Sunday, October 28, 2007


When asked, one of the fundamental pieces of advice I offer to young singers about pursuing a career on the operatic stage is to evaluate WHY it is you want to sing. In my most humble opinion, unless you have a rather concrete, secure idea of why it is you NEED to sing, or why you must devote so much of yourself to music, it can be quite easy to stumble and fall, losing your way very quickly. I'm finding that after a few years in this profession, my ideas have perhaps morphed a bit, my goals and aspirations modified here and there, but in the tough moments I pose this question to myself and search for the answer -- it is this answer which keeps my determination and passion alive.

I've dreamed of posing the question, however, to YOU -- the general public, ,my fellow singers, the odd nutcase -- why is music so important in your life? I stand on the stage and look out at 'you', and I wonder, "Is this touching you? Is this bringing something to your life? It this really worth it?"

As a performer, it is quite easy to get bombarded with thoughts of chromatic scales, double consonants, the french portamento vs. an italian one: but surely these aren't the primal things that keep you coming back? How much is it REALLY about "PR" these days? How important is the perfect publicity photo? How primed does today's public need to be that the singer they are hearing is a bonafide (according to the press) "STAR", and how much can they rely simply on how that singer moves them? Is it really about the cleavage and the high "C", or is it also about honesty and generosity? Why does one thrill, and the other not?

I'm most curious, and would love your input!



Unknown said...

The questions that you pose in this article are the questions that I probably long for people to ask me. But on the other hand, when people are really moved by music then it is often very difficult to explain exactly what you feel. So i'll give it a go:

When you listen to music, particularly operatic music it almost gives you extra force, extra energy. And when you listen to a great voice, see a great presence on the stage it is as though you are reduced to being a small child again, completely in awe of what is right in front of you. Maybe the music brings out things that you are unable to express otherwise, but the main point is that from something that can often be percieved as very un-natural, comes a reaction that is very natural.

Part of the reason that I am inspired to become a singer, or at least to work in the music business is because of the insane enthusiasm I begin to feel when I even have a tune in my head. I am forever reading articles about "so and so did this", "they left that", etc, etc. But what should be the most important thing is the music itself. I feel that if people concentrated on that, then we could just get back to the basics. The music. That's all that really matters. The person who's singing could be the most beautiful thing i've ever clapped eyes on, but if they can't express what needs to be said then it's completely futile.

I could give you an example: when I was working in Milan a few months ago, i'd had a very bad day. I was sitting in the kitchen watching some rubbish and then all of a sudden I heard something that sounded familiar to me-it was a lady in the apartment block rehearsing "E` strano" from La Traviata. To hear that person rehearse those phrases over and over again, almost made me appreciate it even more. Even when she'd suddenly stop or get it wrong, it didn't matter-there was something really beautiful about listening to a voice.

I feel the same listening to the Callas Masterclasses. If i'm honest I hated Callas for a long time-such a brutal sound, out of tune and completely all over the place. It's strange, now that's almost what I love about listening to her voice! She did a masterclass with Barbara Hendricks of "Ecco respira appena"-if you get the chance, listen to's fantastic!!! How the voices evolve, how they are different, how they compliment one another

Yankeediva said...

Thank you, Helen!

Unknown said...

No, Thank YOU for keeping it going! Without great artists, then frankly it's a lot of black notes on some paper.
If I make it, I only hope I can carry on the great work of generations of talent.

Tynan Davis said...

Hi Joyce - if I may be on a first name basis - I spend every day of this adventure asking myself that question. As auditions are granted or denied, as I try to feel in my bones if I am capable of sustaining the focus and energy required to give this life its due diligence, there is one thought that never fails to emerge. I guess it's my mantra, of sorts, and it's the knowledge that my voice and my heart have a place in this life. I am a unique thread in the grand tapestry of sound, and as flawed as my "g" may be, I have something to say that goes beyond the black and white of the printed notation; that my most honest means of communication has always been by virtue of organized rhythm, melody and poetry belonging to someone else's genius and loaned to me for a fleeting moment of attempted interpretation. I don't know if I'll ever have the great fortune of abandoning my temp office gig, but its never been about that. The quest for something gossamer and above the average plane of existence is worth the struggle, doubt, and the fabulous photographer who makes me look like a "star", even if just for a lovely air-brushed moment! Thanks for sharing your path with so many perfect odd-ball strangers, fellow singers, et al. Ciao!

nick said... did you get inside my head!? :-)

Thanks for your kind words on my blog - you are the best!

