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Musings on Mechanics
That’s Not Opera—It’s an Opportunity

by Claudia Friedlander



If you regularly spend time on Facebook, then your news feed was recently choked with posts about Laura Bretan, the earnest, adorable 13-year-old who elicited a standing ovation and a shower of gold confetti with her performance of “Nessun dorma” on America’s Got Talent. My guess is that about 25 percent of the posts expressed the astonished admiration of your non-classical singer friends and family, while the other 75 percent conveyed the alarmed reactions of those who understand how much training, skill, and artistic maturity is required to perform a Puccini aria.

I saw attempts to educate the uninitiated about what real opera is, as well as expressions of outrage at seeing a tremendously talented young girl exploited to entertain the masses and potentially being robbed of the possibility of pursuing an actual opera career. Legendary operatic bass Samuel Ramey scolded that “she has no business” singing this aria. Voice teacher Heidi Moss circulated an open letter to Bretan explaining what opera performance really entails and urging her to reach out to the classical singing community for guidance. Soprano Helen Hassinger launched a GoFundMe campaign to “Send Simon Cowell to the Met.” Memes proliferated.

Every few months a video of a newly discovered operatic prodigy makes the rounds. I ignore it until someone inevitably solicits my opinion. Then I find myself explaining, as I imagine you do, that this prepubescent or adolescent singer possesses neither the physiology to healthily produce an operatic sound nor any idea of what the aria they’re singing is about. However, watching Bretan’s AGT performance and witnessing the overwhelming response that greeted her has caused me to reflect on my own prejudices, and I find that I no longer believe that a reaction of this nature is an effective way to engage those who are moved and impressed by such phenomena.

This article will explore the vocal consequences young singers invite with such performances as well as ways to use them as opportunities to fan your friends’ newfound enthusiasm for classical singing.

I cannot predict whether Laura Bretan’s star has continued to rise through her subsequent AGT performances in the weeks since my publication deadline; regardless, I ask that you now watch the video of her first performance start to finish, particularly if you couldn’t previously bring yourself to sit through it: youtu.be/xCoxGV7j71c/

Before I get into an assessment of her singing, I invite you to appreciate the powerful reaction of the audience. They went wild. This invites the question: If Bretan’s singing did not in any way resemble a real operatic performance, then what were they responding to?

Bretan delivered an earnest, authentic outpouring of passion and she allowed it to flow through her voice with steadfast courage and commitment. I believe that the ability to do this is at the very heart of every great operatic performance—the very thing that our audiences most long to experience. While true artistry also demands impeccable musicianship and diction informed by dramatic depth, these things avail us nothing and will fail to move listeners if they are not motivated by genuine emotion and generosity of spirit. I would argue that the AGT audience was responding to the essence of what makes opera so transformative, and their response was exceptionally strong because it was the first time many of them had ever experienced anything of the kind.

While the conversation we have with one another must address the dangers such singing potentially poses for adolescents, the conversation we have with their fans must celebrate what they love about it rather than excoriate them for what we perceive as poor taste.

The Adolescent Voice

The larynx and vocal folds undergo dramatic developments beginning with puberty and continuing not only throughout one’s teens but often into one’s early 20s. Male voices change in a way that is both more audibly apparent to the listener and mechanically obvious to the singer, but female voices experience a similar transition.

In “Voice Changes Throughout Life,” an online tutorial posted by the National Center for Voice and Speech, the major factors cited that impact the voice as a singer ages are “growth, especially changes in vocal fold length; development of the cricothyroid and thyroarytenoid muscles; changing structure of vocal fold tissues; and ossification of the cartilage in the larynx.” Changes that occur for female voices throughout adolescence can include “increased breathiness or huskiness, occasional ‘cracking,’ a lowering of average speaking fundamental frequency, and increased pitch inaccuracy while singing.”

The “breathiness” characteristic of many teenaged female voices is due to the presence of a posterior glottal chink. Until the larynx has reached a certain level of development, the vocal folds cannot achieve complete adduction, so during phonation they will not fully meet from end to end and some air will escape along with the tone.

