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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.


  1. In response to two great comments that I got on this post through my facebook account, I'd like to also mention the following posts and then give my thoughts on what they brought up as great points to this ever-expanding conversation.

    So, keep reading below!

  2. Julia, there is one singer who I love, Natalie Dessay, she has videos on YouTube of her going into surgery for her nodes. It is amazing that she chose to share it.:)

  3. @ Verunka: I agree- I love her too (because her public persona is not so.....tainted somehow) and anyway, you're right- what a brave decision, but a wise one, I think too- to help others going through the same thing. A generous choice on her part. Thanks for bringing it up!

  4. My brilliant friend Jorell Williams had the following to say (and I'm reposting his thoughts here from my FB page):

    I just fell in love again! We think alike, and it's just so interesting how our profession is slowly slipping into a "Corporate/Mechanical" type of Art Form. I wish there was a way to sneak into the hallway when the greats would warm up (Maybe it would help me figure out my high notes) or even have a conversation about how to manage a family full time while having a career FULL TIME! So many secrets out there, it's so unfruitful to our develpment and growth as artists. At some point, they will have to step out of the spotlight and watch us shine (hopefully). Will it take the "retirement" of these greats to reach the heights of knowledge that they have obtained? I am sure that they had help along the way. With our Generation full of Money Hungry, Machine driven, and (some) insightful ways of teaching, will there even be a craft for us to develop into?

    1. To which I have the following to say to make us think further about these interesting quandries Jorell brought up:

      It is definitely nowadays like you said Jorell, becoming more 'Corporate' and 'Mechanical: I can see evidence of that happening when I look at how few fans nowadays actually feel a personal connection to the performers of Opera. They simply do not care as much as they did when Callas and Sutherland were in their prime, it seems. And I think that is mainly because the artists are marketed in a too-lofty way. It is nearly impossible for an audience member to get a sense of the 'real person' behind the gigantic 'artist' image that the publicists and opera houses encourage and inflate on purpose. They seem to think that this will make us as 'artists' exclusive, therefore increasing ticket sales and intriguing the public to come see what/who we 'really are' when we perform. However, do they really see that when we 'perform'? No. To my mind, they see maybe only a very veiled version of our real selves, because we have to filter it through the 'concept' of each production as given to us by the stage director. And, by the nature of acting, we can never truly be ourselves- we must also be whatever version of the 'character' we feel we are portraying, otherwise, we'd be 'ourselves' but rather one-dimensional if we performed everything like we're singing the same role each time.

      Secondly, there are many times at which I have also thought, why didn't the singers before me talk about a., b., or c., about which I now have a question, and could use a good answer. For the most part, it seems to me that perhaps the questions we still have about the operatic career field itself are modern questions- ones that they may have never asked themselves, simply because the answer might have been more clear to them when they lived and sung. For example: it has probably been only a very recent phoenomenon that a singer (male or female) could even imagine that they'd have the money or the ability to take their families with them as they travel around the world for their singing engagements. Or, back then it also might have been easier to schedule 'vocal rest time' because people didn't expect them to sing so much during the year (in such drastically different places, and so quickly one after the other, and drrastically different repertoire night after night).

      One thing that I know you've hit on the head is that opera singers have always had the help of other people (family, friends, fans, teachers, musical colleagues, business colleagues) to make their careers and lives a success, and I think that that is still a very important way for us to go about living, even though many things have gotten easier nowadays in comparison to the past 100, 50, 25 and even 10 years in the career.

      I do think, though, that there will be a craft for us to develop into in the coming decades. It would probably take much more than a ton of relatively moral-poor people to snuff out something as great and worthy to be shared as opera and opera singing. Maybe that's my optimism talking, but you know, it's simply too important to too many people who really do care about it and do it with heart (like you and me, for starters) who honestly would probably jump in front of the figurative 'bus' before seeing that occur. OR, at the very least, write blog posts where we espouse higher views and hope that others will listen and care..... and change accordingly. ;)

  5. Another brilliant friend and internationally known Opera singer, Charles Reid, had the following to say in response to this blog post (also reposted from my FB page):

    In my experience, it's not really about the warm up (exercise), but about executing it well. Any warm up is dangerous when done incorrectly...or helpful for stretching when well. The same is true in a gym lifting weights. It's less about the exercise, more about the form. Singers who are giving back don't feel like they are being secretive. They are almost always giving advice along the way...for free. But I can see how it looks that way when you aren't coming into contact with them.

    Thinking about it more, usually when a singer won't offer advice, it's out of fear of messing someone else up. The greater skill is learning to filter the vast amounts of input that comes your way and choosing what to consider, and what to ignore.


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