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Monday, December 5, 2011

The Mysterious World of Exclusivity in Classical Music

Recently, I had the opportunity to see a YouTube video of Renee Fleming singing this great aria written by Erich Korngold found here, and I remembered that a while ago there was an often-whispered-about Masterclass given by Ms. Fleming (her first ever!) at The Juilliard School.  And, I remember hearing that only Juilliard students were invited to attend this Masterclass.

That got me to wondering, why couldn't any old person attend this hugely-touted event?  Apart from the fact that there wouldn't be enough room for everyone who wanted to attend, why didn't they at least sell overpriced tickets?  And then I realized the reason: this was just another manifestation of a phenomenon I have noticed over the years of being "in the biz" of opera singing: the hushed-up mysteriousness and only-for-certain-people attitude that is encouraged among opera teachers/students/professionals, and heck, even the more staunch fans themselves!  It's as if the singers (pros and non-pros alike) think that the more the audience has a glimpse of what they do in order to train their voices and prepare on a daily basis, or before a concert for example, that the audiences will lose interest because the mystery has disappeared. Or, perhaps I suppose they might simply want to keep "industry secrets" secret.

However, I'm curious to know just exactly who these  groups of people think they're protecting by acting this way.  I mean, there are plenty of books out there by notable vocal professionals on how to sing (i.e. Richard Miller's practical one-man encyclopaedia collection of books on the different voice types, how to train them, and how to address various technical problems), not to mention the countless public masterclasses (not by Ms. Fleming, of course, but given by other equally notable singers) and then on top of that, the countless private voice teachers all over the world. 

Strange, isn't it, that there are then, even in spite of all of this available information on how to sing, singers/teachers/conductors/etc. who still protect their tried-and-true methods from everyone else?  I mean, how devastating would it be to Placido Domingo if we'd see the warm-ups that he does before he goes on stage to sing Simon Boccanegra?  How terrifyingly privacy-robbing could it be to ask Ms. Fleming or Ms. Netrebko how they got through their pregnancies and still managed to sing for a large portion of that time, or what their voices felt like in the first six months after they'd had their child?  The experience and memory of these things would not and could not be stolen from these professionals if they shared their knowledge.  In fact, I'd wager that it would help these lofty personages to feel more truly connected to their colleagues, fans and the new generation of singers who are to follow in their footsteps and who largely adore them.  So why, pray tell, do so many people (singers, conductors, teachers, etc!) act like it would be so terrible!?

It's honestly quite mysterious to me, and something which I'm not sure that I will ever really understand.

And, to make matters more confusing, it also has a lot to do with the way that most people (including myself in this very article) view their position in the scheme of things, in possessing an "us" and "them" mentality.  It polarizes and fractionalizes; it makes enemies of people who've never met except psychologically belong to either the 'us' or the 'them' group.  It's honestly absurd.  However, it is difficult to avoid in circumstances where there is a defined group of people who possess most of the experience and the knowledge on a specific subject matter and refuse to share it openly and freely (note that that means without money exchanged in this case) with the people who would like to access this knowledge.  I mean, how silly is it that there are voice teachers all over the world and there are those who still rationalize charging over $200.00 for an hour lesson?

Professors at MIT (one of the world's best and most cutting-edge universities) give their lectures and notes for the classes they teach in every technical and scientific subject imaginable away on the internet for FREE to anyone with access to a computer and the 'www'.  So, again, I repeat: "Why is there such a vice grip on the knowledge that is possessed by classical vocal professionals?"  Why can't these teachers/coaches/conductors/famous professionals realize that the more candid they are about how they do the things they do (a.k.a.: SING!) the better off the world of opera would be?  Abundance begets abundance!  The things that someone learns in Peru from these professionals spreading their knowledge could lead to the development of the next Pavarotti, or heck, an even better singer than Pavarotti!  All simply because someone chose to share their knowledge for free in order to create more singers, better singers, and those who are willing to keep sharing their success tips, knowledge and experience, all because someone first shared that information with them.

