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.





Why is Opera in Distress?

© Michael Sylvester 2014

This is an opinion piece and the opinions offered are mine. They are not backed up by empirical evidence. These are my observations and conclusions. Feel free to agree or disagree.

I started to title this piece “why is opera in decline,” but it occurred to me that “decline” was too strong a word. It is, nevertheless, in distress. In recent years we have witnessed the closure of various opera companies across the USA and worldwide, and those that remain often speak about declining audiences and donations. The most recent has been San Diego Opera shutting its doors just one year shy of its 50th Anniversary. Maddeningly, they are closing preemptively. They see their incoming funds declining and the audience base shrinking and rather than reformat themselves, they would rather close. It seems a strange choice, but it is pointless to speculate without knowing the details.

There are many possible reasons for opera’s current malaise. But at the heart of most of the probable reasons is diminishing audiences. If performances were uniformly sold-out and additional performances clamored for, we would not be in this situation. So why are audience members dwindling?

Time and time again we hear that the opera audience is dying off (literally) and that younger patrons are not popping up to take their place. So, why is that? As time marches on, young people become older people, but if they are not opera fans at 20, 30 or 40, will they be fans at 55 or 65? Some perhaps, but my guess is on the whole, no, they will not. So why are our current senior citizens more opera inclined than our younger generations?

My conclusion is pop music. At 62, I’m in that so-to-be senior citizen demographic. But I’m at the younger end of it. When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, whom did I hear singing on the radio? Singers like Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday…I could go on, but do you get the picture? These singers used their voices in a classical to quasi-classical way. Many of them were probably classically trained to some extent. Even the King himself, Elvis Presley, knew how to sing in a more classical way. If you don’t believe me, listen to the very end of his “It’s now or never” and you will hear a beautifully sung high Ab on the word “love” that many young tenors would love to emulate.

By hearing these voices in the pop music, it was not a big leap to hearing them in classical music. There was a familiarity, a continuity that made listening to opera not so strange. The generations older than me heard even more of this. They were even closer to the source. When we went to concerts by local groups or artists, it was classically oriented quite often. When we went to church or the synagogue, the singing and the music were classical in nature. High school choirs sang classical music mostly.

But as the late 1960s gave way to the 1970s and 1980s pop music began to diverge. Rock music strayed from its acoustical roots and became more and more electronic and then more and more digital, bringing with it the ability to “create” sounds and voices in digital sound processing. Now voices don’t even need to sing on pitch, software can tune them up. Instruments are synthesized eliminating the need for human players (and the humanity they inject). The sound of a pop artist is tightly controlled and managed, it seems. So much money is on the line that record producers are afraid of anything natural, and therefore not easily manipulated.

Since our younger generations have grown up in this vocal climate, is it any wonder that operatic singing would seem just totally strange to them? They have no models of classical singing. It would be stranger if they did accept classical singing! It is so foreign to them. I have heard many westerners deride the sound of Asian and Middle Eastern music. And why? Because it is so foreign to their ears. Just as classical operatic singing is foreign to so many of our western younger generations. This is not a mystery.

So whom can we blame for this? Music education—or the lack of such—is often labeled as the culprit. And there is no question that music education is important for children for many different reasons. But exposing children to classical music or opera—while a good thing—will not turn most of them into opera fans any more than making them read Dickens will create a nation of literati. Yes, exposure is a good thing, but it won’t solve the problem. Let’s insist on good education that includes the arts, but let’s not blame bad education for opera’s distress.

This is not a conspiracy theory. There is no collusion or behind-closed-doors agreement to blame.  Nothing especially nefarious, just old fashioned money. The blame, as I see it, goes to the record labels and record producers. The entire recording and entertainment industry. This has been a long-held belief of mine. Just as so much of our culture does, this comes down to the lowest common denominator. If it has a beat and is catchy, it is good because it will sell. Classical music and opera, like reading Dickens, or Hemingway, or Salinger, takes effort and education. Additionally producing classical music and especially opera is expensive. If your job is to produce music for consumption, it’s a lot easier to produce something that will appeal to 80% of the public than something that will appeal to a smaller subset. And so year after year what gets produced and promoted is further and further from the classical model.

As I see it, the popular music and entertainment industry has killed classical music, including opera. Not intentionally or with malice. But by pushing easily ingested and highly manipulated entertainment, they have denied most people any model of classical music or operatic singing and made it a foreign sound to their ears.

