I am currently singing a lot.
It’s hard to express just how much singing is involved when working in a full-time opera chorus while also doing some additional solo roles. I have really had to up my game regarding my technique and singing discipline, because – honestly – a lot of this music could wreck a voice.
For example, right now we’re working on Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Have you ever really listened to the chorus parts for that? As a friend said to me, the second largest role in the piece is the chorus, and while that might be debatable, it highlights just how much music the chorus has to produce.
And the music is hard. It’s often quite high and loud for extended passages, and the complexity of the structure means that one must consistently pay attention, or else it’s easy to get lost. Memorizing this is challenging. Counting this is challenging. Singing this in tune is challenging, since chorus music is often mechanical in a way that soloists’ music isn’t.
However, being opera, the piece requires a lot of character. The chorus embodies the “borough”, and we are going after Grimes through the whole piece. In our eyes, he is guilty and must be ejected and/or punished. All of this while we’re proclaiming our own righteousness. This requires lots of vocal color and textual interpretation. It’s very theatrical in this way.
It is this struggle between the two that makes Grimes especially hard. Get too musical, and the drama doesn’t shine through. Get too theatrical, and the music is lost. There has to be a balance.
My younger self, and perhaps many younger artists, might object and say, “But it’s too much to do all at once. Let me work on this first, then I’ll add this other part later. I’ll work dramatically today and work tuning tomorrow.”
But that doesn’t really fly once you’re actually working with other people. The process must be additive. As Michael Shurtleff writes in Audition:
Always remember: Add to what you have done. I have seen most actors change their reading because of directions given to them; then they lose the job. The director shakes his head, “Too bad. Can’t take direction.” Even if the director asks you to change your reading, what he means is add what he says to what you have been doing. He does not mean throw away everything you were doing, or he wouldn’t have spoken to you, singled you out, and given you direction in the first place.
Adjust this to singing, and you have the same thing. The drama must be added to singing. The tuning must not compromise the drama. The legato doesn’t negate the vitriol of the text.
It makes this all rather complicated, right? But could it be any other way? That’s why it’s hard, and that’s why a great singer is a wonderful thing. If you could see the production of La Traviata we’re doing, you’d see a cast of people who are brilliant at this. Eleonore sings every phrase outrageously beautifully, and she acts it clearly and with great commitment and energy. There’s no pausing between one and the other. It’s a unified whole.
If you remember my posts about expertise, you’ll remember that the highest level is the “contributory expert”. That’s the professional singer. They’re the ones with specialist and tacit knowledge who can function in the field.
Many people can describe what singers do. They can critique them. They understand that these elements must go together, and they can see when it’s not.
But that doesn’t mean that they can do it. Actually doing it means perpetually self-evaluation and criticism. It means adding levels of complexity to something that’s already complex. Breathing correctly to sing well is a real skill, and it’s one of many, but learning those other skills doesn’t mean that the breath work stops or becomes redundent. It’s like there’s an internal checklist that gets ticked off with every new phrase.
It’s humbling in many ways. It’s easy to say “yea yea yea” I know that. Do you? Do I? Doing the work requires that you actually do the work. It requires taking the breath the way you learned back with your teacher in college and layering everything else you’ve learned since then on top of it. And then it requires learning hard music to test whether or not you can swing it.