Most of our audiences likely come to the opera for the thrilling voices of our principal artists, the riveting drama on the stage, or perhaps even the lush harmonies emanating from the orchestra pit, but have you ever considered that other essential element on the stage –the chorus! Frequently their classic role is scenic - to blend in, look natural, support the stage, to not steal focus from the principal artists - and yet they’re completely indispensable in the majority of operatic repertoire. Think about it. Choruses in opera almost always magically appear at pivotal moments in the story, generally when a composer needs to heighten the drama with all hands on deck. Think of some of your favorite moments in opera choruses – the Triumphal March from Aida, the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore, or the Toreador Chorus from Carmen. All of these musical moments are incredibly effective at moving the drama forward, in no small part due to the energy and contribution of the chorus. But you might not realize the amount of time and energy spent preparing the chorus! (via Virginia Opera - Virginia Opera Chorus)
I’m getting ready to audition for some DC-area music groups and concert works, so A. and I are putting together my repertoire, or pieces that I can sing at a moment’s notice.
One type of music I’m just starting to work on is German lieder, or art songs. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about lieder:
Lied (German pronunciation: [ˈliːt]; plural Lieder, [ˈliːdɐ]) is a German word literally meaning “song”, usually used to describe romantic songs setting German poems of reasonably high literary aspirations, especially during the nineteenth century, beginning with Carl Loewe, Heinrich Marschner, and Franz Schubert and culminating with Hugo Wolf. Among English speakers “Lied" is often used interchangeably with "art song" to encompass works that the tradition has inspired in other languages. The poetry forming the basis for Liederoften centers upon pastoral themes, or themes of romantic love.
A. lent me a book called Fifty Selected Songs by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss for High Voice. (What a mouthful! Also, they don’t seem all that high to me, so I’d hate to see the book for low voice.) I’ve been going through the lieder in it and deciding which I’d like to tackle. Here are three of my favorites:
Dido’s Lament, from the opera “Dido and Aeneas.” Given that the character is dying, most of the interpretations I’ve seen are very dramatic. I like this rather cold, bloodless version for some reason, though. Probably because I’m not so much about the melodramatic. At least in my music.
I’ve been poking at this song on and off for a long time in lessons. Eventually I’ll perform it somewhere, but I’ve moved on to more challenging things, so this has never surfaced. Oddly, my teacher assigned this to a contralto to work on as well, so both her highest-and-lightest and lowest-and-darkest voices have worked on it in the past year.
"Maestro Arturo Toscanini, the greatest of Italian conductors, was against all forms of scholarships and subsidies because he maintained that they only guaranteed mediocrity; real talent would establish itself."
- William Murray, Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers
Second, artists aren’t created in a vacuum. Mozart was a genius, yes, but his father trained and promoted him from a very early age as well. Would that genius ever have shown itself if Amadeus had been a street sweeper in London instead? I doubt it.
How many geniuses, great artists, have we lost through history because of poverty, abuse, and simple neglect? Yes, there will always be the rare talent that survives impossible odds and goes on to stardom. Those are the extreme outliers.
Without a minimum level of resources, training, and support, most people with great talent will simply never have the opportunity to develop it.
Maybe if it were easy to make a comfortable living in the arts with little competition, mediocrity would flourish. That’s never been the case, though: not in Toscanini’s time and certainly not now.
The bootstrap method Toscanini seems to be endorsing here is also a sign of privilege. Most of the great performers I can think of either came from (at least relatively) wealthy and privileged backgrounds where they received early training and support, usually from a musical family. The rest were recipients of (gasp) scholarships or other assistance that allowed them to progress.
To put it in terms Americans, at least, are more likely to understand and sympathize with: Think of sports such as figure skating that require training from an extremely young age. No one’s out there arguing that Michelle Kwan’s mother should never have agreed to drive Michelle to the skating rink; if she really had talent, she’d drive herself at 16 when she got her driver’s license.