-pong ball spinning on a column of air. I once saw a vacuum set up so that the air was blowing out through the tube, with a little ping-pong ball spinning on top of the air. Since the air kept an even, consistent flow, the ball could spin all day long. Vocal tone is much the same, although it needs to be replenished with a fresh supply of air. If the pressure becomes forced, the tone is pushed off the column of air. If the air supply doesn’t have enough energy, the tone “falls down.”

Are there wobbles that cannot be fixed?

That would depend on the cause of the problem. Sometimes there are neurological factors involved. If the cause is simply misuse, it most often can be corrected if the singer is diligent. The muscles need to be retrained, and this takes time and effort.

Is there a difference between men and women with this problem?

Women seem to have this problem more than men. There is often a hormonal factor with women, particularly as the body ages and muscle tone is not what it was at a younger age.

How can singers avoid the problem?

Singers need to develop a reliable technique from the very beginning, which involves singing “on the breath” instead of “with the breath.” Another problem is singing the wrong repertoire, especially at an early age. The proper tessitura must be chosen carefully. Songs and arias that stay consistently over the second passaggio often cause muscular tension that tires the vocal mechanism.

Singing too heavily and carrying the heavy mechanism (thyro/arytenoid) process up through the mixed tone area will also cause the problem.

Some singers have not been judicious in their choices of teachers and/or coaches, and so they aren’t getting accurate feedback about their voices. How can singers, especially young singers, tell if they are getting the right training?

Listen to as many of the teachers’ students as possible. Some studios turn out singers that all sound the same. Instead, each voice should be as individual to that singer as their thumbprint.

What are the most common problems you see when working with singers with a wobbly vibrato? What do they tend to have in common?

Tight muscles in the tongue, tension in the mylo-hyoid, inflexibility in the neck, inability to move the head freely while singing. Jaw tension. Improper use of the breath.

What are other modalities singers can use to help speed up their progress in overcoming this technical problem?

I work with Anna Cagle, a wonderful speech therapist who understands singers’ needs. I also base much of my work on the Alexander Technique, which is valuable in learning to release muscular tension.

What are the most common mistakes singers make while they are working to overcome this problem?

Many singers with wobbles need to learn to stop forcing the tone. They need to learn to sing more freely and with better breath energy. Universally we hear teachers say, “Don’t make yourself sing, let yourself sing.” Many singers try too hard to “make it happen” instead of “letting it happen.”

What are some other recommendations you make to singers who are working on this situation?

Find an excellent teacher to guide you!

What are some of the exercises you use in your studio?

So much depends on the singer’s need and present technique. I start by having the singer relate the speaking voice to the singing voice. I most often start with a hum speaking it as if agreeing with something. Then I go to a descending spoken hmmm, then singing a descending five-tone scale on a singing hum. Next I have them add an /a/ vowel after the hum. I then have them speak /a/a/a/ with the thumb under the chin to make sure the mylo-hyoid is not tensing. After the spoken /a/ sing on one note /a/a/a/ sustaining the last note. Then speak ka/ka/ka/ka/ka. Be sure there is no jaw movement; only the tongue and velum are involved in pronouncing the /ka/. This gets the tongue working freely. I often check to see if the neck is free by moving the student’s head from side to side. With the index and third finger on the chin, gently remind the jaw to drop slightly back, (not down) sing /ka/ ka/ka/ka/ka/ on a descending five note scale. This is a vast subject, and each singerÕs needs are different. These are just a few of the vocalizes that seem to help the most.

Sometimes I may put my thumb under the chin and tell the singer to put the tip of the tongue on the upper lip and sing the exercise again. After several rounds of these five-note scales the tongue is more willing (or understands better) to release the root of tongue tension.

Another helpful vocalize is to put your index finger and thumb on each side of the thyroid cartilage (very gently please), then inhale on an imploded /k/, and feel how the larynx releases the tension and goes into a more lowered, balanced posture. Using a diminished 5th interval, speak (glide) on an /a/vowel keeping the separation between the thyoid bone and thyroid cartilage. Allow the larynx to stay free, open and balanced. Do not hold the larynx down either with the fingers or the muscles of the vocal mechanism, just allow it to stay in the posture of inhalation. When the tension releases and you feel only a vibration on the glide, not a jiggle or a wiggle, sing a 5-tone scale on /a/. Be sure to keep the compressed and energized breath flow at all times. It will take a bit of time to erase the old muscle memory, but in time this should help release the visible and audible pulsation and allow the tone to be more pure and vibrant.

I like to use the vocal fry looping with the breath up to a G5 (middle C is C4), and then down five notes on an /a/. The vocal fry tone doesn’t change pitch (it should be spoken at your optimal pitch level). Ascend by half steps. This helps to start the tone on the breath.

Have you heard of some ways of trying to fix the wobble that make it worse?

Trying to straighten the tone by stiffening the tongue to stop the shaking, or by tightening the throat muscles. This is what happens when choral directors ask for a straight tone. Straight-tone singing removes the vibrancy and warmth from the tone. Granted, we don’t want different rates of vibrato in choral singing, but pure tone is the result of the freedom of the vocal mechanism and the use of energized breath.

What are some of the phrases you like to use to help your students get the idea?

Let the tongue lie lazy in the cradle of the mouth. Think of the tongue falling forward from the back, not from the tip.

I’ve noticed that you spend a lot of time encouraging the singers, praising them, and asking them how each exercise feels.

It is important for singers to sing by what they feel rather than what they hear. Singers have different degrees of kinesthetic awareness, but they must learn to be more discerning in the sensations of resonation, vibration, tension, freedom and openness.

If a singer is 50 years old with a bad wobble, how can she or he know whether it is worth the time, money and frustration to fix it? How long should it take? Should the student see a doctor?

Again, this is an individual thing. It depends on the cause of the problem. Is it neurological, technical or physical? I most often send the student to an ENT with whom the speech therapist and I work. He sends me an evaluation, a recommendation and a copy of the scope. The singer also works with the speech therapist, and they send the singer back to me for therapy. Their combined evaluation helps me to know how to proceed. I try to help the student understand that the vocalizes are simply calisthenics we use to retrain the muscles to do their job correctly. Muscles have memories, so we must help them forget the old habits and replace them with the new. This approach seems to help the singers be patient.

Betty Jeanne Chipman was an Adjunct Professor of Music at the University of Utah for 30 years. Her students have sung at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera and with many regional opera companies and symphonies. Her students have won the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera Auditions, and four have been chosen to participate in the Merola program. Students have also been winners at state, regional and district levels of the NATSAA, the Federation of Music and MTNA. She is a charter member and past president of the Utah Chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, where she also served as Utah governor. She has been a guest presenter, clinician and adjudicator for many music clinics, workshops and conventions. She now teaches privately but is not accepting new students

Do you have a question about vocal technique? We’ll get the answer for you.

A Conversation with Mignon Dunn

I’ve known Mignon Dunn for so many years; she’s been a great influence in my musical world from the time I began to study with any seriousness. When I asked her to be interviewed I knew that we had to do something out of the ordinary. We sorted out a live question and answer session with some of the young artists attending the International Institute of Vocal Arts in Chiari, Italy, where Mignon teaches. I was, myself, a graduate of the program and remembered that mine was one of those young, eager faces in the session not too many years before. The questions asked and advice she gave was not unlike my own conversations with her a few years back.

