Monday, January 08, 2007


Is what we do as opera singers important?

I distinctly remember once saying to Laura Claycomb, “Oh well, it’s just opera – it’s not like it’s really important,” as we walked to the parking garage after a stressful rehearsal sometime during my first year in the HGO Studio. She stopped walking, and turned to me and said, “But it IS important – it has to be. Why do it otherwise?”

It’s a moment that stuck with me, because it was a question I had never really asked myself before so pointedly. Why bother?

I’ve heard a lot of debate surrounding the subject of artistic integrity lately. Many of my colleagues (at all levels) are very concerned about the quality of our art sinking as people strive to make classical music “accessible” and “save” us from the impending “death of classical music”. They complain about a lack of artistic standards. They note that some of the most visible artists in our field don’t feel obligated to sing the notes on the page or to be in rhythm.

Then some people ask: are these things important?

As I see it, the answer is many-fold. Yes, we must maintain a perspective on what it is that we do. One could argue that music is not necessary for survival. But that point is moot – this is not the situation we face as a society today. Our art is part of what defines our humanity – some would argue that it is our culture is that makes us civilized. What we do as musicians, performers, opera singers, etc. is therefore important – and it is important that it be high quality. I’ve always been taught that technical precision serves artistic expression. People (whether they be “lay-people” or “purists”) will not enjoy a performance if it is out of tune, not sung with the utmost beauty and technical ease, or if it is inaccurate, because those things serve as distractions that keep an audience on the edge of their seat in a bad way. The artists who really sadden me are the ones who consciously choose not to sing the notes on the page, stretch rhythms egregiously and with poor taste, and chase publicity events in lieu of rehearsals in an effort to be more “accessible” or to make what we do more “popular”. What saddens me about those choices is the inherent lack of faith in our art form to touch people, to move the soul, to be relevant. It is vital that we maintain our standards and take our artistic integrity seriously, because if we don’t, we cheapen the message behind the music, which is generally an important message to convey.


Paul G. McCurdy said...

A very complicated issue, for sure. After I read your post, I found myself thinking a thousand things: how a good composer's notes often seem so right and inevitable, and thus worthy of (and rewarding to) careful study; how on the other hand classical music may be more artificial than folk and popular music; how classical performance is rich in history; how on the other hand much of its history is essentially only a few centuries old.

I hope you'll write more about this subject and expose some of the nitty-gritty of how this issue plays out in the real world of the opera house.

Lou said...

What you do is definitely relevant. I myself wonder about the quality and standards of more mainstream music as well. But what you do is important in many ways. It provides an escape for many, it teaches us about our past in ways, and it also can teach us important lessons about life in general.

I personally tend to not know much when it comes to the technical aspects of art and music (or even photography, the one area i know more about). But I do believe that those technical aspects play a role in creating a higher quality product.

Anonymous said...

I once heard a great quote: "You learn technique so that your body doesn't get in the way of what your soul wants to say." That inspires me all the time to work on my technique, and at the same time that quote also talks about why art is important: Through art, we can say the things that we need to say but are too vulnerable (good or bad) to say in everyday life.

I really enjoy your blog! Please keep blogging!