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The Gift She Gave Me
by Kim Josephson
Kim JosephsonI was traveling in Europe somewhere in the Alps. It was a singular evening of extraordinary beauty. The moon was full. Huge snowflakes were falling from the sky.
The train was moving so slowly and quietly up the grade that it made me wonder. When I looked out the window, the mountainside covered with snow was aglow. I made my way back to my compartment in a reverie, and there she was.
She was an older woman elegantly dressed in the colors of gold and brown with a hint of burgundy. Her hair was up and she wore a silk scarf around her neck. She had striking facial features and beautiful clear eyes.
She noticed the puzzled look on my face and immediately went about putting me at ease. “I’m supposed to be here, too,” she said. “I got on a few stops back, but took a little dinner in the dining car. I do hope you don’t mind.”
“No, of course not,” I said. “It’s nice to have some company. What a night!”
“Indeed,” she said. “Where are you going?”
“I’m on my way to Lucerne. I haven’t been there since I was a boy.”
“Business or pleasure?” she asked.
“Both. I have an audition with the opera.”
“I knew it the first minute I laid eyes on you. You’re American, you’re a singer, and you’re looking for work.”
“Is it that obvious?”
As I sat back in my chair, I wondered at the coincidence of this meeting. The interview was just beginning.
“Can you sing?” she asked.
“I just made my Metropolitan Opera debut and I have a contract with the Wiener Staatsoper.”
She congratulated me and then told me she was a vocal coach. “May I ask you a question?”
“It’s a very important question—a personal question, and please be honest.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Now then, why do you sing?”
The question surprised me. “Why do I sing?” I thought.
And then I answered out loud. “I’m a singer. It’s how I make my living.”
“There’s lots of ways to make a living. Really, why do you sing?”
“Because I can . . . I love the music and I love to play these roles. I love it all—the theater, the lights, the audience, the applause.”
“I suppose that’s honest, but you’re not thinking deeply enough. Think. If you don’t know why you’re singing, can you tell me for whom you are singing?”
“For the public,” I said.
“Really?” she said.
Now, I wasn’t offended. In fact, I wasn’t even put off by her pressing. I knew she wanted me to think and, in contrast to the serenity of the train ride, this was promising to be intellectually stimulating.
“I sing for the public and they love me.”
“That’s the trouble with you singers—you’re always searching for love. The audience doesn’t love you. The audience loves the music and the vicarious thrill of your performance. If you’re good, they respond positively, and if you’re not, they despise you. What happens when you’re sick? What happens when you crack a high note?”
“I don’t know—fortunately that hasn’t happened.”
“Unfortunately, it will. What happens then? Will they, the public, have pity on you because you’re ill? Do you think they’ll love you because you courageously croak through some performance because the show must go on?”
“I wouldn’t do that. I’d cancel first.”
“No, my dear. You won’t cancel. After spending weeks in rehearsal, finally worn out from the repetition and the stress when your resistance is at an all-time low, some parasite, viral or bacterial, will attack your body, and then you’ll have to decide. To sing or not to sing, that is the question. That question will morph quickly into ‘To be paid or not to be paid . . . to let the company down or should I try?’ My dear, for whom are you singing?”
“Well, I guess I’m singing for all of them.”
“No, you don’t have a clue. You’re guessing, and that’s disappointing. Have you no sense of self-worth? Do you like Mozart? Verdi? Wagner? Puccini?”
“Of course, I like them all.”
“Don’t you realize that without you, they don’t exist? I’m a coach. I love this music with all my heart. I know every note, every scribble on the page. I am an old woman and I’ve memorized many of these scores in their entirety—but I can’t sing. I have no voice.
“Puccini has no voice! Verdi has no voice!” she exclaimed. “Mozart, Wagner—all are speechless without you—without the singer. They are just notes on a page. You singers are born to keep their geniuses alive. And if you serve the music, it will lift you on its wings to heights you’ve never dreamed of.”
I was stunned. Serve the music. Serve the genius of the composer—that clicked immediately. How I hated those singers, directors, and conductors who imprinted their ego on the music in such a way as to distort the intent of the composer.
“You singers are all alike,” she continued. “You’ve forgotten that you are opera. Without the singer, there is no opera. You Americans are the worst. You come over here so willing to please. It doesn’t matter who it is—conductor, director, coach, whatever—someone suggests something and you abandon your thoughts, if you have any, and try to assimilate theirs.
“Do you think Björling did this?” she asked. “Callas, Tebaldi, Milanov—any of the artists in that golden age of opera? Do you have any convictions? How can you call yourself an artist if you abandon yourself at every whim of another person? Where is your integrity? Do you even know the meaning of the word?”
“Integrity means holding to a code of ethics,” I answered.
“Yes, but that’s just part of it. Integrity means soundness, wholeness. You singers are in such pieces you don’t even know what you are anymore. Are you a tenor or a baritone?”
“No, you’re not. You’re totally unique. Your voice is one of a kind. You cannot allow yourself to be thought of in this ridiculous Fach system. You are a gift, a gift from God.
“The Italians say if one has a voice he has ‘il bacio di Dio’—the kiss of God,” she shared. “That’s beautiful, but it’s more than that. You cannot separate you and your voice. You are one piece. Listen, when God thought the world needed Mozart, He gave the world Mozart. When He thought we needed Beethoven, He gave us Beethoven. And when He thought the world needed you, He gave us you.”
“Surely you don’t mean to place me beside the masters,” I said.
“Oh, but I do. Without your voice, they remain scores on a shelf. Without you, their songs are silent. How many great songs have long since been buried because there was no one to sing them?
“I’m a coach,” she said again. “My concern is collaborative artistry. But the first collaboration comes from your heart to the composer’s. You have to lend yourself, your life experience, your soul’s most intimate expression of itself to his music. How incredible is that?
“Can your interpretation of a text—of the music to which the text is set—be anything but unique?” she asked.
“And you singers throw it away at the slightest suggestion of another ego. Why? Your constant use of the word ‘maestro’—ridiculous.
“Who is a master?” she continued. “The master was Mozart, Verdi, Wagner—we are merely servants. And if there is another master—then it must be the singer. You are like a rose, young man. Perhaps not a perfect rose, but a rose nonetheless—and you mustn’t let someone bash you to pieces simply because they don’t like roses. I suppose if you prefer carnations, you can beat a rose against concrete till it looks more like a carnation, but in the end it’s just a beat-up rose.
“Be who you are,” she advised. “Own your own voice. Own the colors and the choices you choose because, in the end, you sing for yourself. You share your soul. It reveals itself through your voice.
“You give your gift,” she said. “Some will receive it—some won’t. But this doesn’t say anything about your gift. Can you do this? You can’t give them just Mozart. You can’t give them just Verdi. It’s Mozart and you. It’s Verdi and you. And that’s special. It’s unique and it’s the best you can do.”
The conductor’s voice broke into our conversation to announce that we were arriving at some little stop I’d never heard of. This wonderful woman gathered her things and said goodbye. She wished me luck, shook my hand, and was gone into the snowy night. But what a gift she left me!
Kim Josephson is one of opera’s most beloved baritones and a regular guest of leading opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera where, since 1991, he has performed more than 250 performances of 29 roles including the title role in Rigoletto. Praised for his performances of new music as well as the classic repertoire, he now serves as chair of the vocal area at the University of Oklahoma and is an Edith Kinney Gaylord Presidential Professor of Voice.