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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.
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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.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 7, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  | Tags: Opera, Singing  
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Next: In performance: Sara Daneshpour


For those who are Anne Midgette's detractors, here's the kind of article that shows why she's among the best voice critics around. I have my own disagreements with Ms. Midgette (Sergiu Celibidache for one) but there's no doubt in my mind that she's been a great addition to the music scene in this area.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 7, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I also enjoyed Ms. R's performance on the NPR web site. But any comparison of what she does to opera singing is like comparing Popeye's Fried Chicken to the Inn at Little Washington.

Ms. R's singing attempts a range of an octave, if that. She can put her song in whatever key she chooses, in her voice's comfort zone, and do whatever she wants to within that zone, ain't nobody but her public telling her otherwise. She wants to flip into head voice here, fine. She wants to go nasal there, fine, no problem, her public loves it, and so do you.

Whereas the opera singer has to essay what Verdi/Rossini/Puccini/Mozarat wrote hundred+ years ago, being compared with numerous artists who did it before.
G-d forbid it doesn't come out close to perfect every time; if you write the review for sure each imperfection will be described for posterity. If the singing is carefuly and technically perfect, they're be criticized for not having enough heart or acting or doing it like Tebaldi did it. And if the public goes for the impact of the performance and overlooks technical imperfection, you criticize the public for not knowing better.

You know, sometimes when they don't have their breath just right, it's not because they can't do it, weren't trained properly; it might be because they're nervous, or inexperienced, or it went great in the studio, in rehearsal.

It happened to a friend of mind recently. She did a performance that wasn't great, far from her best. I've heard her best most of the time she's performed. But if you happened to be writing your review the day it wasn't great you'd make unwarranted conclusions about the singer, her training, what the public accepts, and isn't it awful what's the world coming to.

When Ms. R has her bad days, you don't know, you're not there when she performs live, you only heard a sample that NPR put on its web site.

Posted by: c-clef | April 7, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Fascinating. I went to the NPR site and listened to several of the Great Voices, some singers whose work I know well and some whose work I don't know at all -- and of those I heard, all of them seem to have what you call "visceral appeal." And it's a quality I don't find often enough among opera singers.

However, I'm not sure that "honesty," is the quality lacking among opera singers: in listening to younger American artists, especially, I hear honesty more often than not. As a group, the new generation is very, very sincere -- and I'm glad of that.

Maybe the ability to "cut loose" is simply rare. After all, NPR came up with only 50 singers for its series, and drew from a spectrum of genres. I can list nearly as many names of truly gutsy opera singers I've heard over the years: that's not a bad tally.

Yes, such artists do make a difference, communicating directly even with people who don't know the language or the music. Watching Scotto in "Anna Bolena," my mother -- no opera fan -- was on the edge of her seat. ("How can he DO that to her?" she kept asking indignantly, as Henry abused poor Anne.)

Unfortunately, these folks can't sing every performance in every town, but when we have the chance to hear them, we should count ourselves lucky -- and encourage others to listen.

Posted by: WilliamMadison | April 8, 2010 2:05 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Anne for tackling this. I hear opera singers nearly year who should never have taken the stage in the first place. They were not told the honest truth about the quality of their tone or technique when they were in school. They were given false flattery and passed on, for someone else to deal with in grad school. They have no color, no acting ability and no future outside of teaching other singers how to sing badly. It's an epidemic.

Posted by: ubermama | April 8, 2010 7:27 AM | Report abuse

I am always glad to hear about a new, unique voice & I will look forward to listening to Ms. Redzepova. However, I think you underrate some of today's opera singers. I don't know who the 50 voices on NPR were (I will probably go check them out right now) but two names that jump into my head immediately for the integrity and directness of their performances are Joyce DiDonato (whom I have had the good fortune of seeing in person 4 times and have been completely mesmerized each time) and Diana Damrau (whom I have yet to see in person but who is remarkable in her range, technical skill, & ownership of all characters she portrays). Among male operatic singers, Gerald Finley comes to mind. And what about singers no longer with us, such as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson? There are many singers that thrill me when I listen to them. But again, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important subject.

Posted by: JRZGRL1 | April 10, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

Pretty sure Mrs. Midgette wasn't around to hear how Melchior did or didn't sound in his later years.

Anyway, Redzepova is not "Yugoslav," she's Roma, pure and simple. And there is little interesting about her voice itself. It's a normal voice that you could find amongst many gypsy musicians. It seems this NPR 50 Voices gimmick is more about storylines than actual interesting voices.

Posted by: geddaisgod | April 12, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

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