Andrés Andrade is the founder and artistic director of Citywide Youth Opera in New York as well as the former director of the opera theatre program at LaGuardia Arts High School. I asked him to weigh in on what we should expect a healthy adolescent female classical singer to sound like. Andrade feels confident that a young woman’s technique is developing well when she is able to demonstrate “clarity of tone, good intonation, and a throat that remains relaxed throughout her range. It must sound and look easy.” Both the development of an organic vibrato and the ability to modulate registration may require a certain degree of maturity in the vocal folds, so an absence of vibrancy or an inability to access and/or smoothly blend vocal registers are not always of immediate concern.

“Young singers are often not able to grasp the finer points of registration,” he says, which is why girls who love pop and musical theatre are sometimes inclined to belt everything while their classically oriented peers restrict themselves to pure head voice, either of which can lead to the development of an imbalanced technique. They are often so impatient and eager to produce a fully mature sound that “half the battle is keeping them out of trouble, while doing everything I can to support and preserve their enthusiasm,” Andrade says.

A mature, operatic sound requires full cord closure, balanced registration, and vocal folds that are developed to the point where they can produce an even, organic vibrato. Until adulthood, the larynx does not descend to the point where a singer can access the full length of what will become their supraglottal tract. Children also have not yet developed the facial bone structure required to balance out their resonance.

A young violinist can learn on a quarter- or half-sized instrument that is in all other ways similar to a full-sized violin. A young pianist can modify fingerings until their hands are large enough to grasp full chords and still offer viable interpretations of much of the same repertoire their older peers perform. But a young singer’s instrument is not yet even a fair facsimile of the voice they will later access as an adult.

Thus there can be no true operatic prodigies.

The young voice simply has not physiologically matured to the point that it is capable of projecting a healthy, balanced sound over an orchestra in an opera house. Aided by a microphone, an adolescent singer may be able to mimic some of the sounds typical of an adult operatic voice, but they can only do so by manipulating, tensing, and pushing their voice in a way that can only be sustained for very brief periods of time and will eventually lead to vocal fatigue or injury. It is an approach to singing that will never yield true vocal and artistic mastery but will rather create entanglements that will delay or even derail the possibility of actual operatic excellence.

This is why Bretan’s performance raises such deep concerns for experienced opera singers and voice teachers. She possesses both a promising voice and strong musical instincts, but most of the sounds she is producing are the result of effortful, unsustainable manipulations of a body that is not yet mature enough either to create these sounds in a free, organic way or to withstand such pressure without significant risk of injury. The hazardous technical problems I note include the following:

Her vibrato is tremulous and irregular and is accompanied by shaking in her tongue and jaw. An organic vibrato depends in part on well-modulated registration, and it may be that she is not yet able to fully engage the muscles governing heavier registration. This may also explain why the cut of “Nessun dorma” she chose to perform omits the low D at the very beginning—she may simply not be capable of producing a focused sound in her primo passaggio yet.

She performs these syllabic phrases with virtually no legato, pumping breath into individual notes and syllables rather than streaming her air continuously throughout each phrase. This is an extremely fatiguing process—and while it can produce a sequence of richly produced tones, it cannot deliver the long, beautifully shaped lines required for Puccini. It would also be hard to sustain for a period longer than the one minute and 20 seconds of this excerpt.

Bretan’s breathing is quite labored. She is squeezing every molecule of air she can manage out of her slight frame in order to generate her sound, with her shoulders rotating internally, her sternum pressing down, and her ribs squeezing in. She inhales so frequently as to obscure the text, most notably breathing in between the first and second syllables of “vincerò” in order to power up and sustain the climactic high note.

To my ear, she is artificially darkening her sound and mimicking a more mature resonance by holding her larynx down and over-rounding her lips.

Bretan’s Italian diction is completely unintelligible and her rhythms are approximate and vague. In our conversation, Andrade emphasized the importance of complementing vocal technical study with language and musicianship instruction even as a beginner. After all, the duration of each syllable and the shape of each vowel are both important components of how one’s technique should be deployed moment to moment. In addition, opera is an art form requiring intense collaboration between the singers, the orchestra, and the conductor; while singers will sometimes perform an aria out of context, it still requires the real-time participation of other musicians, and the skill to engage in such collaboration is an inherent component of our art form. And, of course, opera singers perform without amplification.

These numerous ways in which Bretan’s preparation and presentation deviate from what we commonly associate with classical singing lead us, along with Batman, to dismiss her efforts by exclaiming, “That’s not opera!!” accompanied by a vicious slap.

