I have read over some of the material concerning the lack of quality in
today's singers compared to those of yesteryear posted on your most
interesting website and would like to chime in with my two cents worth. I
have been teaching voice, singing supporting roles and opera chorus
primarily on the West Coast since 1979. Through my contacts as a
professional performer, I have students referred to me who are hoping to be
chosen to work professionally with performing organizations and improve
their comfort level as operatic singers, either as soloists or choristers.
Since I work primarily with post-college singers, I spend a considerable
amount of time with them appraising their options and realistically
assessing what they might expect to attain in terms of performing
opportunities. This can be a very stressful and intense time for young
adults in their mid 20s which is precisely when they should be easing into
their singing at a sane pace which seems to be elusive to these young people
who are seeking a way to make a living so that they can move out of their
parents homes, find a partner in life, have children etc. etc. This brings
up the question, is there life after college? What does a masters degree in
Voice performance really prepare you for? If I received a degree in
accounting and walked into a job and sat down in front of a 5-column ledger
and stared at it with a blankly, there would be serious questions raised.
However, a degree in vocal music does very little to prepare a singer to go
out into the world and somehow, SPIN THE WHEELS OF COMMERCE. If you can't
find employment in the field you have to go out and find other work, which
will probably require some further training and so the young singer now
finds themselves studying codes for calculating escrow and points on
mortgages. This leaves precious little time to perfect the coloratura runs
in "Fuor del mar" or figure out how to sing the high C at the end of the
Faust aria in a consistent manner. This should be the daily task of the
post-college aspiring professional singer.
I recently had a young tenor, not my student, who had left a promising job at a major computer company to commit himself full-time to pursuing a singing career ask me what my audition strategy was. My reply was "Simple, if you are entering a situation where you are required to list five contrasting arias, you include Il mio tesoro and Che gelida manina and any other three you want. The reason being that if you offer one of those arias, (if the adjudicators are knowledgeable) they will ask for the other." He told me that he couldn't sing either one of those arias. I asked him what his teacher's opinion of all this was and he said "my teacher told me that maybe I'm just not a high C tenor." In another instance a young tenor comes to me as a student with a voice, fully functional right on up to a high D and yet he somehow has gotten to the age of 26 and no one has ever advised him to pick out five contrasting arias and memorize them in order to be prepared for auditions. These two stories illustrate the point that there is a lot of post-university teaching going on out there that is doing precious little to bring singers closer to an opportunity to use their talents as performers.
I thought Boris Christoff's comment on your website about singers using irrelevant repertoire in auditions to be true. The local Met auditions will have a young tenor get up and sing "Ch'ella mi creda" in a powerful, unfinished voice or a young basso with a cavernous voice, who hasn't quite got it all together yet and sing Fiesco's aria from Simon Boccanegra. But who takes home the top prize? A young 118 pound lyric soprano in a lovely Nordstrom's dress who gives a polished performance of an aria from "L'enfant prodigue" by Debussy, in a voice the size of your average church choir section leader. She goes on to the next level and is promptly sent home and eventually marries a prominent dentist, while the tenor and baritone with greater potential decide over beers to toss in the towel and thus "James and Tony's Aluminum Siding Installers" is born.
It is a relatively common practice with opera companies also to take package deal from management groups that go something like this, "if you want famous tenor X to sing Siegfried for a reasonable price, then hire mezzo Y to sing Kate Pinkerton for a professional fee." The additional expense for travel and per diem living expense must also be paid out. Thus some deserving local singer is denied the opportunity to gain some stage experience, which might reveal her potential as the next great Azucena. Opera companies prefer this method as of late because if "mezzo Y" shows herself incapable then the company can go back to the management group and have that singer replaced. If the company follows their own ears and hires a local singer, who presumably has no representation, then they must scramble in the middle of a production to rectify the situation should that individual not work out at a level of professionalism that is expected. In the past companies had more programs to seek out and develop local talent so that the opera company was more of a reflection of the talent that resided in the area in which the opera company performs.
It has been pointed out to me by a friend who is finally enjoying a measure of success as a leading singer, that opera companies are much better at responding to a bad audition than a good one. If a singer comes in and performs in a sub-standard method, that's easy, but if a mystery man comes in and sings "In fernem land" and "Dio mi potevi scagliar" in a voice reminiscent of Ramon Vinay then you have a problem on your hands. That person is a frightening unknown quantity. Sometimes it's easier to just let him get back in the truck and drive back down to the family sawmill in Pendelton, Oregon, and stick with old reliable, who has a New York manager (but doesn't sing in a manner that reminds you of Ramon Vinay, or even Luigi Alva). I hear stories like these coming out of voice studios and opera companies everywhere as I talk to my colleagues. Until we successfully bridge the gap between college and the professional world of music and improve the relevancy of the college curriculum, the quality of operatic singing will continue to dwindle. My anonymous prayer goes out to you all..................
Name withheld by request