A few more of the many aspects of voice lessons
Radio Three’s Live from the Met[ropolitan Opera] series has semi-migrated this season. Sometimes it happens on Saturday as it always has, and which I admit is no longer ideal because I’m at the monks’ for most of it; but sometimes it happens on Monday. I am not in favour of the Metrofrellingitan Opera hammering me on a Monday. I have my dinglefarbing voice lesson on Mondays. I am feeling fragile on Monday evenings* when it comes on, if it’s a Met Monday night. It was tonight. And it was Madama Butterfly, for pity’s sake, one of the hugest soprano roles in the flapdoodling repertoire.** I’ve decided to devote the rest of my life to collecting pieces of string too short to save.
I went in to Nadia today saying, I am having a crisis. As crises go it is not an important crisis and since I have no intention of giving up singing it’s not really a crisis at all but I listened to my recording of last week’s lesson and TELL ME WHY I AM BOTHERING.
She said, I wondered if I should let you tape last week. You have a lot going on in your life right now and it’s sitting on your voice. Yes, you have tuning problems, and you have a habit of going flat when you’re under stress, that’s you holding on. You’ll get over this. That’s why you’re bothering. (Also, you love to sing.) And right now? Don’t obsess. It’s the SITUATION. It’s not YOU and it’s NOT YOUR VOICE. Sing. Keep singing. Um, try to enjoy it?
I stared at her, wondering how much I was going to risk believing. Okay, I said. But . . . how do you STAND it? I sound dreadful.
Only to you, she said. Yes, you’re flat a lot of the time. Yes, you sound worse than you did two months ago. But I can hear a lot more than you can hear. I can hear what’s underneath what’s weighing on you right now.
. . . Okay. Just to be going on with, I’m going to believe her. . . .***
* * *
* Fragile isn’t really the right word. ‘First cousin to chopped liver’ might be closer. It astounds me that I used to go bell ringing regularly on Monday nights, after Nadia. I have thought that it was a sign that either the ME or old age was creeping up on me that I can’t any more but I think in truth it’s that I’m investing more in my voice lessons. I’m not becoming a great singer, but something is sure getting winkled out of hiding and integrated with the rest of me. This is a tiring process.
** I’m a late convert to Puccini. I’ve always liked Boheme, but I was also always a little cranky about what seemed to me the bogus gloss of verismo, and yes, I know, Puccini gets on the list of verismo opera composers, it’s what he does.^ But stick to the tragic love story and let the poor starving artists thing be a little background colour, okay? You can still bump Mimi off. Violetta dies of consumption too and no one has ever accused La Traviata of being verismo.
But I failed to warm to Butterfly. The ugly American aspect got on my nerves and Pinkerton bringing his wife along on his US Navy warship is a piece of suspension of disbelief I am incapable of.^^ And I always found Butterfly herself way too much of a blunt instrument for thwacking the audience into Tragic Mode. ALL RIGHT. I GET IT. NOW BACK OFF. I also heard Butterfly the first thirty times or so with Renata Scotto singing it and—sue me—I’ve never liked her voice.
I’m not sure what happened. But ten or fifteen or twenty years ago—it was in England but at the old house—Un bel di, that old war horse among old war horses, Butterfly’s most famous aria and one of the most famous tunes in opera^^^, came on Radio Three and it stopped me dead in my tracks. Oh. I can’t even remember who was singing it. (Not Renata Scotto.) But . . . oh.
The problem with having come round to Butterfly, however, is that the opera really is that emotionally manipulative and if you go along with it you squirt out the other end and fall with a splat like the last squeeze in an old tube of toothpaste.
^ Uh huh. Now let’s talk about Turandot+ and ::PET PEEVE ALERT:: the homicidal fairy-tale princess who kills a lot of guys but is INSTANTLY CONVERTED TO SWEET FEMININITY BY TRUE LOVE’S KISS and everybody lives happily ever after, except, of course, all the dead guys, including the slave girl she tortured to death because the princess is a bad loser. No amount of fabulous music can save this libretto and Puccini loses a lot of points for trying.++
+ And Tosca? Verismo? Please. A famous opera singer, her famous painter lover who is doing well enough to own a villa and the sociopathic chief of police. And all of these people eat, wash, sleep and dress well. It’s a melodrama.#
# I admit I can’t actually think of many operas I’m willing to call verismo. Carmen, certainly. Cavalieri Rusticana, which kind of started it all. Maybe Pagliacci, which CR is often paired with. Um . . . ~ But opera doesn’t lend itself to realism (say I), it’s not what it’s for. Melodrama is what it’s for. All these ridiculous people bursting into song all over the shop. It’s a tough job for realism.
~ McKinley, stop thinking. You have to go to bed.
++ And that it killed him is no excuse.
^^ Do your frelling homework. Show me a maker-up-of-things, and I’m assuming it’s as true for painters and sculptors and performance artists as it is for writers, and I’ll show you someone who has got it wrong in public in ways that, if they are prone to insomnia, keep them awake at night.+ But at least check the obvious stuff, okay?++ Cheez.
+ Ask me how I know this.
++ Illustrators who blithely draw dogs and horses and haven’t bothered to make sure they know where the joints in their legs are should be . . . made to hose down kennels and muck out stalls and hang out with the occupants of each till they learn better. There’s always a shortage of critter-care staff. So these pinheads could be contributing to society while they de-embarrass themselves. Call it a work-study programme.
^^^ And I’m sure it’s been used to sell loo rolls and coffee grinders and lawn mowers.
*** And while I was mostly still flat—and it’s not like I don’t know I have tuning problems, especially when I’m upset about something or feel overfaced by what I’m trying to learn to sing, BUT TAPING MY LAST TWO LESSONS HAS BEEN REVELATORY AND NOT IN A GOOD WAY—Nadia had a very good go today at releasing some of the seethe that’s going on under the lid I’ve involuntarily slammed over myself: by the end of the lesson I was making my own ears ring.^
My warm-up exercises hadn’t started off too well and Nadia stopped, looked thoughtful, and said, what’s your favourite swearword?
Um, I said. *&^%.
Okay, she said. You’re going to sing *&^% on a descending scale. Go.
*&^% *&^% *&^% *&^% *&^% *&^% *&^% *&^% /!!!!!!! I sang.
Excellent, said Nadia. Now let’s try a song.
^ I didn’t tape it today. . . .
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