To expound even further on your question of "why?" and what I wrote yesterday, I've discovered that music is my way of serving something greater than myself, whether it be the music or the audience. I said I felt that I was responding to a calling in my post yesterday, and I imagine that it is close to what nuns or monks might experience. Music is an amazing thing that can transcend personal boundaries, language, and cultural differences - it is storytelling at it's most emotional and visceral level. It hits people in a very raw and primitive place - to be able to move people and communicate to people that way is a huge privilege and gift. In that idea of service, I find that there is a very spiritual aspect to my dedication to this craft...

That said, I still find it hard to keep my ego from taking over sometimes! But I guess that is the nature of being human.

Yankeediva said...

Thank YOU, Tynan, and Nick - it's just so encouraging to hear that there are singers out there who view what we do as a 'service', in the genuine sense of the word. Yes, the delicate 'ego balancing dance' stumps me as well, at times. If you get the answer bottled up, send me some, please?!?! ;-)

alex said...

Dear Ms. Diva (hee hee),

First things being most important, thank you for the thoughts that you've included in your blog. It has been a joy to read, and I hope, even if it is not possible for you to always be in high spirits, that they are always nearby.

As a listener, I will do my best to share my thoughts in as clear as way as you have done.

In a word, no - it is almost never a chromatic scale or a double consonant or a clean differentiation between portamenti, per se, that brings me to the grand opera house or the small school auditorium. It's what lurks behind them.

A chromatic scale that is bound within a character (Ewa Podles singing the chromatic scales up and down in one of Orfeo's cadenzas) or a plangent double consonant (Amor ti vieta's "cerca la stret-ta") can stop the heart. And these are just little moments! But, an artist who can put these little moments across usually is pushing everything about their performance to that level of belief, commitment, and sincerity.

It's not enough to be correct (though I think it helps immensely!) -- one wants to be persuaded. Performers must convince a listener that there is no other possible way this could be right, and I think this begins and ends with the details.

In fact, some of the best experiences I've had have been listening to or watching dedicated but student performers, who could not possibly know everything there is to know. But they knew enough and they believed in what they knew. So we who listened, believed right along with them.

There was a stunning performance of Samuel Beckett's short plays I saw in college. And a couple years later, the opera department put on the love "quartet" scene from Kat'a Kabanova. In both cases, everything went straight to the heart. And stayed there.

heldensoubrette said...

I thought of posting my original answer but I decided on simplifying my life.

I sing because I cannot imagine my life not singing. I sing because I live life, take it as it is (Ecco me vivo? Vivo!), then sing about it! I feel and I am better than what I used to be every time I sing.

I sing because (cue Ecco...l'umille ancella) I love the art in me!

I sing because I am.

I would post how important your singing is to me but I'll try to email you, if you don't mind. It's a little too personal.

After all, singing is very personal.

Larissa said...

From someone NOT on the stage, and NOT a singer, I have a different perspective.

It is about energy and aura. We look for a singer that has the voice, and can act (park and bark days are over), but there also must be something that singles that person out to be worth our time.

We live in a society that is so technologically driven, with so many options for our lives that there needs to something that seperates one person from another. We joke about Elaine deciding whether her date was "sponge-worthy" on Seinfeld, but we do look at our time that way. We ration our attention like Elaine rationed her Sponges. Is this person worthy of our time? Do they have an energy about them that makes us say "yes, I want to hear them, see them, listen to them" when we have so many other options in our lives? Yet, I think that artists must have a "do or die" feeling in them to display the aura or energy needed. And PR (website, blog, publicist, etc) is important to let people know to take a look - don't miss this.

Also, I like to think talent breeds talent. It is our nature to compete, on some level. We compete for vibrancy, and for enlightenment. All necessary to grow, feed, breed, and shine. As I've watched this yankeediva grow for a gazillion years, I've seen her grow, feed, fertilize, share, and shine. We look for what makes us shine, and it is other people.

John said...

Great question Joycee! I ask this to composers alot, how did they know they wanted to create sounds - more often than not the answer is that they couldn't help but create the sounds! Richard Danielpour was much more eloquent than my response here...

Hulda Sif said...