See, it's a process folks.  It's something that generates more.  In contrast to the ways of "hoarding" and "privatizing" and "closing off" and "keeping mysterious" and "making expensive so that only a few can participate", that so many classical music professionals have bought into today.  The message in the past 10 years has been that since the economic decline, there is less and less room for classical music and therefore also less room for classical musicians to make a career in the field that they love.  Therefore, the knee-jerk reaction from those classical music professionals who are in the field and already established has been: "Quick, let's make sure to be extra choosy about those people whom we pass on our knowledge to and let into our profession, so that we can ensure through the excellence of the select few that we've chosen to represent the future, we will succeed in keeping the attention of a dwindling classical audience." 

However, hasn't that very idea backfired in their faces many times over?  Haven't those people who were chosen to be the representatives of classical vocal music disappointed, given up when it's gotten too tough, become over-worked, burnt-out and disillusioned?  Look at the Rollando Villazons of the world.  He is a classic example of someone who was pushed by the industry too early, got burnt out from singing badly too often, and then was spit out by the public who didn't realize what kind of emotional wreck he must have been after sacrificing his whole life (because that is what an opera career asks of someone who is in such demand) for a business that basically used him for his best few years and then said "Okay, who's next?" 

And, for an art form that has so many stories about the incidence of the little guy triumphing over the big guy (in many guises) shouldn't that be a reminder of how the very people who sing those stories should be treated by the 'higher-ups' in the business?  Otherwise, the story of Liu sacrificing herself for someone who really isn't worthy becomes an all too-true allegory of the singer's life nowadays.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Answer to All the World's Problems!

(This post is unrelated to opera, but it has incredible relevance for everyone, so please read!)

Nowadays with all of the technology that we have at our disposal, we are used to getting results almost instantaneously. When we need to get somewhere we can hop on the highway (specifically built to avoid the delays that are caused by traffic within cities) and get there faster. We can check ourselves out at the grocery store to avoid long lines. We can order on the internet nearly anything we can imagine, and depending on how much we are willing to pay for shipping, it is delivered to our doorstep possibly within less than 24 hours. We are a world full of people (in the developed countries, at least) who are used to not having to wait for anything at all.

Therefore, it is no wonder that we as a people, are also disposed to getting angry quickly when things don't go our way. Perhaps the reason that in the past 10 years terrorism and hate crimes have been steadily increasing is because the people who commit these crimes are the minority victims of a culture who spurns those who can't “keep up”. Did anyone ever think that along with the invention of the iPhone, that would increase people's tempers? Certainly not. But, how often have you in the past year, let's say, been victim to angry outburst of someone else over a trivial topic?

Let me give you an example from my own personal experience that happened today. I was driving the car here in Germany and I was stopped at a red light. I don't normally drive stick shift in the USA and so I'm not quite as fast at starting when I'm stopped as most stick shift drivers are. Then the light turns green, and the guy in the car behind me in the same second as the light changed totally LAYED on the horn like for what seemed an eternity. Of course this unexpected disruption scared the shit out of me when I was trying to concentrate on what I was doing, and I (regrettably!) gave the guy the finger because it was the only thing I could do in that moment since I was so frustrated, embarrassed and defeated. Somehow (as if by a miracle of God) I managed to get the car started in that hullabaloo and lurch through the light and into the left turning lane at the following red light. No surprise now, the guy behind me is tail-gating me as if there was no tomorrow, and I'm now completely afraid that he's going to honestly ram into our car. Meanwhile my boyfriend in the passenger's seat is unaware that the guy is still behind us and driving like a maniac, and keeps telling me not to drive so fast and to drive slower (while I'm terrified of getting into an accident in a foreign country with a car that isn't even mine!) and we arrive at the third red light.

Now here's where it gets COMPLETELY LUDICROUS.