Her advice was as timely then as it is now. How come I forgot a lot of those maxims? As the session got going I was happy to know that I was getting it down on paper for posterity. This is part one of two…

Mary Lutz from McLean, VA: What factors are important about the next step to be taken after college?

Mignon Dunn: I think you have to go for the competitions and apprentice programs. Not just because I’m here [in Chiari] but I think you have to go for programs like this. This is a wonderful stepping stone from school to the next place. You are all people at different levels of progress. Some of you are really professional, some “perched,” meaning ready to go sing, and others who are kind of beginners. Sometimes people come to these programs and find out “Hey, it’s not for me,” which makes perfect sense too. But you need some kind of program like this – some people are lucky enough to go into an apprenticeship program immediately, but that is not always the case.

Contests are important – it’s lovely if you win – but the main thing is that you are heard by many people and you can start your networking. You might get hired even if you don’t win the contest. Then you have to go look the apprentice programs over. But don’t just be so flattered that you are chosen for an apprentice program that you take just anything. Look at it rather carefully because you want to be sure that there is somebody that you can work with around there. If you are happy with the teacher that you are working with, stay with them, for heaven’s sakes! That is really the most important thing. Get your voice in as good shape as you can. Learn your music. Learn how to learn; don’t learn at things. Learn it very carefully and exactly.

And don’t go and audition for something just because you think it’s good for you… go for it! Make sure you are singing well and don’t sing if you are not feeling well or doing well. It’s better to shut your mouth and wait.

Albert Lee from New York, NY: What is the key to vocal longevity?

MD: You’ve got to find a way to live in what you do. When I was young, because I had a very easy top, everyone said, “Oh you’re a soprano.” That happens to a lot of young singers. If there is a light baritone they think he’s a tenor. It’s not always so. I’ve been talked into things. You do it and you don’t do it too well. It also hurts you down the road because they are not going to hire you for something else. It doesn’t the following season but it hurts you a few years later. Be true to your own voice. I used to get offered Lady Macbeth and the Marschallin every year and I would turn them down every year because they didn’t suit me and didn’t feel good. You have to sing where you are comfortable. I don’t mean that you don’t take chances. You have to. But if you go for something and it doesn’t work, don’t do it.

Maria Zouves: When you turned down the roles you were offered, how did you do it?

MD: I said I’m sorry I can’t do it.

MZ: And they understood?

MD: I don’t care (laughter from singers). You know those lovely four simple words, “I’m sorry I can’t.” You can be nice about it. You just say, “Look, this is really not for me. I’ve really worked on it….” Don’t ever turn it down until you’ve worked on it and decided it doesn’t work. Honesty is really the best.

Maurizio Trejo O’Reilly of New York, NY: Within your career what was most magical moment?

MD: I can’t do one. There are many moments, like when you sing something really well. Maybe you’re happy with something you sing two times out of twelve, if you’re really lucky. My husband would come save me in the dressing room because some one would say, “Oh, you were wonderful” and I was just about to say, “I was…” and the hand would come over my mouth from behind to keep me quiet. Because I was just about to say how awful and terrible I was! But the magic happens when you find some music that really suits you, like maybe the last moment of Carmen, that is fantastic and some wonderful places in Lohengrin. It depends on the opera. I like so many kinds of music. If you know you’re doing what the composer wants and you know you’ve got the audience – then that’s what it’s all about! You know how you get paid? When you hear the applause! You don’t want to do it totally for effect, though. You must be honest with the music. Can I tell you my pet peeve? I hate when the phrases are taken out of any kind of form and notes are held as long as you want. It gets “shlocky” and has nothing to do with what the composer wrote. I don’t like it when recitatives are not sung. You have to get them sung before you have the ability to “speak” them. Because remember when you are in those big houses the people who love you are up there [pointing to the balcony]. You have to be heard so you have to sing and work. You can never sing it the way you hear it. From the audience a person singing a beautiful limpid phrase makes it sounds like it’s no effort but in truth they are sweating buckets on the stage. You have to do what you know what to do – what you worked with your teachers and your coaches. One person’s piano is not someone else’s. Try to be as true to the music as possible. My husband taught me that.

Maurizio Trejo O’Reilly: Can you name a discouraging moment?

MD: Oh yes. It was terrible and I just put up with it. I was offered to sing at Bayreuth and at the time I was at the Met doing Walkure. I was dying to sing at Bayreuth and Mr. Bing would not release me for five days! And I let him get away with it! That was probably one of the worst things.

Another thing with Mr. Bing: I finally got a Dalila at the Met and it was really hot. I was good and [Jon] Vickers was fabulous! In the old Met the dressing rooms were off the street and there were people banging on the dressing room doors. It was really wonderful and I was so thrilled. I got into Mr. Bing’s office the day after and I thought “Finally!” All that he offered me was the third lady in The Magic Flute! I thought that it was probably time to go to Europe! I got three opera houses, I kept the Met but I really learned my trade in Europe because you get thirty or forty performances of something and not two. The repetition helped.

Albert Lee: Can you go into more detail about reviews and how young singers should look at reviews.

MD: It’s going to hurt. I think one is always so hard on oneself and tends to remember the bad reviews and not the good. You can lie to yourself but of course you look at them. If all the reviews are the same you had better consider them carefully. Critics either love or really cannot stand me. There was one critic. I really got him back and it was wonderful (laughter from the students). I was over in Moscow doing a modern piece and Sarah Caldwell, who I loved and adored, said that this critic is going to be there the next day. I said, “Well, if he is, I ain’t. So somebody else can sing that role.” The next morning he came with two dozen roses and a bottle of champagne and apologized very, very much! I won’t tell you who he was because now we exchange recipes. But you have to remember that the reviews are not objective always – it’s just one person’s opinion. If a person says something you’ll think about and it’s going to hurt – when people say mean things to you it hurts but you have to take the heat. In a few days it hurts less!

Gina Silverman of San Francisco, CA: When is one ready to go to New York vs. being a bigger fish in a smaller pond?

MD: It depends on what you want. It’s not a question of going to New York. There are a lot of people who make careers from all over the country. It depends on what opportunities you are offered. The only thing about being in a small pond is that the opportunities are less and sometimes you are typed because they have heard you already. Then you’re out of venues. There are people out there who say, “Oh, I heard her five years ago.” The voice may have totally and completely changed but that person was not interested because they made their judgement and they don’t want anything to do with that singer again. This is totally unfair, however, it does happen.

If you want to sing but you don’t particularly care if you make that your prime goal and you want a nice, comfortable life with marriage and children, DO IT. You should have the kind of life you want. Then you can be totally happy teaching and singing in a smaller venue. But I think you make a better teacher if you go out and have some professional experience. But don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people who have never sung and have become wonderful teachers. My teacher, Armand Boyajain, is, as far as I am concerned, a master, but he never was a singer. I just think that it may be a good idea to have some sort of professional experience. But that is not a given.

Look, everyone, if you really want to be singer there is really nothing else for you. Don’t do it because you want to do it but because you HAVE to do it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have full lives. You should, absolutely. Have fun, have boyfriends and girlfriends and LIVE. That’s what you’re singing about. I don’t think you should lock yourself in a room and not live. Excuse me, but what are you going to sing about ?

An Overnight Success … 25 Years in the Making

Daniel Rodriguez: I will tell you a little about myself. I have been singing since I was 12 years old. I started singing in school. My first role in school was Jud Fry in Okalahoma.