I like to be a singer because:

-Music touches me, comforts me, lets me cry out my frustrations, makes me happy and enriches my life.
-In spite of some desperate periods or moments of figuring things out, either technically or career wise, I really love to sing, to be able to act at the same time, learn new music, interpret it, do amazing things with my voice and learn something new every day.
-I love singing with orchestras because somehow the sound of the music just goes through skin and bones, I experience a sense of thrill and, even though it sounds exaggerated or poetic, the heavens just open for me and I feel something special.
-Music encourages my imagination in all areas of life.
-I love that in operas I get to be a single and often developing character, experiencing several different and sometimes life changing things.
-I love art songs because I love learning new poetry, about the poets and poetry in general, understanding the poem, the composers view on it, decide how I understand the combination and give my interpretation to the audience who then will experience something of their own.
-I want to entertain and touch people. If I only get a single smile, laughter or tear in a performance all the hard work was worth it. The audience then touches me back.
-I love that every time I perform it is a personal trial and when I succeed I feel accomplished and it makes me feel like I took a step further as an artist.
-I love singing because my whole life I can be striving for something, whether it's better technique, learning new music, trying a different interpretation or something else.
-I love that through music and art I can meet all kinds of different people that can enrich my life in some ways or others, make it more fun, odd, adventurous or something else.

The hard part is just getting the chance to do it...

Yankeediva said...

Beautiful thoughts that you've sent here, thank you so much for sharing. I find it terribly helpful to get a vision of the 'big picture' right now, so I thank you!


Mopsy said...

To be able to sing must be wonderful-this from a person who sounds like a raspy guinea pig. I love listening to music and singing because of the way it can transform my moods- it doesn't matter if it is a really crappy day in the hospital- just plug in the MP3 player and let it all float away.

helenbop said...

Found this website and thought it was quite interesting, particularly regarding this blog: and then click on the 'Advice to students' link.
I heard this lady on the radio a few months ago and she is a real inspiration, plus an AMAZING voice!!

Extatic said...

Anonymous listener's point of view:

Opera is not disposable in my life because it brings out of me emotions and energy I can't feel otherwise to that level of intensity.

What I look for in a singer's performance (and/or conductor's for that matter) is the ability to serve the music (and the composer) to the extend that my perception of the work is transcended.

I'm simply looking for a unique and mindblowing connection with the music, one of which I'll remember forever.

3 examples in the past few years:

- The first time I heard then unknown Rolando Villazon in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in Lyon in May 2001 in Lyon (Europe debut)

- Your Elisabetta in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda in Geneva in 2005

- Riccardo Muti's interpretation of Gluck's Orfeo e Eurydice to open the 2007 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

pepita said...

Another anonymous listerner's point of view ...

As already written above, listening music brings you extra force and extra energy.
Where from ? Don't know !
How come ? Don't know
Why is music so important ? Don't know !
Why do you feel so good after a 8 hours trek in the middle of nowhere ? Dont't know !!

Music (and specially voice) displays something in the air that you can't catch, but which make you feel so good, so sane. You get on board of the wave music and see where this destination brings you.

There might be also a part of emphaty with operas. You enter another world and you identify yourself to characters. Mimi or Violetta are dying, dear god, you suffer with them. Alcina lost her love, you hope she'll retreive her witch's powers !!

A large part of interpretation is to be considered too. And this is where you (performers!) get into the story once more. You have to give us your point of view. You have to provide us your understanding of a pack of words and notes that a (most of the time dead) composer delivered. We have a limited time to decrypt this package, including conductor and stage directives. This remains fascinating.

... far away from chromatic scales and i-don't-know-what of technically incredible. Much more searching for feelings.

Finally, mabe the answers to your questions are the exact other side of the mirror as WHY are you singing, and WHAT you like the more in your job ...
What you try to give us, we try to take it ?

Best regards !

Maury D'annato said...

I think I have two main reasons, and one of them feels like my own private thing, and the other is that music is a wonderful means of connecting--you go, you listen, you talk to other people about what you've heard and how it did or didn't move you; and then the other other reason which I didn't mention because I'm thinking out loud, is just the expected one: once in a while what I hear changes my life, rearranges my psychic furniture, scratches the ineffible itch. I think those are my why. (To borrow gratuitously from the screenplay from A Room with a View, and I don't know if this is actually in the novel: at the side of the everlasting "why",
there is a "yes". And a "yes" and a "yes"!)

helenbop said...

