Monday, May 3, 2010

Advice to Young Singers, Part 2: Muttersprache

The first repertoire I sang seriously, in high school, was French mélodie, and I remember how happy I was when I bought my first score at sixteen, the International edition of Debussy's collected songs.  I also learned French in high school, and Italian was a language that I always knew fairly well without having to study it.  As soon as I entered college, though, I set myself to learning German.  In fact, I think nothing else could be as important to a young singer as studying German when the opportunity arises, though I'm sure this conviction is hopelessly old-fashioned.

For two or three generations of singers before my time, German was actually much more important to American singers than it is today, as many of them went to Germany to seek a living.  Every town in Germany has an opera house, and American singers were very much in demand in the 1970s and 1980s, because American singers are rightly considered to be the best in the world:  our training focuses on developing rock-solid vocal technique, and we are discouraged from specializing, so we learn to sing all the major national styles and in all languages, with the result that your average American opera singer can sing pretty much anything well.  So Americans would go over to Germany (West Germany at that time) in search of fest employment, which meant they were attached to a specific opera house.  It was not glamorous work; the house tenor or lyric soprano had to sing every role in his or her fach, or voice category, in every opera that the house had in its repertory, which is quite different from the American system, in which all the singers are guest artists, coming to Opera House X to perform a particular role and then going elsewhere.  The Americans in Germany were excellent journeymen singers, and performing several shows a week for years on end was hard work, and everything -- Le Nozze di Figaro, La Traviata, Porgy and Bess --  was performed in German translation.  But in Germany, American singers were employees of the state, with full benefits.  They would never be famous, but they had health insurance and job security (something American singers still don't have), and they were able to make a living doing what their education and years of training had prepared them to do. Many American singers stayed in Germany for years, marrying other American singers and raising their children there.

In the 1990s, all of this began to change.  After the Berlin Wall fell, the German opera market was flooded with a new crop of Eastern Bloc singers who were eager to work, would work for less money than Americans, and could still sing better than Germans.  And American presenters, flush with cash left over from the brief period in American history during which arts funding was a national priority, founded new regional opera companies and young artists' training programs for native-born American talent, so singers seemingly had more opportunities at home.  And, after a fallow generation or two, Germany started producing a few world-class singers of its own.  I knew a couple of singers who went on audition tours in Germany ten or so years ago, but the German door was closing fast, and then 9/11 changed the face of opera in America, as it did so many other things.

I was not planning to go to Germany.  I simply set about learning German so that I could sing German music as well and truthfully as possible.  Plenty of American singers sing German music without really knowing German, but I don't believe that you can ever do justice to a song unless you understand the literal meaning of every word, above and beyond having a notion about the meaning of the whole piece.  If you know the meaning of every word, you can start to develop ideas about why the composer set each word as he did, and once you have an understanding of this -- a subjective one, to be sure -- you are no longer singing a melody; you participate in the harmonic progression of the piece itself.  You're able to understand the aural landscape of a piece in a whole new way, a way that is text-oriented, and you can use your voice as an ensemble instrument to bring out the meanings implied by certain keys and chords. You become a collaborative musician, which seems only right in a repertoire -- German Lieder -- in which the voice and piano are given equal prominence. Since I loved German music so much, I felt it would be almost unethical to attempt to sing it without knowing the language.

As it happens, though, I've spent most of my career performing Italian and English music.  I've been told, too, that those are the repertoires in which I sound the best, which is not surprising, as I believe that everyone sings best in his own native tongue.   As my old voice teacher, one of those intrepid American singers in Germany who attached himself to the Opernhaus at Augsburg in the 1980s, told me, an American singer can't have a career singing Lieder; you have to sing opera, get yourself known, and then acquire the clout to perform the music you want to sing (with the unspoken assumption that you would be paid to do this and that people would come to hear it).  This was my plan for a time, and I worked most assiduously at it, but for complicated reasons I ended up dropping out and focusing on several obscure repertoires instead.

