Sunday, February 14, 2021

I found my high C in the kitchen of St. George's, Berlin. And I left it there.

Ossia:  A searching and fearless vocal inventory

How's that's for a catchy title to a new post in a recently inactive opera blog?  I don't mean to suggest I'm as bitter as this title might suggest.  I'm more bitter.

Let us sum up the vocal situation as I have always seen it:  I was given very, very bad vocal teaching at the beginning, and then blamed the rest of my life for having had bad teaching or for not being able to flick a switch to instantly remove the effects of such teaching. (For the record, "Don't do that!" is not effective vocal pedagogy. Neither is, "Here, make a sound like this!") I never figured out how to sing. And people now wonder why I no longer sing.

To be clear, I have always loved and will always love vocal music. I once loved singing. I loved producing opera. I still love writing about vocal music.  I adore (almost) all opera. I adore church music. There is some great popular and folk music, of our own and many other ages. Vocal and choral music speaks to my heart and brings tears to my eyes. People have remarked that I seem to come alive when talking about music or singing or the complexity of opera or the connection between the spiritual worldview of a time and of its church music. But I simply will not sing, and sometimes I can not even be an audience member.

I was always in church and school choirs/choruses as a lad.  (If you don't know the difference between and a chorus and a choir, Google is your friend.)  My voice changed early, so I was singing low bass in those ensembles at age 13 or so. When our family moved and I had to make myself known to new music teachers at age 14, I was turned into a 2nd tenor, probably because my high school chorus director could discern some flexibility and needed to fill the section. Lo! In the end, it turned out I was a tenor after all, but not a normal tenor.  I tried.  Really, I did.  In those years, I'd have done anything to please Miss J. at Monroe High School. I could sing what was called falsetto, I suppose. It was only in adulthood I was able to fake the sort of graceful tenor voice one associates with a teen or a Mozart tenor--it was my fondest wish to be a Mozart tenor!--but in time it turned out that this simply didn't suit my voice. 

I've always been a bit of a paradox.  I tried to sell myself as a Mozart tenor when I was young and very heavy.  Um, no.  "But there are so many fat singers!" I frequently heard.  Yeah, there were great singers who happened to be fat,  but fat people who sang were a dime a dozen, and not often hired. Big difference.  Then I lost a huge amount of weight, and with it a lot of body strength, identity, self knowledge, and knowledge of my own instrument. At that time I thought my dollars were better spent on therapy than lessons, so that I might, um, live to see more years of....well, what I had at the time.  Bad decision. How much better to have actually spent the money on seeking solutions to my vocal issues. Being able to sing all of La Boheme or La Traviata beautifully with the respect of my peers might have gone miles further.  

Much of the advice I've always gotten could be summed up in the words of one grad school teacher:  "Having your voice and your body is like having a Steinway grand and not being able to play."  Thinking about it, this is a perfect summation of what I heard in those years:  either "If you weren't fat you could sing!" or "Why do you choose to make an objectionable sound?"  (Seriously.  The great Sena Jurinac said to me, "Why do you sing like that?"  Don't get me started on that remark!)  

I did have hope when I was young that singing would be my life.  I really did. Even in the face of repeated failure and discouragement.  ("My! That was quite an undertaking!" after singing a difficult aria in an audition.)  That is what took me to Berlin in 1996. My dear friend had landed a fantastic job in the chorus of the Deutsche Opera Berlin, which was quite suitable to his impressive talents.  I had long planned on doing auditions in the German speaking world, which at the time was still where Americans often went to cut their Zähne in opera.  (In retrospect, it was also the sort of gigantic move I needed to get out of an increasingly unbearable day to day living/working situation.) I had some coachings and some auditions in Germany, and got some fairly positive feedback, but also indulged in a lot of the self sabotage that has always been a part of my life.  

It was while practicing at the aforementioned St. George's Anglican church in Berlin that I discovered a high vocal register that was new to me.  I could sing the climactic phrases of Rodolfo's and  Faust's arias with ease.  (Clue no. 1--Rodolfo and Faust are totally different tenor roles from those I was auditioning for.)  I was thrilled and confused.  

Later, back in the US, with a well paying job, a partner, and a mortgage, having resumed lessons, I would often practice by singing along with lesson recordings during my substantial morning commute. (Car, not train.) I could easily sing above high C.  I'd finally learned my time for Nemorino and Tamino had probably passed, but I could envision myself singing the heroic Donizetti roles, as well as the roles the Germans call italienischer tenor roles. Rodolfo, Alfredo, Faust, and Pollione. Especially Pollione. 

I should have sought advice immediately in Berlin about what I'd found. I knew a very good coach there. In truth, I never revealed it to any voice teacher or coach.  I merely went along with their attempts to get me out of the overly muscular vocal technique I'd learned in my youth, with varying degrees of success.  No matter--in the end I was accustomed to failure.  What high voice I had went away, along with all pleasure in singing.  

Oh God. I've just revealed another reason to beat myself up.  

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