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What's in an Opera Star's Voice? Talent, Training and Technique

You too can become an aficionado--when you learn what to listen and look for.


Technique is also a repertoire of tools to deal with every contingency. Most opera singers discover the slogging frustration of getting through an off night, but the best ones don't let the audience in on the experience. There were times in her prime, says Marilyn Horne, that she could sail through an opera and take her final curtain call feeling as if she could take it from the top again, right away. But that didn't happen often. "The number of times in a year when an opera singer really feels good and feels like singing, you can count on the fingers of one hand," Horne says. More often, "the voice isn't coming easily. The subconscious isn't going to do it for you. You've really got to work hard."

Technique extends beyond the stage, as well. The voice depends on the proper functioning of two tiny strips of flesh in the throat, and to maintain them in good health, singers wage a constant war of attrition against a flock of invisible enemies: bacteria, dry air, the demands of overeager impresarios, severe emotional disruptions, age.

Yet while singers try to keep their own tumult at bay, they must plunge into the fictional passions of the characters they play. They are actors, after all. Many insist that the instant they walk out of the wings, their grip on reality loosens and the fantasy of opera enfolds them.

That teetering between self-hypnosis and cool command is the central paradox of live performance. The greatest opera stars, says pianist Zeger, have "an internal emotional commitment to the moment. But as a singer, you have to take that emotional reaction, which can be very genuine, and redirect it into a lyric form. You don't want the character's emotional crisis to become your physical crisis."

The golden era that opera enthusiasts of a certain age are always invoking was also a time when opera barely qualified as theater. "In the '20s, opera was really just costumed concert," says William Mason, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "They would do an opera once. Singers brought their own costumes, shoes and wigs, and they stood down front and sang." Even later, the stars of the '40s and '50s believed acting was optional.

Maria Callas, with her lithe figure and flamboyant characterizations, jettisoned the stationary style, and eventually forced the art form to adapt. She came of age with television, which would not tolerate the pillar-like singer but demanded something for its viewers to view. In recent years, the ubiquity of titling systems, which feed the audience line-by-line translations, has brought the words to the forefront of the opera experience.

A few superstars--notably, Pavarotti--get by on voice and musicality alone, but the standards have changed nevertheless. Opera has become a more visual, more literary form, and singers have had to adapt.

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