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Tomorrow's Voices Aren't Just Born

The leaders of three of opera's apprentice programs reflect on the art's resurging popularity and what it takes to be a star.

July 11, 1999|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to calendar

Five hundred years after its birth, opera seems once again the art of the moment. We hear and cheer new repertory (freshly minted and rediscovered), new stagings and new houses.

And we idolize new stars, who appear to come from nowhere. But just as sports have their minor leagues and training camps, opera has its network of apprentice programs. The stars of coming seasons are studying now at campuses near you.

Founded in 1947, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara has a storied operatic history that continues under diva Marilyn Horne, who directs its summer voice program. The 4-year-old Summer SongFest has returned to UC Irvine, where the faculty for the intensive two-week program this year includes American tenor John Aler (veteran of most major opera houses, from Covent Garden to New York City Opera, and frequent soloist with the New York Philharmonic among many other orchestras). The new kid on the Southern California opera block is Opera Overture, a program at Pepperdine University designed for younger singers--high school and undergraduate level--with a musical staff that includes Jean Mallandaine, former head coach at Glyndebourne and Houston, now teaching in Paris and London.

In each of these programs, the pros and the pro coaches offer their students classroom instruction, public master class opportunities and lots of one-on-one, with an emphasis on technique but a nod in the direction of a whole host of other skills required of today's singers.

These three master teachers shared their thoughts on the care and feeding of tomorrow's opera stars in separate phone interviews.

Question: Are more opera hopefuls coming to you and to programs such as these today?

John Aler: I think so, though it has been more of a steady building over the years than a sudden surge. All the attention opera has been getting is very wonderful and valuable.

Jean Mallandaine: Oh yes, there is greater interest now. There's been more publicity and exposure. Opera Overture is a very new idea [meant to deal with that interest]. Our participants are much younger than in most other programs. The idea is to steer them along the right track.

Marilyn Horne: Opera has taken a forefront [position] because of supertitles and the fact that we are living in a very visual age. At the music academy, we have hundreds of applicants--a lot of really good talent.


Q: What is more important, the inner drive to sing or the natural voice?

Mallandaine: Desire and determination--that has to be there at some point. Obviously, though, you've got have some voice, especially in the U.S., where you have to be able to project in such large houses.

Horne: In the end, you can't do it without the voice. You can encourage and stimulate the desire, and you can develop technique, but you cannot train a voice in somebody who doesn't have one, no matter how much they may want it.

Aler: You must have both--everything, really. I studied with Boris Goldovsky, who had a theory of "multiplication by zero." If you scored musicians in different categories--style, technique, sound, personality, whatever--you should multiply the figures rather than add them, so that a zero in any one category would negate all the rest. You have to be efficient in every aspect.


Q: Are there trends in sound or style qualities, or distinctive national / regional styles?

Horne: More times than not, I can pick out American voices, particularly lyric sopranos, who tend to have a generic sound. But anybody could have any kind of voice. We have a Korean baritone who is absolutely a big, amazing Italian baritone, for example.

I find that because people want to have a loud voice--which is a prerequisite for opera--singers tend to sing very much in their throat. That constricts the sound and is very tiring. I want to free up voices with a solid basis of bel canto technique. There is also a tremendous lack of breath support in singers today.

Mallandaine: There are different vocal characteristics from different countries, but much of that comes from the language. Russian is a deep, powerful language; French very bright and forward, and singers from those countries generally sound like that. Americans are usually wonderfully trained and prepared.

Aler: I think there is a much bigger presence of countertenors now. The early-music movement in Europe has been a big influence on style. There also seem to be a lot fewer big dramatic voices than there used to be. Some of that has to do with conductors today, who are interested in making a big orchestral sound in the pit that is difficult [for singers to compete with].

As for national styles, mostly it is whatever sounds idiomatic in the music. There are always exceptions, people who can do anything. If there is an American style, it has to do with music education here. American singers tend to be better prepared, with better language skills, but I wouldn't say that an American sound exists.


Q: How often do you spot stardom, and what are its hallmarks?

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