The drama teacher in school was a very talented man who studied at Julliard. He studied with Stella Adler and had an extensive background in theater and music. He also started coaching, and he also had a company called “The American Youth Repertoire Company” in Manhattan. They put on three, four, or five shows a year, and he invited me to do that. I was thirteen when I started.

At thirteen, I was training musically. I was taking both voice lessons and piano lessons. I was in a repertory company, where you do everything, from roles to set designs, lighting, everything from A to Z. So that gave me a lot of practical experience in the theatre. I studied with my teacher four days a week. We studied many great classical singers—DiStefano, Carrerras, Domingo, Pavarotti, Fuhrling. The interesting thing was that my teacher thought it would be easier for me to make it in the music business if I were to train baritone.

CS: He thought that the lower range would be safer for your voice.
Yes! So I was being trained for many years as a baritone. I was doing a lot of baritone repertoire—songs like “The Pride of Jean Brody.” It was really nice. My first professional recital was in Carnegie Hall, Studio 856. I was billed as a sixteen-year-old baritone. The next year I went into Weill Hall and did a recital there.

By yourself?
Yes. I sang 27 numbers, a two-hour concert of baritone repertoire. It was Broadway and operetta. My teacher did not want to bring me into the opera yet; he wanted to wait until I had more background. I had very little opera knowledge at the time. At 18, I started doing my first arias and started studying my first operatic roles. Then my teacher and I had a falling out and never spoke to each other again. I had been with the repertory company six years. We did not have an off season—we did summers—we trained, rehearsed and performed constantly. So, all I knew was school, theater and music. People ask me, “Why didn’t you continue? Why didn’t you pursue music? After my teacher left me or we left each other, you know, I had no clue how to sell all that I had learned.

Your musical “father” was gone, and you weren’t sure what to do next.
Right! So I did not know how to audition. I didn’t know how to go about continuing my music career, so I stopped. Started a family, and of course, then I had to go to work. So there was a four year lag in my music life. I call it the “Dark Ages.” The passion of music had always been in my life, and suddenly it was gone. After a while I knew I needed to pursue that passion. I started doing my own shows.

What kind of shows were these?
I started singing with church choirs and became the leader of song for the church choir, and that took off right away, because of all those years of training. Then I met Meirislov Markov, from the Bolshevic, during an audition. Yes, I actually auditioned for the Regina Opera. The Regina Opera recognized the training—they could hear there was a great voice there—but for some reason it wasn’t in the right spot, or whatever. Meirislov said, “You are not a baritone. You’re a tenor. I will prove that you are a tenor.” I said, “All right.” I spent three years with Meirislov, developing B flats, Cs, C sharps, and Ds.

That must have been a great feeling to have your upper range open up!
Well yeah, it was amazing. So now I had a dark quality to my voice, but I was singing to B flats, and people were saying “Wow!” I started my own show. It was called “Broadway Magic.” (The first show, when I was 16, was called “Twilight Serenade.”) When I started to sing again, at about 24, 25, 26, I said, “I wanted to start where it all began for me, to return to that musical pinnacle in my life. I was living in Staten Island at that time. I went to Snug Harbor, which is the cultural center there. I said I would like to put on a show there. They said, “Okay.”

That took a lot of courage with no background except a teacher setting things up for you and church gigs!
Now wait, you don’t know what happened. They said it is going to be this much money to rent the hall, and this much money for the lighting tech, etc. I said okay. They said, “Do you have a piano player?” I said, “Well, not yet.” I met with George Poppe, the person who played organ at the church where I was singing—a very talented man. He played wonderfully, and he always encouraged me to develop my voice. I said, “Would you like to accompany me for a concert?” He said, “Yeah, absolutely.” So George became my new best friend. George and I actually spent the next five or six years together, doing “Broadway Magic.”

At Snug Harbor?
Well, Snug Harbor was our first venue. I had to sell the tickets. I had to print the tickets. I had to set the lighting up.

How were you making a living?
I was driving trucks for the Post Office. I think by this time I had been at the Post Office six years, and I did music at night.

And were you married too?
Well my first marriage was during what I call the “Dark Ages.” I was married and divorced before I started singing again. I’m remarried now.

To get back to the story, I said, “I have to sing. The church gave me a lot of confidence to get back to singing. George Poppe was an excellent accompanist, and so with George I said, “Let’s try some new stuff. Let’s try ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. Let’s try the balcony scene from West Side Story. Let’s get a soprano.” The first concert, I think we spent $2,000.00, and I think we made $2,100.00, and I thought, “I can make it work.”

How did you publicize?
I made flyers. I just put all the information in a little format that I created. For about two years I did that for every show, and at that point I was doing a show a month.

We went out and started putting flyers on telephone poles, street lamps, etc. After we did the show, we got raves. The local paper did a review that said, “New guy out of nowhere, great singer.” I took that review, the flyer, and the program that I printed up, and I made a little media package and took it to the next venue. I decided that churches were the best way to go, because churches had built-in audiences, and it was always a matter of faith for me. No matter what I had done throughout my life, I always knew someone was watching over me. So I was drawn to the church.

I thought, “What was my first church?” Saint Patrick’s in Bay Ridge. I showed them my little “media package,” and I said, “I would like to do a show here.” They said, “Okay, how you want to work it out?” I think I charged them like $400.00, two hundred dollars apiece for me and George, and I let them keep the rest of the money from the ticket sales. I did all the advertising, made up the program and did the tickets. I made up the flyer and gave it to them, and they put it in the parish bulletin. We got two hundred people, and of course at $15.00 apiece they made tons of money. So they were happy, and we did a fantastic show. Little by little it grew, and I said, “George let’s charge a little more money, because I want to get a violinist to accompany us. So now, let’s charge another $200.” George always said, “You can charge $2,000.00.” I would say, “No, I don’t want to go nuts, I just want to do music. We will just make enough money to have pocket change.” We did these shows, and also weddings and funerals. Soon we got a cellist and a violinist, mother and daughter.

So how long did you do these shows?
I have been doing it for, I guess, ten years now. I still do it. I never stopped doing shows even with everything that has gone on, even after I left the Post Office, became a police officer, and became the National Anthem singer for the police department. My career really started to really take off when I started singing the National Anthem in uniform.

Are you taking voice lessons now?
Actually, Placido Domingo invited me to sing with The Placido Domingo Young Artists Program.

Now, how did that get started?
I was doing “Broadway on Broadway” every year in uniform. “Broadway on Broadway” is around September 9th, every year. All the cast members of current Broadway shows come to Times Square and do a free concert. I was the singing cop. I was on CBS, NBC, ABC, Telemundo, CNN—everybody was putting me on programs. This was long before 9/11. CNN actually followed me during “A Day in the Life of Daniel Rodriguez.”

Gradually, as I got the opportunity to sing the National Anthem for the police department, I started to get noticed. I think people wondered, “What is this cop doing here? Who is this guy?” Even the mayor himself. I sang at the 150th anniversary of New York City on New Year’s Day, about five years ago. I was one of three people on stage singing “Happy Birthday” to New York.

