I mentioned in an earlier posting that I was taking some lessons in singing opera, mainly with the intention of getting a better understanding of what I'm listening to and writing about. I've come to the end of the series for now, and it's been a fascinating process - indeed, quite a revelation.
If you're a trained singer, don't bother reading this - you know it all already. If you're not, there are several things that may come as a surprise.
The first thing that struck me is quite how physical the whole process is. Singing lessons turned out to involve lots of stretches and an extensive warm-up: it was extremely similar to lots of sports coaching that I've had over the years, and not all that much like music lessons, where the heart of the matter has been intricacy of fingering and the difficulty of controlling the rhythm of a complex phrase or set of chord transitions. Whenever I couldn't make a high note, my teacher Berty would invariably discover some part of my body that was locked up and getting in the way, which could be anything (ribs, jaw, shoulder blades, tongue, you name it). The key to getting the right note would be to relax whichever part was causing the problem and try again: it would appear that two major skills for singing teachers are (a) figuring out which bit is stopping you and (b) explaining to you how to relax it.
The next surprise was quite how defined one's vocal range is. In my years of singing folk, blues or whatever, I've never really thought about my range: if there's a problem, I just skip an octave somewhere and get on with it. In opera, of course, this is simply not acceptable. To my surprise, I turn out to be a bass, and it's taken a considerable struggle to learn to sing a top E reliably (by which I mean the one immediately above middle C.) I could never have believed that the gap between E flat and E natural could be as wide as it evidently is. Actually, being a bass is something of a disappointment, since most of the opera arias everyone knows are for tenor or baritone, but that's life, and there are still plenty of great bass arias around, even if they're not quite as famous.
So I set myself the task of learning Ferrando's aria Di due figli from the beginning of Verdi's Il Trovatore, in which he tells the story of how a gypsy woman was burnt at the stake for witchcraft and the horrific revenge wrought by her daughter. It's a marvellously over the top and exciting piece and it's clear that Berty considers it an act of lunacy for a beginner to have attempted it. Still, it's been fun, in spite of the perils of negotiating no less than 15 top Es, which turns it into something of an endurance test.
The main thing I've been left with is an immense respect for what opera singers do. In just one four minute aria, there are hundreds of individual decisions to be made: exactly how to accent a particular note, how to project one's voice while forming a vowel in exactly the right way, how to interpret dynamic markings or slurs - and that's before getting on to the business of how the words are set or what dramatic effect one is trying to achieve in the context of the overall opera (or even a particular director's interpretation of it. Berty is quite capable of engaging in a lengthy conversation about the way one's voice should construct a particular vowel on a particular syllable, and I now realise that if an opera star is trying to approach perfection in performing an aria, the attention to detail that is demanded is nothing short of obsessive.
After a few months of Berty, I can make a reasonable attempt at Di due figli, as well as a bunch of simpler early Italian stuff, Beethoven's take on Mephistopheles's Song of the Flea and another gloriously over the top bass number called Piff Paff from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. This is also an "elderly retainer" piece (such is the lot of dramatic basses) and is the epitome of political incorrectness: the Huguenot Marcel sings a violently anti-Catholic and misogynist battle song at a smart banquet in the middle of a hall full of - you guessed it - Catholics and ladies. It's made me really want to see the opera, which I didn't know before.
Learning to sing has been great fun and it feels like I've achieved something, but far more importantly, it's been a real education, and my opera-going life will be the richer for it.
3rd May 2011