I’m aware that I have a voice which polarises both the professional critics and the public. Some people love how exciting it is to be pinned to the back of the theatre by its metallic, chainsaw-like quality. On the other hand, rather than being viscerally thrilled, others feel instead eviscerated, and would prefer to turn off their hearing aids or escape the theatre altogether.
For the first part of my career, I was absolutely DESPERATE to please. I wanted everyone in the audience to love my singing. I wanted to be all things to all conductors and would tie myself in ever more complicated knots of muscle tension to try to make my voice do what they wanted. My USP was that I could sing (or at least would have a go at singing) anything. Except, that it wasn’t really a USP. It was a massive con. Effectively I was cheating the musicians I worked alongside and the public by doing an impression of other singers, who because of natural predispositions, superior instruments or different experiences were better at the particular repertoire I was performing than I was. It took me until I was 35 to “find my true voice”, and once I’d found it, I had to train it, nurture it and learn to love it.
Well that’s one spin. The other side of the story, is that just as I wouldn’t play Bach on my violin in the same way that I play Bruch (and probably truth be told most people would prefer me not to play either), I didn’t sing Handel or, yes, Bach, the way I sang Mozart. And I used different vocal colours again for Beethoven, Shostakovitch, Tchaikowsky and Birtwhistle. I used a very different style again when singing Yentl down a microphone at the Concertgebouw or singing Swedish Pop Songs in the Dutch crossover group, CALL (if you look hard enough the internet evidence can probably still be found, but please don’t!) This attention to style and performance practice made me versatile and popular and paid my mortgage for over a decade.
But nothing quite felt “right” until I dipped my toe, and eventually plunged headlong into the Wagnerian waters in which I’m currently swimming. All of a sudden, everything seemed to fall into place. The jigsaw of technique I’d been assembling over the years finally became a recognisable picture. It felt like coming home. The complexity I have always so loved in Baroque Music enticed me into the lush, late-Romantic era in all its glory. Now, I can even sit through a whole recording of Siegfried (which is all about tenors for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure) without fidgeting. Much.
So I became much more of a one-trick pony. That trick is to sing loudly over the biggest orchestras you can imagine, all blowing and scraping as hard as they can, and be heard. At the back of very big theatres. In operas that go on for hours and hours. I put all of my effort and application into getting good at this new skill. And the result is, well, not always pretty but usually pretty effective.
And here we come to the crux of the confidence crises of so many singers. I know my limitations. I’ve worked alongside the very best Wagnerians in the world. One of the Wagnerian legends of our age is my singing teacher. I’ve listened to her recordings and wept. I can’t do the magical things she did. Annie Evans span lines of radiant rose-gold. Everything about her singing is warm. Her legato is completely flawless. Her voice a thing of unmitigated beauty. In comparison I am all stainless-steel and hard edges. I skewer the lines through the orchestra. I penetrate. She’s an artist and I am an artiSAN. I am workmanlike.
The thing is though, my one-trick skill (which I am constantly honing, evening out, rounding off- imagine me as a Blacksmith, patiently forging each performance out of increasingly precious metal, making it more ornate and less cumbersome each time, aiming for strength, a searingly sharp edge and burnished beauty, all to the specifications of the conductor) is good enough. Not for my personal satisfaction and certainly not for Annie’s. But it’s good enough to get me the job.
So I have performance opportunities. I’m a very hard worker and I have really good intentions. In many ways I am very proud to be a craftsman rather than an artist. What I do is all about the nuts and bolts. It’s all about understanding how the thing is put together. Ultimately the artistic decisions about the piece are made in collaboration (if I’m lucky) with the conductor and the director. My job is to make their magic happen with my technical skill. That technical skill (currently still very much under development) is to offer them as many artistic choices as possible. Within the limitations of my individual instrument.
And because of my awareness of those limitations, and the aesthetic sensibility I do have, I am very cognisant, always, of not being good enough. I walk out on to the stage for every performance with a mix of sensible preparation, trepidation and optimism. I know I’m getting better, but each audience is only there for one performance and I always feel I owe them rather better than my best. After all, most of them are die-hard Wagner fans. They have all the recordings. And a lot of them would secretly prefer those recordings to be magically recreated for them live, rather than submit themselves to the ordeal of a younger generation giving it their best shot.
