Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singersby William Murray
H. L. Mencken declared that “the opera is to music what a bawdy house is to a cathedral.” It was not meant as a compliment, but to William Murray, former New Yorker staff writer and aspiring opera singer, a bawdy house is an apt metaphor for the opera: a place of confusion, high and low drama, fleshly pleasures and raucous song.
In Fortissimo, Murray follows twelve young singers in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s training program, the prestigious Opera Center for American Artists, through the 2003–2004 season. In the course of the year, these singers attend countless coaching sessions, inspiring master classes, nerve-racking auditions and grueling rehearsals—and finally perform with some of the most celebrated names (and spectacular egos) in opera, from Samuel Ramey to José Cura and Natalie Dessay. While chronicling their progress, Murray offers an insider’s look at the different aspects of the opera world that influence a young singer’s success, a world filled with temperamental maestros, ambitious directors, old-world tradition and sacred monsters.
Weaving recollections of his own days training in New York, Rome and Milan in the 1950s with the personal and artistic struggles of the young singers in Chicago today, Murray lays bare the staggering ambition and relentless will required to achieve a career in the arts. As he writes, “Becoming a successful opera singer—stepping out on a huge stage to try to fill the house with your voice, to bring an audience of thirty-six hundred people to its feet—is as risky in its own peculiar way as embarking on a career as a matador. You can triumph, you can struggle to survive or you can perish from your wounds.” Fortissimo is a delicious tale of rising talents, angst and heartache and small triumphs, and the music that inspires it all.
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The studio Gianna Rolandi refers to as The Cell is a long, rectangular room with a grand piano at one end and a full-length mirror along one wall. In a corner is a large, yellow rubber ball on which Rolandi sometimes asks her young artists to sit as they sing; it forces them to adopt a correct posture—feet planted solidly on the oor, torso erect, shoulders straight—to support the tone. On a typical day early in November 2003, I stopped by The Cell to see what might be going on that morning at Lyric Opera Center for American Artists (LOCAA), in Chicago. Rolandi, with the help of one of the company’s staff accompanists, was busily at work on Siébel’s aria from Faust with Lauren McNeese, the young mezzo-soprano about to sing the role for the first time on the Lyric stage a few days later.
McNeese is a slender, strikingly beautiful young woman with blond hair and green eyes. Three years earlier she had been accepted into the LOCAA program for young singers, after auditioning with arias from the heavier mezzo repertory. Once in, however, she was told that she had to make changes; it was much too early in her career for her to tackle the big dramatic parts. Rolandi and her colleague Richard Pearlman, who had been running the Opera Center since 1995, put McNeese to work on arias by Rossini, especially the coloratura passages that require breath control and vocal agility. McNeese labored with Rolandi several times a week. “I’m famous for making her hoarse when we first started,” McNeese told me. “She was demonstrating all these things she wanted me to do, all these difficult methods, so we worked for hours.” Having been a coloratura soprano diva herself, at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere until her retirement fourteen years earlier, Rolandi was just the person to teach McNeese; but it wasn’t easy for the young mezzo. “My voice was placed farther back and darker then and this new technique was very difficult for me. I had to place my voice forward, make it lighter.” Nevertheless, by the end of that first year in the program, McNeese found herself singing not only Rossini but also Bellini and Mozart. “Gianna lets you know there are no barriers,” she said.
At this session, no sooner had McNeese begun to sing the opening phrases than Rolandi stopped her. “You need to get your words smaller,” she told her. “You need to think in terms of funneling the sound.” After the second attack on the aria, Rolandi exclaimed, “This is good! There you go!” She then asked McNeese what she was doing onstage as she sang, which consisted mostly of gathering up flowers to make a bouquet. “It’s really pretty, Lauren, but you also need to think about the words.” She asked the young mezzo to speak the words of the aria in order to get the right French vocal sounds: “Lean into that word bénie.” She made McNeese hold the tip of her nose while singing. “Better! Better! There it is!” she said. “You know where it is; the other won’t carry.” McNeese put on a nose clip before singing a soaring climactic high note on the difficult vowel sound ee. “Lauren, don’t be discouraged,” Rolandi said at the end of the hour- long session, “I’m being really picky here. When’s your next rehearsal?” It was scheduled for one o’clock, McNeese told her. “You’ve been singing a lot,” Rolandi said. “Be sure to mark.” (Marking is the operatic term for not singing full voice.)
“I don’t think that’ll be possible,” McNeese said, smiling as she gathered up her belongings and score, then quickly left.
