By Dr. Ginger Beazley
Many years ago, a young farm girl, met a remarkable woman who was equally qualified to teach piano, acting and voice. She was a small woman with snow white hair piled high on her head and more energy and authority in her voice and body than she deserved to have at a rather advanced age.
Her platitudes have guided that young girl through years of singing and decades of teaching others to sing. Sweet or gentle are not words one would use to describe her. But passion, intensity and knowledge are.
“If I can’t understand your words, PLAY AN ORGAN” With her finger poised above the girl’s arm she depressed it and muttered, “Just what I thought —PUTTY!” “A singer is an actor using a melody!”
Dr. Grace Levinson was a life changer for me, yes; I was young once and came from a farm in Oklahoma, The intention to communicate a text when singing was and still is not something we hear a lot about. Learning a song meant memorizing the text while studying the rhythm, melody and chord structure. If we worked in a foreign language, an accurate word for word translations was found and expected to be written in the music. So when memorizing, we were learning the diction and vocabulary of the language in which we were singing as a first, not last step. When singing a role in an opera, all of the above happened in the first two or three weeks of learning the part. Then the work began to discover everything possible about that person (character) by examining the entire work looking for nuggets that give us a skeleton picture based in the FACTS of the libretto. However, skeletons don’t sing well, so the work of creating flesh and blood began by identifying characteristics that the performer was able to identify with most easily so the role becomes collaboration between, libretto, music and the individual performer. And that’s truly where the fun begins. We learn things not only about this role, but about ourselves that we then choose to free for the character to expose on stage. Did I mention that performing singers cannot be sissies? Allowing our emotions, past and current to tell the tale requires courage and an uncommon love for music and the audience.
To finish with a few practical rules for communicating in a song or aria.
Articulation requires flexibility in lips, tongue and jaw. Think of the consonants as generally occurring on the lips with only a few happening in the oral cavity.
With perfect articulation, you may still leave your listeners with the need of a translator IF the correct syllables are not stressed. English, German and Italian are all highly inflected languages with French being the ‘odd man out.’ Therefore, correctly stressed or accented syllables give your audience easy access to your meaning.
The third voice in this trio is dramatic intention. Why? And what led you to this experience? And what do you intend passionately to share? Joan Dornnemann often gave master classes in presenting an aria or song in all its glory. An assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and for many years a primary coach and prompter for the artists who sang on that renowned stage, she was able to bring a singer from mediocrity to outstanding in a remarkably short time. Joan insisted that singers know not just one word translation but at least three to bring layers to the acting and the singing. And she insisted on this in preparing English as well as foreign language literature. Ms. Dornnemann wanted us to communicate with the same process singing as speaking. Thank you, Joan.