December 21, Winter Solstice "2009"
I've been asked by Randy Macy to give a cyberlecture about my chosen vocation, opera: more specifically- but not exclusively- the experience of being a principal artist, that is, a lead singer in the operatic profession.
Since I am assuming you know little to nothing about this field, I'll try to start generally and define in-field terms as I proceed. First: what is opera? Literally it means "works" in ancient Greek, being the plural of the word "opus", meaning "work", in the noun sense, a completed piece of work. Today the word "opera" almost always refers to a genre of music theater of a more serious character than a Broadway musical, though in reality many operas are light in tone and meant to be humorous, and several even have spoken dialogue, though some people's definition of opera requires the entire piece to be sung, leading to sung/spoken subcategories like "Singspiel" in German (literally "sing-play"- play in the theatrical sense), "Opéra-comique" in French, or operetta -- which, despite its being an Italian word (meaning "little opera"), usually refers to works in German or English (such as DIE LUSTIGE WITWE [THE MERRY WIDOW] by Léhar and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan). For the purpose of this lecture, opera is any theatrical piece not considered to be "Broadway", with musical accompaniment and a majority of the text sung instead of spoken, in terms of time, not number of words. Thus, for this lecture, all the following pieces are operas: DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL ("dee ent-Feuh-rroong owss dehm seh-Rile": The Abduction from the Harem) by Wolfgang Mozart ("MOTE-sarrt"), AÏDA by Giuseppe Verdi (joo-Sep-peh Vehrr-dee, not joo-sep-pee), LA BOHÈME ("lah bo-Emm", not "bo-Hemm": the Bohemian) by Giacomo Puccini ("Jah-coh-moh poot-CHEE-nee, not "pew-chee-nee"), PETER GRIMES by Benjamin Britten, THE CRUCIBLE by Robert Ward (based on the play of the same title), IMPROVEMENT: DON LEAVES LINDA by Robert Ashley, DAS RHEINGOLD ("dahss rhine-gault") by Richard Wagner ("RRIH-carrd VAHG-nuh"), TOMMY by the Who and JOE'S GARAGE by Frank Zappa. (This last is, by the way, my own favorite opera.) For this lecture, the following are not operas, though opera singers can be cast in them: The Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Threepenny Opera, Aïda by Elton John. But you will hear much disagreement over the categorization of many pieces of music theater, and this lecture is not intended as an authoritative guide in that respect. (Why are the operas in all caps and the musicals in italics? Simple convention.)
I listed above only the composers of the music, and not the librettists, meaning in essence the playwrights. Zappa, The Who, Wagner and Ashley are their own librettists, but most opera composers set other people's words to music, even Verdi who never wrote his own libretti even though he often practically dictated to his writers what he wanted. Mozart's most famous librettist was Lorenzo da Ponte (I'll stop making ersatz transliterations of foreign words now: this lecture shouldn't be a pronunciation primer, those interested in further info will go find it, and those not so interested need not weigh their brains down with it, since most Americans can't pronounce other languages well anyway), and in that time the librettist was considered more important than the composer and often owned exclusive rights to words and music. That's rare these days, but I was in an opera where that happened. (These days often it's the stage director who is most powerful in a production, and in terms of what the public sees, that also means most important. The difference today, for better or worse, is that the operas produced are usually a century or more old instead of newly composed.)
Despite popular belief, not all opera is in foreign languages (meaning in the USA, something other than English). Opera was invented in 1600 by Italians trying to recreate ancient Greek theater, which they'd read had been sung, not spoken; but after a while the entertainment form caught on in courts all over Europe and by 1800 operas had been written in French, German and English as well. Soon after that, Russians and Czechs were writing operas in their languages, and now there are also operas in Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, Nordic languages and a few others. In Spanish there is a genre called zarzuela, which is a sort of serious Spanish operetta: It amazes me that in this country where like it or not Spanish is our second language, zarzuela is not performed regularly whereas other languages are sung all the time. Not that opera is flagging in terms of attendance: it has often been called the fastest growing entertainment form in the country, though the recent financial turmoil has hit the opera world hard.