I had started working on arias by this time, because I was very interested in getting into opera. When my teacher and I parted ways, that was the direction he wanted to take me. The music I had been doing was much more comfortable for me at the time, and fun, and so that is what I did in concert. It was easy to bring people out to a night of Broadway or a little night of music. But I did start learning arias. Unfortunately, I started learning arias without a professional teacher. I was doing “Che Gelida Manina,” and I was looking down when I sang “le luna,” things like that. I had no idea what I was saying. I didn’t as much study the aria as I heard it sung, and I copied what I was hearing. It went well for the most part; people that were coming to the shows were not as familiar with opera, so they thought it was perfect. The show was a great success. I did many, many shows. I was doing a circuit of churches, a circuit of yacht clubs, of social clubs.

So when did Placido contact you?
About two years ago I did “Broadway on Broadway.” I went out and did the National Anthem in uniform, and Mayor Giuliani was coming out after me. We had spoken many times before, but this time for some reason he said, “Dan, you should be at the Met.” I said, “If you can make it happen, I will go.” So he said, “I am going to make a phone call. Wait for me afterwards. I want to talk to you.” So afterwards we started walking, and he put his arm around me and told me about all these wonderful tenors he has heard. He is an avid opera buff. So, I got a call from the director of the Met.

Joseph Volpe called you?
Yes. I was painting my apartment, and I got the call. Mr. Volpe said, “You come highly recommended. What we are going to do is have a guy listen to you and see what we can do for you.” I know this is an opera magazine, so I am not going to mention names, but my audition for this person was a disaster. He had already made up his mind about me. His first question was, “So what makes a police officer think he can become an opera singer? I don’t understand. Do you sing or what do you do?”

I actually said, “Do you really want to hear me, or should I just leave now?” I had prepared “La Donna e mobile,” which of course I had never studied with a teacher. I had never even seen the opera. I’d just been doing it the way I heard it in recordings. I know that the ability to hit a high C, to place it well, and to let it ring and shoot it to the back of the crowd, is only a small part of what it takes to become an opera singer. Afterwards, I thought, “Okay, so I don’t sing at the Met. There are plenty of other places to sing. I am not going to stop singing.”

But great things often come out of bad experiences. Placido heard about the audition. Placido was at the Met, and he met Giuliani, and said, “I heard you have a police officer who wants to sing opera. Would you like me to listen to him?” Now, I know from working with him that Placido is the hardest working man in the business, as far as I am concerned. So we never got the chance to get together because of his schedule. Every month I would call. Finally it was set up for September. Then tragedy occurred. I was there when the buildings collapsed. I was at City Hall; I was on duty.

I had never put that part of your story together. Of course you were involved.
I was there. I’d rather not tell you all the horrors that I saw, and I relive it all the time. I went to City Hall to the command post. There was a mobile command post right alongside of City Hall. I met my inspector there, and we started heading down to Ground Zero. We were two or three blocks away when the first building collapsed. Everything after that was just horrific, just devastation. I was at Ground Zero for about two weeks, and then they were putting together the Prayer for America, which was at Yankee Stadium. It was prayer service with clergy members from different denominations. They called the police department and asked for me to sing the National Anthem. I wanted to sing, because with everything I was doing I still felt helpless. It became a kind of ministry for me to give comfort and to do what I could. You know, I found my niche. I took what I do most and do best, and I used it. At the Prayer for America service I finally met Placido; he was singing “Ave Maria.”

I went up to Placido. I have met a lot of celebrities, but this time I was speechless. He said, “You are the singing police officer. You have a beautiful voice. You have a very natural tenor voice.” I said, “Well, we were supposed to meet. People have been trying to get us together so I can sing for you.” He said, “You don’t need anyone to get us together; you are doing very fine on your own. I will be in touch with you.”

Shortly after that, the Yankees called me to sing for the playoffs. Placido called me to audition for him the same day. So, that afternoon I went back to the Met. I went down to one of the studios there, and he hadn’t gotten there yet, so I decided to warm up. I was doing “Be My Love,” and all of a sudden the door opened, and Placido said, “Who’s this singer doing my song?” So I finished the song, and I think I ended it with a high C. He said, “That is beautiful.” We spoke, and at that point my heart sank. I didn’t know enough opera. I said, “I only know a few arias. I know ‘Che Gelida Manina’ from Boheme.” He said, “Well, sing that for me.”

How did it feel to sing for him?
I sang well, but once I started studying with Placido I almost felt embarrassed for the way it was presented. Placido was there and watching me intently, and I was not even thinking of the song anymore. I was thinking to myself, “Placido Domingo is looking at you, is watching you sing opera and you are at the Met,” and that is all I thought about. Then the song was over (Daniel claps), and Placido said, (in the accent of Placido) “Is very good. Is very good! Beautiful high notes. Then he said, “Do you realize you go flat in the middle in the break? On the E and the F, you tend to go a little flat. The reason for that is you are very comfortable singing ‘Be My Love.’ ‘Be My Love’ was beautiful, the tones were perfect, placement was perfect, but you were not comfortable singing the aria so you did not have the support.” He said, “I think I can help you. I am starting this new thing called ‘The Placido Domingo Young Artists Program.’ I would like you to come. Can you take three months off of work? I want you to come out starting in March.” I had to actually hold myself from jumping right out of my shoes. I said, “Maestro, Thank you so much,” and I floated out of there.

Then I went to Yankee Stadium and sang for the playoffs. The announcer said, “Now ladies and gentlemen, turn you attention to the mike behind home plate and our National Anthem sung by New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez.” The place went absolutely berserk. I sang the MOST heartfelt National Anthem. It was an amazing experience.

I ran over to the Mayor, and I said, “Placido wants me to come to Washington.” And he said, “I knew it. I knew it! You got to go for it.” I said, “I am going to need your help, because now I have to take three months off of work.” He said, “What ever you need.” I was like, “OKAY THAT’S IT! PACK MY BAG! I am going to heaven!” The Yankees won the pennant that day.

Well, one thing led to another. The Yankees called and asked me to sing for game three of the World Series. As I was waiting to sing for the World Series, Regis and Donald Trump walked in. Regis looked at me and said, “You’re the cop. I have been looking for you. You got a pencil? Write this number down.” He did about five minutes on how I was a cop without a pencil. I gave him a call, and the next morning I was on “Regis and Kelly.” I got a phone call leaving Regis’s studio; Letterman wants you on his show tonight. I was on Letterman that night. I leave Letterman. I get home, and there is a message on my answering machine; there will be a car to pick you up at 5:00 a.m., you are doing “The Today Show” tomorrow morning, so get to bed. I do “The Today Show.” I leave the “The Today Show,” and then it was Larry King.

Now everything has gone through the roof. I got a call from Mr. Tom Scott, of Tom Scott and the Elliott Express. Tom has two Grammys and 12 Grammy nominations; one of the premier jazz saxophone players of our time. So I was asked to sing at the Emmys, and I went to Los Angeles. I sang with the LA Choir. It was like 350 voices; a combined college choir. Tom had a wonderful arrangement of “America the Beautiful.”

Tom was in the little monitor, and I was singing. I had no idea that the last “America” was supposed to go on for about eighteen measures, so I didn’t hold the note, but the choir kept on singing. So Tom said, after a little consultation, “Dan, if you don’t want to hold that note, that is quite all right. You can just cut it short and the choir will finish it up. I looked at Tom and I said, “You know Tom, Mr. Scott, I may never get to do the Emmys again, so how cool would it be if I nailed it?” So he said, “Okay, let’s go for it.” Not only did I nail it—held it—but I think I went for two beats after they were done.

