What the poet said

…V’entrar con voi pur ora,
ed i miei sogni usati
e i bei sogni miei,
tosto si dileguar!

The society we live in often doesn’t provide for spaces where we feel comfortable letting others see our real selves. Between deceiving social media glamours and real-life guards that we put up, it can be difficult to connect with even friends let alone new people. We ourselves then learn to hide behind formalities and social conventions to make life easier, even if it comes at the cost of authenticity. The idea of opera presents an interesting foil to many of our lived experiences; seemingly larger-than-life people profess exactly what they mean and often with (what seems like) beautifully crafted words. Opera presents situations where people get close very quickly, complete with open-hearted, full-throated sound-making. I think many of us crave that in our own lives. Even the operatic event today in some cases speaks to this yearning for intimacy. A number of start-up companies have popularized chamber opera, some works playing in spaces seating smaller audiences.

I think so many of us really want to feel close. Part of the draw to opera, I suspect, is this very idea: I wish I could be that person who says what Rodolfo said to Mimì. I wish I could speak beautiful Italian to someone and have a romantic fantasy fulfilled. I wonder if this wishful posture provides a distancing barrier from our experience of “the real thing.” We are so attuned to getting close but not too close – getting close enough to see hazy outlines but not close enough to really see flaws. Humans will go far to simulate closeness without actually pushing past superficial markers (think: “We text everyday, so we must be close,” or, “Our Snapchat streak is literally on fire!”). Part of the obsession with the idea of opera comes in part from the othering of the language.

Take the words that open this post in translation:

(Your pretty eyes) entered with you,
And my usual dreams,
And my beautiful dreams,
immediately vanished.

As someone whose native language is English (and I imagine that’s true for most reading this), I, too, am enchanted by how Italian words sound. The cadence of how the words are spoken as well as their innate musicality are pleasing to my ear. However, while Italian words, like these, are very beautiful, I think that they often, by no fault of their own, distance an American audience from what they actually convey. The beauty of the words blind us to what is actually being said. What is left is some shapeless “beautiful” object of no real import. And I’m not talking about singers doing their translations and really knowing what they’re saying; I’m talking about how we interact with what a number of artists (the composer, the singer, the librettist, the director, the conductor, the lighting designer, the costumer, etc) are trying to say.

What is Rodolfo saying here? Over the course of his famous aria, it seems to me what he’s saying is, “I know we just met, but I am stunned by you…and I don’t want this moment to end.” He is flirting with her. How many times have we ourselves had this very thought and attempted (perhaps some of you are good at this?) to win over someone with some choice words? At some point, we have to realize that Italian (or French or German, etc.) is just a language, and it’s not that characters are professing themselves beautifully. In opera, many of the characters are expressing themselves honestly. And how beautiful and rare is that these days?

For those of us who have heard an opera like La Bohème an inordinate number of times, I think that once we get past the beauty of the mode of expression, we can find something even more satisfying: what is being expressed. It’s so easy to fall into the opera-as-love-story narrative and thereby use opera to do the work we are so used to: hiding behind an idea. An idea of closeness, an idea of love. We want to believe these characters are like us; they’re not – at least not the selves that many of us manifest daily. They fervently mean what they say and for many of them, they bend toward complete honesty. Instead of laughing at them, we should want to be like them. When we engage with the characters as real people and push past the distance of language, which I know can be hard for a newcomer, we can use the space created by an operatic performance as a rumination of how life could be (hopefully not filled with sickness and death, though). How amazing would it be to live that honestly and authentically? The secret is that we can. Attending an opera performance can be a learning experience – one which compels us toward a greater and fuller humanity. It all depends on whether you want to listen.

Perfecting that which we already possess

Opera and figure skating share a lot of similarities. Sure, coordinating muscle groups so as to turn air into audible tone for the pleasure of some 1,000+ people is very different from carving up and leaping off ice with the help of a blade (and sometimes without its help!). However, both are artistic sports. They seek to marry a technical aspect and some artistic element, creating the Majestic – something as beautiful as it is powerful.

I really enjoy watching figure skating for this very reason. I find that so many of my favorite skaters are able to do exactly what I try to do in singing opera – perform technical elements with aplomb all while telling a superimposed story. In the best cases, I almost forget they are skating. These skaters seem to glide on a frictionless surface, like air, mesmerizing us with amazing contortions and feats of athleticism. Yesterday, I was watching one of my favorite skaters, Yuna Kim, in her four Olympic appearances (two short and two long programs), and I noticed something I hadn’t really thought about much – her programs are punctuated, even four years apart, by the same sets of moves. Yuna Kim is perhaps the greatest competitor of all time in the history of women’s figure skating (not as decorated as beloved Michelle Kwan, though!). I think a study of her routines can provide valuable insight into how singers can think of their own approach to learning to sing.

Now moves are obviously chosen with a scoring system in mind which privileges certain difficult elements. The ISU, the International Skating Union, assigns values to each type of element and lays out a compulsory set of those elements that each program must have (for instance, a female skater must perform a double axel in her programs, a footwork sequence, and spin combinations that involve change of position). Even so, a lot is left up to the skater such as where the elements are performed in the program (more points for performing jumps later) or even which jumps to do. That said, Yuna Kim perfected the triple lutz-triple toe loop combination and used it as her opening jump in all performances in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

You can see this at time marks 1:10, 7:30, 16:15, and 22:30 in the video above (which you might have to watch on Youtube directly). Four different performances – the same opening jump combination. In each case, she then follows this combination with a triple flip jump (time marks 1:33, 7:50, 16:43, 22:51). Watching through these performances, one can also see how she makes great use of getting more points out of her double axels by using an Ina Bauer or a spread eagle position entrance. Her spiral sequences always feature one arabesque penchée, followed by a catch-foot at first behind and then out in front. To belabor the point once more, all of these programs end with a similar spin combination – some version of camel spin -> sit spin -> change-foot -> Y-spin (3:23, 11:00, 18:20, 26:00).

