On January 27, all-American divas Renée Fleming and Susan Graham brought their unparalleled talents to Carnegie Hall for an unforgettable night of song in the first concert of Ms. Fleming’s Perspectives series. During the performance, which was broadcast live and streamed online, Carnegie Hall hosted a chat for the young musicians who are members of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Exchange global online community. Ms. Fleming graciously agreed to take questions from the students and teachers following the chat.
From Sarah Luby, a high-school student from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada:
What path of post-secondary education should I pursue for opera? Currently I study voice, complete practical and theory exams, and perform at festivals; I was wondering if there is anything else I could do.
Renée Fleming: While there are multiple routes you could take, the most important choice, ultimately, will be finding the right teacher. I recommend talking to young singers a few years ahead of you to find the right teacher for you. And you should not be afraid to leave a teacher, if what they offer isn’t working for you. It is not a judgment on their teaching method, but just a question of what fits your individual needs.
Opera singers are really the Olympic athletes of singing. We perform virtuosic music without amplification. At the same time, we work with a very delicate instrument, so a solid technique is crucial to avoiding damage. Having a wonderful sound at 18 is no guarantee of having a career, especially one that will last. So I am a believer in undergraduate and conservatory programs that give the voice time to mature and the singer time to hone her technique. The specificity of conservatory training can be great, but you may want the broader education that a university can offer. There is certainly an enormous amount to work on, including languages and musical history, before actually setting out on a career as an opera singer. I also recommend finding a program where you will receive the maximum amount of individual instruction and coaching. My path and personal experience may be helpful, and I have described them in detail in my book, The Inner Voice.
From Pamela Soria Sánchez, a composer and pianist studying at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música de México, Mexico City:
I understand each type of art song—lied, mélodie, etc.—has a different approach when performing it. What makes a good performance of an art song?
Renée Fleming: A real understanding and facility with the language is crucial to performing an art song well. I recommend listening to native speakers performing the songs. YouTube has actually become a wonderful resource for this research. And a nuanced sense of the style, both linguistic and musical, is key.
I have always loved poetry. As musical settings of poetry, art songs benefit especially from the deepest appreciation you can develop of the nuances and layers of the poetry itself. Study the poem, and try to understand all of the references in the text, however obscure or archaic they might seem.
From Luciana Piazza, a college student from Troy, Michigan in the U.S.:
What do you do to keep your voice in good shape to maintain two hours plus of singing? Also, do you have any advice for improving one’s range?
Renée Fleming: As a singer, your instrument is your body, so you must make the care of it a priority. I try to stay hydrated and always get enough sleep. I am very careful about being in loud places, like noisy restaurants. I am often asked to be at social gatherings in large spaces, and those can be brutal to the voice. Scheduling is key to protecting the voice as well. I am careful to allow my voice time for rest between performances. On a performance day, I minimize speaking as much as possible, and I actually tend to accomplish a lot of work at my computer on those days.
As with the rest of the body, exercise is vital for developing stamina, so a vocalise regimen should be a part of your routine. These exercises can also help with improving your range, especially because they develop security and evenness in the passaggio.
There is no “one size fits all” answer to expanding one’s range, but a good understanding of breath support underlies everything. I worked for years on my technique, with teachers, and alone at the piano, before I was secure about the top of my range and confident that those notes were reliably there. Remember also that expanding your range is not the only goal. Evenness throughout the range is vital to good singing of classical music.
From Jonah Verdon, a middle-school student from Marietta, Georgia in the U.S.:
How old were you when you started studying voice? Did you always know you wanted to be a vocalist professionally? What one piece of advice do you have for a performer just starting out—like “I wish I had known…,” or “The best thing I did was...,” or “Don’t ever do...” Also, what kind of music do you like to listen to in your free time?
Renée Fleming: I started in middle school, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I knew I wanted to be a professional singer. Even then, I had moments of doubt. At first, I wanted to be a professional jazz singer.
The best piece of advice I can give is not to accept your limitations, and don't expect to be spoon-fed every piece of your technique. Every person is different, and you will have to find your own voice. Playing another instrument is a great asset, and I recommend studying piano so that you can learn music on your own. You have to learn to enjoy time in the practice room, as well as research.
I listen to all kinds of singing: jazz, bluegrass, folk music and of course classical singers. I have very little leisure time because I'm usually learning music and listening to every available recording of pieces that I'm already scheduled to learn.
From Haô Ting, a young artist based in Paris, France:
Do you approach an art song and an opera aria the same way, both technically and musically? Also, how do you make a great pianissimo and what is your advice on rehearsing it?
Renée Fleming: In a song recital, where there is no conductor, only a piano accompaniment, and usually a smaller performance space, a genuine intimacy is possible between the performer and the audience. Each song can be its own small play or mini-opera that the singer is sharing with the audience. For art songs, I work to pare down my voice into a slimmer sound, which enables me to have more dynamic variety, subtlety and nuance.
Pianissimo was a hard thing for me to develop as well. I found it mostly by practicing messa di voce on each pitch. I imagine that, as the sound gets smaller, I'm still continuing to send it out to the audience at the same pace; and I'm only reducing the depth of it. But the air has to continue to spin out -- the biggest mistake in trying to sing softly is to hold air back.
From José Antonio Moreno García, a high-school music teacher from Mexico City:
Are there any exercises you would recommend to relax and free one’s throat when singing? Also, how do you decide how much movement to incorporate in a performance of an art song?
Renée Fleming: Releasing tension is difficult to explain in writing. And throat tension is always a challenge, because it is hard to see the outward signs (as opposed to tension in the chest, shoulders, or tongue). For tension in the throat, yodeling can be very good, as well as lip trills, humming, and any kind of exercise that focuses on resonance. Time in the practice room will help you learn how to isolate musculature. Proper breath support will make it much easier to get rid of throat tension as well.
Movement in the performance of an art song should be minimal -- so much can be suggested with facial expressions and, more importantly, with musical expression. However, I think one must be fully, visibly engaged in the material, and treat each song as its own mini-story.
If you are a young artist, ages 13-25, or a teacher who works with young artists, join Carnegie Hall’s Musical Exchange and become a member of the Voice Studio to connect with others who share your passion for singing.