That probably brought down the house!
The audience went nuts. This was the dress rehearsal; it was filmed and recorded. Later, I had just gotten to the Emmys when they announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have just bombed Afghanistan. The first bombs have fallen on Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11, and the Emmys have been cancelled.”

So I was heartbroken. That night I turned on the television and saw Tom Brokaw. Tom Brokaw said, “Ladies and gentlemen, of course the Emmys were cancelled today, but if you had seen the Emmys you would have gotten a chance to see this young man.” And they showed the dress rehearsal.

That night something touched Tom [Scott], and Tom called me the next morning. And
Tom, you can tell what happened next.

Tom Scott: [sitting in on the conversation] I said, “You touched me in a way I can not describe. I have not been moved by a singer that way in I don’t know how long. I cannot be the only one who feels that way. I honestly believe you have a gift, a unique gift, to give to this country.” I proposed that he allow me the right to be his representative to the recording industry for two weeks. I thought about Sony Classics, EMA Classics, MCA Classics—all the labels this guy could use. In 72 hours in New York I had appointments with all of them. It was just timing. They all knew who he was, and they all wanted to talk about him.

Daniel Rodriguez: We got to EMI; we had a few other offers but EMI came in with the best deal. They understood that I wanted the first CD to benefit the victims of 9/11. So we did “God Bless America” as a single, which came out December 11th. ALL proceeds—mine, the recording company’s—went to the Twin Towers Fund. I think to date we’ve gave them close 100,000 dollars. It was just a single: “God Bless America, We Will Go On.”

Then it was time for my album, “Spirit of America.” All the songs on Spirit of America were songs that I was doing in the concerts—songs that really touched me throughout my life: “This is the Moment,” “Bring Him Home,” “Into the Fire,” “Danny Boy,” “Shenandoah.” It has been out there doing well ever since, and of course in March I started the tutelage with Placido. After the first three months, Placido invited me back. He said, “I want you to come back in August. I want you to do another nine months. I think you have everything that it takes to become a major opera star.” So now you know the story of my life.

People ask me, “How are you handling all the fame? How does it feel to be an overnight sensation?” I say it took me 25 years to become overnight sensation!

We’d better stop. I certainly don’t want you to wear out your voice before your concert. Thanks so much for sharing your inspiring story with us.

You’re welcome.

Looks Like She Made It!

Have you always been a singer?
I started singing at the age of three. There was a lot of music in my house. My father had a Victrola that played 78s on one side and recorded on the other. I have a recording of me singing, “Zippity Do Dah.” I started playing the piano when I was four, and the trumpet between eight and 14. I started to study voice when I was 14, which is to say I went to one charlatan after another! Eventually, I went to Temple University as a voice major, studying Applied Voice in the Music Education department for two years. Then ten years later, I went to Carnegie Tech after I’d married my childhood sweetheart.

You were quite young when you married. Was it difficult to combine a nascent singing career with married life?
Sadly, yes. He married me as a singer but didn’t have a clue what that meant. It might have been different if he’d been able to retire early and live off my earnings—if I’d been as successful in those days as Beverly Sills! As it was, the marriage started going wrong very early on because we were both very young. I was still singing in school productions, and he didn’t like that. For the sake of our marriage, I stopped singing and had three children. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I had any alternative. Ten unhappy years passed—unhappy, but for our three children—and then we went to therapy. The outcome was that he “allowed” me to sing in a few small productions associated with my synagogue.

Of course, this level of involvement wasn’t enough for me, and I started to do more singing. I succeeded in getting into a show on the music fair circuit with Jan Peerce and Geraldine Brooks, and Tony award winner Gary Beech from The Producers. They had five theaters, and it was at that time the biggest East Coast summer stock production. Jan cornered me one day, took hold of my cheeks and said, “Sheyna maidle (which means ‘pretty girl’ in Yiddish), stop doing this and go back and study.” And I felt like God had spoken to me!

Was it difficult for you to return to studying at that stage?
Not at all—and that amazes me, because at that point I hadn’t sung a classical note in 10 years! I went to see Robert Page, who was teaching at Temple, and with whom I had always wanted to study. His response was, “I’ll take you on a trial basis. How many children do you have, and how serious are you? Because I don’t have time to waste.” So we started on the Vaccai book, which I had never heard of, and started singing Schubert lieder. Then we worked out of an aria anthology. When we’d completed our third lesson, I asked him, “Well, what do you think?” And he replied, “Are you crazy?” I took that to mean I was doing OK!

Less than a year later, I made my debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Ambler Music Festival, with Robert Page conducting. Phyllis Curtain, Ezio Flagello and Seth McCoy were the leading soloists. I had a moment of performance hysteria before I had to go out, and my throat closed down. I said to myself, “Wait a minute. You’ve done this before. You’ve done this; you want this.” The feeling went away, and I went out there and took this absolute magic carpet ride. That was in June 1975.

And then I called Jim DeBlasis, general director of the Cincinnati Opera. He said, “You study for another year, and then come back to sing for me.” I sang for a man named Bob Peterson, who was running the YA program there. In February, 1976, I was the mezzo in residence for the Cincinnati Spring ensemble. We performed pieces in people’s homes—Figaro, Butterfly, Cosi. We did concerts with an orchestra for the performing arts school kids—The Little Sweep and the final act of Carmen. That was where I met the late Barbara Karp, who was the artistic director of Pittsburgh Opera. She hired me to do Falstaff in 1977. She became my mentor and lifelong friend. Sadly, she died last May.

In 1976 I also did Showboat and Mamma McCourt in Baby Doe with Francis Bible. That was my operatic debut, in Cincinnati, 27 years ago. So it has only taken me 27 years to make my Met opera debut!

Going back to studying and starting work must have had an enormous effect upon your family life. Was it easy to cope with, or did you find it difficult to adjust?
At first it was difficult, largely because of the lack of money. In 1976 I was starting to travel a lot and was gone about 20 weeks. Leaving the children to work was the hardest thing. I had to get a live-in housekeeper—my whole salary went to paying the housekeeper. David Bamberger called and wanted me to do Naughty Marietta. When he told me the salary, I told him I couldn’t do it for that amount because it wouldn’t pay for the housekeeper. I had to advertise to get her, but it never worked out quite right. Later on, my mother-in-law would come and help, and that worked better. Then my marriage ended, and life became even more complicated. My husband would come and stay with the kids, but something didn’t seem right about that arrangement. In 1980, I made a decision not to sing any more opera, because it felt wrong leaving my children under somebody else’s care. So I didn’t do opera again until 1986.

In the meantime, I remarried. It was good for a long time. He was very supportive of my career and took care of three children who were not his own. We made an agreement right up front that he would help me. He agreed because he believed in me.

Five years later, his life started to fall apart. My children had left home and my career was building momentum, while his was falling down. I suddenly realized that I was putting a great deal of energy into fixing his career, but he wasn’t doing anything to fix it himself. I told him that he had to start putting some energy into resolving his own problems, otherwise I would have to go. We ended up in therapy, where the therapist asked me if I would be willing to live with him in his present state. I said no, because he wasn’t willing to grow.