Are we to call Yuna Kim’s performances generic? Each time she performs, one could say, “We’ve seen all these moves before!” In truth, what she does she makes seem easy. Therein lies my point – she is able to make it look easy because instead of trying to do everything, she devoted her time and practice to perfecting the things she did well. What’s more, Yuna is simply a case study. If one were to follow any skater of note, you would find this sort of thing all over. If you took the time to watch the full video here (it’s ok if you didn’t), you would see how in the later 2014 performances she adds new positions to spins or more difficult entrances to jumps. The technique seems ever more solid.

The 2014 Olympics in Sochi was such a high-pressure time for her as she was defending her 2010 gold medal; everyone was expecting her to do well; everyone needed her to win. I won’t get into too much debate (she deserved the second gold medal, end of story), but my point in bringing attention to these repeated elements is to show how perfecting a technique of a few things not only allows you to be a master of those few things but also allows you to not really have to think about them. In that high-pressure situation in 2014, I can only imagine how using a set of moves you’ve been performing for maybe six years would help to quell the butterflies. She was probably able to take a lot of fear out of the situation because by that point, I would speculate that Yuna was nailing those elements 99.9% of the time. Considered one of the greatest artists in the history of the sport, her skating is often punctuated by wonderful choreography and obvious thought behind the movement of her body. She and her team were able to craft unique programs by solidifying the technical elements that she needed. In removing the fear of nailing a technical element, she was able to focus on the story, giving us an artistic gem of a performance every. single. time.

As young singers, we are often admonished to always be working on coloratura as well as long lines, leaps as well as scales, singing softly as well as loudly. Of course, there are parts of technique that are foundational. Any singer worth their salt needs familiarity if not facility with each vocal technique (technique here meaning element, not a body of knowledge). However, so often one will see singers trying out a million different things in service of “building a complete technique.” The famed singers of recorded history – and I don’t just mean Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker, but also Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann – sang/sing the music that allowed them to be artists because that music capitalized on what their voices did best.

There is a lie we tell ourselves. If something is easy for us, it must not be hard. In fact, whole careers are made off of people doing things that are easy for them but hard for others. It is in perfecting and capitalizing upon the things that are easy for us that we are seen as special. To be sure, this idea extends beyond singing. But forget about being seen by others as special – who cares? Why not capitalize and become more of who and what makes you, you? Existentialist Soren Kierkegaard said, “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.” I believe it is through close examination of ourselves that we find the starting point, the germ, as it were. There, we find phrases like, “I am this,” and, “I am not this.” It requires a lot of introspection, and even though classical arts rely on instruction from a teacher, no one can tell you what is right. From cultivation of whatever lies at the starting point, one finds the glory of themselves. Why waste time chasing after someone else’s?

Kim’s skating is more than the sum of the moves. You probably will forget all of them once you finish reading this, but what you will remember is how you felt watching her (and you really should watch the whole thing). She became herself on that ice. The jumps and spins became more than technical elements; they became story-tellers. We hear this idea regurgitated so often, and it’s true, but not in the way people often mean it. It’s not about using the technique to tell a story; it really is about finding music that contains elements that your voice is predisposed to and perfecting those elements to the point that you don’t need to think about them except in the most difficult of passages. There will always be things that will be hard, but I think what we singers can learn from our figure skating friends is that it doesn’t all have to be so hard. If we spent less time trying to be unique through randomly difficult technical elements that may not be our personal forte, maybe, just maybe, we could show people a more truthful and honest thing – ourselves. The technique doesn’t make you special; you make you special.

Finding the Words

Ah non credea mirarti,
si presto, estinto, o fiore;
passasti al par d’amore,
che un giorno solo duro.

In 2001, Carolyn Abbate released In Search of Opera, a book that changed musicology with respect to opera in that it viewed opera not only as an abstract entity, but as an ephemeral phenomenon. She set out to marry the idea of opera with its actual performance and in doing so revealed to us that one cannot exist without the other. La Sonnambula doesn’t exist without a throat to sing Amina’s words, quoted above; in fact, the abstract entity was only given form so as to realize the performance. Performance is paramount.

I am interested in the creation of the ephemeral. Those of us who have chosen opera as a profession, whether that be on the stage or at a desk, have essentially devoted our lives to just that. Because of its very nature, opera is difficult to explain to people. It’s difficult to write about. Musicologists like Carolyn Abbate expertly weave words to get at the work itself, but as a singer, I thought it would be useful for me (and maybe others) to try to write about what I do. This blog is my attempt to write about opera as I interact with it in my career. To be honest, it is easy to sometimes feel a little lost in the creation of so fleeting a thing; sometimes one loses sense of purpose (“What is it all for?”), sometimes one loses the path up the great, big mountain of Technique. With everything feeling so abstract and intangible, I wanted to make a space for something concrete.

Like the composers whose music I sing, I aim to concretize something in service to the art that exists somewhere “out there.” I hope to ask lots of questions of opera itself, but also of singing, that art on which opera so heavily relies. In a world in which I was finding that as singers we spent more time considering season announcements than our actual art form, I wanted to ignite conversations among singing artists about our medium. What do I hope to find? Perhaps ways to more ably describe my experience with opera to others. Perhaps more enjoyment of the art form for myself. Or maybe I’m just trying to find the words to express the emotional architecture of a life devoted to music. Joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, beauty and monstrosity – which is to say, what it means to be human.