Sunday, May 04, 2008

American Classical Idol

Imagine a competition such as American Idol for classical singers. How would the contestants be judged? To mention just a few of the criteria, they would have to:
  • show an extensive repertoire, including lieder and “art songs” as well as arias and excerpts from operas, oratorios, or cantatas, contemporary as well as pieces from previous centuries.
  • be able to sing in a variety of languages - Italian, of course, German, French, and so on - and be judged on pronunciation.
  • have a range of at least two octaves.
  • know how to select pieces that are most appropriate for one's own vocal type (coloratura, contralto, baritone, etc.) and range.
  • use the body appropriately to control breath, including vibrato, and pitch.
  • project vocally according to the piece, being able to go from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the acoustics of the performance hall.
There might be weeks based on a particular composer (Brahms, Puccini, Shumann, and so on), weeks from various classical music periods (Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th century, and contemporary), perhaps a week of jazz or songs from musicals . . . it's exciting to think of all the possibilities. What can you add?

Naturally, “showmanship” would be taken into consideration. Whenever I sing for the Sapporo Academy Chorus in-house rehearsals, I always wear clothing that fits the piece - for example, a bright red dress with big, black polka dots for a Gershwin medley; a loose-sleeved blouse, long vest, knee pants, and tights for a Cherubino aria from Mozart's “Marriage of Figaro.”

Interpretation of the piece is, of course, essential. Does the singer use the right volume, degree of vibrato or nasality, “color” or degree of warmth, and other factors that match the piece?

In an interesting article entitledThe Voice that Charms,” Wah Keung Chan states, “A good singing competition is every bit as exciting as a figure skating meet; both competitions are judged on technical and artistic merit. 'Voice, musicality and presence are the criteria,' said AndrĂ© Bourbeau, president of the jury [of the First Jeunesses Musicales Montreal International Competition in Voice]. Technically, the characteristics of a great voice are timbre (colour and ability to project in a large hall), legato, flexibility (coloratura), dynamic range, and diction. The hallmarks of a great singer are the ability to make a good voice communicate the message and emotion carried by the text and the music.” (La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 9, June 1, 2002; accessed May 4, 2008)

Diana Yampolsky divides the performance into physical sound and emotional style, saying, states, Physical sound is what is achieved by proper utilization of the technical aspects of singing, i.e. breathing (support), structure, placement and projection. Emotional style is essentially how the singer relates to the song and anticipates and complements the style of music....” (See another interesting analogy to a skating performance in “The Technical Elements of Vocal Style”,, January 13, 2002; accessed May 4, 2008.)

In the auditions, sight reading and a pitch matching test might be included, much like the technical aspect of a skating competition. I've had to sightread for most of serious auditions, and I once had to sing an atonal scale backwards as well as be able to sing various intervals on sight (3rd, 4th, 5th, and so on, in both major and minor keys).

As you can see, I got so intrigued by this topic that I did some Internet searches. As I did so, I was disturbed by the fact that ageism is rampant in classical music singing competitions (as in American Idol), often limiting entry to contestants under 35. This is particularly dismaying to me since I didn't really “find” my true voice until I was in my 50s, and had a successful audition for the Sapporo Symphony Chorus when I was over 60. I was please to discover that Contralto Karen Mercedes has put together a list of competitions with no upper age restrictions. Time to start working on my repertoire!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Don't Feed Your Car Corn!

“Grain is good for bread, not ... cars.” So says Marcos Jank, President of Unica (Sugar Cane Industry Union, SP in Brazil).

Does that mean switching to sugar for fueling vehicles? Will sugar have the same effect on cars as it does on humans, making them hyperactive?

A Time magazine article entitled The Clean Energy Scam, by Michael Grunwald, asserts that biofuels are part of the problem, not the solution, to global warming. Has the American public been taken in by a hoax (started, undoubtedly, by Iowan farmers) that using soybeans or corn to fuel their cars is a way of contributing to the saving of our planet?

Common sense says that it takes space to grow corn and soybeans. If that space is used for plants that will be turned into fuel, where's the space to grow the plants that will be used for human consumption? Is farming in Iowa having an effect how many trees are slaughtered in the rain forests of the Amazon? If so, why are all the presidential candidates supporting the use of ethanol? (Answer to that last one is a nobrainer: They want the votes of those conspiring Iowan farmers.)

For an interesting discussion on this, including a response to the article by Time, check out Dilbert's (Scott Adams') blog, “Minimum Requirement for President.”