One of the toughest parts of performing a new role is learning the bloody thing in the first place.
Note-bashing, that time-honoured tradition of parking yourself at the piano and hammering the role note-by-stubborn-note into your recalcitrant, protesting brain, is a curse familiar to all singers.
And the words? Nothing for it but parrot-fashion repetition, guaranteed to mark you out as a loonie when you invariably start muttering text to yourself under your breath in public places.
Learning by rote is boring. Unspeakably so, in fact, but necessary nonetheless.
After enduring weeks of this torture you’re ready for finishing school. Or “coaching” as we call it.
Coaching, it is important to note, is not the same as teaching. To develop a really solid technique, you need to study with someone who specialises in just that – basic nuts and bolts vocal engineering. That’s a singing teacher’s job. A coach rounds out the rough edges and adds finesse. It’s a little like exotic cars – you buy your Aston Martin or Ferrari from the factory, then you take it to a styling house to add the really fancy stuff. (Ironically, these styling houses are known in the auto industry as coach-builders).
Opera coaches are a very rare breed. They invariably know more about singing than you do, but don’t sing themselves. They tend to know the repertoire better than most conductors, but rarely conduct themselves. And they could go toe-to-toe with the best dramaturgs in the business and give them all bloody noses. Well, bruised egos at any rate.
And, just like the technical staff I spoke about last week, the punters never get to hear about them. They never get public recognition or acclaim, but there is not a single opera singer out there who does not owe a large measure of their success to a great coach (or two).
So what exactly do coaches do?
First, and most importantly, they listen. They become your ears. For a singer, the sound you hear inside your head does not equate to the sound coming out of your mouth. Something that sounds absolutely wonderful inside your own head can sound muffled, flat, sharp, tight, indistinct, or even nasal to a listener, so a good coach will listen and help you to hone your best sound.
They will also advise and guide on performance style. All that swoopy, sobby singing that sounds so wonderfully impassioned in verismo Italian repertoire, sounds utterly appalling when you’re singing Mozart or Handel. Totally inappropriate. Not all poor singing is so easy to spot. Singers in heavier repertoire like Wagner and Strauss occasionally find themselves pushing their sound a little. It’s normally totally sub-conscious (probably stemming from the fact that, in this repertoire, orchestration tends to be much thicker), but potentially damaging to the voice, and a good coach will readily pick you up on it.
Text is another area where coaches are vital. Singing is basically a very extreme modification of speech, and, like speech, when you get lazy with it, people cannot understand you. Since singing is first and foremost a form of communication, it helps if people can understand what the hell you’re blathering on about.
Essentially, vowels are your noise. Pure sound depends entirely upon vowels. The air flows from your lungs, across your vocal cords and out of your mouth, without encountering obstacles. In order to be heard over an orchestra, you need to be pretty good at singing nice, open vowels. The problem is that in order to be understood, you need to constantly interrupt this lovely smooth airflow with a never-ending stream of consonants. Consonants impede the flow of air in a pattern that is recognisable to other human beings. Very simply put, this is how speech works. For a singer, it’s a constant balancing act. Coaches help you to get that balance right.
Correct pronunciation goes hand in hand with correct enunciation. Language accuracy is vital to modern singers, and, no matter how good your language skills are, nobody is perfect. Even singing in your native tongue is no guarantee of accuracy. A good coach will hone your pronunciation to make it as accurate as possible.
They will also offer singers context. For example, why a composer sets a certain line a certain way, or which instruments you can expect to hear in the orchestra at a certain point, or what the historical significance of a given line might be, or how a piece of archaic foreign language might translate into a modern idiom.
They will be able to guide you as to performance practice – how singers have sung a certain phrase in the past, and what conductors expect from singers today. Tastes and styles change over time, and most conductors have varying approaches, so singers need to be aware of these differences and adapt accordingly.
If I was to sum up what coaches do in a single sentence, I would say this – coaches make you better at everything.
In preparing Wotan for Das Rheingold, I have been very fortunate indeed to work with two of the very best – Kathleen Kelly and John Fisher. I was lucky enough to study the role with John over a period of several weeks in New York last year, and Kathleen has been my guru, my Ur-wala, here in Houston. Without their invaluable help, I would have been lost and defeated by this huge role. Both of them have helped me to better understand that singing Wotan is about going on a journey of discovery, that as long as I sing this role, I can always look forward to learning something new from it.
And from them. Roll on Walküre.
For more on what it takes to be a good singer, see Cameron Burns’ insightful blog here:-
For more on the joys of learning an operatic role, see Chris Gillett’s excellent blog here:-