The marriage ended one month later and we left each other in September 1992. That October I auditioned for Opera Theater of St. Louis for the fourth time, having received three letters saying, “Thank you very much, but we have nothing for you.” This time, I walked in with a different frame of mind, telling myself firmly, “It’s time for these guys to hire me.” I planted myself in front of the five gentlemen sitting at the table and just laid it out: “Here’s the list; what do you want to hear?” They asked for “Smanie, then Seagull” (Nina’s aria). Then Colin Graham said, “Would you mind singing ‘O don fatale’ now?” I asked him, “How far would you like me to go?” I got the job, and that shifted my entire career. I sang Madame de la Haltiere in Massenet’s Cendrillion there. The following season, I sang the old lady in Candide. And after that, I made debuts at Chicago Lyric, Santa Fe, Washington Opera, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston Lyric. Those jobs all came from people who had seen me in St. Louis. I think things finally started happening because I took the energy and started putting it into myself and my work, rather than putting it into marriages that weren’t working.

Do you adopt any particular approach for maximizing your physical energy?
Staying in shape is so important for classical singers and even more so for women. I overheard a story of a director who ridiculed a singer for her size, even though the singer was a character mezzo. There are no two ways about it—you have to take care of your body no matter what Fach you are in.

I’m a certain age and believe there should be no age discrimination, but unfortunately there is. God forbid that you don’t sound well on a particular day. You have to be really careful. That’s along the same lines as taking care of your body.

I was recently in a production of Pirates and was having to dance all over the place. It was in Santa Fe, at an altitude of 7,000 feet. As you can imagine, hopping and skipping, singing and dancing all over the stage was great fun! But you can’t do that if you’re not in shape, no matter what your age or Fach is. So when I work at Santa Fe, or places like that, I have to train constantly to be sure that the altitude doesn’t get to me. I would advise any professional singer to take care of their body, to stay in shape, perhaps to do yoga.

What do you do to maintain your fitness?
I have my own regime. I work out, do yoga, and do cardio at a gym. I do about 20 minutes on the bike and treadmill, three to five times a week. I aim to maintain a steady four miles an hour on the treadmill. When I can manage that, providing I’m not getting tired, I’ll raise the elevation. I also do weight training. I’ve worked with several different trainers now, and I try to vary the routine, or I get bored.

I do yoga every morning, using Rodney Yee’s AM yoga tape. I chose that one after seeing him on Oprah Winfrey! If possible, I take the videotape with me when I travel, but sometimes I just take an audio tape.

Do you use any other tools for your emotional, physical and mental well-being, with the aim of improving your work?
Oh yes. In September, I began to work with a lady called Rae Tattenbaum. She works with a biofeedback process called InnerAct. The objective is to stay focused on the work at the moment—she has lectured all over the country on this topic. She works with many singers and was recommended to me by John Cheek. It’s fascinating. The biofeedback program is delivered via electrodes taped to your skull.

One thing that happens for me, with this program, is that my memory focuses in a different way. It’s amazing—I get blocking faster, and it sticks. I had to do a stage rehearsal at the Met. They gave me the blocking two days before. After just one hour and 10 minutes, I was able to do the stage rehearsal, never having been on the set before. And I only made one blocking error! I’m telling you—it has changed my life.

How do you keep your voice in shape?
Barbara Karp once told me you have to sing a recital at least once a year, because that is how you keep your voice healthy. Last year, I was looking at a very limited schedule, so I started to look into teaching positions at universities. I was one of two final applicants at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Part of the selection process was that I had to give a 20-minute program. I hadn’t sung a recital in a long time. It reminded me of why I became a singer. It was wonderful to sing Schumann and Barber and make music happen with the voice. I made a promise to myself that I would keep singing recitals.

What’s your range and Fach?
My singing range is a low E flat below middle C to a high C. I can squeak up to a high E flat and to a low B flat. I love my voice. I want to caress it and take such good care of it.

My voice is a lyric mezzo with some heft in it. Because of my age and my physical build, I sing character Fach. But I believe one must always sing with one’s voice, not with what someone else thinks one should sing with.

What were your most difficult technical problems, and how have you resolved them?
Without a doubt, coloratura. I broke it down like a pianist would. I was listening to Barbara Karp practicing the Goldberg Variations on the piano and I realized that you can do that with coloratura. I change the patterns, rhythms, staccatos—you shift it around till you get it, but Marcellina’s aria is still a killer!

What are the hardest things you’ve done as a singer?
I had a real tough time when I did Tobias Pickers’ Fantastic Mr. Fox, wearing a mask two feet long. I could hardly see the conductor! I had a 10 to 15 foot long tail, and boots, and had to sing two high Cs!

The John Copley production of Barber of Seville was another one. Every single night during the intermission, I’d rehearse the entire bit in which Berta has to remove her clothes inside of a bag while singing a rather difficult aria. I practiced during the intermission so that I could do it without even thinking about it. There were pantaloons, stockings, shoes, bodice, skirt and knee socks to get through, and then at the penultimate note, I would break open the bag and there I would be in a red nightgown! You can see a picture of that on the website.

Any low points in your career?
I didn’t have a critical success when I did Amneris. They said I sang it well, but that I wasn’t visually what they wanted to see.

Did you ever feel like quitting?
Sure. At one point I gave myself five years and said I was going to find something else to do. I could have become a shrink. But the career happened. I started to teach when I was divorced the first time. I loved teaching and still do, but there’s nothing to match the excitement that builds every time I go onstage. As long as I still get that way and feel totally exuberant, I’ll do it—and I’ll continue until I can’t do it anymore. Even working with young people in Pirates, I still get excited, even though I’m a lot older than some of them.

Does it feel unusual to be working with singers younger than yourself?
It is different, but I use the opportunity to get information to take back to my teaching experiences. When I was at Glimmerglass this summer, I devised a survey to learn exactly what was missing from singers’ education. I saw a lot of young singers who didn’t know how to walk, talk and chew gum. I have very specific ideas about what singers need to learn and what they aren’t learning. Awareness of who’s on stage with you. They don’t understand timing, like if there’s a laugh in the audience, you need to wait before continuing, and how you do that. They don’t understand the importance of looking into someone’s eyes when you sing with them. They need to learn movement and character work. Singers should make sure they understand their text. They need good musical discipline. And they have to know about not upstaging!

Who are the people who have had the greatest influence on your career?
My friend Barbara Karp taught me so much about music, life and style. She was a child prodigy at the piano, an actress, a director, and even tried her hand at screenwriting. I learned from her to just listen to the music, because it will tell you everything you need to know. She taught me to be the messenger of the music and be specific. To be as specific as you can about everything you do as a character.

How did you find your current manager?
I sang for a lot of managers, but Michael Eliasen, who was a coach in New York and is now heard of Curtis Music opera department, was my coach at the time. He arranged an audition with someone who worked at Barrett, and I signed with that company. John Anderson came there in 1985. He and I have worked together really beautifully. He has a very open ear. I also think he gives good advice— he’s honest with a no-nonsense approach. And that’s why I’ve been with him since 1984.

Do you pay a retainer?
If he had charged a retainer I wouldn’t have signed.

Matthew Epstein has also been very helpful to me over the years. I went and sang for him. I have great respect for him. He sat me down and gave me advice on repertoire.

How did you get your job at the Met?
I covered at the Met in 1995. I had sung for Leanore Rosenberg and Charlie Riecker, and then I did a stage audition for James Levine and Jonathan Friend.. I sang three arias: Cendrillion in English, Berta’s aria in Italian, and the Cabaletta from “O Mio Fernando.” The report I got back was that he was very impressed. He offered me a cover contract for Sarah Walker in Fille du Regiment. There was no performance, but I took it. Later, they came back with several offers. I was unable to take them until now. So I’m very grateful that I didn’t get that teaching job!