Anyway, many operas are written in English: besides those mentioned earlier, other important ones are SUSANNAH by Carlisle Floyd, VANESSA by Samuel Barber, THE TENDER LAND by Aaron Copland, THE CONSUL and others by Gian Carlo Menotti, and THE ABDUCTION OF FIGARO by P.D.Q. Bach (Peter Schickele), to name a few. However, most operas produced in this country were originally in other languages, and most companies now perform them in those languages with a translation projected above the stage (or at the incomparable Metropolitan, on the back of each and every seat in the auditorium: cost 'em two million). Most regional companies stick to the tried and true core (mostly Italian) repertoire, which includes IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA (the barber of Seville) by Gioacchino Rossini , LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (The marriage of Figaro) and DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE (The magic flute) by Mozart, MADAMA BUTTERFLY - which preceded "M. Butterfly" and "Miss Saigon" by over seventy years - and TOSCA by Puccini, LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (Lucy of Lammermoor) by Gaetano Donizetti, LA TRAVIATA (The lost woman) and RIGOLETTO by Verdi, CARMEN by Georges Bizet, PAGLIACCI (Clowns) by Ruggiero Leoncavallo , and FAUST by Charles Gounod. Most of these operas are now over a century old, so the field of opera may seem more a museum than a vessel of living relevant theater: because Classical Music composers generally opted to write ugly music (meaning they ignored emotions and aesthetics in favor of imagined intellectual interest, leading to the term "ivory tower music") for much of the last century -- and due to the enormous economical juggernaut of the popular music industry -- the general public now has a view that modern classical music isn't worth exploring, and new works barely get a chance in the theater. But from time to time "accessible" pieces like THE BALLAD OF BABY DOE (1956) by Douglas Moore were written, and starting roughly with Philip Glass's triptych of EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH, SATYAGRAHA and AKHNATEN in the late 1970s, there has been a small but steady stream of ear-friendly, non-ivory-tower operas over the last forty years, and there is hope that opera companies might not forever rely on the old "war chestnuts" (or "horse chestnuts"- pardon the old joke) of yestercentury to keep themselves afloat -- but like car companies, opera companies need to anticipate what they think the public will want, and that almost never includes anything new and unknown, because the Public knows what it likes and likes what it knows.
Now that I've given you a rough sketch of the sea in which I swim, I'll write a bit about what it's like to make a living singing in (usually) a foreign language while acting, in costume, in front of thousands of people. I first did it when I was ten years old, so it's second nature to me: I have no stagefright. I have often likened it to skydiving since once you go out on stage you are in a time line that can't be altered, and you just have to trust that your high notes and memory (parachute) will be there (will open)- the main difference being, of course, that if your high notes fail you don't die, though your career might. What I'm saying is that fear of failure is a big deal in my business, and if you can't control it or at least get used to it, you should probably find another job.
So what it takes to be an opera singer are:
• a healthy, structurally sound speaking apparatus (larynx, pharynx and mouth);
• a good musical ear, meaning the ability to carry a tune and keep time;
• a good vocal technique, meaning one that allows you to put out 110 decibels of sound for long stretches of time, several times a week;
• a good memory for words and music, since unlike most classical musicians opera singers must perform from memory;
• a thick skin to endure all the failures one encounters on the long road to a successful career;
• a sense of humor regarding all the nasty gossip which is bound to surface about you, since opera people thrive on it, and if they don't get some grain of truth to elaborate on, they'll make something up;
• a willingness or at least ability to travel and live out of a suitcase for months on end.
This last requirement was the only one I was worried about when I decided at age twenty-one to go for it as an opera singer. I was unaware of some of the other requirements at that time, but I was a homebody, and I didn't know if I could handle the constant moving around. There are very few North American opera houses where one can make a career exclusively: at the Met in New York, if you don't need to be a Star, you can become one of the house singers who do the smaller roles and a lot of understudying, or you can be a chorus member, who at the Met are very well paid, and you can settle down and have a Life. Chicago and San Francisco are two other places you can do this, but most of us, including the big stars, have to travel from city to city all season in order to make ends meet. There were three years there in the 90s that I was away from home for between eight and ten mounths out of the year. An average gig lasts about a month in the U.S. and Canada, a bit longer in Europe.
At this point (or since the beginning) you may be wondering, "so what? What does opera have to do with me? I don't listen, I don't attend: what difference does opera make in my life? Why should I care?" My answer is that I don't care if you care about it. I personally don't care about football. I don't care which song is at the top of the pop charts. I don't care whether pants cuffs are in or out of style, I hate them. But a large number of people are interested in opera, and not just rich people: in Italy, opera arias are still sung by the common folk and opera singers are recognized and greeted on the street. In the USA, some guys have figured out that it's a pretty good choice for a date to take a woman to the opera, since for some reason women seem to be interested in it. If you don't give a fig about opera, that's fine. But you might want to find out more about it simply to satisfy your curiosity toward those who do flock to it, or at least so as not to be pegged as an Ignorant American at a high-class party. A Canadian friend of mine, a doctor, put it this way: as a performing artist, I am a representative of my culture, and our culture is what makes us human. Since many of us come from Europe, and opera is a European art form, and it obviously exists in the USA despite the relative lack of government support for the arts in this country, and people and corporations support it with ticket sales and grants, opera is definitely part of this culture, though not of course as big a part in terms of money as some other entertainments, such as spectator sports or talk shows.
