Antagonism in Art 1

This post is an expanded form of a lecture I gave at Mediterranean Opera Studio in Greve (Chianti), Italy 26 August, 2015.

Yesterday I attended Vlaamse Opera’s Klassiek in de Stad, an outdoor concert the opera company gives every year to introduce the coming season’s repertoire. It’s a lighthearted, fun time with a comedian Emcee. It also serves to introduce the young artists to the public, as well as a few of the guest artists performing lead roles. At one point a young bass-baritone was interviewed onstage before the 2 or 3 thousand attendees and was asked: “How have you found Antwerp?” His demeanor was charming but inelegant as one might expect from a green singer … and exceedingly truthful. “It’s fine. I just hope the public likes me.”

A Path to Pleasing
At the heart of his brief and all-too-truthful answer lies the conundrum so many singers face. In the beginning of our public performing, we operate from a place of extreme need to be liked. If there is one character facet/flaw I have witnessed among my fellow performers it is this need. So many of our motives stem from it. We do our best to cover up this ‘weakness’ but it is there, always present behind the eyes in 90% of the performers you work with. Whether it be the tenor who practises too many high notes in his dressing room with the door slightly ajar, or the soprano ingratiating herself to the conductor so she may in the end get her way and have things as she wants them, or some other singer who prostitutes themselves for advancement, the motive is readily seen. To the initiate that motive is often: “I need your approval”. To the veteran, the additional qualifier begins to surface: “… so I may make choices that benefit my personal artistic vision and vocal necessities..”

The path that brings you to setting foot on stage is a dangerously needy one: to please others. To make your parents proud. To gain a grandparent’s nickel if you were heard singing boisterously in church. To make up for being the chubby one who couldn’t throw a ball well. But you know you must diminish these voices, this need to be liked, and embrace the higher calling: to be an instrument that shows in some small way the human condition and motivates contemplation and change. To bless others. You have your agenda and it must be fully served without reservation. Those voices, those impulses to please will deny you every chance they get to serve your master: your artistry and your voice.

There are at any given moment incredibly challenging facets of your job to balance. If it is accurate that most of our motives were borne from a need to be liked, we have already given up a certain amount of our personal power. As singers, we are people given to our emotions, our impulses to express, our clamor for attention. We need to sing. We don’t simply sing in the shower. We need to sing for Others. And gaining Other’s approval is a narcotic, a seductive force in your career. The chances to please, to pacify and placate forces outside yourself by simply giving in will be multitudinous.

Real World Fallout
Fast forward to your career. Not the young artist program (YAP) portion. The mainstage singing title role part. At Verona. Or Munich. Or the Met. The pressure to be the next singer everyone is waiting for and to achieve your best is understandably high. Except you’re making your debut under extreme and adverse circumstances. You’re replacing someone who is sick and cancelled and you’ve been called in the 11th hour. Never mind you are 10 time zones away. You need to show up at your best in 12 hours well rested and ready to kill it.

You are in a new production with opera’s most progressive director at the helm. The director’s first concern is not about your level of singing per se. He cares about the intensity of performance and commitment you bring to the table. You find yourself accepting and even embracing physically daunting suggestions because the environment is one of exploration and the exhilarating appeal of self-exposure. As a collaborator and a singer in today’s market, do you show willingness to push boundaries? Do you self-protect? Do you let go of your vocal identity and vocal technique building blocks? Do you give in to well-meaning suggestions that go against a personal philosophy of “more is less.” More actually is more, bigger, badder, bolder, fuller? This is your crucial time, where people are genuinely excited by what you can bring to the table. Why NOT do everything you are asked required to do? The general director is sitting over there in the corner, inspecting everything you’re doing. Will you bend and acquiesce or will you risk being labeled difficult because you say “No.”

The conductor hates the director. He views you in the title role as his best ally to try to protect the score and the music. You have committed yourself to being fully there theatrically on one hand, but on the other the conductor is so fatherly and kind. In which direction do you go? When they are literally yelling at each other around you fighting for their own viewpoints or sidling up to you to gain the upper hand, what do you do? What is the best choice that protects you? And how do you, after making your choice, deal with the mental fallout of the conductor saying how “disappointed I am in you. I thought you were a friend and you betrayed me by giving in to this shit regie.” You’ve opened yourself to the process of making theater, and this is your reward.

The diction police. You don’t simply have to be understood anymore. You have to sound authentic. You are subjected to people with no musical background who do not understand the necessity for vowel modification and only want one thing: complete intelligibility and linguistic correctness. After all, if it can be done by actors on TV (with mics hidden 6 inches from their faces) why can’t you do it even better? After all, you are louder! Why on earth would anyone sane choose something other than complete communication?! And this police person follows you non-stop every step around the theater giving you post-it notes on your ‘mistakes’ having visibly flinched every 3rd word you sang, and created a post it note to give you in some inopportune time. Complete access, complete disapproval … all the time.


Is wanting approval a bad thing? Of course not. It is natural and is derivative of being parented. And the simple fact of the matter is, you most likely pursued music making because it played heavily into why you are here today. In my completely unscientific findings, statistically-speaking there are far greater number of people-pleasers in collaborative artistic endeavors.

And since music making needs partners and public alike, it is impossible to make music without it. Approval is inextricably linked to a measurable indication that you are touching people and encouraging an investment of themselves into the art. Just as we singers need to be approved of, so does the audience need to approve and affirm. It is our job to allow this cathartic symbiosis.

Your impulse to please is your natural inclination. It is your strength because it fosters the communal aspect of music making. And it is your weakness because it will seduce you to forget your own needs. If left unchecked it will create discord for you under stressful circumstances when you are most vulnerable. The antagonism it will create will be your undoing if you cannot find peace as it naturally occurs.

There are at any given moment incredibly challenging facets of your job to balance. If it is accurate that most of our motives were borne from a need to be liked, we have already given up a certain amount of our personal power. As singers, we are people given to our emotions, our impulses to express, our clamor for attention. We need to sing. We don’t simply sing in the shower. We need Others. And gaining Other’s approval is a narcotic. There is never enough if we cannot recognize and defend ourselves from its seductive power.

What do we all
know and recognize in good decision making? When emotionally upset, or physically and spiritually tired — when we’ve got ‘pervasive baggage’ — we are at a disadvantage. Even in the most optimal settings the stress under which you are about to perform for that big break is extremely high.
And you aren’t the only one’s struggling to find balance with it. The impresarios, the conductors, the regisseurs…everyone is attempting to place the one thing you can count on –– criticism — out of their minds and do their jobs effectively. Everywhere you turn you will look for safety and find little. Your job is to find it and hold on to it as diligently as you can, even in the face of triumph and adversity.

Today as young singers I want you to simply acknowledge this facet of yourselves and begin to look for ways in which this motive affects your choices, and how you may keep yourself healthy, well-adjusted singers. The one’s that have long-term success are those who can do things on their own terms, maintain the health of their instrument and serve their own artistic voice at the same time as enabling others around them to do their best.

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