But that’s the thing. We ARE all giving it our best shot. We’re giving it our best shot within the constraints of the artistic sensibilities of the conductor and the director. The questions I’m subjected to by members of the audience on a regular basis: “Why did you decide not to die at the end?”, “What made you choose that costume? It didn’t suit you!”, “Why did you start the Liebestod so slowly?” – these are all borne out of a massive misconception that I have ANY ARTISTIC VETO AT ALL. During the rehearsal process I can argue my case and lobby for what I feel is essential but after the discussion is over, my job is to do the agreed version of the piece. I view myself as a craftsman. So do the artistic team. Audience perception of my artistic input is the subject for another blog and I won’t venture further into it here, but suffice to say, a lot of the things you thought were terrible ideas WEREN’T MINE! Admittedly, I can’t take the credit for the genius pacing of the accelerando and slow, irrevocable building to a climax of the Liebestod in last night’s Tristan either. That was Daniele Gatti’s artistry and I was just lucky enough to be carried along by his momentum. He made it so very easy for me to sing what can be such a very hard aria at the end of a very long evening (it was well past midnight when I started on “Mild und Leise”).
And this is why we, the public, rely on critiques from professionals to help us be discerning. A professional critic should be able to judge what is down to the singer, and what that singer has been subjected to at the hands of the artistic team. A professional critic will be aware of the great interpreters of the roles and their legacies. I have a huge amount of respect for these writers who are so very well-informed about not just the music we interpret but of the performance history of each piece and of the CVs of all of the singers and of the creative team. How else can they legitimately tell us what is good and what isn’t? After all, the reception of a work of art is entirely subjective, but critics have a duty to justify their opinions to the public. We won’t be satisfied with “I liked X’s voice. I thought Y conducted the piece too slowly.” – We need references and reasons. We need to trust.
I may be naïve, but I like to assume that whoever is criticising my performance has prepared to the same level I have. I like to think that if they’re influencing the Wagner fans of the world to think well or badly of my best efforts, that they’ve done their homework and know what they’re talking about. If any would-be critics are reading this and feeling guilty then may I refer you to an earlier paragraph about my feeling inadequate? To perform one of these roles I need to be flawless of pitch, rhythm and text. I need to remember all of the dynamic markings and the tempo changes. I need to adapt to whatever the conductor and any of my colleagues throws at me during the performance and I often need to do it dressed in a hideously unflattering costume (NOT MY CHOICE) made of rubber which makes me sweat so much I am dehydrated. If you’re going to criticise me, you, in return, need to demonstrate background knowledge, beautiful prose, flawless spelling and grammar and an ability to discern who is responsible for what.
The thing is though, however brilliant you are at your job (and, believe me, as an aspiring writer myself, I have huge admiration for many of you), you need to understand that nothing you can say is going to influence what I do during any performance during the run. The reason is very simple. I don’t read reviews. It’s not just because if you’re mean about me in the National Press, I cry.
My good friend, the wonderful baritone, Brett Polegato related to me a conversation he’d had with a colleague: -“This review’s awesome about you, but it’s really mean about me!”
-“Oh! Does that mean you’re going to start trying?”
Brett’s point was that the colleague was already doing his best. He was already singing as well as he could sing. He was acting as well as he could act. He was interpreting the artistic decisions of the artistic team in a good and professional way. What was he going to change because of the review? Was he going to change the way he sang? Well let’s hope not without consulting the conductor. Presumably the conductor had given him all the input he felt was necessary before the first night. The same goes for the acting. Changing the level of energy in either singing or acting affects the overall picture of the entire production. However important we feel our role is to the performance, we are a part of something bigger. The balance of the overall picture is chosen by the artistic team. If we change it, WE ARE BEING UNPROFESSIONAL. We are not doing what we’ve been engaged to do.
If I read an unflattering review, I feel more rather than less insecure. However professional I attempt to be, I will be tempted to change aspects of my performance to align myself more to what I believe the public wants, represented by the critic. Now, ultimately I know I sing for my supper and if I don’t please the public, I’ll go hungry, but I have to accept that although to some extent I am accountable for the public enjoying their entertainment, being a maverick and playing to the gallery by altering my interpretation because of a review is unfair to my employers. It’s unfair to my colleagues and ultimately it’s unfair to the piece of art which must stand or fall in its entirety.
That’s why I don’t read reviews. Ever. Even if,on rare occasions, I’m told they are “love letters”. Because it won’t do me or any of the rest of the cast any good to be complacent and smug. And on all the other occasions, it is vital that everyone on the team has a confidence borne out of the integrity of the entire production to put themselves out there and do their best. Ultimately, an opera production is all about preparation, collaboration, vision and trust. Of these trust is the most important.