So whether you care or not, like it or not, know it or not, opera is part of the American cultural landscape, and it's an industry, which for many people means a steady living. Besides singers, opera employs orchestra players; conductors; stage directors; set, lighting and costume designers; stage hands; costume shop workers; makeup artists; administrators; education/outreach coordinators; scenery builders; receptionists; maintenance personnel. It may be non-profit, but non-profit business is still business.
Why do people go to the opera, you may ask. There are several main reasons: For some the very sound of an operatic voice is enough. There's nothing like it, and it gives some people chills. I've seen the goosebumps personally. Some go for the spectacle. Opera is a win-win-win combination of music and theater, with an additional athletic element to the vocal part of the music. Very often people applaud when the curtain goes up, before any singing, just because they like the set (the scenery on stage, for those of you who are really out of the loop). Some go only to certain operas, or operas by certain composers. Some go because they feel it's their duty as members of society, or of their class, or because their company bought season tickets and it's free. Some go to dress up and see what their cultural peers are wearing and only secondarily to see the show. The ultimate answer to this question is: People attend operas because it makes them feel good- except perhaps some spouses of opera lovers who go out of duty to their partners. These ones feel good about it later. :)
Why do people keep going back to the same operas year after year? Well, why do people watch reruns of Seinfeld or The Honeymooners, or the same movie DVD time and again? Why did CATS run so long on Broadway? (That's called a Socratic answer.) The difference is that most of these operas are from a hundred years ago or more. Why do people watch pole-vaulting or steeplechase at the Olympics? They've seen it before- but they haven't seen these athletes try it, or they want to see if the champions can retain their titles. Opera has its own champions, its own Flo-Jos and Tigers. Right now Renée Fleming is really, really big.
And opera has fans: Just like baseball fans who collect cards and other memorabilia, opera fans collect CDs, ticket stubs and commemorative coffee mugs. Some even collect publicity photos and signatures from their favorite stars. This can get kind of creepy. We don't know what these fans do with our photos. I've been in the houses of some fans like this, and they just had a wall dedicated to these photos. They seem to get something out of having seen this or that star, and having a memento of the event, the same as people who met Willie Mays or Jack Nicklaus. Who can tell: some people collect cocktail napkins. And just to clue you in: the one household name in opera we have now, the late Pavarotti, among opera fans, is just one of many great names. In fact, he's not even the best in many categories. He never sang Wagner, for instance. (That's a whole operatic subworld of its own. Pavarotti singing Wagner would be like champion figure skaters playing in the NHL.) Pavarotti's name isn't mentioned inside the opera world more frequently than those of many other tenors, living and dead. It's like Tiger Woods in golf. Everyone knows of him whether or not they follow the game, but real fans can rattle off hundreds of other names.
Opera fans also have their favorite vocal categories, roughly from lowest to highest (in pitch, not popularity): bass, basso cantante, basso buffo (comic bass), bass-baritone, baritone, lyric baritone, heldentenor, spinto tenor, character tenor, lyric tenor, leggiero tenor, countertenor, contralto, mezzo-soprano, lyric mezzo-soprano, dramatic soprano, spinto soprano, lyric soprano, soubrette soprano, dramatic coloratura soprano, lyric coloratura soprano, with a few other categories sprinkled in between. In fact, one problem for the more vesatile among us is that those who hire us have difficulty categorizing us and therefore deciding how to use us. Such singers are referred to as "zwischenfach" singers, which is German for "in between categories". There are baritenors, for instance, and there are mezzos who occasionally sing soprano parts and vice versa. Luckily for some of these singers there are roles that are recognized as doable by either kind of singer.
The dramatic voices, in the USA at least, have it especially hard, because for one thing there's a myth in opera that you have to be a certain age before you can sing a dramatic role, whereas in truth you just have to have a good enough technique to be able to handle it. Opera singers hit their physical peaks the same time everyone else does, but this doesn't seem to be common knowledge among those who hire us. So many dramatic tenors and sopranos spend years singing as baritones or mezzos just so they can get work until such time as the powers that be (the impresari) think they can sing what they've been able to sing for years- or they don't know what voice type they really are for years until they find the right teacher to free their top, and then they have to change their whole repertoire. I'm a dramatic tenor, but I never sang baritone roles, although several critics have labeled me a baritone due to the color of my voice. There was one impresario who told me to keep him posted about my career because he would hate to see happen to me what happens to many like me, that they give up and go into insurance or something because no one hires people with voices like that at the age I was at at the time. So I spent years singing roles that can work for many kinds of tenor, and then suddenly, with a slight change in my technique, I was getting all these Italian opera jobs (in the USA, not Italy), and then when my technique changed again and I got a better agent, I started singing a lot of German and Slavic language operas, to the point that people don't generally think of me for Italian stuff anymore. (Whatever. I sing what they pay me to sing.)
