Thoughts about singers

I’ve always enjoyed life in Wales since moving here a few years ago. Cardiff has a nice mixture of urban stuff in town with proximity to lots of natural beauty.  However, my wife worries that one aspect of Welsh life poses as significant threat to my long-term health.

This is the way I tend to turn redfaced and start ranting incoherently when, it seems like daily, someone on the news refers to the latest antics or good deeds of one of the two famous young, female “opera singers” from Wales.

“But she’s never sung in an opera, she’s never won and audition, she’s never coached a role….” I start to stutter at the mention of the girl with the “voice of an angel” or classical Barbie (some prefer “warbling Barbie)….

How happy was I today to read this quote from Kate Royal in BBC Music Magazine?

”Opera is a tag people latch onto without seeing the whole picture. Some people think it means singing loudly with a wobbly voice. But I can’t believe in an ‘opera’ singer who doesn’t sing opera on the stage. A three-minute aria is not opera. Many of these so-called opera stars cannot sing without a microphone. I was gobsmacked the first time I saw Die Walkure: how did those singers project over a huge orchestra and fill an opera house? If you are involved in opera you have to relish the challenge of taking on a role, forming relationships with the cast and entering into the drama- you forget there’s no amplification!”

Of course, Kate’s just suffering sour grapes because she doesn’t have the glamour and good looks of today’s favourite ‘opera’ girls…..


opera singer- Kate Royal 

‘opera’ singer- KJ    


or, ah, maybe not…..

In any case, it’s the SINGING that counts! Trust me, you’d never listen to someone singing sharp and warbly for an enitre Wagner opera and think- “well, at least she’s hot,” and a great singing actress can convince an audience of her overwhelming sex appeal (if the role calse for it) regardless of her shape or age.

The stereotype of the nitwit singer is a bit like the stereotype of the egomaniac incompetent conductor. Actual sightings are rare, but the stereotype is so ingrained that all verified sightings of nitwit singers are reported to the world.

Like many conductors, I have built a list of singers I know and trust. When I moved from Cincinnati, a singing mecca, to Oregon, it took me a few years to rebuild that list from scratch, but now I have a network of people whose singing I love and whose opinions I trust. We just had a late cancellation of a soloist for Mahler 4 at the Oregon East Symphony. In such a situation, you can be assured I do not start calling agents and conductors- I call singers in my network. They’re the ones who know voices, attitudes and skill sets, and they know that our working relationship is founded on mutual trust and respect, so they’d never steer me wrong. Within 72 hours, the problem was solved. No small feat when I’m 5000 miles away and can’t audition anyone.

One thing you’re not likely to hear me say often is “wow, the Vaughan Williams was amazing!” It’s not that I dislike his music, but I often feel there’s not enough structure, rigor and purpose to sustain his musical thoughts in long forms in spite of his incredible ear for color. I’m sure I’ll get it some day. However, a few days ago, I came out of a concert saying just that after hearing James Gilchrist sing “On Wenlock Edge” with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Afterwards Tadaaki Otaka (who was conducting) and I were chatting about it and it was the first thing he said to me-“wasn’t the Vaughan Williams wonderful? First time for me, but such a beautiful piece.” Both he and I were stunned at Gilchrist’s singing- so musical, so intelligent and so natural. He’s apparently got a new recording of the piece out which is doing very well- no. 20 on the classical charts (Classical Barbie is no. 3, however). I don’t see how a recording could begin to do justice to that kind of communicative immediacy, flexibility and command, but you may want to check it out anyway. It’s Vaughan Williams French-iest piece. Fanstastic stuff. There’s always been a slightly snooty tone associated with the phase “English tenor,” but having heard Gilchrist and Mark Padmore both this month sounding amazing, I think we can put that old prejudice to rest.

However, we can’t hide from stereotypes, and I have to say that this post from Michael Hovnanian made me laugh out loud. I know we’ll miss Pavorotti, and the guy could flat-out sing even if he didn’t read music (and he was an opera singer, not an ‘opera’ singer, no question), but a bit of perspective might not be such a bad thing admidst all the hyperbole about the “greatest tenor of the last fifty years.” Wasn’t there some other guy who sang, like, a thousand roles in eightly languages from memory named Flamingo? King-Kong versus Godzilla. You gotta love it…..

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “Thoughts about singers”

  1. Gene
    Beauty and talent, and an obvious knack for the business side of getting herself out there. I vote for Gabriel to be the new bright light in the classical arts community. Against my better judgement, I risked purchasing Gabriel’s cd through the mail. Low and behold , a 5 track independently made recording arrived. Packaging…ok, not great. The recordings themselves..pretty darned good, No, really good . With a budget and direction this amazing singer could do wonders we would all benefit from! Made a fan out of me. Strong young voice, tone of a higher source. Pure natural and instinctively precise vocalist. Proper care must be taken with the next few years training, and I do believe we could see a new standard set for bel canto…

  2. Gene

    Also, in regards to the portion of the article above, in fact most lead voices in modern opera companies are mic’d up. You may not see the microphones, but they are there. Not that it helps. Todays singers, so many are trained to sing LOUD

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Gene-

    Welcome and thanks for the comments!

    Two corrections- first, it’s factually untrue that most singers are miced up in modern opera productions. Such a thing is unheard of except in outdoor performances and would never be accepted by any credible music director. There are a tiny handful of theatres (multi-purpose venues) where the acoustics are so dire that some kind of sound reinforcement system is used (usually under a long balcony or the like), but this is a tiny exception. One will sometimes see mics in use when a performance is being recorded for radio or commercial release, but next to never for amplification.

    Secondly- a well trained singer is not trained to sing loud but to sing correctly. You can’t make a light voice into a Wagnerian one any more than you can make a soprano into a bass. Each voice type has their place in the repertoire, and some very light voices are really best used in chamber music and lieder. In Verdi or Wagner, you need a singer with a huge voice- that’s not something you can train, it’s a physical gift, which a good technique can then make the most of. Training any singer to sing loudly would be hugely irresponsible- they’d ruin their voice in no time. We train them to sing as beautifully as they can, and let the voice become what the higher power meant it to be.

    Again, welcome!


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