NPR's "50 Great Voices" and vocal technique
On Monday, I happened to hear the latest segment in NPR’s ongoing series “50 great voices,” this one honoring a singer I’d never heard of, Esma Redzepova. The series has cast its net laudably wide; I realized that, opera lover though I am, I was a lot happier to learn about Redzepova, a world-famous Yugoslavian vocal star, than to hear one more segment extolling some opera singer I already loved (so far, Maria Callas is the only opera singer the series has featured).
Redzepova has a voice that sounds like a beat-up Mustang barreling along a street full of potholes: it’s gamey and battered and tough and it’s been places and it’s going more places and it doesn’t really care what’s in its way. I was particularly struck by the story of the years of training she put in to get it that way. She’s 64 now and still performing actively, so you’d better believe she knows what she’s doing; and to back this up she told the kind of maybe-apocryphal story that’s a part of every great singer’s legend, about practicing for two years four hours a day, five days a week (I find it particularly endearing that she took weekends off), to elevate her voice from pretty and ineffectual (she demonstrates the before and after, on the audio) to the sustained force it is today.
I wish every classical singer would listen to this segment for the lessons it has to teach about the meaning of technique. Technique isn’t just something that refines your voice into a polished, finished, pretty product, although too many singers and teachers do approach it as if it were a kind of finishing school: polishing the talent, as if painting roses on the cheeks of a porcelain doll. Technique, for Redzepova, was about blowing the whole instrument open, turning it into a powerhouse that could sustain heavy use without damage.
(read more after the jump)
Technique is something sturdy. It enables you to dig in and get some use out of your instrument. This is just as true of opera singers as of the so-called “Queen of the Gypsies.” I don’t mean that opera singers want to sound like Redzepova, but I do mean that most of the great classical singers have had this kind of solid technique, a voice that can stand up to some wear and tear and still sound glorious after a few decades: think Flagstad, Melchior, Sutherland, or Pavarotti. (OK, Pavarotti didn’t always sound glorious in his latest years, but he certainly understood the now-dying art of breath support.)
I also wish that opera, today, could win back some of the visceral appeal that Redzepova demonstrates. Not everyone is going to like the way she sounds, but I think nearly anyone who hears her can tell what she’s trying to do and whether or not she’s doing it well, regardless of whether or not it happens to be to the listener’s individual taste. Opera, by contrast, seems so artificial to so many people that non-aficionados often respond by simply being impressed by the volume. I’ve written before about attending rehearsals with young singers and seeing people giving signs of being tremendously impressed about singing that was uncertain, out of tune, without rhythmic integrity. These same people would never tolerate such singing in another musical genre, but when it comes to opera, they presume that they don’t understand it enough to have the right to make a judgment, and simply overlook anything that sounds bad, as if it must be part of the convention. I think if more singers today dug in and let loose with Redzepova’s brand of direct honesty (and there are certainly some who do already) it would be a lot easier to overcome the widespread sense of “otherness” in opera, reach out more directly to new listeners, and restore the visceral thrill that, at its best, the genre is about.
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