For another thing, dramatic voices suffer from what I call the flavor-of-the-month attitude. It works for all voice types except bass and perhaps contralto, but I'll just talk about tenors, since that's what I am. Back before Pavarotti hit the scene, tenors with my kind of voice were commonly heard on the stages of the world: a dark, robust sound, exemplified by Enrico Caruso (still for many the best ever), Franco Corelli, Bruno Prevedi, Mario del Monaco, Giuseppe Giacomini, Ramon Vinay, Richard Tauber, Jon Vickers, James McCracken, Jess Thomas, James King, Hans Hopf and Lauritz Melchior, singing the heavy Wagner roles like Tristan and Italian parts like Andrea Chénier and Otello. At the same time there were what could be called the standard-sound tenors: Jussi Bjoerling (VERY famous), José Carreras, Beniamino Gigli, Nicolai Gedda, Richard Tucker and Carlo Bergonzi, known for the well-known roles like Rodolfo, Don José, Lenski, Faust and Werther. And there were the lighter tenors: Alfredo Kraus, Fritz Wunderlich, Stuart Burrows, Peter Pears, Ferruccio Tagliavini, specializing in roles by Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini. Then along came Pavarotti, belonging to the third category, with his nine high C's and his bright, forward sound, and later on his marketing machine, and eventually the notion seemed to enter the operatic consciousness that all tenors should sound like Pavarotti no matter what the role is. This despite the fact that ol' Luciano actually sang very darkly for his kind of voice, which was light even for a tenor. (If this confuses you, listen to the duet he did with his father in church from that old documentary about him and see how light his dad sounded in comparison.) The trouble is, most of us don't have vocal folds that short and many tenors struggle with their high notes for years trying to sound like Pavarotti when they don't have the right equipment. This is compounded by the problem that most voice teachers in American universities go for a light, colorless sound anyway, and it's almost by accident that a lot of singers attain the rich color of true dramatic voices. People have repeatedly tried to steer me personally away from it. It's a simple technical thing, really, which is selected against by most teachers.
This flavor of the month thing applies now also to baritones, and has applied to sopranos possibly longer than tenors- in the USA. I personally know a great baritone who after over ten years in the business went back to school to become a Lutheran minister because opera companies weren't hiring him. Thirty years before, in Leonard Warren's time, they would have been flocking to his door, but now he can make more money preaching than singing. In Germany our kind of dark voice has always been accepted and many American singers who are allowed by their teachers to make that chocolatey sound end up moving there permanently. In France, who knows what they like. It's a mixed bag, probably, but the same international stars sing there who sing here at the Met, Chicago and San Francisco. In the Latin countries- Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina- this darker color is also tolerated, but they prefer more of a bite in the sound than Germans do.
I don't make this sound out of choice, as many think, unless it were that I choose to have a secure top, because (without getting too technical) this dark color isn't an end in itself: it's a byproduct of the technique I've developed that allows me to sing these roles with their stamina requirements and high notes. I am now old enough to be considered 'correct" for dramatic parts -- another myth about singing which I'll deal with later -- but my road would have been easier, and many good singers would still be singing, if there were no flavor of the month and all colors were accepted. Sounds almost like the Civil Rights movement.
If you want to hear some singers with the color I'm speaking of, get recordings of Caruso, Vinay, Hopf, Melchior or Vickers among tenors; Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi, Jessye Norman or Kirsten Flagstad among sopranos; Ettore Bastianini, Leonard Warren or Hermann Prey among baritones. A living, working example of this color: Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine, famous for his Otello and the dramatic Russian tenor parts like Gyerman in PIQUE DAME by Tchaikovski, one of my personal top five operas.
• To clear up some myths about opera: most soprano costumes do NOT come equipped with a Viking helmet with horns sticking out, and in fact the role that is associated with that helmet, BrÜnnhilde from Wagner's four-part Ring cycle (she's in three of them), these days is generally portrayed without that helmet -- which by the way has feathers, not horns. She flies, not stampedes.
• Not all opera singers are fat. In fact very few that I've worked with are above average weight for an American, and many strenuously keep in shape at gyms wherever they're working. A membership at the YMCA works across the country. However, at some companies the voice is more important than physical appropriateness for the role, and we get portly women portraying young ladies dying of consumption, and men so fat they could never have really been the King's Knight or a starving poet. Realistically, outside of Sir John Falstaff and a few character parts, there are almost no opera roles that require obesity, and anyway this can be achieved with padding. Somehow, an exquisite voice can make listeners blind to physical inappropriateness. But since television started broadcasting operas, two voices being equally impressive, an opera company will more likely hire the thinner singer, if only because the costume will be that much cheaper to make or rent. Opera costume fabric is often astronomically expensive. I recently did a role in which the costume they used, a suit bought at a local high-end men's clothing store, cost more than I got paid to sing a show, and it wasn't even made of silk.
