What is it about music, any kind of music that makes us feel things? Why do we love and need it in our lives? What is your role as performer in this whole process? What responsibility do you have in making music, which for the most part was written many decades ago, become relevant to those who experience it in our current time? What do you as performer want to transmit to an audience? What story does the music, all by itself, tell you? How do you become part of the “whole” musical line?
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a piece of music that when played, takes them back to a particular time and place through the memories it stirs. You can recall almost every infinitesimal detail of that particular moment in time.
What do you love or hate about modern opera? What makes you feel that way? Why do some people love Puccini more than Verdi or Wagner? It’s interesting to think about these questions because you will notice that the reason is a feeling that usually comes from a very deep part of you that is often called “soul”. It’s the part of us that is not hampered by religion, politics, reason, ethnicity, or intellect.
Music tells us a story whether it uses words or not. If we love it, it touches us at the core of our being. If we don’t love it, it annoys us and grates on our nerves like some almost physical thing scratching away as it desperately tries to reach into that deep place at our core. It generates emotion of one kind or another and takes us on a journey; time stands still because we are truly experiencing only that moment.
Most of the music we listen to is second hand live music; it’s not the real deal. Today, it’s easy to download to our Smart Phones and IPods, etc almost anything we want to hear. Today, we can even download a whole opera. It’s amazing. But it is still not the real deal. And because of how one can, during the recording process, “fix” almost any human flaw in the making of music, we often expect the same kind of perfection when it comes to experiencing a live performance of any kind. When we perceive the human imperfections of a live performance, especially opera, concert, or recital, we are very disappointed and value that performer less because of it. Yet, as performers ourselves, we know “stuff” happens because we are human during a live performance. And that too is the real beauty of hearing something live. Sometimes, we are privy to or have personally experienced a truly inspired and extraordinary performance that a recording can never duplicate because everyone, performers, conductor, orchestra, audience seemed to be in sync which can only happen in real time. It creates a magical synergy.
So, as a live performer, what is your obligation to this amazing process of performing?
- One of the most important things we can all do is to learn the music exactly as it was composed. Really pay attention to the exact musical notations; notice where there are sixteenth notes and sing them that way as opposed to making them into eighth notes, etc. And how often are you true to the dynamic markings within the music? The composer wrote them that way to express a particular emotion the way he/she intended. It seems that we often take way too many liberties in representing a composer’s music today. How often do you learn the music and text by actually and precisely studying a score? It seems with today’s technology it is easier just to learn a piece by listening to someone else perform it and then copy that. In doing so, you miss the amazing opportunity to represent the composer and at the same time put your own unique stamp on a piece. And it could be that you are be duplicating wrong pitches, words, and cuts.
- It’s very important to allow the emotion of the music, the character you are portraying and the story to come through the sound of your voice. When one puts this into practice, it’s amazing how the flow of music moves us from one emotion to another with great ease. As Stanislavski says, “Sometimes an ugly tone or a different color is exactly the effect that we want. If the words were spoken in anger or contempt, the color would change. Why shouldn’t it also change if the words are sung?” And because of our mind-body connection, the body follows through with movements appropriate to the emotion. This also often allows some great Universal power to make its contribution which is beyond our control. Maria Calles is a great example of this as are many of the great singers of the 50’s and 60’s. There are singers today that perform this way as well, like Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez, Luana DeVol, Angela Gheorghiu, etc.
- Become a collaborator with the musical line and notice the inner play between the instrumentation, music, and singer. One begins where the other left off allowing a congruent and consistent musical and emotional line throughout the entire piece. The music can affect and move you physically as well as emotionally. Notice also how sometimes your words say something completely different emotionally than what the underlying music says. There is a conflict or tension created which is essential to great drama or comedy. A good composer knows that and it is your job to be able to convey it. You often, within a piece, say one thing yet feel another. That is art imitating life.
- Recitative is dialogue and the best way to understand and learn it is to copy the words on a separate piece of paper, then memorize, and speak them before trying to put them to music. Work with a lyric diction coach if necessary so you can speak the words as if you were a native. (Great way to start learning a language as well.) In doing so, you will notice that the composer helps you understand his/her intention, inflection, emotional content and cadence of the phrases as you start working with the music.
I’ll discuss more points on your responsibility of performing live music in the coming days.