Dispatches from American Voices: Renee Fleming & Friends
Opera singer Renee Fleming contacted Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center over a year ago with the idea to gather together singers, songwriters, teachers, managers and producers from across the spectrum of music genres and styles. What could these artists learn from each other? And what could they pass on?
It took someone of her caliber to gather such a megawatt gallery of folk. The whole event was designed to be frank, friendly, and on a first name basis. And she didn’t just lend her name to the proceedings. Her commitment and detailed involvement enabled her to produce a very special weekend, titled AMERICAN VOICES, taking place November 22 – 24, made up of master classes, clinics, symposia and concerts.
As someone avowedly involved in crossover forays herself, Renee came to every session across classical, jazz, country, musical and gospel with three qualities not normally associated with a reigning diva: patience to listen to and even learn from beginners still struggling to find their voices in master classes, humility to probe and share the common struggles singers face at any time in their careers, and genuine curiosity to ask questions of herself and the others, accompanied by a desire to listen to deeper and multiple answers.
Part One – Classical Singing
Master Class 2 p.m. Friday
Renee Fleming walks on stage in a black pants, top and boots with a red jacket and that trademark exquisitely honey-streaked hair. She calls up her colleague, baritone bass singer Eric Owens, who has recently pulled off a stunning success in his performance in The Ring at the Met.
Eric ran a master class for classical singers. The format was familiar. A singer would sing an aria followed by the master teacher asking that singer to make an adjustment. Neither singer nor master can prepare going into it what will be chosen to hone in on. That’s what is exciting. Sometimes these things can be brutal and more about the ego of the singer-teacher than the students or the audience. Not so in the case of Eric, a consummate teacher as well as performer.
Shannon Lee was the first to walk on stage to sing a soprano aria from Puccini’s La Traviata. After her singing, Eric reminded her to think about where she was leading up to the aria, what was her situation was. Eric worked to get Shannon to listen and understand the musical accompaniment. “The accompaniment leading into the aria is not apart from you, that you’re not waiting through it, but you are actually creating it.”
Baritone Jarrad Lee followed next. Eric concentrated on focusing the singer’s vowel work through the French accent needed for Massenet’s Manon. He showed Jarrad how the singer kept stretching unhelpfully his vocal chamber wide then long, distorting the sound. He modeled the “fish face” needed for the French that would align the vowels to keep the vocal line flowing. Finally Eric was satisfied, “Can’t you just hear the cigarette smoke in that?” Now despite we’re talking opera here, that was a compliment! Singing in another language, necessary for much operatic singing, demands not only years of language coaching but the ability to take on a cultural attitude, a posture, a way of thinking.
Deborah Nansteel took the stage strongly and went into her aria. Eric cut her off. “If you’re going to deviate for dramatic reasons, then go all the way.” Then he brought up what seemed to be a theme for him: that opera singers need to stay closer to speaking for recit. “No chocolate sauce,” he would say, steering the singers away from working so hard to produce glorious tones. To her credit, Nasteel stayed loose and game for everything he was throwing at her.
Norman Garrett was the last of this group, all representing students in the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz program. He sang a piece from Don Carlo. Owens, who had clearly established a good mentoring relationship with this talented singer, cut to the chase and kept making Garrett dig down further. “Don’t open up so much at the bottom. Don’t color it. Don’t make yourself a “bassy. Your voice is gorgeous but you’re working it too much.”
Eric’s approach throughout was gentle and even playful. His instructions were clear, and he got results every time. At the end, Renee Fleming paid the ultimate compliment “ I didn’t know a master class would be so much fun.” And neither did I. We’d all heard these singers get better in a matter of a few minutes.
Question & Answer Period
Eric Owens spoke about the long and endless process of finding that spot for your voice to be at its optimal. He described his own slow development where for years he worked simply on placement, one vowel, one note, then one consonant at a time. Renee nodded and pointed out, “And that’s before he was allowed to sing one aria. You earned each pitch.” “Yes,” he concurred. “There was E-flat for about a month.”
Eric and Renee agreed that a singer is always working on his or her voice. Maybe it’s a new house and the acoustics are not helping. Or you’re not feeling well. You are getting older. Everything is always changing, and you have to adjust.
The body evolves,” said Renee, almost ruefully. And then she said the unthinkable in front of her adoring fans. “I’ve had good months but not good years. But you need to be able to catch something before it becomes a real problem.”
The panel was asked about one of the most controversial aspects of singing and that is of a singer’s breath support. Owens admits that as a coach he doesn’t touch it because it’s so individualistic an approach favored by the singing teacher. But he urges young singers, “You’re not going to get everything with one person, one teacher. And if you keep getting the same critical feedback at auditions and such, then you probably need to go to another teacher.”
Renee spoke out candidly again. “And then, just when you think you have something that works, it stops working!” Eric brings the whole discussion to another level. “Doubt and the quest for how to bring beauty into the world is constant.”
There were a lot of questions about the state of vocal education for singers in America. What is being looked for now in classical singers? How do young American singers fare compared to their European counterparts in terms of training.
Edith Bers, who teaches at Juilliard as well as other esteemed conservatory programs, admitted that people are looking for a big voice and a big personality, but something more as well now, what she described as the whole package and in particular the singer being in the whole body. To address this issue, Edith described how Juilliard has added an acting program – with a ten million dollar price tag – for their singers.
Anthony Freud from Lyric Opera in Chicago and Matthew Horner, Director of the vocal division of IMG, spoke about the Anglican singer, by that they meant hailing from the English-speaking world of the US and the UK, who seems to have developed ascendency over the last two decades, eclipsing the German and Italian programs. But recently, there has been some backlash, with comments that the training that has provided such great versatility in the American-British singer may be doing so at the expense of depth and developing an original quality.
The panel agreed that it takes ten years to create a professional classical singer. And there are a lot of pitfalls in the journey. Odd things have happened both with cross over performances and the ever-larger orchestras and houses. The pitch has gone up. Sheer vocalization has been downgraded.
Not only have live simulcasts beamed into movie theatres and television opportunities often forced young singers into compromising their vocal development by putting them out into the spotlight too early, but the emphasis that the media has put on appearance has had mixed results.
Should we care about appearance in opera? Here panelists differed in personal preferences, but the casting world and what audiences now want are dictating that “appearance does matter in the new world of opera.”
For people like these, who have a very serious commitment to the live unamplified sound of opera, they all want want to preserve the circular energy that gets passed from the stage and pit to the audience and back again at the heart of the experience.
Anthony Freud put forward what might have been the most controversial statement of the day. “There is a danger as our society loses its confidence to distinguish between the excellent and the successful… There is, after all, no test for excellence, but it’s a thing of … we know it when we see it. We must somehow retain that sense of understanding the distinction.” He received a round of applause for releasing an “Emperor’s clothes” moment for what many see as the cult of celebrity.
The panel discussion was followed by a technical clinic on vocal health and problems and new insights and understandings that have been gained. Then, on the Millennium Stage, several young artists from the Washington National Opera sang arias to a packed hall. They shared the stage with jazz vocal group Afro Blue from Howard University, featuring among others the lovely voice of Amelia Brown as well as Taylor Lee and Devin Robinson. All the young singers were fearless, and sharing across the spectrum of music was what this weekend was all about.
This weekend, the fiftieth anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination, it has been especially sweet to be in this center named in his honor. Sitting and listening to so much wonderful music by young artists, I thought how proud he would be of this event. On a break from the packed schedule, I found myself under the bronze bust of Kennedy and wanted to toast the president who understood, as few other American leaders have, the importance of the arts to a country and civilization.
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