Five hundred years after its birth, opera seems once again the art of the moment. We hear and cheer new repertory (freshly minted and rediscovered), new stagings and new houses.
And we idolize new stars, who appear to come from nowhere. But just as sports have their minor leagues and training camps, opera has its network of apprentice programs. The stars of coming seasons are studying now at campuses near you.
Founded in 1947, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara has a storied operatic history that continues under diva Marilyn Horne, who directs its summer voice program. The 4-year-old Summer SongFest has returned to UC Irvine, where the faculty for the intensive two-week program this year includes American tenor John Aler (veteran of most major opera houses, from Covent Garden to New York City Opera, and frequent soloist with the New York Philharmonic among many other orchestras). The new kid on the Southern California opera block is Opera Overture, a program at Pepperdine University designed for younger singers--high school and undergraduate level--with a musical staff that includes Jean Mallandaine, former head coach at Glyndebourne and Houston, now teaching in Paris and London.
In each of these programs, the pros and the pro coaches offer their students classroom instruction, public master class opportunities and lots of one-on-one, with an emphasis on technique but a nod in the direction of a whole host of other skills required of today's singers.
These three master teachers shared their thoughts on the care and feeding of tomorrow's opera stars in separate phone interviews.
Question: Are more opera hopefuls coming to you and to programs such as these today?
John Aler: I think so, though it has been more of a steady building over the years than a sudden surge. All the attention opera has been getting is very wonderful and valuable.
Jean Mallandaine: Oh yes, there is greater interest now. There's been more publicity and exposure. Opera Overture is a very new idea [meant to deal with that interest]. Our participants are much younger than in most other programs. The idea is to steer them along the right track.
Marilyn Horne: Opera has taken a forefront [position] because of supertitles and the fact that we are living in a very visual age. At the music academy, we have hundreds of applicants--a lot of really good talent.
Q: What is more important, the inner drive to sing or the natural voice?
Mallandaine: Desire and determination--that has to be there at some point. Obviously, though, you've got have some voice, especially in the U.S., where you have to be able to project in such large houses.
Horne: In the end, you can't do it without the voice. You can encourage and stimulate the desire, and you can develop technique, but you cannot train a voice in somebody who doesn't have one, no matter how much they may want it.
Aler: You must have both--everything, really. I studied with Boris Goldovsky, who had a theory of "multiplication by zero." If you scored musicians in different categories--style, technique, sound, personality, whatever--you should multiply the figures rather than add them, so that a zero in any one category would negate all the rest. You have to be efficient in every aspect.
Q: Are there trends in sound or style qualities, or distinctive national / regional styles?
Horne: More times than not, I can pick out American voices, particularly lyric sopranos, who tend to have a generic sound. But anybody could have any kind of voice. We have a Korean baritone who is absolutely a big, amazing Italian baritone, for example.
I find that because people want to have a loud voice--which is a prerequisite for opera--singers tend to sing very much in their throat. That constricts the sound and is very tiring. I want to free up voices with a solid basis of bel canto technique. There is also a tremendous lack of breath support in singers today.
Mallandaine: There are different vocal characteristics from different countries, but much of that comes from the language. Russian is a deep, powerful language; French very bright and forward, and singers from those countries generally sound like that. Americans are usually wonderfully trained and prepared.
Aler: I think there is a much bigger presence of countertenors now. The early-music movement in Europe has been a big influence on style. There also seem to be a lot fewer big dramatic voices than there used to be. Some of that has to do with conductors today, who are interested in making a big orchestral sound in the pit that is difficult [for singers to compete with].
As for national styles, mostly it is whatever sounds idiomatic in the music. There are always exceptions, people who can do anything. If there is an American style, it has to do with music education here. American singers tend to be better prepared, with better language skills, but I wouldn't say that an American sound exists.
Q: How often do you spot stardom, and what are its hallmarks?
Mallandaine: It is quite rare, but very exciting when you do. The first thing you hear is probably the beauty and quality of the sound. But after you have been listening five or 10 minutes, you can become bored if they do not do enough with it, in terms of color and expression. Most important is the ability to communicate.
Horne: There are so many variables. It takes tremendous focus, a good dose of luck--and that still may not do it!
The first thing I look for is a beautiful quality in the voice. I can tell that in just a few bars. But along with it must be a personality, and that's [often] lacking.
Aler: The potential for stardom is so different in individuals. Some people are always claiming to spot future stars, but a lot of that has to do with the law of averages. If you say it often enough, one is bound to become a star.
Also, it is one thing to spot something special in a singer; it is another to stay around and nurture that something.
Q: Is singing publicly more difficult than playing an instrument? How important is the public--an audience--in training singers?
Horne: I can't compare, not having been an instrumentalist, but singing is excruciatingly difficult. You are displaying such open and specific emotion; you have words and text to deal with, which instrumentalists don't.
