In particular the language we use when we talk about singing.
On Thursday night in south London there was a singing Masterclass at St Paul’s Opera, given by David Butt Philip (Royal Opera House, ENO, New York Metropolitan, the Vienna Statsoper) to five young singers, the opera stars of tomorrow. Hector Bloggs (baritone), Alex Akhurst (tenor), Anna Marmion (soprano), Fiona Hymns (soprano) and Martins Smaukstelis (tenor) have all begun their performing careers, at St Paul’s Opera, among other places. They sang, respectively, Donizetti ( Come Paride Vezzoso from L’elisir d’amore ) Bizet (Je croix entendre encore from Les Pecheur de Perles), Mozart (the first Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflote) and Puccini (Mi chiamano Mimi from La Boheme – Fiona and Parigi e la citta from La Rondine – Martins ).
DBP apologised from the outset because he was suffering from laryngitis and would be singing less than was his usual practice, nonetheless he was able to demonstrate – in every register – how improvements could be made. They most certainly were, each singer adapting their original performance as DBP took them through each piece, sometimes line by line (and not letting them get away with anything). It was fascinating to watch and listen to.
He was equally interesting afterwards, talking about singing. During the Masterclass he had encouraged one singer to ‘almost forget the text’ and to ‘sing through the words’ – this singer had a history in choral music and had been taught to enunciate every word clearly, which wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do in opera. The next singer, of Bizet, he encouraged to ‘use the vowels’ to add resonance and drama – this was Bizet after all ‘it’s romantic music’. The next he encouraged to shorten the vowels and stress the consonants, using a more glottal sound to create slight breaks in emphasis, this was in the Mozart. On more than one occasion he added ‘Sing on the body.’
So how far does the language in which the singer was singing impacted upon the sung presentation – the glottal German, the liquid Italian and so on – and how far it was technique, regardless of language? DBP replied that it was a balance, of course the language impacted, but it was also about the degree of legato (singing in a smooth, even style, without any noticeable break between the notes) most suited to any particular piece or phrase within a piece. He defined ‘singing on the body’ as always having the sound produced supported by the diaphragm.
So this led to a brief discussion about how we describe singing. A teacher of the violin can suggest a student holds the bow differently, or places their hand higher up the neck of the violin. A teacher of guitar might ask her student to play higher up the frets. But a singing teacher can’t tell their student to ‘raise their larynx’, the human body isn’t quite the same sort of instrument. The beginner can be told about posture and learn how to control their breathing when singing, but, at this level that has already been mastered. So instead we use metaphor. More diminuendo on a long held high note, then returning to the crescendo, was described as the ‘luxury version’. ‘Don’t be polite, don’t apologise for the note’ signified not to sing it lightly, not giving it due sound, but to sing it loudly, the quality of loudness being needed in a theatre. Also, ‘complete the note’, indicated holding it for as long as necessary. Easily understood, though less easy to define.
It was such an interesting and enjoyable evening. David Butt Philip will be returning to St Paul’s in a Gala concert on 24th March raising funds for the Opera, to enable them to fund young artist’s bursaries and reach out to local schools. At £30 a ticket, to see four remarkable singers, it’s a snip.
For myself, I move onto a different type of performance next Monday, at the first Live Brixton Book Jam since COVID. It’s at the Hootananny, 95 Effra Road, Brixton, SW2 1DF and doors open at 7.30 pm on 7th March, where I’ll be appearing alongside William Ryan, Ashley Hickson-Lovence, Leo Moynihan, West Camel, Paul Bassett Davies and Paul Eccentric. It’s free to attend and there’s booze and books on sale. If you’re in south London why not come along?