Archive for February, 2010

Back to Ballet

February 21, 2010

At the time that I was singing the likes of Queen of the Night, Ophelia and Philine in concert in NYC, I had serrendipidously moved from four years of Horten at Alvin Ailey (an incredible place to study modern dance) to ballet at Steps with a great Russian dancer and teacher  who I will refer to as Mr. F.  This man is a genius technically. 

And for six months I managed to keep up with the advanced intermediate class with him as teacher.   I had found the beginning ballet class too slow.  During that time I studied in his class I found the sheer attention to posture and how the body works mechanically a revelation in terms of how much better I supported when I sang – not to mention how much more free my vocal production was.

So needless to say as I am reconstructing my new voice, I went back to his class, and Mr. F  is just as wonderful a teacher as before and the class is an inspiration for me on all counts.

So to celebrate my rebirth, I thought it time to ditch my modern dance togs and buy some new ballet togs, so I went to the one hosiery store in Astoria on Steinway Street that sells all sorts of incredible undergarments  AND ballet togs and shoes.  Granted, I didn’t look like much in my heavy winter puff coat – complete with a funky wool hat and mittens.  When the sixty-ish sales woman greated me, she said, “Leotards for your daughter or you?”  The look on her face telegraphed that she thought I just emerged from the ooz of Jurrasic Park.  I said “for me” and was met with a withering glance – and we made our way to the leotards – and then had to work through my sizing issues.  She could not have realized under my coat that I had a very trim body  so I have to forgive her nettlesome tone of  voice. 

Once we got past the togs, we then went to the shoes.  I have three pair of ballet shoes at home (my old pink ones are about ready to fall apart) – all three pair say 8M.  She pulled out a stool and I began to try on ballet shoes.  Clearly the new shoes she had in stock ran very small.  Through a process of laborious trying on, we arrived at a 9-1/2 M – at the rate we were going, I had fully expected to walk out of the shop with a pair of ballet shoes that would fit one of the stars of the Ballet Trocadero de Montecarlo – they looked that big.  The saleswoman said, “But you are wearing heavy socks – the young girls want them tight and they don’t wear socks.”  And I countered, “Well I do wear socks and always have.”

When I got home, I held them against the old shoes – and soles matched the old 8 M, but there was all this extra soft leather over the top of the foot to pull up with the adjustable strings at the toe of the shoe.  I managed to tighten them to my foot.

What I had not anticipated is that the extra shoe leather – not to mention the soft sueded sole – was going to give me grief in class on Saturday.   The barre was fine, but trying to land an easy pirouette was a very literally sticky deal, so I ended up hopping at times rather than wrenching my knees trying to spin on the floor with what felt like a big wad of bubble gum under the balls of my feet.  Of course my ineptitude was noticed.

After class, another younger girl and I were talking to two incredible male dancers who danced like Greek gods and left the rest of us in the dust in our class.  I asked them how to break in a very sticky pair of new ballet slippers.  And the dark haired one said, “Just wear them around the house all the time twist the ball of your foot with the shoes on.  They will get slick and fast in time.”

I have taken his advice, but I am bringing my old shoes to class next Saturday just in case my shoes aren’t slick enough by then.

I had a great rehearsal this morning – and the ballet is certainly helping me and I love Mr. F’s class.  Onward and upward… sh


Two of Mozart’s Most Famous Coloraturas

February 17, 2010

This entry is a reality check for both singers and conductors.  I was fortunate enough to study musicology with the foremost authority on Mozart performance practice for my Masters degree.  It was a very loosely organized class.  And since I was the least educated of my classmates, I dove into the vast library of microfilmed scores dating back to Mozart’s time.  While researching the likes of Gassman, Hasse and Mislivocek I could not resist digging out information on Magic Flute (the role of Queen of the Night in particular – since I have since sung the role – when I do something, I do it thoroughly!) and some of the concert arias. 

In particular, the famous Queen of the Night Vengeance aria:  Der Hoelle Rache.  I made it my business to check out every handwritten early score of this aria both in the Midwest and NYC extant – both on microfilm and monument editions. 

In the Vengeance aria: On the ascents to the repeated high Fs in the major section of the melismas the stacatto markings end on the high Cs.  Above that to the high Fs the lack of staccato markings PLUS the lack of a steady rythmic marking base line in the accompaniment plus the lack of duplication of the vocal line in the accompaniment lead me to believe that Mozart gave the singer the choice to sing these highest phrases as she could on any given night – even slowing down to make them work and singing them legato – far easier than the foolishness we sometimes hear today. 