I don't know if there's any place for German Lieder in America today.  I think there's a great need for it, both aesthetically and spiritually, but I don't know where concerts of German art songs would fit into the current American social landscape.  Lieder are heard in the great concert halls of major urban areas, and also on college campuses, when famous opera singers come around on tour to give art song recitals.  The asethetic of the song recital is much more rarified and much less accessible than that of opera, simply because it's much less familiar.  And yet, in my opinion, it is so much more moving, so much more healing, so much more able to go deep into the core of what makes us human.  It would be a good thing, I think, for everyone to hear some Brahms and Schubert on a regular basis.

I always told my voice students that the most important thing they could do was to learn German.  I'm sure they thought that was extremely arbitrary, but I felt very gratified when my former student S. recently started writing her Facebook posts in rather good German, and said that she wanted to marry Brahms.

Here is some more Hans Hotter; I'm discovering all over again what a fantastic singer he was.

The poem, by Karl Friedrich Lappe (1773-1843):

O how beautiful is your world,
Father, when she shines with golden beams!
When your gaze descends
And paints the dust with a shimmering glowing,
When the red, which flashes in the clouds,
Sinks into my quiet window!

How could I complain, how could I be afraid?
How could anything ever be amiss between you and me?
No, I will carry in my breast
Your Heaven for all times.
And this heart, before it breaks down,
Shall drink in the glow and the light.


Anonymous said...

Ah, the strange interactions between singers and foreign languages. I recall how confused my first French teacher was by my ability to pronounce a sentence beautifully and not understand a word of it.

"You become a collaborative musician"

It seems to me that this concept of singing as half of a collaborative duo is difficult for many young singers to grasp. Of course, I come from an instrumental background, and young singers don't spend nearly as much time in ensembles as young instrumentalists do. Hmm...

Pentimento said...

Not just difficult for young singers, alas, but for all singers, which is why most instrumental players don't consider singers musicians . . .

Anonymous said...

I must admit to having maligned singers in the past. I didn't do any serious vocal work until I came to college (four short years ago). As a high school band member, we used to make fun of the chorus all the time, probably because they got much more praise and attention than we did. Of course, most of the chorus members couldn't read music to save their lives. So there's the singer vs instrumentalist dilemma in a nutshell :)

By the way - Hi! I'm a new commenter but a veteran lurker, and never sure if I should introduce myself somehow before launching in.

Pentimento said...

Hi back atcha, Orleanna, and a warm welcome!

In the defense of my fellow singers, most singers don't start serious study of their instrument until considerably later than instrumentalists. The voice is a mature instrument, and you can't really do much with it until you're past puberty. So, if it happens (as it often does) that a young singer's voice is discovered independent of any past musical instruction, that singer has a lot of catch-up to do in the most basic musicianship. If you've been reading for a while here, you may already know that I had to take three semesters of undergraduate theory while getting my M.M. . . .

Pentimento said...

. . . and my M.M. was in voice.

mrsdarwin said...

I suppose some American singers must still gravitate to Germany -- my cousin (from Lousiana) has been with an opera company in Berlin for several years, and has settled there enough to marry a German fellow and get a nice flat. Though we've never really kept in touch, I do seem to remember that she found it hard to find steady work in the U.S.

Pentimento said...

You have a lot of singers in your family, Mrs. Darwin! Good on her. It's hard for everybody to find steady work in the U.S.

Otepoti said...

Would you describe why you like Hans Hotter's singing so much?

(To me, the Know-Nothing, it seems restrained to the point of self-extinction.)

Pentimento said...

That's a good question, Otepoti. He was one of the greatest Wotans of the twentieth century, and he wasn't restrained in Wagnerian repertoire. But art song is a different thing altogether. I believe it requires that sort of sensitive, thoughtful restraint. Hans (I feel like it's right somehow to call him that) exploits the intimacy of the Lied aesthetic to its fullest, and sings as if it's not only a conversation with the pianist, but also a conversation with you, the listener. When I hear him in Lieder, I really feel as if he is the poet and the composer -- as if the words and the music are coming from and originating with him. And his voice is so dang beautiful.

I really think he's superior to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in this repertoire. DFD and Schwarzkopf overdid everything, including intimacy. Hans lets the music speak for itself; he gets out of the way. Interestingly, DFD was pretty bad in opera.