The rest of that morning I sat there watching and listening to Rolandi work with three more of the young singers in the LOCAA program. Lauren Curnow, a tall, handsome, short-haired blonde with the strong-looking jaw characteristic of many opera singers, was preparing arias from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito and Meyerbeer’s rarely performed Les Huguenots. Curnow, a first-year LOCAA member listed on the Opera Center’s roster as a mezzo, sounded more like a soprano to me and was much less self-assured than McNeese. Before Curnow had even finished singing an opening phrase, Rolandi bounded out of her chair to move in on her. “Lauren, it’s the right idea, but you’ve got to sing every note. You have to sell each one.” The whole thrust of her coaching was aimed at getting Curnow to move her voice forward into what the Italians call la maschera (the mask), which is the upper jaw and the nasal passages above it. Standing close together now, Rolandi and Curnow faced the mirror. “You have to get all that extra gunk out from under there,” Rolandi said, “out of the back of the throat, otherwise your voice won’t carry.” Most pop singers never get out of their throats, but stick mikes up against their teeth to make any kind of sound, she explained, grinning at me. She made Curnow sing now while holding both hands up to cradle her neck. “That’ll help move it forward,” Rolandi said, then looked at me again. “All these mezzos fall in love with that darker sound.” After a few more phrases, she went to work with Curnow on making sure her tongue was in the right place. “Right, Lauren, you’re getting it,” she said. “Just make sure your tongue feels like a piece of liver.” Tongues, if not properly aligned, can almost literally strangle a singer; mostly they should be lying flat behind the lower teeth.
As Curnow continued to work on mastering not only her vocal technique but also her dramatic approach to what she was singing, Rolandi kept moving around behind, beside and in front of her, energetically dispensing advice, admonitions and always constructive criticism, making her repeat phrases over and over until she got them right. It was an amazing performance, not unlike that of a great coach coaxing a well-trained but inexperienced athlete into mastering his sport.
As I listened to and watched Rolandi work with her charges that morning, I found myself marveling at how different an experience these young singers were having from the one I’d had during the years I’d been hoping for a career and then later hanging around Madam La Puma. The twelve young singers currently in the LOCAA program were not students but already well-trained vocal artists. In addition to McNeese and Curnow, the roster included sopranos Erin Wall and Nicole Cabell, mezzo Guang Yang, tenors Patrick Miller, Roger Honeywell, and Scott Ramsay, baritones Levi Hernandez and Quinn Kelsey, and bass Christopher Dickerson. Before coming to Chicago they had all graduated from prestigious conservatories or university opera programs, they’d studied for years with private teachers and most had sung professionally for various American opera companies. LOCAA was just the sort of career launching pad that hadn’t existed back when I was studying, or for many years thereafter. In the fifties, sixties and well into the seventies, young American opera singers, even the best-trained ones, had nowhere to go but Europe to begin their careers. The conservatories and universities that had opera programs were largely unsatisfactory training grounds due to the absence on their staffs of good singing teachers and the requirement that students master other musical disciplines, such as music history and sight-reading, that had little directly to do with training the instrument in your throat. No one at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston, or at the Manhattan School of Music, in New York, where I studied, ever explained to me how the vocal cords worked, what the larynx looked like or how the tone should be supported on a column of air by the diaphragm muscles. Then there were the private teachers, who were prohibitively expensive (ten dollars for a half- hour lesson back in the mid-forties), especially if they had been great opera stars themselves, and who were mostly as incompetent as the earnest pedants in the conservatories. Great singers don’t necessarily make great teachers; singing comes too easily to them or they’ve forgotten how they got there.