By contrast the D Minor section repeating the same pattern includes the staccato markings on the high Ds plus a duplication of that line in the orchestra part so clearly Maria Josefa Hofer had stacatto high Ds but not stacatto high Fs.

Maria Josefa Hofer was the first Queen of the Night and she stopped singing the role at the age of 57 (she died at the age of 63 but not before Mozart composed the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni for her).  Donna Anna does not go above passing high B flats below high C – so by then her high Fs were most likely a fond memory.

Music critics of the time – if they can be called that  – possibly Edge – was quoted on Maria Josefa Hofer’s singing of the Queen of the Night: “The voice was high (tessitura) and edgy and she had no stage presence.”  High edgy voices are generally bigger voices than the leggieras we hear today in this role, which would support my theory of a bigger voice singing this role in Mozart’s time.  Moreover, this voice was apparently of one sound from the bottom to the top – no switches (see Lange below).

Concert Pitch Today versus Mozart’s time:  Mozart’s high F today would sound at high G in alt – a full step higher than written! Why? Because pitch has changed and the violinists in orchestras like a more brilliant ring to their sound – they tune the strings tighter and tighter and the pitch goes higher and higher.  In Vienna, the pitch is the highest – even higher than in the U.S.A. today.  This plays havoc for singers world-wide.  That’s why we currently have so few REAL basses and contraltos.  We can blame that on the fiddle players in the professional orchestras.

Concert Aria Mia speranza adorata:  Composed for Aloysia Lange.  Mozart loved this voice.  Many of the highest and loveliest concert arias were written for her.  Edge heard her sing Mia speranza adorata at the Burgtheater and his comments: “Her voice was lovely and nearly earsplitting to the B flat below high C and above that to the high F barely audible, but the facility and ornamentation were admirable.”  Translated in vocal terms:  She was a young singer who either had a normal mid-range to top and a weak whistle register above.  We have all heard very young singers with this top sound – and they usually can’t do much with it.  But by today’s vocal standards this dual technique would be decried by every music critic around.  Then you factor in that by today’s standards those high Fs were actually high E flats (with a commensurate lower tessitura for the aria), and there are many singers today who could sing these arias with a better more consistent sound than Mozart ever heard during his short life.

In Sum:  We have to put Mozart in context.  In his hay-day he was the new “contemporary” composer of his day – perhaps as new sounding as Philip Glass today.  It his the historians, music lovers, performers (with their own musical taste and quirks) who have packed all things Mozart into that perfect Tiffany box for preservation so frequently we get a performance steeped in nonsense and lacking humanity – dull pablum.  And if you read the Mozart letters, he was indeed very human, and grateful that his music was being performed at all during his life – like all composers.

A New Start

February 14, 2010

At this time I have decided to switch my vocal repertoire to something in keeping with the changes in my voice.  I was told by many voice teachers, coaches and agents that I was a heroic soprano – they used to say my voice was a cross between Birgit Nilsson and Kirsten Flagstad, but bigger than both going at the same time.

Many times early in my singing career, I would bring a more lyric placement that took greater concentration mentally but far less breath and effort than the dramatic soprano placement to my teachers, accompanists and coaches.  I was told by one and all, “You are a dramatic soprano.  Why would you want to sing what everyone else is singing?”

They set aside that I had great coloratura facility and range up to the high F as in  Queen of the Night.  They also set aside that it took me two days to recover from a heavy Wagner sing to be fresh again – and that when I sang the leggiera rep the voice worked all the time and recovered immediately.

So now I am at an age where I have sung all the dramatic soprano repertoire.  I have had some fine European agents and some of the best coaches, and I am simply tired of singing the heavy rep – and I have sung it all. 

They say there is a time when you don’t care what people think.  You will just state the truth.  I am there, and I want to continue singing as long as I can and as well as I can, so I have made the emotional / mental adjustment to the light lyric repertoire and at this age, that’s where I belong. 

For any singer or musician the switch from Bruenhilde to Pamina is nothing short of cataclysmic, but for the safety of my chords, I am doing it.

I have learned that there is an optimum balance physically – in ballet (with my fused back) I can do everything but with a more restricted range – and in time I will do it well.  So it is with my voice – and I choose a well-balanced vocal production that allows me to sing with less than half of my normal asthma meds – and that’s to the good.

This blog is intended to be a discussion of all things musical and artistic that I hold dear.  It will chronicle my personal artistic development  and the truth-seeking journey I am on.  I can only hope that those who have heard me in opera and recital will understand that I choose health and functionality and musical expression versus flash.  At this age I have earned it.

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February 14, 2010

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