Things change. That is the only thing we can count on. While I love the art form that was opera during most of the 20th century and I hate to see it diminished, opera will either change or die. The MET with their HD Theater broadcasts have either permanently harmed or saved opera, depending on your point of view. Certainly these movie theater performances are nothing like being in the actual theater live. The visceral experience of hearing a voice projected over an orchestra cannot be captured by a microphone attached to a singer. Traditional operatic singers train to project their voices out into a theater, which, if the house is good acoustically, will reinforce and embellish the sound, just like the sounding board on a piano or the body of a good violin. This cannot be captured and reproduced by a body mike or the sophisticated sound system of a movie theater. You have to feel it live to appreciate it. But the HD performances have exposed people to opera that might have never had the opportunity and allowed fans to see performances that they could not have gotten to in person.

This may be a possible future of opera. It is not a future I would appreciate, but if others become accustomed to the recording studio quality, then even live theater can use—as is already the case in musical theater—microphones to project the flimsy, but pretty voices of beautiful opera stars, who are able to do all manner of theatrical activity that traditional operatic singing, by nature of its athletic quality, would not allow. If younger audiences find this appealing, then this may be the future. Again, not one I would relish, but I’ll be gone or senile by then anyway. Which is where we started, with declining audiences as the older generations die off.

What would the audiences of Handel’s time—or Mozart’s time— think of a 1950 performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or Verdi’s Otello? They would have been scandalized, I imagine. Times change. To stand in the way of change is to be trampled by its inexorable march forward. My wish is that opera goes back to what I love, but my most sincere hope is that it thrives in some form. I would prefer that over its demise.

An eerie 9/11 prediction

From Jan 1999 Reader's Digest

With some free time this summer, Michele and I have been sorting through boxes of “stuff” and throwing out a lot of it. While going through a box today and came across a set of letters. But included among the letters was a Reader’s Digest from January 1999. I’d had a small story published in RD during the 1990’s and I wondered if this was the issue, which would explain why it was saved. So I opened it up to look inside. It was not my “issue.” But as I looked over the Table of Contents, one story caught my eye. There on page 84 for was a story entitled “Are We Ready for Bioterror” with the subtitle, “A major attack could happen with a decade.” When I turned to page 84, the banner photo that spread across pages 84 & 85 was a shot of lower Manhattan featuring the World Trade Center! This article was specifically about bio-terrorism, but this was nevertheless an eerie find as we approach the 10th Anniversary of 9/11.

In Memoriam: Margaret Harshaw (from 1997)

Below is a Eulogy I wrote in 1997 shortly after my teacher, mentor and friend, Margaret Harshaw, died. She passed away after a very short bout with pneumonia. I was singing Aida in Dallas the day she left us and knowing this, I was not informed of her death until after I arrived home a day later. I was devastated. I had seen her only a few weeks earlier, before leaving for Dallas and I had a lesson scheduled with her a couple days after getting home. I would be attending her Memorial Service instead. It was hard going back on the stage to sing the next time. But her voice was in my ear all along – and it still is.

Here is what I wrote in 1997:


May 12, 1909 – November 7, 1997

 On a recent sunny November day we laid to rest a titan whose roots were deep in the fertile soil of the golden age of opera singers. Margaret Harshaw was an extraordinary woman by any reckoning. As a singer, she had a long and eminently distinguished career, first as a mezzo–soprano and then as a Wagnerian soprano. She last sang at the Met over thirty years ago, and yet she still holds the distinction of having sung more Wagnerian roles than any other artist in Met history. Not content to be merely one of this century’s great singers, Margaret Harshaw retired and became one of the truly great teachers of all time. I was fortunate to have been one of her students and to have known her for nearly twenty–five years, more than half of my life.

November became very sad with her passing. Sad for several reasons. On a personal level because I have lost a teacher, mentor, friend and guiding light. And sad also for her legion of students, some like me who measure their apprenticeship in multiple decades, and others whose training was just at its beginning. Singing is a lifelong quest and five to ten years is just a beginning, especially when the teacher has so much to offer. More than the quick fix, more than the easy compliment, more than just singing. And Miss Harshaw gave much more than singing instruction. She taught us about life. If we were smart we listened.