In Boston, while establishing a reputation as a goof-off through five terms at Harvard, I studied with a middle-aged ex-soprano who made me learn a half-dozen classical Italian songs without telling me anything about breathing or how to sing anything above an F, the last note an untrained tenor can sing without having to go into what is usually called a passage note, which leads into the so-called head tones any tenor has to master to sing in his upper range. In New York I studied with two great Wagnerian baritones, Friedrich Schorr and Herbert Janssen. Schorr hadn’t a clue what to do with me and saw me only once a week. Janssen, who was still singing at the Met and elsewhere, taught all of his students to funnel the sound by pursing the lips to make it look as if we were sucking bananas. Not a word from either man about breath support. Matters didn’t improve much when I finally left for Italy in 1948 to pursue my studies there. My first teacher in Rome was a celebrated baritone named Riccardo Stracciari, a famous Rigoletto and the singer who persuaded Ruggiero Leoncavallo to let him interpolate a high A-flat into the Prologue, the opening aria of I Pagliacci. Stracciari would sit at his upright piano in his apartment in Rome dressed in his pajamas and bathrobe while belting high notes off the walls in an effort to show me by example how to do it. Eventually, I wound up at the Calcagni School of Music, off the Corso, in the heart of the city, where, as one of about thirty aspirants, I showed up every day,
ve days a week, to sing solos, duets and ensembles with my fellow students. Countess Calcagni, who had been a successful lyric soprano herself, taught the women; the Count, who couldn’t sing a note and sounded when he tried like a fishmonger hawking his wares, supervised the men. Still, the lessons cost only the equivalent of fifty American cents and simply by trial and trial and trial and sometimes useful advice from my fellow students I was finally able to
gure out approximately how to sing without cracking my high notes—no mean accomplishment. At my first saggio musicale (a sort of school concert), given in a small church on the outskirts of Rome, I did break on my first sustained high note, in an aria from Mignon, but I managed to get through the Love Duet from Madama Butterfly, though to this day I don’t know whether I managed to get up to the high C at the end of it. I had my mouth open and I was straining every muscle I had, but my Butterfly, standing next to me, was Caterina Mancini, a jolly young Roman soprano with a voice like a cannon, who went on to sing later that year at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome and at La Scala. All I can be sure of today is that she hit the high note.
I wondered, as I thought about those years, whether these bright-eyed kids working that morning with such a talented coach as Gianna Rolandi had any idea how favored they were.
The two other young singers who followed McNeese and Curnow into The Cell that morning were sopranos Nicole Cabell, a second-year member of LOCAA, and Erin Wall, then in her third year and about to make her debut at Lyric in a major role, that of Marguerite in Faust. Cabell, elegantly dressed in beige slacks and a fuzzy white sweater, is a tall, willowy brunette with long, curly brown hair and a luminous smile who radiates confidence and optimism.
Because Cabell wanted to practice her runs, she immediately went to work on “Bel raggio lusinghier,” a fiendishly difficult bel canto piece from Rossini’s Semiramide, an opera about a Babylonian queen who is raised by doves and murders her husband; the opera survives only because of its gorgeous music for soprano and contralto. Despite a number of stops and comments from Rolandi about the need to get “a little more into the tube” and to beware of “widening the sound,” Cabell sang ravishingly. She has a very beautiful lyric voice with a solid coloratura top. I first heard this aria sung by the great Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballé many years earlier and had never heard anyone sing it nearly as brilliantly since, even though I’d been listening to Cabell work through it only in stops and starts that morning. Cabell was just twenty-six years old, but judging only from what I’d just heard, she seemed more than ready to embark on a professional career. Instead, after finishing the aria, she told Rolandi she thought she might be too old to qualify for the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions by the time she got around to applying. The yearly Met auditions, held all over the country and culminating in a final contest for the survivors at the Met itself, are the most prestigious in the nation. They are widely promoted in the opera world and can launch a career. The singers who win them have a chance to be signed to Met contracts, and all the finalists receive cash awards and recognition. “Don’t worry about it now,” Rolandi told her. “Next year I want all you guys to do it. Now, let’s do this again, exactly what you’ve been doing, only a thousand times more.”
As Cabell went back to work, Erin Wall walked into the room and sat down to listen. When Cabell paused to express some frustration over her ability to master the runs, Wall called out, “You can do it, you can do it. I can do it.”
Rolandi turned to her. “No, you can’t,” she said. “Not while you’re doing Faust.” Singing Rossini and tackling a romantic role like Marguerite are conflicting disciplines, and Wall knew it.
Rolandi proceeded to sing one of the Rossini runs herself. “Like that or something like that,” she told Cabell, grinning. “Anyway, this is impressive, Nicole. You can do this. It’ll be ready in a week. Now that you’re in your place, your runs sound really good.”
Before Cabell left, she and Wall spent a minute or two horsing around for my benefit, singing some phrases the way they used to do them, parodying the big hollow tones set way back in the throat that some singers use. Such tones can sound huge in a room, but, as Rolandi never fails to point out in her coaching sessions, they won’t carry in an opera house, especially one as big as Lyric, with its thirty- six hundred seats.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
William Murray was a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than thirty years and authored more than twenty novels and works of nonfiction, including City of the Soul and The Last Italian. He died shortly after completing this book.
From the Hardcover edition.
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