Revisiting Chiaroscuro

I just got home from Philadelphia, a city to which I had never been before. One of the highlights of our mini-vacation was a trip to the beautiful Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was featuring an impressionism exhibition. I’ve always loved impressionist art, and this exhibit was particularly gorgeous.

One painting that caught my eye was Renoir’s “Peonies.” Renoir is usually known for his nudes and for pictures of people – I haven’t seen that many of his still lifes. This painting reminded me of the blog I wrote several years ago in response to a performance given by a student of mine who had worked for months on the song “Astonishing,” a long song from Little Women that requires layers of mood and the ability to switch vocal colors to match the journey that Jo is taking. The student and I spent months on it, only to have her director tell her, the night before the performance, that she wanted her to belt it all the way through, and, in fact, if she couldn’t hit the high note (an e-flat) in a full, hard, no-mix belt, that she should just sing a different note. Which she did. It completely undermined our work together and showed a lack of respect from a colleague that, in all honestly, had a great deal to do with why I left Milwaukee. (But that’s another story.)

I feel that what we had tried to get (and had succeeded!) in the three months leading up to the performance was akin to Renoir’s painting duplicated below – a vase of flowers that are all in the same color family, but are not all one color.  Not only are there red flowers, but there are other colors, there is light, and there is shadow. The impressionists discovered that shadow was not brown or black, as had been commonly shown in paintings, but rather a reflection of the colors in the surrounding objects. A song shouldn’t be all one color, or simply black and white, but reflect what is all around it. The text, the emotion, what has happened in the story and what is yet to happen. Having that palette of colors and the ability to draw upon them is what allows the artist to create and serve his/her art.

Strive for finding the colors within as you seek the right way to sing a song.  Those colors may change, depending on your perspective. Monet and Renoir set up easels at the same location and painted the same scenes, side-by-side – but the pictures are not the same (La Grenouillère, 1869). Each found a different way to interpret the same view.

*Caveat: I do not blame the singer for her decision to throw out all the work we’d done – she was under a great deal of pressure from an extremely intimidating director – who was an excellent stage director and choreographer, but was not knowledgeable of vocal training.*

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