I could not agree more!(re. Maury D'annato) Music can be such a personal thing but on the other hand, I know that some of the greatest conversations have been with people I have met completely by chance. Sometimes it's really great to meet somebody, know absolutely nothing about them as far as their private life is concerned, but at the same time you know that you share a bond because all that you've been talking about is music, music, music!

Unknown said...

What interesting insights in these comments...what a great question ... For my part, I'm a singer for (1) the endless, maddening fulfillment of music itself; the transcendence of self in hours of rehearsal; pursuing the ideal in your head you know you'll never achieve; tasting the infinite variety of technical and artistic choices to be made. Even one's own failures are fascinating opportunities -- working on Ariodante's "Dopo Notte" for example, then listening in amazement and horror to how god-awful are my attempts at accurate pitch in some of the runs; the happiness when you realize an approvement in said saggy pitch; enjoying the beauty of the sound you are making for maybe a second and appreciating the gap between that and the composer's awesome achievement. (2) The fulfillment of collaboration with other people when you rehearse and perform music with other singers and instrumentalists; the way you have to surrender your own control over the final product as all participants throw in their ingredients and despite individual foibles and differences it somehow becomes a huge, unified WHOLE. (3) The fulfillment of performance, which is also a transcendent state, where you're deeply focused and aware on the one hand but surrendered to a greater whole at the same time. You're aware of the position of your body, where the others are on stage, whether you're on your mark, whether you're standing in light or shadow, your breathing, the sounds you're making; while giving half one eye to the conductor's tiny far-away waving arms; half an ear to some equally distant instrument in the orchestra; the thrill of adrenalin. (4) The vast, positive energy radiating at you from that big warm darkness beyond the lights.

Sarah said...

I am a non-musician but love music, and have recently encouraged my submerged love of local music in a big way. The music is of course the base, the heart of things. I've been learning a lot, however, by focusing a bit on the performers of CDs I listen to or opera I view - which is how I found this blog, and Joyce's Website, because I was researching her after seeing "Il Barbiere" in the theater last spring. I am learning so much about how singers approach things, and also how careers for various singers (mezzo, bel canto tenors etc) progress. So I do "humanize" it in this way.

Rachel said...

I know I'm a little late to the party here, but I wanted to jump in and say something because I have spent much time over the past several weeks thinking on this and I think I've finally managed to find coherence in my thoughts (although perhaps not, you be the judge).

Firstly, I am of the belief that there are two types of singers- the givers and the diggers. There are artists that transcend the stage, that enter the house and sit in the audience's lap and tell them a story, with feeling and emotion and a sense of sharing. Theirs is an act of giving. There are also artists who reach into themselves and dredge up something personal and private and possibly painful, and with a sense of exhilaration and sometimes shame hold it up for all to see. Theirs is an act of digging.

I am a digger, and exhibitor if you will. I've tried often to be a giver because I envy them quite a bit, but I'm just not. Singing, for me, is a bit like performing surgery- cutting part of myself open, exploring what’s inside, and then doing what’s necessary to heal myself. It is very much a personal journey made in the presence of others, in spite of others rather than for them, if that makes sense.

I find myself in the minority in this, as I am surrounded by givers, but I think my digger personality will keep me going. I don’t know that I could pursue this career with all its impossible struggles, all its demoralizing rejections and lazy colleagues and know-it-all directors otherwise. Call me selfish or what have you, but I can’t do this for anyone but myself. When I stand up on that stage, it’s for me, it’s because there is something that I need to say, something that I need to express or need to feel or need to experience.

I sing for many, many reasons. I sing because I love the music, I sing because I love the connection I feel with my colleagues, I sing because in the music I am allowed to feel that which I do not in my daily life, I sing because I love the process of learning the music, of dissecting it and finding out everything I can about it, only to discover something I missed (because we will never, ever know everything. Ever. And I LOVE that.), I love so many things about it and I discover something new to love every day, every time I sit down at the piano to sing.

I don’t know if that answers your question or if it even makes sense, but it’s all I’ve been able to come up with. Thank you for giving me this to think about, it’s been a good thing for me to think about.

Yankeediva said...

Again, thank you all for being so thoughtful, honest and insightful. Maury, I think "rearranges my psychic furniture" may be a new pull-quote for me! And Rachel, I appreciate your directness as well - many many singers, myself included, surely turn to the stage in search for the sense of freedom we can't necessarily find in our 'real' lives. I realized this myself some years back, and just recognizing that I did that, told me I needed to search much more in every day life - but this is a long post for another day. I just truly appreciate your forthrightness.