August 17, 2016

My complete comments to The Economist on opera prodigies

Mario del Monaco:
Old enough to learn by mimicry
A couple of days ago I was contacted by Hallie Golden, a journalist who frequently writes for The Economist. She was working on an article about children who sing opera, obviously having run across my viral post on the subject. We agreed that she would supply a list of questions and I would respond to them.

Not 48 hours later, the completed article appeared on my Facebook feed this morning. Since I'm in a linking mood, you can click here to read it in its entirety. I assumed she had contacted several professionals in the opera field during the course of her research, so I wasn't surprised to see that from all the material I'd provided, one short phrase was included in the piece. A literary sound-bite, if you will.

I know I've blogged about this on more than one occasion, but since
1) I put some time and thought into my answers, and
2) it's always fun to see a lot of page-hits on this site (call it "operatic click-bait"),
I'm going to reproduce my "virtual interview" with Ms. Golden by printing her questions along with my replies. Et voila:

Hallie: Is there such a thing as an opera prodigy? If so, please explain why they are so rare:
Glenn: If the definition of an "opera prodigy" is limited to "a child singing in an opera", then the technical answer would be yes: there are opera prodigies. But it's important to place the term in the context of operatic roles written for a child's voice, with children the intended performers. Examples of such roles include the title role in Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors", Miles in Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" and a few others. Such child performers would be "prodigies" in the sense of having the requisite musicianship and discipline to deliver a high-level performance of complex music. Roles written specifically for a child's voice always take into account the limitations of immature voices. As far as being rare, in my opinion young people with advanced musicianship are usually instrumentalists (piano, violin, etc.). Since many singers take little interest in singing until after adolescence, when their voices began to emerge, it's no wonder that there will always be fewer kids prepared to tackle Menotti and Britten.

Hallie: From a biological standpoint, are prepubescent bodies equipped to handle the skills and technique required for opera singing? Please explain.
Glenn: Prepubescent children can and should sing! There are many healthy outlets for this most natural of activities: a children's choir (this is a growing field; many communities large and small have professional children's choirs run by well-trained directors), school choirs, church choirs, and the like. Even private lessons beginning around age 12 can be appropriate provided the instructor is responsible in selecting repertoire. The best metaphor is with children's athletics. Little League baseball is okay; encouraging young players to throw stressful pitches like curve balls and sliders is not. In the same way, a child singing a folk song in a choir is an age-appropriate scenario; a child singing adult operatic music is not. It's a fact that even adult opera singers must guard against damaging their delicate vocal folds due to the high physical demands of Verdi, Puccini and the rest. It's a question of understanding the nature of how voices are supported. Mature opera singers engage their entire bodies to prevent debilitating tension in neck, jaw and vocal folds. Muscles of the torso, buttocks and even legs work hard to provide a strong foundation for the voice. Obviously, a child lacks such resources of physical strength. My best advice for a child with a serious interest in singing would be to begin private lessons in piano or guitar. This provides a basic musical literacy that will enhance vocal instruction whenever it begins.

Hallie: Does it have to take years of solid opera training to be able to sing opera correctly, or is it possible for a young child to simply pick up these skills naturally, without training, or by way of mimicry?
Glenn: Solid training certainly never hurt anyone from achieving excellence, but mimicry is a device that must be employed with great care, and only at a particular stage of life. A child employing mimicry will not pick up skills. If a child imitates his math teacher, does that mean no further math study is indicated? Not so much! However, with young adults who have attained the requisite physical development, mimicry has its place. The Italian dramatic tenor Mario del Monaco was primarily self-taught, though teachers and coaches aided in polishing his art. I'm guessing he listened to a LOT of recordings of tenors. So here's the real value of young children listening to opera singers: it's important for the sound of a trained singing voice to register in their minds and become familiar. Voice students with minimal exposure to operatic singing prior to beginning studies face a different challenge that those who are pre-programmed to recognize the goal.

Hallie: What are the risks associated with an opera prodigy?
Glenn: The risks associated with children singing opera include these: --the formation of growths called nodules on the vocal folds. These can require surgery to remove. --being exploited by opportunistic parents, teachers or managers. --lasting damage to the vocal mechanism, thus sabotaging chances for adult vocal training. --developing a false notion of success in the arts when praise comes too easily and too soon. I will add that, for me, one of the most distasteful aspects of children singing opera is that adult soprano arias (and it's always girls who sing opera, not young boys) deal with adult sexuality and adult emotional states that are painfully inappropriate for a young girl. As an example: many prepubescent girls have sung "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's La Bohème. In this aria, a courtesan named Musetta observes that when she walks down the street, men lust after her and imagine her body naked. The idea that any parent would allow a young child to sing this is repugnant, and a sign that neither party has bothered to translate the Italian.

Halle: Can you give me examples of any opera prodigies who have gone on to have long, successful careers as an opera singer? What about ones who have had their careers cut short because of vocal injuries?
Glenn: I know of only one "opera prodigy" who went on to have a significant and lasting career as an adult: Beverly Sills. My explanation is that Ms. Sills was an anomaly; a "freak of Nature". On the other hand, Charlotte Church is as good an example as any of the more typical story. A one-time teenage millionaire thanks to record sales, Ms. Church's fortune is gone. As an adult, she turned from classical music to pop, but now has given up both genres.

Halle: It is possible and even common for there to be singing prodigies in such areas as pop music and musical theatre. Why is opera so different?
Glenn: Opera differs from pop music and music theater in that opera singers use no electronic amplification, which is standard in the other areas. A sound system takes the place of all the physical strength opera singers must employ to be heard. Recording engineers can manipulate both the voice and the accompaniment to achieve the proper balance. Not so in opera. Adult operatic music also requires more flexibility and agility than other vocal styles, with rapid runs and trills not uncommon. Of course, when young girls sing opera, it's not in the context of performing a complete role in a staged production with orchestra. It's always a question of singing individual arias, usually with piano accompaniment. But that merely removes it from the absurd to the genuinely risky, since the basic stresses remain, as do inappropriate lyrics

If it strikes you that the nature of the questions betrays a built-in negative attitude toward pint-sized Toscas, well, I'm actually okay with that! Preach, Hallie Golden! Go, sister!

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