To Be a Good Singer, It Helps to Be a 'Lissner'

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The play on words that is the title of this post has embedded within it a kernel of truth that is too often ignored. Indeed, the best singers are good listeners. They listen to the orchestral music and its messages. They listen to the music and words of their onstage colleagues. They listen for the rhythms and cadences in the words they sing and find music and colors in them. Hearing is one thing and listening is another. If you go to hear music or a play, you are only bringing a small part of your faculties to your role as an audience member. Think how much more you gain from a performance when you listen to it.

On May 23 I attended a performance at Zankel Hall that featured an aria each by thirteen of the top finishers in the Gerda Lissner Foundation Vocal Competition. The money that is disbursed is a bequest from Mrs. Lissner, who was a subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera for 77 years. The grants provide “encouragement and assistance to young artists toward achieving their goals [and] are imperative for the continuation of this demanding art form.”

I had just read an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine about the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a prestigious competition in which thousands of aspirants audition all over the nation to be among the dozen or so finalists who wind up on the Met stage and then compete to be declared one of the winners. This year there were five winners, four of them men. There is an excellent documentary called “The Audition” that chronicles the finalists from the 2007 Met auditions. One of them was Angela Meade, who was one of the winners and is now tipped for greatness.

It is worth noting that, while many of our top stars have won the Met and other major competitions (especially the “Singer of the World” competition in Cardiff, Wales), others -- such as Joyce DiDonato -- made their way without doing so. And I can think of many promising young singers who won or placed in a competition whose career never took off. When I was Performance Manager at the Met in the 1980s I saw the joy and tears up close. Some people who did not win nonetheless made careers while, for others, the Met victory was the highlight of their lives as singers.

Giving Primacy to Voices, Not Appearances

There were a couple of things I especially admired about the Lissner competition. One is that they spread the money around rather than concentrate it on a few individuals. There are two top winners (each receiving $15,000); ten first prize winners ($10,000 each); eight second prize winners ($5,000); six third prize winners ($3,000); and six of the thoughtfully named Encouragements ($2,000). A total of $200,000 in prizes were paid out this year. The general competition accepts entrants aged 21 to 35, which is older than in many other contests. Moreover, there is a Wagner category for singers aged 30 to 40 because those precious voices often come into their own later and can be wrecked if that repertory is taken on too soon. There were applicants from 20 nations, including Mongolia. A real opera voice is so rare that they are to be embraced no matter what the origin.

In fact, the other thing that struck me is that the Lissner jury seems to give a primacy to voices. The 13 singers I heard came in all shapes, sizes and colors, which is as it should be, but they all had voices that were distinctive. I worry often that opera companies seem to favor the generic rather than the distinctive and that makes a night at the opera less compelling than it once was. What I am saying -- and this runs counter to the opinion of most long-time opera lovers -- is that there are still great voices today, but they might reside in bodies that look more like those of the average person rather than an operatic Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. I have seen many pretty or handsome singers with adequate voices and musicianship who bore me silly. Opera is about voices, first and foremost, and then about learning how to sing. If a singer has those gifts, and is a credible actor, that is more than enough for me as regards most roles.

To draw an example from the pop world, think about the phenomenon that surrounded Susan Boyle. There was a barely unspoken “looks” prejudice (“How can someone who looks like that sing that way?”) just as it seems that there is a barely suppressed racial prejudice when President Obama is spoken of by his critics across the spectrum: “If Obama weren’t black, he would be a tour guide in Honolulu” (Rush Limbaugh); Obama is “the food stamp president” (Newt Gingrich); “A black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats” (Cornel West). I mention these examples only to point out how our values develop and how many people find ways to reject or demean others. Most of us have incorporated prejudice from public discourse even if we see ourselves as fair-minded. So that is why listening to the Lissner winners was so gratifying.

Thirteen Singers to Watch

I will name all thirteen for you so you can file them away for future reference: Sopranos Michelle Johnson (also a Met winner), Courtney Mills, Jennifer Rowley, Emalie Savoy; Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti; Tenors Nelson Ebo, Issachah Savage, Jason Slayden, Taylor Stayton; Baritones Joo Wan Kang, William Liverman, David Pershall; Bass Nicholas Master. Many gave polished performances and most showed real personality, character and sensitivity. They made you want to look at them as well as listen to them. 

Nelson Ebo had stunning intensity and real character in his voice, but is a young man who needs training. He is headed for the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and, if he finds the right teacher, will become something really special. The two Wagnerians, Courtney Mills and Issachah Savage, sang like gods-in-waiting. The fact that they are two of the larger people among the winners should mean nothing to people who love opera. I heard Italianate potential in both of them and, if their voices evolve as I think they might, these two could be the Desdemona and Otello we will listen to in about a decade. Mills might even have bel canto potential. Remember, Joan Sutherland was headed toward Wagner until Richard Bonynge changed her direction.

The evening was hosted by Brian Kellow, features editor of Opera News, with his customary blend of wit and plainspokenness. In presenting the evening’s honored guest, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, Kellow pointedly quoted Birgit Nilsson: “Dolora’s voice is the only one existing today without any competition in the world.” To which I would add that her voice is supported by a technique that has few, if any, equals among active singers. Zajick is the General Director of the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, where she is as formidable a teacher as she is a singer.

If ever I have the resources to create a vocal competition, the prize would be to study with someone like Zajick, along with language lessons and a trip with me to Italy to drink from the wellspring that gave us the great art form that is opera.