Response to “The End of the Great Big American Voice”

© Michael Sylvester, 2014



Recently a November 2005 New York Times article by Anne Midgette has been making the rounds in certain singerly circles on Facebook. Entitled “The End of the Great Big American Voice,” this article makes some points that I completely agree with, but it also misses the mark at times. The piece could well have been entitled something like, “Where have all the big voices gone?” Where it misfires is when it seems to make an assumption that bigger voices are better voices. Especially egregious are Ms. Midgette’s comments that seem to denigrate soprano Sylvia McNair in comparison to mezzo Dolora Zajick. I sang with both ladies and consider both friends. Opera needs all types of voices. Big ones like Zajick’s and more lyric ones like McNair’s, as well as buffos and comprimarios and everything in between. I agree we have a crisis in big voices, but lyric voices—or the people that have enjoyed their talents—are not the source of the problem and this particular part of the story almost seemed personal.


This is a subject that I am deeply passionate about and one I have written about before, even recently. Allow me to dive into the deep end once more. Splash!


Commentators keep looking for a reason why opera singing has seen a decline. They seem to think if they look hard enough they will find the reason that explains it all. We all like simple solutions, but not every solution is simple. In this case, there are many reasons why this is happening. And let’s be clear, it is happening. The quality of opera singing is on the decline and there are fewer and fewer big voices coming to the front of the stage, metaphorically speaking. The singers that we hear today—those we are told are the divas and the stars to idolize—are far too often what I call “plastic” singers. They may look like burnished wood, but upon close inspection we do not see the depth of the grain.


We have entered the age of pop opera. In the pop music arena, stars are created carefully by agents, publicists, promoters and producers. Find the “look” and create a star. Meticulously controlled recordings are made that appeal to the most common denominators in human culture. Events are staged to create buzz. Magazine and website articles are invented for the likes of People, Us, and the plethora of TV entertainment shows and websites that pass themselves off as entertainment news hyping whatever star is the latest thing. You didn’t seriously think all of that was reporting on the entertainers, did you? It is all carefully crafted and controlled to gain maximum income for the agents, etc and the media reporting it.


That kind of star creation seems to be edging it way into opera and as a result we have a bevy of young singers with no real strong background in opera. They look good and they sound non-offensive. They sound alike, mostly, because the one thing this system abhors is uniqueness. Singers like Richard Tucker, Birgit Nilsson, Marian Anderson, Elly Ameling, George London, and so many others would never make it to the big leagues today. Young singers, if you do not know the singers above, Google them!


That brings me to the next issue: The poor training of our young singers. There are lots of reasons for this and enough blame to go around. First off, the level of vocal technique taught throughout this country is dreadful. So many people that should never be allowed near a human voice are being hired to teach at our universities and conservatories. I know that is a harsh indictment, but it is true. What matters more and more are academic honors and degrees. I’m sorry, but those things mean squat when it comes to training a voice. Doesn’t mean you can’t have a DMA and be a great teacher, but that degree has little to do with it. It is exceedingly hard to teach someone how to teach voice. You learn by first understanding how to do it well yourself. You learn how hard it is to be on a stage, a real professional stage, and deliver night after night. You hone your craft and then you learn a completely different and equally hard thing: How to hear a voice and diagnose its problems and then how to fix those problems and how to carefully and cautiously week after week train a young voice in a technique that will serve the student for a lifetime. These are difficult tasks. They are complicated skill to learn and not everyone has the talent to teach. Many of our finest singers have been awful teachers—though they rake in the money in retirement from the eager flock. They are lousy teachers, I think, because these truly great singers although they had to work really hard to succeed, they mostly were born with a heightened skill at singing and were trained very expertly how to use their own voice. They knew the basics instinctually and so they never had to learn those things that most mere mortals have to learn. Of course, there are exceptions. But it takes so much more than just a degree and a doctoral dissertation on the effect of 40% humidity on the baritone voice between c3-d3 on Thursdays. I am not discounting scholarship or research, but doing that, in and of itself, does not make you qualified to teach voice.


And then there is this. As research in vocal science—a very important subject—has ramped up in the past 30 years or so, there has been an academically driven switch in the fine points of vocal technique. Study after study has shown this fact or that fact and academically minded teachers have taken up the cause. To my mind, this has led to timid, careful, uneventful and measured singing. Please understand, I have nothing against research in voice. I teach Vocal Pedagogy. It is important to know how the voice works, especially as a teacher. The problem is that researchers look at scientific data. There has to be a point to the data or it is meaningless. So what they often look at is efficiency. How efficiently is the sound produced? Efficiency you can measure, and so that has become the standard. But why? Who decided that efficiency was the gold standard in singing? It seems to me that beauty of tone and resonance are more important that efficiency. But, you cannot measure those qualities (okay, you can measure resonance, but mere measurements do not explain when it is best.)


Breath is the most important, most fundamental thing in singing well. It may well be that the most beautiful, luscious and ear-melting tone is not made by the most efficient use of breath. Efficient use, yes, but most efficient, maybe not. The idea of “placing” the sound has fallen out of favor because the scientists have told us we can’t place the sound, that the sinuses really don’t add much to resonance. But I am here to tell you that it does not matter to me that it is not real (I accept that truth however, because I believe in science), because when I feel like I am placing the sound behind the bridge of my nose or when my student achieves that, it produces a better sound. We cannot throw away decades and centuries of proven teaching techniques because an oscilloscope says it is not real or the most efficient. It’s great to know these things to inform our understanding and our teaching, but what works, works. Athletes train to be the most efficient they can be. While singing has an athletic basis, it is not a sport. We do not award medals for singing the longest line without a breath, or the highest note or the loudest. We award artistry and beauty, qualities that can be assessed but not measured.