Singers are very interested in what other singers over the age of 40 are doing about hormone replacement therapy. Would you care to comment?
I’m taking Premarin 0.625, which is estrogen only. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have cancer in my family. I called my gynecologist, who is a big opera fan, and she came to me in Santa Fe and said I should go on this. She says that as far as she’s concerned, if it’s estrogen only, it’s OK if you don’t have family history of cancer. “How long do you want to sing?” she asked me. I started at half this dosage, five years ago when my estrogen levels were way down.

Why does she think it’s going to help the voice?
Vocal cords are made out of the same elastin as the mucous membrane in your body. When the mucous membrane dries up, the cords also dry up. That’s why there’s increasing dryness around the throat as you age.

I have some proof that it’s working. I had a bad case of acid reflux while working at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I didn’t know what I had at first; I was coughing. Lyric sent me to this ENT, Robert Bastian. He’s fabulous— Elizabeth Futral goes to him, as do many other singers. I’d never had an exam like this before. “Your cords are in terrific shape,” he told me, and put me on protonics. Now I’m on Nexium.

You do have to be careful what you eat and what you drink! Last night for example, all the singers in my cast went out and all had beers. They asked me, “Don’t you drink?” I said “No, I don’t even take Advil 24 hours before singing, because I’ve heard stories about people rupturing vocal cords.”

I always have to ask this one: can you tell us about some of the strange incidents that you’ve experienced?
There are so many! But some do stand out … During the Ambler Festival of 1979, I got a call from the director of the Mendelssohn club. “Quick, come over, the artist who is singing the Mahler 3rd is having trouble. I want you to sing for Sergiu Commissiona, the conductor.” I’d never done the Mahler 3rd, but I went over to listen to the rehearsal. The singer didn’t have the top notes, so I learned the music in about an hour. They still couldn’t decide if the singer was going to cancel or how they were going to make it work if she did. Finally, they called me and asked me to stand in front in the chorus, disguised in a white shirt and black skirt, ready to take over if she stopped. I agreed. They were paying me all of $300! When she got to a certain point in the music, she couldn’t sing a D an octave above middle C, and so I was supposed to jump in and sing those notes. The problem was that during the performance, she “forgot” to stop singing. I started to sing before realizing she hadn’t stopped. A strange moment followed as I looked at the conductor and he looked at me. I stopped singing. The singer continued but soon reached the point where she just couldn’t keep going, so then I stood up and finished it.

That was a strange experience, but as a result, I later sang in the last concert to be performed at the Ambler Festival: the Haydn Harmonimesse with Benita Valente, John Cheek and Jon Garrison.

Another time, I went to Monte Carlo to start rehearsals for L’Opera de Monte Carlo. I got the job because they saw a videotape of a job I did in Milwaukee—my manager sent it to them cold. When I arrived, Gian Carlo Menotti came out of the dress rehearsal for another production and asked, “What are you singing?” “The mother in your Consul,” I replied. He peered at me and said, “The mother? You’re too young and too pretty!” I said, “MAKE-UP!” That made him laugh. Afterwards he told me that I had made him cry when I sang the mother.

And what about the future? What do you still want to accomplish?
I’d love to record an album called “Songs for My Grandchildren,” but I understand I’ll have to raise $20,000 to do the project.

Do you have any advice for singers just starting out in their careers?
I believe that there’s room for everyone to do what they’re supposed to do. This competition business is just toxic as far as I’m concerned. I told this to this to Susan Graham in 1991 before she made her Covent Garden debut as Cherubino, the performance that launched her international career. I said, “There’s plenty of room for you and Cecilia Bartoli. She can’t sing all the jobs.” And now look at her career. I remind Susan of that conversation every time I see her.

And your personal philosophy?
The most important thing is to believe in yourself. Before I sing, I always ask—pray—for the ability to sing as beautifully as I can, to fulfill the role as musically, emotionally, and dramatically as I can, and to concentrate. That is the most important thing to me.

Intubation and Alternatives

Anesthetic Options
Not too long ago, a patient undergoing a surgical procedure had two options: local injection of the surgical area (similar to a dental procedure), or full general anesthesia with laryngeal intubation. This involves placing a plastic tube through the larynx between the vocal folds and positioning it with the end in the trachea, to allow the administration of oxygen and anaesthetic gases.

Today there are many anesthetic options available. Specifically, endolaryngeal (or endotracheal) intubation can be avoided. Most smaller procedures around the head and neck can be performed with a combination of local injection supplemented by intravenous sedation. The patient is rendered sleepy, and the surgical area is anesthetized with a medication that numbs the surgical site for several hours. During the procedure the patient’s awareness and comfort level is continuously monitored, and additional intravenous sedation is given if necessary. Most nasal and sinus procedures can be performed in this way. Operations on the middle ear, as well as cosmetic procedures on the face can also fall into this group. Conventional tonsillectomy is an important exception: here, the anesthetists must prevent any blood from entering the airway, and thus an endotracheal airway or laryngeal mask is used.

The combination of local or regional block with intravenous sedation is also generally used for smaller orthopedic procedures on the extremities (such as carpal tunnel, Dupuytren’s contracture of the hands, or podiatric procedures), and hernia surgery. If general inhalational anesthetic is deemed necessary, the anesthetists may still avoid intubation by use of a laryngeal mask.

The laryngeal mask is similar in principle to a facemask (“oxygen mask”). It is smaller in size and is placed in the back of the throat to fit over the top of the larynx. Once in position, it is inflated and seals off the airway from the rest of the pharynx. This prevents saliva or other fluids from entering the windpipe. For short procedures requiring general anesthesia, or for patients too anxious to tolerate local anesthesia with intravenous sedation, the laryngeal mask is a useful alternative. Specifically for the vocal artist, the laryngeal mask covers rather than invades the larynx and minimizes trauma to the vocal folds.

Minimally Traumatic Intubation Anesthesia
Thus far, we have discussed surgery and anesthesia as if we had a catalogue of options. Of course, surgery is not always optional, and there may be situations where a full general anesthesia with endotracheal intubation is necessary. Like the general population, singers may be involved in accidents, develop serious or life-threatening conditions or require prolonged surgical procedures. In these instances, the need to save a life, to remove potentially fatal disease, or to correct a debilitating condition takes precedence. Once the patient understands the severity of his disease and treatment options are limited, it is generally wise to defer clinical decisions to the physician.
There are several components to a minimally traumatic intubation anesthetic. If the patient has the opportunity, she should inform the anesthetists that she is a singer whose livelihood depends on her larynx. She should request, if possible, that should an intubation be necessary, it is performed by an experienced anesthetist. Particularly in teaching hospitals, the intubation should be done by a qualified specialist, not a student, resident, or a trainee.

The endotracheal tube used should be the smallest one that can adequately deliver anesthesia and protect the airway. The choice of tube size is made by the anesthetists, and this is an area where experience is important. Although tubes of “standard size” are generally used, for the vocalist a smaller size represents less trauma and is therefore desirable.
Anesthesia is usually accompanied by a paralytic agent. This relaxes the muscles and allows the anesthetists to control completely the patient’s breathing, an important part of managing respiration and oxygenation. The paralysis is reversed at the end of surgery, and spontaneous breathing resumes. The tube may be removed either just before or just after spontaneous breathing movements return. Since these movements are accompanied by movements of the vocal folds, it is our suggestion that, if possible, the tube be removed before the folds begin to move. This “deep extubation” removes the tube before the vocal folds start to come together and minimizes trauma to their vibrating surfaces.

