The Magic Dream – Day 4 from LA Opera on Vimeo.
Question: How many tenors does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: One. He holds the lightbulb and the world revolves around him.
Opera singers are often plagued with stereotypes, even within our profession. One could easily substitute “soprano” in the joke above (apparently mezzo-sopranos are less prone to ego trips).
Scarves, Zicam, and water-with-no-ice aside, I wish for a moment to stand up for my fellow singers and address the most pernicious and cruel stereotype of all: singers are terrible musicians.
I suspect this assertion often comes from conductors, pianists, or instrumentalists frustrated with singers’ frequent musical sloppiness. We drop beats, we mistake accidentals, we ignore cutoffs. Don’t ask us to honor or care about the harmonic context within which we are singing. We don’t care. In fact, all we really care about is “how do I sound?”
Are we singers often guilty of this behavior? Sure. Is there any excuse for being a sloppy or careless musician? Absolutely not.
But if I could put this into perspective for a moment: singers are operating on a different paradigm than that of many other musicians. Instrumentalists are specialists; singers are synthesists. Singers are multi-taskers. We have to deal with music, words (usually in a foreign language), stage business, acting and reacting to our fellow singers, creating a believable character, and watching the conductor. And we have to do it all from memory.
Now, I’m not trying to belittle the work of the instrumentalist. On the contrary, I think we singers could take a cue from their attention to detail and the awe-inspiring commitment to hours upon hours of tireless practice, next to which most opera singers look downright lazy.
But it’s also important to remember that, while most instrumentalists have been working their craft since they were children, most singers can’t begin real operatic training until they’re about eighteen. That means that when a thirty year-old singer performs with a thirty year-old pianist, the pianist probably has about ten years more of expertise under their belt. When a singer drops a beat or seems obsessed with their own voice, it’s probably because so much of their attention is still absorbed by just trying to make their voice work.
Operatic singing is really hard. It takes most people about ten years before they can know with some certainty that the music that’s in their heads will come out of their mouths. Most singers I know have masters degrees, meaning they have committed at least six years of full time work on singing, language and diction, repertoire, stage craft, art song, theory, pedagogy, and rehearsal.
Singers, to sing well, can’t be stupid. And, like any art form, the closer you get to the best singers in the world, the less likely you are to find sloppiness or carelessness of any kind.
To make my point in a more lighthearted way, in the video above I put a camera on my head during rehearsal and noted how many separate events of stage business I had to accomplish in about 45 seconds of music. From memory. The count: 16. That’s an average of one move, which has to be synced to the music (meaning we have to listen and count!), every 3.5 seconds.
I hope that by bringing non-singers inside our experience, even just this little bit, we can, through understanding, begin to dispel this stereotype. I also, just as fervently, encourage every singer out there to go out and take some lessons in an instrument besides the piano.
In the end, singers and instrumentalists alike could be well-served by absorbing the best traits of the other.