Don’t push it!!!

America is a big place.

The “land of the free and the home of the brave” was conceived by the founding fathers as a place of equality, idealism and opportunity, a land of plenty, a fresh Utopia where everything would be better, fairer, and, apparently, much, much bigger.

I’m always startled by the sheer bloody scale of things in the United States. The cities are huge, and the distances between them even bigger. Look up from the street in any major city and you can instantly see why skyscrapers are perfectly named. Stand on a dusty country road, and the road itself is often the only indicator that another human being has stood there before you.

Today, with global warming and green issues at the forefront of people’s minds, American cars still dwarf their European, Japanese, and Korean rivals. I rather enjoy renting a pickup truck whenever I’m in Texas, just for the comedy value of driving something that has nearly the same dimensions as my house.

Housing itself tends to dwarf its British equivalent, as land is, at least outside the major centres of population, considerably cheaper, and hotels generally offer much larger and more comfortable rooms than one can expect in Europe.

Even the food is huge. Portions lean towards the comically vast. Rather than offer smaller servings and run the risk of receiving a bad review, most restaurants will offer you a doggy-bag so you can take your, usually still voluminous, leftovers home to sustain you for the next couple of days.

So it’s no surprise then that American opera houses are also somewhat on the large side.

A quick internet search reveals that the daddy is New York’s Metropolitan Opera which has a capacity of 3,800. Chicago Lyric Opera can accommodate 3,563, San Francisco Opera 3,416, Los Angeles Opera 3,197, San Diego Opera 2,927, Seattle Opera 2,900, Houston Grand Opera 2,423, Washington National Opera 2,350, and The Dallas Opera 2,300.

The U.K.’s biggest opera house is English National Opera with a capacity of 2,558, the Royal Opera House having slightly fewer at 2,256.

In Europe, La Scala Milan has a capacity of 2,800, Vienna Staatsoper 2,284 (a misleading figure, as 567 are standing places), Salzburg Festspielhaus 2,179, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich 2,100, Bayreuth Festspielhaus 1,925, the Deutsche Oper Berlin 1,885, and the Staatsoper Berlin (in their now not-so-temporary home, the Schiller Theater) 1,396.

These are just some of the more famous houses. Some American colleges have vast auditoria, too. The size gap between American houses and their European counterparts is evident with just a cursory glance at these figures, but the effect of this discrepancy runs deeper.

All through their training, American singers are made aware of the size of auditoria they will be expected to perform in, and, thus, it’s no surprise that the American approach to vocal training differs greatly from its British equivalent.

Smaller European theatres allow for, shall we say, a more idiosyncratic approach to technique that simply gets lost in big American venues. Unfocused, knödly, throaty, or “tight” singing simply will not carry in a large auditorium, so American singers are encouraged to “release” their voice.

Rather than attempting to reign in and constrain their sound in an attempt to assert control, as do so many singers brought up in the British choral tradition of singing in ridiculously resonant chapels and cathedrals, they are encouraged to free up their breathing, support from their abdomen, and focus their resonance, so that they can carry over large orchestration in these bigger spaces. These are, essentially, the basics of good Italian Bel Canto singing technique which any singer should seek to emulate. American singers, in my experience are particularly good at it.

It can’t be any coincidence that the majority of the healthy-voiced singers I have run into in my career are American, or that those larger-voiced British and European singers I’ve encountered have learned their trade at the bigger European and American houses.

Yet sometimes it seems that a well-produced voice and a healthy technique is not enough.

Size of voice is a big issue these days, particularly in the repertoire in which I currently find myself.

These last few years I have mostly sung roles by two of opera’s heavyweight orchestrators, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Scanning through reviews, I’m always startled by how often a singer is curtly dismissed as being vocally “a size too small” for a role. These singers, and I have frequently counted myself one of their number, are summarily condemned as “lacking heft”, and being “underpowered”, with nary another editorial adjective being wasted on their musicianship or stagecraft.

“Too small.” End of.

It would appear that, as far as German romantic repertoire goes, quantity is more important than quality.

Speaking from experience, this rep is tough. It’s long, wordy, and very tiring, both mentally and physically. You can’t go at it like a bull in a china shop. “Balls to the wall” singing will see your voice and career disappear faster than rainwater down a storm drain. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You need to pace yourself, and learn where you have to give more, and where you have to save.

Walkure Wotan is a great example. Wotan’s furious Act 3 entrance into the Valkyies’ midst, sits vocally very high, and above a pretty hefty orchestration. Go flat out here, and you risk sacrificing the beauty of tone you need to conserve for the Farewell at the very end of the opera. You have to sing smart.

I’m not blessed with a voice like a sledgehammer, so I need to be wary. I have a healthy Italianate technique, but still I can’t allow myself to be drawn into competing with the orchestra. If they’re so loud that they drown me out, there’s nothing I can do about it.

Keeping the singer audible is the conductor’s job. If the orchestra drowns out the singer, which happens all too regularly despite both Strauss’ and Wagner’s well documented stricture that the orchestra must never swamp the singer, then the responsibility must lie with the conductor, not the singer. If they don’t know what a singer can and can’t do after six weeks of rehearsal, they shouldn’t be doing the job.

Singers who try to compete do not last. It’s that simple.

Such is the current obsession with vocal scale that some of my US-trained colleagues who are blessed with naturally large voices, to which they’ve added a healthy vocal technique, rather than ask a member of music staff, “How was that?”, will instead ask, “Could you hear me ok?”

Such a situation is ludicrous. It’s a mark of the extremes to which singers are frequently pushed by inadequate and inconsiderate conducting. Opera is not symphony, and simple logic will tell you that a solo singer cannot compete against a 100-piece orchestra at full chat in front of them.

Such wonders might be possible to achieve in the recording studio where a talented sound engineer can apply his skills, but in an unamplified live theatre, such expectations are ridiculous.

People who have grown up listening to the golden age of post-war studio recordings are often heard to bemoan, “Where have all the great voices gone?”

The answer is simple. They’re out there, but, if you’re not careful, you will kill them with unrealistic expectations.

Don’t push them. Let them sing.


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