During extubation there may be some retching with reflux of stomach acid. Some anesthesiologists routinely suction the stomach before awakening the patient in order to prevent this. Along with suctioning, postoperative antinausea medications can prevent damage to the vocal folds by stomach acid. The increasing recognition of perioperative acid reflux has led some laryngologists to recommend antacid medications prior to surgery. Certainly, if the vocalist patient is prone to reflux, their routine anti-reflux medications should be continued before surgery to just before they need to begin fasting (usually midnight the night before the procedure).

Once in the recovery room, the patient should be given a facial mask with humidified air or oxygen. Humidity is important, as is voice rest. Unnecessary talking, particularly in a noisy recovery room, can further traumatize the vocal folds.

Early Convalescence
Even the singer cognizant of possible vocal damage will feel the need, after surgery, to cough. This cough clears the airway of secretions and is part of the process of reinflating the lungs. If possible, coughing should be done with minimal trauma. A forceful clearing of the airway without approximating the vocal folds, or a single strong cough, is better than repeated paroxysms of coughing. If the lungs are not properly reinflating, physical therapy can help and should be offered. Postural drainage and clapping over the chest can loosen secretions and make the cough more productive.
Pain is a frequent part of convalescence. While excessive pain should not be tolerated, the singer needs also to be aware of the side effects of excessive analgesics. An over-sedated patient may not cough effectively, and recovery of lung function may be delayed. Some analgesics are drying, an undesirable state for the vocal performer. Medications containing codeine or codeine analogues are also constipating. Straining on the toilet involves forceful approximation of the vocal folds and should be minimized. Indeed, if the patient is constipated for any reason following surgery, he should request a mild laxative.

When can singing be resumed? After any surgical procedure requiring endotracheal intubation, the singer should not vocalize for at least 4 to 5 days. If at that time the voice is not clear, another 5 days of rest should be considered. If after 12 days the voice is not normal, the larynx should be examined by a laryngologist to make sure there is no evidence of hemorrhage or trauma. Once the singer has a clear bill of health, full vocal activity may be resumed. Mild residual edema may create difficulty at the top of the range, and this need not be a cause for concern. Prolonged vocal rest is to be avoided, since disuse of the larynx can create its own problems. After prolonged intubation (such as may be necessary for some after an accident), the larynx should be examined prior to any vocal exertion. Prolonged intubation can not only cause mucosal damage in the posterior part of the larynx but can also result in malpositioning of the vocal folds. These conditions may require medical treatment and voice therapy.

Reprinted with permission from Care of the Professional Voice: A Management Guide for Singers, Actors and Professional Voice Users, by D. Garfield Davies, Anthony F. Jahn. Currently available at Amazon.com, and Classical Singer magazine (see page 43 bottom).

DISCLAIMER: The suggestions given by Dr. Jahn in these columns are for general information only, and not to be construed as specific medical advice or advocating specific treatment, which should be obtained only following a visit and consultation with your own physician.

Bulletin Board

Cancellation of the 2003 MacAllister Awards

The prestigious MacAllister awards have been cancelled for this year according to a recent announcement made by executive director Elaine Morgan Bookwalter. She assured young singers that prizes would again be given out in the future, but she intimated that the format would be changed.

In the past the prizes have provided financial support and constructive criticism to high school and college singers as well as to professionals under the age of 35. At its last distribution, prize money totalled $72,000, with $15,000 being given to the first place winner.

Recipients of past awards have included Denyce Graves, Gregory Turay, Jennifer Larmore, Kyle Ketelson and Cynthia Lawrence.

Harrington Estate Sues the Met

Between 1978 and 1998 Sybil B. Harrington donated more than $27 million to the Metropolitan Opera. An agreement was drawn up and signed by Harrington and Met officials which specified that the money was to be used for at least one production each year by a composer whose work was in the core repertory of the company’s first century. The productions were to be performed and staged in a manner faithful to the intentions of the composer and librettist.

In 1999 the estate donated another $6 million, $5 million of which was to be used for televising traditional opera. In July a suit was filed on behalf of the estate asking for the return of this $5 million because it was used for the telecast of what was considered a non-traditional production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 2001. In addition, the suit charges that other money was used in contravention of the agreement.

In answering the charges, Joseph Volpe, general manager of the Met, insisted that he will prove in court that the estate’s allegations are completely false, adding that he would never do anything to dishonor Mrs. Harrington’s wishes.

Albrecht Leaves Post at Dresden Opera

Christoph Albrecht has left his post as music director of the Dresden Semperoper and is now head of the Bavarian Theater Academy in Munich. In 2006 he will become director of the Bavarian State Opera.

Harold Schonberg, Former New York Times Music Critic, Dies
Schonberg, who was born on November 29th, 1915, passed away on July 26th, 2003, at the age of 87.

His daily reviews and Sunday essays for the Times set high standards for performance evaluation as he chronicled the changes that took place in classical music between 1960 and 1980. In 1971 he won a Pulitzer Prize, the first ever awarded to a music journalist.

According to Schonberg, criticism is simply informed opinion. He said that he wrote for himself, not for his readers and not for musicians, stating that, “It is not a critic’s job to be right or wrong but to express an opinion in readable English.”

Video Screens in the Opera House

The State Opera of South Australia is installing video screens in the second balcony of the Adelaide Festival Theater so that patrons in that part of the house can have a better view of the stage.

Atlanta Opera Presents Pop Concerts

In order to pay off some of its $1.3 million debt, the Atlanta Opera is presenting three concerts of popular music by veteran performers Harry Belafonte and Andy Williams. The rest of its season will include performances of Aida and The Elixir of Love.

Learning to Play an Instrument Improves Verbal Memory

Psychologists who tested 90 boys ages six to 15 have concluded that children who studied a musical instrument had significantly better verbal memory skills than those who had no musical training. They also found that the boys’ ability to memorize seemed to grow in proportion to the length of time they spent studying music.

Marian Anderson’s Studio Restored in Danbury, Connecticut

The Danbury Museum and Historical Society is restoring Marian Anderson’s rehearsal studio and will use it to house an exhibit celebrating her many achievements. The contralto, who died in 1993, was a long-time resident of that city and used the studio on a regular basis.

She sang all over the world for more than fifty years but is best remembered for her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. after being refused an engagement at Constitution Hall because of her race. In 1955 she was the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, and in 1991 she was the recipient of a lifetime Grammy Award.

The museum, which will feature Anderson memorabilia, will also be a venue for concerts to be given by emerging artists.

Curtis Institute Begins Search for New Director
Gary Graffman, the present music director of The Curtis Institute, is not expected to relinquish his post anytime soon, but at age 74 he has agreed to help in the search for his successor.

Nevada Opera Stages Trial by Jury in Courtroom

Facing a deficit of $250,000, the Nevada Opera, which is normally seen at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, moved its production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury to a local courthouse and used district Judge Peter Breen in the show.

The move saved a great deal of money on a set, and the first performance was so popular that a second had to be given.

If you have a comment about this article, or anything else, pleasewrite to Ms. CJ Williamson, cjw@classicalsinger.com or to PO Box 95490, South Jordan, UT 84095.