• You don't have to be fat to have a loud voice. You just don't. End of discussion.
• PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is not an opera, it is a Musical. So you can't correctly say -- and I've heard it more than once -- that you've seen opera because you've been to PHANTOM. However, WEST SIDE STORY, which has been done on Broadway, is sometimes considered an opera, because opera companies produce it on occasion. It is in a gray area, though: one might call it a Broadway opera, like TOMMY is a rock opera. (THE SAINT OF BLEECKER STREET by Menotti, which like WEST SIDE STORY is set in New York City, is just an opera.)
• Tenors are not all short, and basses are not all tall. Corelli, a tenor, was six foot one, and Eric Halfvarson, a bass I've sung with at the Met, is about five foot eight.
• Not all opera singers are homosexual, and not all men who like opera are homosexual. Go to Italy and find out how many of those male opera fans like guys. Bring a bag for your teeth. However, opera is one business which has long been more tolerant of alternate sexual preferences than most, and so the percentage of same-sex people in opera is greater than in the general population (or so many would like to think).
• Not all tenors sleep with all the chorus women. Baritones do much more of that. :)
• Not all conductors sleep with the lead soprano, though many conductors are married to sopranos. Or is it the other way around?
• Not all conductors are men, and the female ones don't all sleep with the lead tenor. Or baritone.
• Opera singing is not screaming. You cannot scream for that long and have a voice left.
• Not all opera singers are horrible actors. Most singers today are acting singers, and some are singing actors. Some are excellent actors, in fact. The era of stand-and-sing opera is over. Opera is now almost everywhere a total theatrical experience.
• One's voice does not automatically get deeper as one ages. Alfredo Kraus sang high tenor parts into his 70s. This myth exists because A) many singers have techniques that don't hold up to years of use, and they have to drop down a fach to keep working; B) if singers change technique in certain ways during their career or lose their fear of sounding dark, their voice will start sounding deeper; C) using one's voice in certain ways will in fact enlarge the vocal muscles just like curls with heavier free weights enlarge biceps, and that will add depth or thickness to the sound. Technique is a hugh factor in this. Simply lowering one's larynx will through simple mechanics and acoustics result in a deeper sound, but since most singers who figure this out don't do so until they're already out singing roles (because most vocal teachers ignore laryngeal placement), people assume it must be because they're older that their voice is changing. Like any other physical trait, one's vocal apparatus is genetically determined, but like many traits, it can be affected by aspects of living and training. Simply smoking will change one's voice.
• Opera singing is not miked -- well, almost never. The New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City was designed as a theater for ballet, with the stage intentionally built to be quiet so people couldn't hear the dancers' footfalls. Only after completion did it become the home of New York's second largest opera company, New York City Opera, and after many years of suffering with this acoustic burden they decided to go with electronic enhancement -- but it's now been removed along with a lot of the carpeting, and they're back to True Acoustic opera there again. A very few companies do officially amplify the singers because the hall acoustics can't be fixed and they can't afford to build their own house, and I've heard of some stars at big companies who have mikes in their bowties or hairpieces; I won't mention names. But in most theaters what you hear is what we're putting out all on our own; what's more, we usually have to fight amplification of the orchestra which is piped into the wings so that the performers onstage can hear the orchestra better. This is the norm now, but is unnecesarry, and ofter detrimental. I was in one theater with famously good acoustics, and since my character wasn't in the second act I went out to the auditorium to listen. I couldn't hear the soprano most of the time. I went backstage and asked the stage manager to turn the monitors down. He turned them off. The balance was perfect. The sound technician complained that the orchestra sounded thin! (thus proving that monitoring the orchestra for the stage changes the sound in the auditorium) The conductor, whose beat couldn't be followed by singers or orchestra, thought that the problem was that we couldn't hear the orchestra well enough, and had the monitors turned back on for the performance. During the first act we had speaker feedback in one of the quietest sections. Lovely. And the soprano got drowned out in the second.
In truth it's very difficult to mike an opera, even for recording, since we're constantly moving on stage, and lavaliers for everyone would be very tricky and expensive, besides being low-fi as mikes go. The best place to record a live opera from is the back of the auditorium, but it's never done commercially because we're used to the close-miked sound in all recordings, and that will probably never change. So the best way to appreciate opera acoustically is to actually attend one, and with that you also get to see the visual element, which can be quite stunning- or outrageous, or unbelievably uninteresting.
