“All Hail the Opera Singer!”
“It is a well-known fact that in the opera world, singers are held in rather low esteem by instrumentalists. That is due to the fact that some of the most highly regarded opera singers of the past (such as Enrico Caruso) could not read music. I don’t believe that is any longer the case but the slander still persists.
I, although an instrumentalist, must rise to the defense of my vocal colleagues. I have an almost devout reverence toward singers of all kinds. Eddie Fisher could not read music and yet must be respected.
There are some who believe a composer must know how to play an instrument in order to write for it. Paul Hindemith was one such. He learned how to play every instrument and then wrote a sonata for it. But the expectations for an opera singer go far beyond those for any instrumentalist or even composer. Imagine, if you can, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra committing to memory a five-hour-long Wagner opera and playing it on the violin while at the same time intoning the text and remembering the position at all times of his body, hands and feet, despite having stepped in at the last minute to substitute for an ailing comrade while he,himself, is recovering from a terrible head cold he got the day before and carrying the performance off to perfection. That would be any opera singer.”
I appreciate the help in the fight against this stigma that singers can’t read music, Mr. Barab! I started out my journey in the music world with my trombone and baritone. So…I’m kind of a traitor. I understand where the slander came from though. Even Luciano Pavarotti couldn’t read music, but he is still recognized as one of the three greatest tenors of all time. In regards to the comparison of the met orchestra member and the opera singer, I honestly find it less stressful when I am playing a trombone concerto vs. singing any art song or aria. By no means do I say playing the trombone well is easy, but I do find it to be less of a worry. When I’m playing trombone, I feel safe beside my instrument, but when I am singing ,it’s a whole other beast! I have to think about how my feet are placed, if my shoulders are square, what my translation is, what to do with my hands, what substitution I should use for that blasted Bb 4, and so much more! My first vocal performance felt like I was the kid who spilt water on his pants at lunch time. There was nothing to hide behind or to take the attention away from you! There is no music to look at or shiny instrument to watch, there is only an audience to look into as they stare back at you! I’m sure you understand where I am coming from because that is what your blog, All Hail the Opera Singer, is about! I thank you for giving us your stance on this subject and I especially thank you for being on the vocalist’s side. Hope to hear more from you in the future!
Thank you, Mr. Barab for respecting the work of singers. There are so many tools, that as singers we must utilize in every practice and performance. Unlike instrumentalists, we may not always know the theory aspect of it like the back of our hand, but that doesn’t mean that the work we put into a piece should be less regarded. I really thought that the comparison of a violinist, and an opera singer was right on point. Thank you so much for your words of encouragement and respect for all singers.
I completely agree with you, Mr. Barab. Like Sarah said, it’s nice to hear an instrumentalist come to a vocalist’s defense. Instead of realizing each others’ strengths, I feel that instrumentalists and vocalists tend to argue about which is more difficult. I will never try to argue and say that my repertoire is more difficult than a violinists’ or pianists’ because every musician faces different challenges with their pieces. It’s nice to know, however, that someone does understand that a singer has a lot to think about while performing. Not only does a singer have to have good technique and his or her breath under control to produce beautiful sound, but we are expected to bring the text to life, even if the piece is in a foreign language, through our attitude and facial expressions. And like Anna (the girl who commented above Sarah) said, if a vocalist becomes sick, it can be an entirely new issue. An instrumentalist will have to alter a few minor things, but will probably still be able to perform adequately depending on the instrument, while a vocalist’s entire performance will probably be much more affected and modifications will have to be made. I have the utmost respect for instrumentalists, but it is nice to hear someone on the vocalists’ side. Thank you for your perspective, Mr. Barab!
I love this article! I am not an instrumentalist so I can not try to comment on the difficulty of preparing an instrumental performance piece. I am, however, a vocalist so I know the trials of preparing a vocal piece. I am glad Mr. Barab brought up the point about all of the obstacles a singer must face. I have the upmost respect for the instrumentalist and find myself being jealous of them sometimes. For them, it is all about the music, no text to learn or convey. When a singer is preparing a piece there are so many things to think about such as, personal translation, diction, body movements, stage presence, and vocal health. So many times my throat has not been feeling 100% when I have had to sing and that is when I am the most jealous. Those are the moments I wish I was a pianist and could just play my notes rather then sing them. I really appreciate the recognition Mr. Barab gives the singer for our hard work!
Thank you, Mr. Barab, for coming to the singer’s defense. I personally have always thought of instrumentalists as singers’ “second cousins,” but we are a lot closer than we think. Like an instrumentalist, a singer must know their own instrument, and we are our own instrument. The comparison of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra member to the singer was so powerful. As a singer, I can’t just strike a key or slide a bow to produce a note. I have to think about how much breath I need, the vowel shape, what consonant would be best to use, the text/translation, what I’m going to have for lunch (okay, not really). But singers do have a million things to think about, especially opera singers. They have a million technical things to memorize as well as portray an entire character. All the mannerisms, inflections, and personality of the character must come through without potentially straining the voice doing so. Having said all this, instrumentalists and singers are all artists in their own right, whether or not they can read music, but opera singers do deserve extra credit.
Kind of deviating from the main point, I also really loved the part: “There are some who believe a composer must know how to play an instrument in order to write for it.” That resonated with me so much because I dabble in composing and I am automatically attracted more to writing instrumental pieces rather than a four to eight part choral piece.
Very interesting points, Mr. Barab.
I must say that I not only agree with you, Mr. Barab, but also with Sarah, who has commented before me! Vocalists are given the very difficult task of conveying text. However, as you mentioned briefly in the “..recovering from a terrible head cold” statement, vocalists must also have enough knowledge to be able to rise above any cold-tyoe illness they are dealing with at the time of a performance.
If a violinist has had bronchitis for weeks, he or she would undoubtedly not feel 100%, but could still perform beautifully without hugely altering his or her technique. In the same case, a vocalist would be forced to rely on different methods of producing sound, methods that are easier on the vocal folds. Many diction- related tips and methods would be have to be implemented in this scenario for the vocalist in order for them to produce the beautiful sound that is expected of them.
As a vocalist, the instrument we use is not something we can place in a case and keep in prime shape. Extra care must be taken to avoid vocal stress, since our instrument is actually internal.
Thank you so much, Mr. Barab, for the perspective!
I am so glad there is someone out there in the music world that feels this way about singers. He is absolutely right, and it does my heart good to hear a non-vocalist come to our defense. The part that I liked the most was: “Imagine, if you can, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra committing to memory a five-hour-long Wagner opera and playing it on the violin while at the same time intoning the text and remembering the position at all times of his body, hands and feet . . .” The stands out to me because I am currently in diction classes at my university. There is massive pressure on the singer to convey the text with not only clarity and expression, but also in a way that is vocally healthy. This is all in addition to the standard musicianship of learning notes, rhythms, and harmonies. No other instrument has text, so a very heavy burden is placed upon our shoulders that instrumentalists could not possibly understand. We must be understood, so individually we must dissect the music and the text and separate and alter it in a way makes us understood an puts the least amount of stress on the voice. Diction is a large part of our overall technique, and all movements of the body, face, etc. must be in harmony with how the vowels and consonants are formed and therefore produced. In conclusion, what makes us unique from all other instruments is text , and this is incredibly difficult given all of the other things singers must do. So, I agree with you Mr. Barab, all hail the opera singer!