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Christopher Busietta as Malcolm in Macb*th.
Christopher Busietta as Malcolm in Macb*th.
© A.T. Schaefer.

Why I learn from opera recordings

I try my best, as often as I am able, not to respond to or write loaded articles. However, this particular article addresses an issue that I contemplated for many years as a younger singer and artist. The link is below:

Anna Netrebko: ‘I bought several Aida recordings because I am learning the role’.

In summary, the writer started a heated debate between musicians that no singer should listen to another singer sing a role that they are learning, otherwise they will copy them and that is artistic laziness.

As a younger singer, I was completely against listening recordings for this reason but in the last five or six years or so, I've turned the other way. Here’s why I almost always listen to (reputable) recordings.

They are the fastest and cheapest way to learn music

Some people might have six months and a pianist on-hand to learn roles, but anyone who is at the normal end of an operatic career (which is high-end enough) knows that you never know how many coachings before you start rehearsals. The last thing you want to do is waste time.

You can try and study the orchestral score for hours, but follow it with a recording and you hear straight away what you are singing, how thick the orchestra sounds, what the harmonies sound like in the music, what the chorus are singing, the soloists are singing, where rubato might be used and what sort of tempo you might expect.

That saves a lot of time and guesswork.

Traditional performance practices will not be readily clear in a legitimate / original opera score.

For example, here are some traditional high notes, cadenzas or ornaments that are not written in the original score:

While the Marchesi cadenza may be going out of fashion nowadays (I've included it because it's one of the more interesting examples) the others are standard practice. You would almost never see a performance of these operas without these traditional cadenzas or high notes, despite the fact that they were never written into the score.

I could list dozens more other traditional cadenzas and high notes that are not written. Verdi, Puccini, even Lehár and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are minefields if you don’t know the traditions – which I’ll say again, you can hear readily in good recordings. If you were living in the early 20th century, you would probably instead have paid somebody else to pass that knowledge down in a coaching.

My recordings for the 2015/2016 theater season (so far).
My recordings for 2015/2016 theater season (so far).

With a good recording, you’ll get an idea how the best in the world interpreted works

The first time I sang Puccini and Verdi, having come from a Mozart and baroque music background, I had problems understanding how and when rubato worked in the later Italian styles. Most of the time it is not clearly written in the music, but is expected to be something you just know from the musical styles and traditions. Just by listening to recordings by reputable singers and conductors, you can get an understanding of good style, good voices and good singing.

You can pretend that by deliberately not listening, you are being original, but actually you are just being uneducated. To do justice to the role and the music is to know the style and the possibilities. You don’t need to imitate, you can disagree with their musical choices and change anything you like (at the discretion of the conductor). But not listening can mean you may miss something that you won't find in the score.

Christopher Busietta as Franz in Tales of Hoffmann.
Christopher Busietta as Franz in Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann).
© A.T. Schaefer.

But once you know how the music goes and you hit rehearsals, you need to stop listening to the recordings.

Everything you do dramatically in rehearsals, every character decision you make must influence the way you sing the music and interpret the text. And obviously you must remain flexible to the conductor’s musical wishes.

I have learnt roles to which I have not been able to obtain a recording and I want to add that this also holds if you have learnt music without a recording, because you still build and reinforce your own ideas on tempos, phrasing and dynamic in your head even if you haven’t been listening to another singer.

So now, I ask all you critics of this method – are you copying? No, despite all the listening, by the end of the process you have not copied. You have created something unique to yourself and the colleagues you are working with. And you have done it with the utmost respect for the history of the conductors and singers that have come before you. At least that’s the way I see it (and do it).

Links:

  1. To Listen or Not to Listen: Does Listening to a Recording Help Us Learn Faster and Play More Accurately?: Yes it does. By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D..
  2. Jerry Hadley on Vocal Pedagogy: An interview with the late Jerry Hadley, on the importance of listening to the greats of the past.
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