Absolutely, you have to get used to singing in front of an audience and learn how to handle nerves, because we all have them.
Mallandaine: To sing in public is the most difficult thing in the arts. Your voice is terribly personal. Singers have to face the fact that they will have to deal with criticism throughout their career--conductors and directors will ask them for something different, and the singer has to keep an open mind and not take it personally. An audience is not so important at the beginning. You have to be quite advanced to deal with the usual master class situation.
Aler: Basically, you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of rejection. Singing is very personal, not only to the singer, but also to the listener.
I think it is good to have observers in situations like SongFest, just so singers can know how they work under those circumstances. Sometimes [in master classes], the person conducting the class starts to perform, to hold forth to the audience, and then things can be less helpful.
Q: What offstage challenges do singers have to learn to deal with today?
Horne: This business really is a traveling circus that takes you away from comfortable routines and familiar surroundings. We complain constantly about flying because of the air in planes, but traveling by coach-and-four couldn't have been easy--imagine traveling that way from Paris to Moscow. We also have at least a few miracle drugs around to help with what weather and climate changes can do to your voice, although you have to be careful there.
There seems to be less choice [and fewer opportunities] in several areas, such as trying to find a good agent or manager. Finding places to sing recitals has really changed. When I was starting out, you could sing 30 a year. That's not going to happen today, when you'll be lucky to do four or five.
Aler: When you are young, traveling can be great, but it is hard to have relationships. Financial security: You really don't have any. You could be going great guns and then something happens to your voice. It is hard to keep perspective when you are worrying about next season or where you might be in five years, because performing is all about being in the moment.
Mallandaine: If it is possible, singers should get into small touring companies. The main thing is [to get in] a lot of performances but in less critically exposed situations, where [singers] can really find their feet, deal with travel and learn to work with colleagues. It builds up stamina.
Q: What about when it comes to performing?
Aler: Repertory really hasn't changed that much over the last 20 to 30 years. The challenge is to be versatile. [Opera] is really the director's [arena now], and that makes great [acting] demands on singers. A lot of conservatories and universities have acting and movement classes for singers, but experience is really the best teacher. You really don't know if you can do something until you try.
Mallandaine: It is a very different world than when people just stood and sang onstage. Singers really are required to act now. [And] directors now expect you to look the part, so it is necessary for singers to look after themselves physically.
Horne: Halls, especially in this country, [are] a lot larger, and even in Europe the new houses are larger than the old ones, and that makes it difficult for younger and smaller voices. In staging, the day of the director has arrived. A lot of it is ridiculous, however, and young singers have to deal with a lot of crazy gimmicks.
Q: What about concerts and recitals versus operas--should there be specialization?
Aler: A lot of that is psychological. Some singers are not comfortable [onstage] by themselves; they love the costumes and scenery and getting into a character. Others feel more comfortable without all that.
Mallandaine: Certain singers have more interest in some areas. But it is very beneficial for opera singers to learn lieder and concert repertoire--it requires tremendous discipline, and, of course, it is wonderful music. It takes a lot to hold an audience just standing in front of a piano.
Horne: Personality is the factor. You can generalize--big personalities on the opera stage--but it really is an individual matter.
Q: What do you try to give students that they can take with them after these summer programs?
Mallandaine: I hope we can give a lot of ideas about how to work, how to go about studying a role and get inside it, to go from text and language first, and not to listen to a recording and copy it. They may not get it all at first, but if we can plant the ideas, then when they need it, they will realize what has to be done.
Aler: Singing is a matter of coordination, and you have to practice at it constantly. It is also important for students to know how to take care of their voices--drinking and smoking are inimical to vocal prowess. We try to encourage people to make the most of what they have. Programs like SongFest should motivate young singers to be their best.
Horne: What I would like is that at the end we really hear a marked improvement in everything they do. Nobody sings in his or her throat, they support their voice, they have a concept of what it means to be an artist, to sing beautifully and to be in demand.
"Know thyself." We can try to steer them, but they have to figure out where they are going. A singer or an instrumentalist never stops learning, never stops developing.*
The up-and-coming talent being nurtured around the Southland can be heard in a few public performances:
Music Academy of the West
Unless otherwise noted, all events are at Abravanel Hall, Music Academy of the West, 1070 Fairway Road, Santa Barbara, (805) 969-8787.
Handel's "Rodelinda," Lobrero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara, Aug. 6 and 7, 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 8, 2 p.m., $25-$45. (805) 963-0761).
Vocal master classes, Tuesdays and Fridays, 3:10 p.m., $15.
Marilyn Horne Foundation Competition, July 24, 10 a.m., $10.
Picnic Concerts, Friday, July 22, 23, 29, 30; Aug. 3, 5, 12, 7:30 p.m., gardens open early for picnicking, call for program information. $10.
Works in Progress, July 22, 3:30 p.m., Raitt Recital Hall, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. Free.