I am the first car stopped at the light waiting to cross an intersection and the guy is still behind me who honked at me earlier. We are waiting at the light when I see from my side view mirror that the guy has gotten out of his car, slammed his door, and is proceeding to stomp over to my driver's door. I think to myself in these three seconds, “Gosh, is the door locked?” and in that same moment that I'm looking to see if it's locked (which of course it isn't!!! How does that work!?!?) the guy RIPS OPEN MY DRIVER'S SIDE DOOR INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC AS CARS ARE NEARLY HITTING MY DOOR AND HIM and proceeds to shout at me (in German) “LOOK HERE LITTLE GIRL, IF YOU EVER GIVE ME THE FINGER AGAIN I'LL DO SOMETHING MORE TO YOU THAN JUST TAILGATE YOU!” while my boyfriend is totally surprised (since he didn't see the guy get out of his car in the first place) and says to the guy “Okay, please calm down”, as the guy must have weighed at least 250 pounds and was already red in the face from shouting at us. Sadly, I was too terrified and shocked to have said anything in this moment because all I could think was, “How is this happening?! He can't just open a total stranger's car door into oncoming traffic! That has to be illegal! It's not even his property that he's touching! How is this happening?!?! Is he going to hurt us?!?!” and so he slammed the door in my face once he was finished with his yelling and stormed back to his car.

This episode, of course, was really too much for me to handle as a 1.) foreigner, 2.) not-100%-yet-comfortable-newly-learned-stick-shift-driver, 3.)woman (how dare he call me a 'little girl') and 4.) private person who is legally supposedly protected from threats from strangers, and endangerment to their life and property by someone else's maniacal driving.  If I had had my wits about me I would have quickly locked the door before he even got there.  And if I couldn't have done that, then I would have said to the man after he was finished yelling, "May I have your name? I'd like to call the police for you threating to hurt me just now. Please pull your car over and wait here with me." 

However, instead I proceeded to drive home in shock with tears pouring down my face (sorry, I wish it wasn't the case, but I couldn't do anything else but feel totally helpless in the wake of such a terrible personal rape of my psychological power and feeling of safety) and then parked the car and (sadly) yelled to my boyfriend that I was “NEVER DRIVING IN THIS COUNTRY AGAIN!”.

Then after a longer time of trying to mentally get over what had happened to me from a complete stranger over the action of sticking ONE FINGER up at him (GO FIGURE! WHAT IF I HAD USED MY PINKY FINGER!? WOULD HE HAVE NOTICED!?!? WOULD HE STILL HAVE REACTED THAT WAY!?) I realized that this was at the root of things, a story about the precursors to terrorism. He felt pressured, he honked. I felt pressured, I acted out in a not nice way. He reacted to my action in a very not nice way, and in the end I was the one who got damaged psychologically, and almost physically by his dangerous driving and potential beating-up-of-me when he opened the car door (I mean, who the heck knows what he would have done had my boyfriend not been in the car with me!?).

I thought to myself, if he had only given me a bit more time when I stopped at that first red light before he decided to honk at me so mercilessly, this all would never have happened!

Then, I hit upon an idea. I taped into the back window of my boyfriend's car this sentence: “Ich habe Epilepsie, ich fahre langsamer!” (translation: I have Epilepsy, I drive slowly!) and I hope that now that might give me in the future those precious few seconds that I need to escape any further situations like this one that happened today.

But, to sum this up in the big picture, that guy in the car behind me needed patience. Patience is in such short supply nowadays, and it's the thing which makes difficult situations bearable. It helps us stay calm when we are provoked. It helps us put things in perspective. It keeps our children from freaking out when they're somewhere they don't want to be/doing something they don't want to do.   It allows for understanding when someone doesn't react or act in a way that you expect.  It helps us when we are disappointed.  It's honestly the one thing that we are SO OFTEN LACKING in our everyday interactions with our fellow human beings and with ourselves.  We simply expect too much perfection too quickly (which leads to anger, angry actions, dangerous situations...and any number of bad things)!

I am sure that each and every one of you has a story of getting angry or being mistreated which would have never happened if one or both of the people in the situation had exercised patience. So, I urge you for every day of the rest of your lives, to remember, that although nowadays we are spoiled and expect things to happen in the blink of an eye, when they DON'T, use patience to resist the urge to have an angry outburst and take it out on your fellow human beings. It's not pretty, no one wants to see it, and it's something which can never end good. So, the answer to the world's problems nowadays: Patience!