Before the First Lesson: Second in the Series, Plus Updates

In my first “Before the First Lesson” post (Oct. 27) I discussed endocrine disruptors, one of several human intrusions on the natural environment that I think may be affecting the state of many young voices before they’ve even encountered formal instruction. Today I’d like to take a look at a couple of ways changes in everyday technology—the secondary environment that at an accelerating pace is displacing the primary one—are contributing to the early conditioning of voices. And below, I’ll offer corrections and extend the discussion with respect to my recent posts on Norma and Thaïs.

The presence of a secondary, technologically determined aural environment is now taken for granted, and while I’ll be speaking here about changes to it that have occurred within a single lifetime, I think we tend to forget how recent its very existence is. It has cohabited  with opera, for instance, for only about one quarter of the artform’s history, and creatively speaking that quarter coincides with the descent (at first gradual, then precipitous) from the summit opera had reached by the late 1800s. I’m not saying, quite, that technology has killed opera. But there’s an ugly synchronicity there. It happens that I entered the scene at a propitious time for the coupling of opera with this secondary environment. I am always conscious of belonging to one of only two or, at most, three generations who perceived the presence of this environment, largely through the electronic media—radio and recordings—as a great boon to opera and classical music. And so it certainly was, at least in the sense of extending their reach. For much of that time, including my childhood, this extended reach was by ear only, and a monaural ear at that. The exclusive ear-engagement is a highly particularized form of acquaintanceship and habituation, not known before, and not so generally since, that period.  It’s already “unnatural”—eliminating, as it does, the entire visual component of the operatic experience—though in my case countered from an early age by the reality-check experience of live performance.  It is also intense in its private manifestations, and pervasive enough in its public ones to have become an accepted feature of the social landscape.

In the December issue of Opera there is an article by Brian Kellow on the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, a project established by Dolora Zajick and several colleagues to try to address the dearth of such instruments—a situation which, as my readers know by now, has my ongoing attention. Zajick speaks about her own early (1970s) listening experiences in the music library at the University of Nevada, where, she says, ” . . . they had stopped buying records by 1962.” As a result, ” . . . all they had was Barbieri, Stignani, Simionato, Arkhipova, Ferrier . . . I thought that’s what everyone sounded like.”  Then she moved out into the world of audition and competition judges, academically trained coaches, and other gatekeepers, and the pressure to squeeze her voice down to a “safe” level was on. I infer from her account that she had not been immersed in operatic singing as a child, and hadn’t much exposure to live performance. But she did have those recordings of real dramatic mezzos and contraltos (she also mentions Dame Clara Butt) as models, and no one to tell her, at that early stage, that she shouldn’t try to sing like they did.