But there is another reason that I have been especially sad. We have lost in her passing one more irreplaceable master from that Golden Age of Opera that peaked during the 1950s. There are precious few remaining and the world is immeasurably poorer with each passing year. And I fear that when the last of them is gone we will have lost forever a large part of their knowledge and wisdom. Why that should be I do not know. But I fear it is true. Perhaps the world changed in a way that was not conducive to opera. The arts, in their efforts to find their place in contemporary society, have too often forsaken their roots in an effort to attract patronage. Opera has suffered especially.

And so it makes me very sad to lose yet one more human resource. Singing was the lifeblood for Margaret Harshaw. Through years of experience, hard work and considerable innate talent she was able to understand something that is tremendously complex. And beyond understanding she was able to communicate it, both onstage and in her studio. Rare talents, indeed. She will be missed by her students and by the countless others who heard her sing. If I close my eyes I can hear her singing. And listening to her is a voice lesson in itself.

Same-Sex Marriage

OK, so every time I hear someone opposing same-sex marriage, I hear something along the lines of how it will destroy or adversely affect traditional marriage and how the children will be negatively impacted. I love children. I have two of my own and one grandchild. They are precious and they need adult protection from so many things. And, yes, they need two parents who love them unequivocally. Unfortunately, in our current culture, many do not have two married parents and even of those who do, not all of them love and protect them. There are many children who are sadly abused physically and/or emotionally. Now, there are straight and gay people in our society. That is a fact. There are significantly more straight people than gay. Do opponents of same-sex marriage imagine that if it were legal that straight people would suddenly turn gay? Surely not, that is an absurd argument. Are they afraid that there are hordes of latently gay people in straight marriages and that they will all suddenly forsake those sham marriages if gays are allowed to marry? Well, there may be a miniscule number of such marriages. There always have been some. But this has been happening anyway; allowing gay marriage won’t have a discernible effect there. So, what do they fear will happen that will lead to the downfall of traditional marriage??? Men and women will continue to marry, have children, raise them and so on…those people that are gay will continue to be gay and live in their gay relationships as they do now, many of them would marry if allowed to and therefore create more stable relationships, just as straight marriages do. They will also divorce and have bad outcomes, just like straight people do. They might have children (adoption or by other means) and some of them will mistreat their children, just like some straight people do. It is sad, but it is reality. So, other than a religious intolerance of this behavior, what am I missing? I cannot see how this will affect traditional marriage in the least. I just do not buy the argument that allowing gay behavior will create more of it. There is no logic there.

Auditions for Candid Concert Opera

I just wanted to pass this along to my students and anyone else interested:

Candid Concert Opera will be holding auditions for their 2011-2012 season in Madison, WI and Chicago, IL.

To schedule an audition, please email:

Please schedule your appointment by Friday September 9th, 2011

Audition Location/Dates:
CCO will be casting principal roles for a concert version of “Il barbiere di Siviglia” and “Le nozze di Figaro”.

Auditions will be held at the following locations and times:

Madison, WI
September 17th, 2011 2pm-4pm
St. Paul Lutheran Church
2126 North Sherman Avenue

Chicago, IL
September 24th 11am-2pm
5252 West Devon Avenue
Chicago, IL 60646-4100

Audition Requirements:
Auditions are held by appointment only. Singers should prepare two arias in their original language and key by memory. Arias from “Il barbiere di Siviglia” and “Le nozze di Figaro” are encouraged.

Materials Required:
Please bring a resume and head-shot to your audition.

Pianist Provided: Yes. May bring own.

All singers will be paid a stipend for their performances.

Student Prince

I attended a dress rehearsal on Tuesday evening for The Student Prince, presented by Chicago’s Light Opera Works and featuring my student, tenor Bill Bennett in the title role. It was a very well-produced show with a wonderful cast of talented performers and a great chorus. The orchestra was ably led by Roger Bingaman and played well. I was very pleased for Bill and proud of his accomplishment. There will surely be better things in his future. The role of Kathie was played by Danielle Knox and it is hard to imagine a better choice. She and Bill had great chemistry and she sang with ease and a great deal of vocal attractiveness. Likewise, Bill was easy on stage and as affable as the character required. In a non-singing role, Dale Benson, was a comic standout. He created an appealing and fun character. Bravi to all. (