Bonsai voice

One performance that I will always remember, for strange reasons, is a famous singer of Lieder who came to Washington for a recital. He sang one of the major song cycles and it was musically perfect. In a way, it was also tonally perfect, in that every note was well-produced and balanced and smooth. The phrases went up and down appropriately, and the text was clear and well-intoned. He got a rave review for the concert, as he usually does. He is called a standard-bearer in the Lieder world at this time.

I didn’t like it. My impression of the performance was a demonstration of absolute cool control with perfect presentation. I did not feel the human struggle that the text wants to express. The performance was a perfectly restored museum piece, inspired by a composition and poetry about someone’s difficult journey, but never felt like a direct or channeled expression of that struggle. Every phrase felt like “and then the wanderer felt this, and then this happened to him” rather than “I feel this. Here is what I’m experiencing”.

Musical theatre is known for “acting first” sung by actors who sing. Opera is known for “music first (sometimes voice first)” sung by singers who act. Art song is an interesting abstraction compared to those two. It isn’t staged, but is it required to be even further away from musical theatre, sung by singers who do not act?

I attended an excellent presentation recently about how to build a song recital by thinking outside of the academic box that many of us classically-trained singers were taught. The academic model is usually a mix of periods, some language variety, with printed text translations. The presenter’s ideas for how to make the form come alive were excellent and I’m going follow much of his advice. Ironically, when he sings his arms hang limply at his sides the vast majority of the time. I feel that he misses a lot of opportunity to embody the song’s moments and give it to us more completely. He has a tremendous voice and musicianship.

Well, no one is perfect. I’d love to have the control and gorgeous voice of the first fellow, and the edgy, interesting programming skills of the second one, and I’ll keep working on those things. But one of the biggest things I am fighting against in myself is the feeling of confinement – limits on expansion that don’t need to be there. I, for one, would rather hear an imperfect singer who makes me believe that what they are singing is from their heart and soul, than perfect control or cleverness.

The bonsai tree is beautiful, but cultivated limitations make me a little sad. I wonder what could have been.

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