Monday, August 06, 2007

Singing opera requires effort

On Friday evening at a black history event in a large brownstone owned by a middle aged white man where a Yale professor gave a slide show with music to an audience of scholars, locals, musicians, artists of varying ages and sizes and colors, I met an opera singer.

Things I learned from her that I didn’t know about the opera profession:

Opera singing has less to do with the size of the lungs or the position of the larynx than the shape of the face, and the way the sound reverberates in the cheeks, jaw and cheekbones. She indicated that her face was wide from ear to nose, and from eye to jaw. She didn’t look particularly wide/long faced to me, but I took her word. She had a loud voice.

Interested in the processes that a person follows in choosing their career, I asked, at what age did she notice that her voice was different from anyone elses, and at what stage did she decide to pursue opera as a profession?

She said ever since her youngest school days, when singing in groups, her voice had overpowered those around her. In an attempt to assimilate her, the choir master surrounded her with older, bigger singers .

At 16 years old she made a decision to become a singer of opera music. There are plenty of people capable of singing in this way, but few who actually train their voices. The ability to hold each note, to project the sound, to carry not only a song but a story - all these things are learned and require constant refining and constant practice.

This is something that she is constantly explaining - that the voice is not 'natural'. The latent talent was there, which then required honing and polishing through specific techniques and training. The finished product is manufactured.

In New York, opera singers like her work as contractors, slowly building names for themselves, filling in for other opera singers should they become ill. She is her own secretary and agent (although I'm not sure all work in this way.) She is young, mid twenties at a guess. Next year she has a contract that guarantees her work for 12 months. She is greatly relieved.

Here is where this relates to flow - I asked her why she does this for a job, given the risks, the potential for not 'making it', or for being sidelined through sickness or something outside of her control, for being a pawn to other people's tastes.

She explained simply, but with a smile - because there is nothing like being on the stage and singing your heart out; the complete absorption in the theatre.

Flow - effort and concentration, doing something that absorbs you, for tangible, measurable effect. She has to concentrate, to be completely dedicated and when she is performing, be absolutely, deeply immersed. It requires effort, long hours, dedication. And the pay off, besides the obvious appreciation of the crowd, is doing something she loves as well as she can.

If opera singing was 'natural', I doubt she'd be singing now.

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