One theater I know that has amplified the singers for opera is in Colorado: Boettscher Hall in Denver. Despite the fact that sound from voices and many instruments is directional, someone thought that putting the stage in the middle of a circular audience was a good idea: it was built for symphony concerts. (That space would be better suited for professional wrestling if the number of seats were increased by an order of magnitude.) Miking opera is thus necessary there; however, for the production I was in, they decided to block out about a quarter of the seats and not mike it. So of course the reviewer wrote that I couldn't be heard. If I'd only known where he was sitting I'd have faced him the whole time. Voices are very directional; thus the best kind of hall to hear opera in is deep and narrow, or at least deep, so the voice has a chance of echoing around and reaching everyone. If you're stuck in a bad hall, the best you can do is spread the sound around by facing many directions so the audience can get your full sound once in a while. This is a problem that simply doesn't occur at a rock'n'roll concert where you are blanketed and shot through with sound. Perhaps if we did mike opera and brought the sound level up to that of, say, a Rush or AC/DC concert, we would attract a different audience. But since the instruments are also acoustic, the feedback problems would be monumental.
One of the absolute best halls for opera, acoustically, is also in Colorado: the famous Central City Opera House. Go see a show there if you want to hear what it's like in an average European opera house, for which most of these warhorse pieces were written, not these huge multifunctional monstrosities known as Civic Auditoriums where most operas are done in North America.
A few words about productions of operas in Europe versus in the States: The old standards have been done to death in Europe, so a while back they started doing new things with them, updating them, pushing the envelope, often past where it ought to have gone, depending on your point of view. I have a friend who was singing the tenor lead in DER FREISCHÜTZ (The free shot -- gun shot not whisky shot) by Carl Maria von Weber, and the director asked him to urinate right there on the stage so that later the Devil character could take a bath in it. He refused, so they rigged up a little groin-high spout for him to go stand in front of so at least it looked like he was peeing.
Anyway, they're used to that in Europe, but opera, even the old stuff, is still new in many parts of this country and we could stand to continue "traditional" productions of these things for quite a while yet. However, many companies want to get or stay noticed and they bring European directors over, or emulate them with bold Americans, and we're seeing more and more weird mountings. Most of them don't work, but every so often someone figures something out that goes well with the music even though it has very little to do with the piece's original concept. I was in a Flying Dutchman like that, where instead of the shores of Norway or Scotland we were on a translucent stage that lit up in different colors, and instead of spinning wheels the women's chorus wore propeller (beanie) hats, and all the costumes were cut at odd angles and looked like something out of a fashion show. The director had us do very stylized movements, and the whole thing worked. But that's rare. Usually it sucks.
The smaller companies, though, are more likely to offer something closer to the traditional approach. So as a first foray for an audience member it might be better to see something in your own home town if there's a resident company there, if you're not in one of the really big cities, and also you'd be supporting your local arts community, which is always a good thing to do. Under no circumstances should you judge opera solely on what's broadcast or telecast. Opera is too big for television, and radio removes more than half the experience, and opera singers don't mike well even when they are miked. We're just too loud for the mikes to handle.
In case any of you readers are considering a career as an opera singer, I'll describe a typical path. You find a good voice teacher. Don't get one from the phone book, and try not to rely on one at a university, because most voice teachers do more harm than good. The good ones don't need to advertise and are generally expensive -- but beware also the Cult Teacher who has a Star Pupil and everyone thinks it's the teacher's doing, so they flock, the teacher charges 120 bucks an hour, gets a credit card machine, rakes it in and helps no one. Best to ask around about good teachers and then sit in on a master class to see what those teachers are churning out. If you don't want to sound like those students, don't study with their teacher. The problem is, as a novice, you might not know what to listen for. Be safe, be critical: ask yourself if this or that singer sounds like they're struggling, or has trouble making it to the end of the aria, or try to determine if the teacher has a Hidden Agenda, such as having their own failed singing career live on in their students. People can be devious and voice teaching is a business. Caveat emptor. I have heard people's voices ruined by bad teachers. Beware. Beware.
You study and practice and learn arias and roles for a few years until your teacher tells you you're ready to go to grad school. This is where we hang out until we're old enough for the companies with apprentice programs to let us audition for them.
You audition for all the apprentice programs. You get none. You try again the next year. Meanwhile you live at your parents' house, or more likely get a job waiting tables or driving a cab because your family thinks you're insane to want to do this for a living, and you'll never make it and when will you wake up and get a real job. I have friends in this category.
