Weaving gold from straw
From grad school on, I worked with a very successful, recognized voice teacher. He was a good pedagogue: he had a good ear for vocal health and production, he recognized talent, he had an instinct for appropriate repertoire; he seemed to be able to predict a voice’s development, and to guide his students accordingly. He was insightful, empathetic, and fundamentally kind, and was able both to encourage his singers, and to let them down gently, but firmly, when they didn’t make the grade. He attracted top prospects to his institution and his private studio; his better students won competitions, and were cast by major opera companies; and he was adept at placing those who wished to teach, in good positions. He seemed to make good choices, and to position himself strategically in a very competitive market. I frequently arrived early for my lessons, and would take advantage of the opportunities to watch him teach. A particularly talented soprano often preceded me, and I enjoyed hearing him interact with her. She had her own ideas about what she wanted to sing, about the singer she wanted to be-- and was frequently at odds with her teacher. She would bring in arias he did not assign, and sing them inappropriately—and he would have to bear with her, talk her down, try both to help her sing better, and to be more realistic about her talent. One day, shortly before the Met regional auditions, she brought in “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Mozart’s Magic Flute, and announced that she was going to sing it for the competition. He had her sing it, worked on a few passages, and then told her it was not her aria. I remember so clearly the gist of what he said:
Every soprano wants to sing this aria. It is absolutely perfect, musically and dramatically-- the Holy of Holies; if you nail it, you’ll have everyone swooning. But the opposite is also true: if you don’t absolutely nail it, everyone hears that, as well. You will be compared to every soprano they have ever heard, judged on your ability to sing it as perfectly as the greatest soprano that ever sang it—and inevitably you will fall short. Almost no one wins with this aria—and you certainly will not.
I have thought a lot about this incident over the years—both about the teacher’s response, and about singing Mozart. He was being practical, calculating-- she was talented, and might do well, given the right repertoire—something that would allow her more breathing room, that would make a virtue of her idiosyncracies and imperfections, that would allow her to color outside of the lines without penalty. But Mozart’s music simply does not allow this: it must be sung with complete control and fidelity, and with no hint of the heavy lifting that lies behind that fidelity. Mozart must always be in control; the singer is the beautiful conduit for Mozart’s voice, not for his or her own.
As Chorale prepares Mozart’s Requiem for performance on March 25, I obsess about this fidelity. As I admonish the choir during rehearsals-- the lines and voices at this point in our learning process sound like “twine”-- they are present, they work, but they have lumps in them, they have strands escaping from the central thread, they have weak stretches and frayed ends. Woven together, they yield a thick, opaque texture, far from the crystalline purity Mozart requires. Our goal, our necessary end product, is a transparent, shimmering structure, woven of silken threads—functioning individually, and in tandem, to express Mozart’s vision. Mozart challenges us to leave ourselves, and the weight of our imperfections, behind. Effectively, we weave gold from straw.
As Salieri expresses in the movie Amadeus, life is not fair. We can’t all be Mozart. But Chorale is doing its best to be a worthy vehicle for his voice and vision. We hope you’ll come on March 25, and share that vision with us.