Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Prima la musica poi le parole?

I'm taking up Jason's advice. BTW, thank you Jason! I'm always a little hesitant to tell too much about certain experiences I had over the course of my life and work. My thought being, what's left then for my autobiography? Seriously, I've already begun writing! But I decided to expand here on one important idea, which might also be an inspiration for younger singers.
I think there are many questions which an artist needs to ask themselves again and again over the course of their "careers", other than the famous and important "prima la musica..." question. These questions should be asked periodically since the answers may change. Also, posing these questions can help an artist remain true to their principles as well as motivated.
"Why do I do what I do?" is a very important question. The question I'd like to write about today is,
"Why do I do what I do the way I do it?". It goes without saying, the latter question can be close related to the previous one!
There are basically two schools of good singing: the school of the more traditional technically oriented singing which in itself contains the interpretation and the school of more interpretive singing based on a reliable technique. Of course these two schools cross each other and there are no defined barriors, they are only general orientations.
I remember while performing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser in Bayreuth one of the singers in the cast was criticized a couple of summers of being technically admirable however dull. This same singer came back in the 3rd summer and began the rehearsals with an entirely different approach, much more dramatic and text oriented. It was exciting, but he began screaming some of the high range, cracking and having some intonation problems. By the time we got to the performances, he went back to his "old" way and sang gloriously again. And maybe a little boring for some listeners.
The point being, he had difficulty combining the idea of technical prowess and interpretative portrayal.
The older I get, the more I realize how that IS the main issue. I've always been attracted to the great interpretors. They were to me the most inspiring. Now in my old age, and as a responsible voice teacher, I really find the great technicians the most inspiring! Or better said, just as inspiring!!
I must confess, as a young singer I never really warmed up to Tebaldi. I respected her and I appreciated the glorious voice. Yes, you already guessed it, when I was young, I was an avid Callas fan. Callas had the more interesting, individual voice, the more exciting interpretation and the more stunning technique!
Now, I really understand and appreciate Tebaldi. Now I actually love Tebaldi!! She had a big spinto voice which was naturally a little stubborn. Still she managed to negotiate the most demanding phrases with a secure technical refinement.
Having been Callas influenced, I was always more interested in communicating the idea of my role. My real "eureka" moment came however when I was learning the role of Eva in Die Meistersinger, 1987. In the beginning of the 3rd act, Stolzing's new way, his "song" is baptized and Sachs asks Eva to do the honors. At that moment, Eva composes her lines of the famous quintett, inspiring the others and proving herself an equal to the other masters and future master, Stolzing. It's a beautiful, touching scene. But the idea of composing each line as I sang it, as a spontaneous statement really hit me! and I thought to myself, why shouldn't every phrase be that way?
I consequently made this approach my school of performance. And I still believe in this principle. Then, as I grew older, my own voice became more stubborn and I realized I needed to change my weight of orientation in order to survive. Which I did. And now I have another approach. The most difficult of all.
I have come to the conclusion, after almost 4 decades of professional singing, that the singer must constantly strive for the best of both, seemingly opposing worlds! Every phrase must be sung with a solid, stable and secure technique and each phrase must, at the same time, seem to be spontaneous!
Since the idea of spontaneity is most easily achieved by the way the breath is taken preparing that phrase, of course the idea of creating or composing at a given moment could lead to a hectic breath, for example. But the key is to make the breath seem hectic without it actually being hectic! Much in the same way we create sobs or crying effects in singing, even though we don't actually sob and cry which would make us totally lose control of the vocal lines. Another way to create the illusion of spontaneity is, for example, to color the breath for the next phrase differently. This means, taking a longer deeper darker breath or a shorter lighter "higher" one. And of course everything in between. This can also lead to problems if the singer actually changes their technical stability to achieve these differences for the sake of a more spontaneous interpretation. It takes more time to find the way to take a seemingly high, excited breath, but it's worth the effort. Another great tool is seeming to be out of breath, taking constant little breaths, without actually breathing but instead reconfirming air compression. Composers often write these kinds of lines (like "Caro nome" or "Je veux vivre") and most singers I meet are taking little breaths on each rest. But taking almost no breath and working with that little bit of breath you actually have is the answer. Once a singer has that under control, both in the mind and body, then they can go back to making these types of lines seem to be out of breath or excited or extactic or whatever as well as created at the moment they are sung!
If I continue to sing a few more years, who knows, I may change my mind again. But one thing is certain, I intend to continue asking questons!


  1. Thanks for this article, Cheryl! Singing opera should be like juggling three balls - the text, the notes and the action. Like any clown in the circus knows, it's a shame when one of the balls has to drop. Our job is to keep working at it until it all comes together.

  2. It is a delight to see you share your experiences and knowledge in this setting. While not a professional singer myself, I'll try to wrap my mind around the experiences and will reinterpret and perhaps integrate them as I either prepare for a community production or utilize them during my "instructional" moments as a choral director or coach for my students. Thank you again, my friend.

  3. Dearest Ms. Studer, what a pleasure to find this and to read your thoughts on singing. Hoping to read more from you on the topic. Also great to know you are writing down your memoirs, past and continuing. It has been a lengthy and an amazing "career" by any standard. Congratulations! Please keep us in the know about the publication of your book. Thank you. My sincere best and warmest wishes, Gabriel