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Rochester Lyric Opera’s Opera Week – Panel Discussion “The State of Vocal Arts”

By Eric Townell, RLO Artistic Director

Audiences and performers alike enjoyed a very full day of operatic events at the Rochester Lyric Opera’s Opera Week Celebration, co-sponsored by Nazareth College, Saturday, November 1, 2014. It was good to see many Opera Guild members among the gathering.

The day started with a panel discussion on the state of vocal arts in Western New York. Joining me on the panel were Constance Fee, Artist Faculty and Associate Professor of Voice at Roberts Wesleyan University; Kathryn Cowdrick, Artist Faculty and Associate Professor of Voice at Eastman School of Music, and Diane Abrahamian, longtime music educator in the Penfield school system. Our gracious host for the day, Dr. Mario Martinez, Associate Professor and Coordinator of Vocal Studies in Music at Nazareth College, moderated the proceedings. The audience comprised prominent local voice teachers at the college and secondary school level, voice students from Nazareth, some newcomers to the Rochester community interested in opera, and a good representation of opera supporters vocal performance aficionados.

Topics included the developmental challenges in working with young voices, with especial reference the appropriateness of the repertoire required by NYSSMA for statewide solo and ensemble competitions. Consensus among the teachers was that carefully considered choices are necessary so as not to overtax young singers or require them to perform above their musical and physical maturity level. The discussion revealed that students now come to teachers with a wider variety of musical exposure than in previous generations, thanks (or “no thanks”) to the enormous volume of instructional material and performances available on YouTube and other sources.

Other issues that arose included the value of musical theater in current American society, vs. opera, specifically the evident trend toward programming musical theater works as part of the season’s offerings at opera companies across the country. One audience participant drew the panel out regarding the division vocal students perceive between musical theater and operatic training and technique. The panel stressed the concept that all singing needs to be healthy, beautiful and well-produced, no matter the genre, and they related this to the previous topic of young singers attempting to sing with a style or technique beyond their capacity, “belting” incorrectly or prematurely, for example. Panelists remarked with some amazement at the prevalence of non-singing celebrities cast in musical theater roles, presumably for the box office draw, Russell Crowe and Johnny Depp prominently among them. Notable local productions of “crossover” shows, works featuring popular-style music and dance that were operatic in all other respects, were mentioned.

An Eastman faculty member in the audience asked about performing operas in their original language, and the use of supertitles and translations. Panelists noted that the vowel sounds of the original language convey the emotion of the music. Composers carefully construct the vocal line so as to place the vowel sounds optimally for expression, beauty and security of production by the singer. Performing the music in a language other than the original therefore presents artistic challenges. The enhanced accessibility of the art form thanks to supertitles was mentioned, as was the merit of a combined approach, wherein arias and recitatives in the original language are interspersed with spoken dialogue in English. For the record, Rochester Lyric Opera’s use of all of the above approaches in recent productions was highlighted.

An especially provocative question related to the recent failures and financial struggles of important national or regional opera companies, prompting Dr. Martinez to ask, “Is small the new big?” By coincidence, I had been looking into this question in some detail in recent weeks. Records show that no fewer than 250 opera companies have been formed since the year 2000, and some 1500 operas have been written in the U.S. since 1945. It’s clear that strong impetus for the art form exists, leading people to create opera companies where none are present, and to pool the necessary resources to revitalize opera companies where they have struggled, as in San Diego (and in Rochester, for that matter).

Dr. Martinez suggested topicality as a final point of discussion. Examples such as the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of The Death of Klinghoffer were cited, along with the question of whether opera companies in colleges and in the region were presenting works with political import or current social commentary. Consensus among panelists was that the short answer is “no.” Possible reasons mentioned for this included the relatively young age of area companies and the necessity of presenting familiar works at first, so as to gain the trust of audiences before progressing to more polarizing subjects and genres. It was pointed out that social commentary can arise even in productions that are otherwise quite traditional, thanks to the multiple art forms in opera. A production’s scenic design, costuming, time period, choreography, lighting etc., all provide context, and commentary can come from any direction. The discussions continued as individuals migrated toward the (very welcome) refreshment table after a very stimulating hour.

Cordial thanks go to the opera community’s good friends at Nazareth College and to RLO Managing Director Sue Cotroneo, for organizing and hosting the event so beautifully, and to our generous educator colleagues for offering their time and expertise.