Teacher Marlena Malis is quoted in the NYT article as saying, “We want interesting artists.” Many of us do, but I’m not sure that is what the industry wants. It wants ticket sales. It does not care how that comes about. Publicity stunts, creating interest in “artists” to fill the gap in genuine stars, producing shows that are more glitter than gold, and more. The industry wants safe, not interesting, artists. Then they will tell us those artists are interesting. And how many people really know anyway? The younger generation doesn’t know. Whoever has the latest recording out is the greatest and most desirable artist.


Singers are also responsible for the lack of great singers. Today’s singers expect it to be fed to them. They think if they get good grades and do the work put forth for them in college, they will succeed. As a group they take little initiative to teach themselves. And if you want to be a real singer, you have to teach yourself. Listen to the great singers of the past and present. Understand their style. Empathize with their voices. Work at your languages, don’t just be prepared with your IPA. That’s merely a tool. When you study a piece of music, understand the text. Make it yours. Know its roots. And be patient. It takes a long time to be a seasoned singer, despite the stories of great singers who sprang on the scene at age 20. Those are the exceptions.


We also somehow believe that we can teach someone in an hour a week and make them great. If you look back you will find singers that went off to study with this or that great master and they speak of having a lesson every day, of singing only scales for a year, of long discussions with their teacher on the subtleties of music and singing. Music has long been a mentored craft. Teacher passing down to student, who in turn passes it down, and so forth. Modern life seems to thwart this kind of apprenticeship.


Young Artist Programs (yep, there’s an app for that) are far too often not the true apprenticeships they once were. Of course, there is some benefit to singing 30 performances of an opera scavenged from some great work, evidently deemed so unsuitable to children that it had to be completely changed from it original meaning, like some grand parody. Yes, performing is performing, but where is the training that these young singers need and deserve? What reward do they get for prostituting their talents in the service of continued grant money? There was a time when singers were groomed and watched over as their talents grew. Singers get started late. The lucky ones had instrumental training as a child, but most do not know they have vocal talent until years after their voices and bodies mature. Real vocal and artist education begins at about age 20-22 for most singers. And while big voices take many more years to mature, even lyric voices take time to become artists. Dramatic voices are often not very skilled until they reach their late twenties or early thirties. Even then the voice can take 5 years or more to “gel.”


Big voices can be ugly and unwieldy in the early stages. They can seem coarse and incapable. Rough and monochromatic. They are often given dubious advice by well meaning teachers, vocal coaches, conductors and managers. They need to sing, but what can they sing? As a young lyric-spinto tenor, I was told by so many people in my late twenties that I should sing the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto. I took that advice and two national bus and truck tours and sundry other performances of the role later, I had by the time I was in my early thirties, about 60 or so performances of the role under my belt. It went well evidently, but I never felt like it was “my” part. In the middle of the last tour of Rigoletto that I did, I left for two weeks and went away to sing my very first Radames in Aida (with the great soprano, Susan Dunn, also her first). The Radames just fit, and when I returned to the Rigoletto tour, I felt like I sang it better. The point of that story is to say that while you can fit a more dramatic voice in a lyric role, it is not always the best advice. I think I would have done better to sing some Pinkertons, Alfredos, Rodolfos, and such.


The opera industry needs to look beyond the next season, the next fundraiser, the next grant and seek to develop the talent that they ultimately will rely upon. Our biology has not changed in the past 60 years. I am convinced there are still potentially great singers being born. It is up to us to find them and nurture them. As a culture we need to value our arts more and our pop culture less. Art adds to society. Pop culture merely entertains us while we wait to grow old. There is no enrichment of life in mere entertainment. Do we need some mindless entertainment to balance our lives? Surely we do, but when that is all we have and all we value, then our culture is surely on a slide downward. There is meaning in great art, but it is not easy to obtain. Our educational system needs to stress the value of art and introduce it to students. Parents need to follow up, and they will if they were exposed as children themselves and if our culture values it.


As things stand now, there are no models for opera singers, especially big voices. We do not hear similar sounds from the current pop artists. That realm values electronic sounds over natural ones. Without models to look up to, how will young people understand the possibility of using their voice in an operatic way? They have no exposure to that kind of singing. Not at home, not at church, not in their rock and rap celebrities, not on television. Nowhere. Can we expect them to suddenly say, “Oh hey, I want to be a opera singer?” Sadly not. And many of the lower male voices, who cannot sing in the high tenor range like most of the male rock singers do, probably think they have little vocal talent. If they never pursue it, they will never know. How many potential Leonard Warrens or Cesare Siepis are out there unaware of their talent? There must be some. (Younger singers, you can Google those names, too.)


As I said at the beginning, my passion for singing and for opera is deep. I cannot bear to think that it will die or change so much as to be unrecognizable. But the reasons for the decline of opera singing are many. Simple solutions are not to be found. Much of it is deep seated in our culture. Hard to change that.