You finally get an apprenticeship, on the lower tier generally called the Studio Program. You are one of sixteen out of eight hundred who applied and four hundred who were granted an audition, so you think you must be pretty good. You get acting and movement and stage combat classes, which is good because your grad school never required you to be able to do any of these things, just stand and sing. In between classes you sing in the chorus and do little opera scenes in freebie concerts. For all this work you get a room and Union minimum wage. This is called Paying your Dues. But you can't join the union yet: you need two apprenticeships for that.
Next year you get an upper tier apprentice job with a small role in the Mozart opera and more classes, and no chorus singing, and you get your union card. This card doesn't matter at most regional houses, though, since the Union has no contract with most of them. You're not supposed to sing at a non-union house, but that's where the gig is, so you don't tell the Union about it. (This is the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents choristers, solo singers and ballet dancers. Orchestra players are in a different union, because everyone "knows" singers and dancers are not musicians. Even many singers talk about themselves this way, and it's sometimes true.)
Then you auditon for several regional company Outreach programs. One takes you. You get an apartment to share with the other outreach singer of your sex, small roles on the main stage in the three or four operas that company puts on in a year, maybe help out your section in the chorus because they're notoriously weak and need a section leader, AND you get to wake up at six A.M. on weekdays to go do opera scenes or short operas for children at the local public schools. By the end of this gig you want to kill the education director, who was just doing her or his job, building the Future Audience of Opera. This is no lie. Outreach programs are probably the best thing opera can have, but singers really don't like working or even getting up in the morning.
Next year you do regional house auditions. In Ohio alone there are four decent sized companies; more in Texas. One or two of them, say Kansas City and Milwaukee, offer you roles in their upcoming season. You take them. You put them on the résumé.
You send the résumé to fifty of the agents listed in the Musical America yearly publication. Five write you back and invite you to audition for them. You get the money together for a trip to New York City and sing for them all. Two offer to represent you. You ask all your singer friends about these two agents, and one has a bigger reputation as a sleazeball, so you take the other one. You are lucky.
You move to New York and do temp work to pay the bills and your agent gets you ten auditions that fall. You get one gig, a major role an another regional house, say Indianapolis. From that you get other gigs because the heads of Memphis and Cincinnati saw your show. For the next three years you get rehired at all three, and eventually you get known at regional houses across the country for a few roles that seemed written for you, according to the critics. But then at one gig you meet your Significant Other, and by and by you realize you want to raise a family. So finally you decide you've had enough of all the travel and you've sung with a few famous names and you're ready to get out of performing, and you apply to some universities for a teaching position, and lo and behold the university close to where you grew up is looking for a voice teacher and you take the position, settle down and have a Life, and your mother is happy you've come home, and she thinks a university position teaching voice is almost a real job, and your spouse doesn't mind moving to this town too much, and at the university you help countless young hopefuls on their way to becoming Stars themselves, knowing that whether or not they make it the journey will have been interesting and almost certainly worthwhile.
In closing I'll say thanks for your attention, those of you still reading, and if you have any questions, please pose them and Randy will forward them to me. But please try not to ask a question which was already answered in the lecture itself. Thanks a lot; this was fun to write.
(and then I wrote:)
Randy asked me to write a bit about covering, which is a term synonymous with understudying: basically, it's an opera company's insurance policy in case the singers they hire to do a role become ill or otherwise incapacitated. Most regional companies can't afford covers and so when I sing with them I work with no net (as in trapeze or tightrope). Bigger companies do often have them, though, and at the Met each and every singing role is covered, whereas in some places only the main roles are, or even just one or two roles. Some singers at the Met do almost nothing but cover, which means that while they're making a pretty good living, they're not being seen on the Met stage except on the occasions that their counterparts are indisposed. Since it's in a singer's best interest to stay healthy and be given the money they're contracted for - since if they don't sing they don't get paid, if they're on a per-performance schedule - going on stage as a cover is not common and you can't count on the extra money. I have gone on at the Met as a cover once, in HANSEL AND GRETEL, because Philip Langridge came out with Vertigo. Sometimes covers double up: In the 2003 production of SALOME by Richard Strauss, the part of Herod was sung in the first two performances by the cover Allan Glassman because Siegfried Jerusalem had caught that horrible bug that was going around the Met and had to rest. Since Allan was also singing the part of First Jew, his cover for that role, Joel Sorensen, went on in for Allan. This means that both Allan and Joel made more money that night than they would have otherwise -- but depending on the singer's contract, that might not happen. "Weekly" artists get paid a fixed weekly amount, no matter how many performances they do. Such singers thus do not always look forward to their colleague being indisposed.