Now consider once again the rapturous ovation that greeted the performance upon which I have levied my pedagogical and artistic critique. Consider also the delighted sentiments it inspired in your Facebook friends. Finally, consider how our instinctive response to these expressions of astonishment and admiration is to exclaim, “That’s not opera!!” and deliver a virtual slap to anyone who isn’t savvy enough to realize it for themselves. They are likely to react to this admonishment by concluding that we are jealous and that we are snobs.

They have a point.

 

In Pursuit of Common Ground

When we see an untrained 13-year-old singer receive such accolades for an appropriation of a beloved Puccini aria, does it make us jealous?

Of course it does. We ache for that era when a beloved opera singer like Beverly Sills guest hosted The Tonight Show and appeared on The Muppet Show. We’re nostalgic for the stunning success enjoyed by the Three Tenors as well as the way their wide popularity helped attract new audiences to opera houses throughout the 90s. Even if some purists might object to the way that these celebrity opera singers packaged their performances to communicate better over the airwaves or to a stadium audience, these were master singers sharing their hard-earned artistry with the masses and reaping their adoration. With opera companies now struggling to survive and ticket sales on the decline, it would be impossible for us to look without jealousy upon a reality TV contestant as she inelegantly co-opts this repertoire and receives widespread exuberant praise.

Does our desire to correct Bretan’s fans about the nature of opera make us snobs?

If in so doing we convey a message that they were wrong to find themselves transported by a performance that they loved, I am afraid that indeed it does. This was an opportunity for them to discover that they could be moved in a particular way by a genre of music that had previously failed to catch their attention. If, instead of embracing this opportunity and inviting them to discover how much more there is to admire and explore, we instead express the opinion that they only enjoyed it because they are too uneducated or uncultured to understand what a travesty they were witnessing, we quash their joy and confirm whatever suspicions they may have previously held that opera is, in fact, not for them.

It is only natural that we would have these impulses, but it is vital that we rise above them. Rather than criticize Bretan’s fans, we must instead strive to discuss our love of opera with the same unfettered zeal that she shared with the world through her singing.

When someone comes to you, the opera expert in their life, to express their appreciation for such a performance, do what you can to draw them out. Ask them what they found so appealing about it. Ask them how it made them feel.

I believe that many, if not most, were responding to the unrestrained way she courageously channeled genuine feeling through her voice. This is what we all seek to do with our singing. Share with them your experiences of what it feels like to do that and how much it means to you, and invite them to listen to the artists who inspire you. If you are able to tap into their enthusiasm, you may find them eager to learn about how much more potentially astonishing it can be to hear great artists perform live, unamplified, accompanied by orchestra in an acoustically wonderful hall.

If her youthful earnestness and excitement are part of what moved them, you can encourage them to listen to the young singers you appreciate or share examples of roles written to be performed by children, such as Yniold in Pelléas et Mélisande and the Shepherd Boy in Tosca. They will likely be able to distinguish for themselves the contrast between an untrained 13-year-old imitating an adult sound and a well-prepared junior opera singer—and that will provide material for further conversation.

If it turns out that they are not really drawn to opera but simply enjoy the reality TV circus, then at least you made a genuine effort to share something meaningful with them. But there is a real possibility that a listener who appreciated the kind of unfettered, expansive singing that Bretan demonstrated may be on their way to discovering a love of classical singing, and it is your job to lure them from the gateway drug of reality TV down the road to becoming a full-blown opera addict.

Televised talent shows can be highly exploitive of the artists who are drawn to compete in them, and we should advise our friends, students, and children of the potential hazards of participation. Child “prodigies” like Jackie Evancho and Charlotte Church will never garner the admiration of those of us who have spent our lives pursuing the craft of classical singing, nor will crossover darlings like Andrea Bocelli or Sarah Brightman.

Yet there is no denying that these singers command mass appeal. So when operatic repertoire receives exposure at their hands and is greeted with great enthusiasm, let us regard it as a potential boon for our art form and community, warmly welcome these new enthusiasts, and seek to share with them the wonders we know await those who are willing to immerse themselves in this profound and time-honored art form.

For more information about Andrés Andrade and Citywide Youth Opera, please visit www.citywideyouthopera.org.

Claudia Friedlander is a voice teacher and certified personal trainer with a studio in New York. Find her on the Web at www.claudiafriedlander.com.











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