Awhile back, I posed the question about whether you want to be a performer who shows up or shows off. Following up on that, are you someone who wants to draw attention to your process as an artist or do you want to make it easy for them?
I have become smitten with the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, who is not only a fine singer, but also the newly appointed conductor of the Atlanta Symphony (only the second woman to lead a major orchestra in the United States, the first being the outgoing Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director, Marin Alsop). I’d known of her as a singer, and as the leader of her own chamber ensemble, Orfeo 55, in which she performed as the alto soloist and honed her conducting chops. But to be appointed a conductor of a major symphony – that’s impressive.
It’s rare for singers to become conductors. Marin Alsop is a violinist. Leonard Bernstein was a pianist. Sir Colin Davis was a clarinetist. Interestingly, Birmingham Symphony music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla never studied an instrument of any kind before conducting her first choir at the age of 13.
I decided I needed to know more about Ms. Stutzmann, and I found this wonderful quote of hers, which I’m going to put down here both in her native French and in translation:
Il y a deux types d’artistes : ceux qui s’attachent toute leur vie à montrer à quel point ce qu’ils sont en train de faire est difficile – ils ont leur public –, puis il y a ceux qui passent leur vie à essayer de faire croire que ce n’est pas du tout difficile, catégorie à laquelle j’appartiens. C’est sans doute aussi une forme de folie. C’est moins spectaculaire, peut-être, mais je préfère que le public puisse aller à l’essentiel. Je ne veux pas qu’il s’arrête à la performance, tout en la remarquant, mais qu’il puisse s’abandonner d’abord à la beauté de la musique.https://www.forumopera.com/actu/nathalie-stutzmann-je-ne-fouille-pas-les-manuscrits-je-fouille-les-ames
There are two types of artists: those that strive their whole life to show how much what they’re doing is difficult – they [do] have their audience -, then there are those who spend their life trying to make people believe it is not at all difficult, which is the category I belong to. That is also probably a form of madness. It is less spectacular, perhaps, but I prefer that the audience be able to go to what is essential [in the music]. I do not want them to stop at [being impressed with] the performance, even though they might notice it, but that they be able to abandon themselves to the beauty of the music.
Playing an instrument (and I include singing in that description) is not easy. But the combination of good technique and devotion to what you have to say along with the intention of the composer will help to make the process more fluid and less disruptive to the audience.
There were a series of commercials back in the 1980s for a deodorant that had the slogan “Never let them see you sweat.” In those cases, the reference was to demonstrating that you were nervous. In this case, it’s not letting the process overshadow the music. Because in each case, you aren’t serving your product or the music, and you might make the audience uncomfortable.
Here’s an example of Ms. Stutzmann singing and conducting a Vivaldi aria, “Agitata in fido flatu.” Her performance is energized and engaged, but she makes it seem easy.
One of my favorite mezzos to listen to is Cecilia Bartoli. She can move her voice incredibly fast, she is expressive, and passionate. But watching her can be a bit… disconcerting. Here she is singing a Vivaldi piece, “Agitata da due venti.”
Both pieces are about being agitated (“agitata”) or moved by winds (treacherous winds in the former case, and by two winds in the latter). Ms. Bartoli is an amazing artist and I do not doubt her sincerity in her expression of the song’s meaning or the composer’s intention. But her mannerisms are distracting, and it draws our attention to how hard she’s working, and how hard the song is. And sometimes, it’s unintentionally comical.
Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim went viral in 2011 when he performed “Agitata due Venti” as his drag alter ego, Kimchilia Bartoli, on a recital at Northwestern University (where he was a classmate of MVS alum Nate Lewellyn). His performance was both virtuosic and hysterical (and he did it as a homage to her, and not to insult her – and apparently she has seen it and approved).
If you want to impress the audience by how hard you’re working, you are not serving the music. Ideally, you have put the hard work in well before you actually perform the music so that it can come out of you organically and without distraction so that you serve the music. It’s not there to serve you.
You have to make it look easy – even when it’s not.
If you are ready to put in the hard work so you can make it look easy once you hit the stage, why not find out how you can work with Christine and Mezzoid Voice Studio? Openings available in the new year!