I have covered roles in Dallas, Memphis, New York (New York City Opera as well as the Met), and Orange County, CA. The only other time I went on was in Orange County, at the now defunct Opera Pacific, where the show was Offenbach's LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN (usually translated as "The Tales of Hoffmann" but more accurately rendered as "Hoffmann's Stories" - since "Hoffmann's Tales" is a bit ambiguous in spoken English). I was covering Vinson Cole in the title role. He had injured his leg during rehearsal, and during the second performance he became unable to continue on his feet, though his voice was fine. So I did the second and third acts and got paid a whole performance fee for it. As you can see, "indisposed" can mean many things other than the inability to sing.
At New York City Opera back in the 90s something different happened on Opening Night of MATHIS DER MALER by Hindemith: William Stone had the flu and couldn't sing the lead part, but Stephen Powell hadn't had enough time in staging rehearsals to know the blocking, so Stephen sang it from the orchestra pit while Bill walked through it on the stage. This brings up an important and bothersome aspect of covering: cover singers never get enough rehearsal time. This adds a stress to the job that doesn't exist for the person scheduled to sing the part. I only got the stage time I did in rehearsal for Hoffmann because Vinson was sidelined with about a week to go before Opening Night. At the Met they manage to do a cover run-through of the whole piece with the cover (or alternate) cast by Opening Night, but whereas the scheduled principal singers get at least three weeks of staging time, the covers usually get just two rehearsals of each scene plus the final run-through, and that's it. If they're called to go on stage toward the end of a run of shows that has had no cast changes in it (for which they do call extra rehearsals after opening night), they might get a brief run-through with the assistant director and a few props the day of the show, but sometimes they just have to go on and do their best, and hope their colleagues are able to improvise if need be, due to a forgotten piece of blocking (blocking meaning deciding where to stand, when to move, etc., as opposed to staging which includes that plus other things like intentions and subtext- which is where the real theater is, but for a long time most opera singers were such abysmal actors that the best the stage directors could do with them was tell them where to stand and when to move, so at least the audience would see a series of interesting pictures). There's one company that was famous for giving a singer one rehearsal with maybe a chair for scenery in a small rehearsal room with the assistant director and maybe a pianist, and that only if the person they were covering called in sick. There are also some directors and some singers who prefer that covers not watch them go through the staging and blocking process. In these cases, the covers might only get to see the show when it goes into tech week on stage, and if it's a complicated show it might be impossible for some covers to absorb, write down and memorize the blocking in time for opening night. Most companies don't have the monetary and human resources necessary to make sure the covers are ready, so they have to gamble that the covers won't be needed. (One might ask, therefore, why such companies would hire covers at all. The impresario might want to give a promising young singer a job, or the covers might also be doing an outreach version of the show, usually abridged, as The Dallas Opera has done with some of their productions.)
In the summer of 2009 I did something unprecedented for me: I covered a part without even being in the same state. I had done Herod in SALOME in Toledo that spring, and Opera Theater of St. Louis put it on in the summer, but had no apprentice tenor up to the vocal challenge of the part (it's low, fast, wordy and musically difficult), so they hired me to cover it from my house in New Jersey. Not only that, I knew it in German and I was not required to learn the English translation they did it in. Had I gone on, I would have sung it in German. This happened in Des Moines in 1992 with LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST. They flew a cover in who sang it in Italian while we were all singing English. I recently heard of a Czech production where five languages were sung by five different people in the same show, and most of them weren't even covers! The miracle of surtitles makes it unimportant what language one sings in anyway: those not fluent in that evening's chosen language get to read an abridged translation of the opera on the slide screen. But five in the same show is odd even for Europe, I would hope, but since my career isn't over there, I can't say for sure.
One final thing: different companies treat announcement of covers differently. Some companies list them on the cast page in the program; others don't, in which case a live announcement must be made prior to the show's start. So depending on the company, unless a cover ends up going on that night you might never be aware that there's an entire cast of other people in addition to the ones you're seeing that might be just as good as, or even better than, the ones in front of you. Some of the best voices I've heard are covers at the Met who have never been heard on a broadcast. This applies further to the world of recording: it's a myth that the best singers are the ones that get onto the recordings. There are hundreds of great singers whom you'll never hear on a CD just because they don't have the connections other singers have to those in charge of production. I'm on the Naxos CD of Lohengrin and Siegfried excerpts because my agent happened to meet the conductor who was to do the recording when they were both attending some show, and they got to talking. I was what this guy was looking for but had not yet found. A demo tape and a live audition later and I was soon off to Moscow to do the recording. (Why Moscow? Ancient Oriental concept called Moo-La, usually translated into Corporate-Speak as Bottom Line. Most people can't afford to pay the famous orchestras to make a recording. That Russian orchestra was affordable to the record company in question. Read Frank Zappa's autobiography to see what he had to shell out to record his own classical pieces.)