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July 9, 2013

Opera singing loud?

Is opera singing about singing loud?

I have lost count on how often I have heard that operatic singing is “loud” singing. Yes an operatic voice has to have a minimum amount of decibels in order to be heard over a large orchestra and fill a large auditorium without the help of amplification but a loud voice does not an opera singer make. Let there be no mistake – an opera singer is born, you just have to have the natural predisposition to sing this way. If you are an opera singer your vocal cords, lungs and facial bone structure are special. The latter especially is crucial in giving you the quality and timbre of your voice. That is why your voice changes completely when you have a cold as your voice finds yucky “mucus” instead of healthy tissue and bone!

A good teacher will not teach you how to sing loud. Instead she or he will help you “find” your voice and “mould” it in the suitable repertoire according to your voice type. Ironically a good teacher will first start by finding your “piano” voice and develop there before even tackling the loud bits. Hence if you are straining and pushing your voice often during a performance something is wrong. Operatic singing is about pushing the voice beyond its comfort zone but not beyond already set “limits.”

The biggest irony in singing is that the more “unforced” a sound is the more they hear it in the auditorium and the more “goosebumps” it gives!

July 1, 2013

Amplification in opera houses?

A few days ago I thought to myself that my next blog would be about “miking” in opera houses or the lack thereof and coincidentally this morning I read that a reputable newspaper mentioned singers wearing “microphones” for HD broadcasts, recordings etc.

For years I have read, not without amusement may I add, of various conspiracies that today’s leading singers, including yours truly, use “microscopic James Bond type microphones” in order to be heard in the world’s leading opera houses. In fact it’s quite  a bummer that I didn’t know about such “devices” before,  as I would  have certainly not spent all those years learning vocal technique in order to perform one of the many  little ” vocal miracles” and project my voice over an orchestra in the auditorium!

Naturally if there is an HD broadcast or a live recording of the performance, singers have to wear a microphone in order to capture the sound of their voices for broadcast or recording. Without this all you would have is “silent opera” in the cinema or on the recording and that would defeat the purpose a little bit, wouldn’t it? This, however, is NOT amplification in any way and the sound is not transmitted into the house at all. I’ll go a step further and state that I have been singing professionally since 1997 and not once, did I ever encounter any singer wearing any “secret” amplification device in a “normal” and “acoustically viable” opera house such as London, Munich, The Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper etc. Of course there were exceptions that relate to open air performances or giant indoor venues. In latter venues amplification is as necessary as it is obvious.  Examples of these are the Bregenz Festival when performed on the lake, indoor sport arenas and my own yearly concert in Malta where we sing in a square that can take more than 50000 people. Another instance is when there are “spoken” words in an opera like Bizet’s Carmen. Again here the direction might decide to amplify the speaking part but never the singing part.

The irony of this is that many singers including myself find singing with a microphone, when used for amplification,  as a very uncomfortable experience as the “sensation” and “return” of the voice is very different than what we opera singers are used to in the opera house.

In fact I am ready to take one for the team and offer any “journalist” or “conspirator” the opportunity to check me for any “futuristic amplification devices” right before going on stage and right after stepping out of it on the wings… if I am guilty I will eat a microphone…the tiny futuristic one of course…

May 19, 2013

Eurovision and cross voting

Despite having a brilliant song that was delivered impeccably Malta didn’t win the Eurovision song contest. No doubt there will be many who will cry foul, bring up the unfair issue of neighbourly  cross voting and insist on having Malta withdraw from future contests.

Whether it is in the office or on stage “cross voting” is just yet a common and normal factor that has to catered for and dealt with in the long road of realising ones goal, whatever that might be. Fierce competition is rampant everywhere in todays society and the road to success will be constantly besieged by factions, jealousy, envy, loyalties, nepotism or downright corruption. Multiple spokes in the wheels are not only the norm but they are to be expected and dealt with. Indeed I view these acts of cheekiness as adding to ones achievment and a sad reminder that human nature can sometimes be petty and small minded.

So to all of those who think that Malta should stop competing in the Eurovision I say that some form of “tomfoolery” will always be present and cannot really be avoided and it is the marking of true, real talent to triumph despite and against the odds!

What we really need to do in Malta is to see the Eurovision for what it is; great, silly fun and just another way to remind our European neighbours what a great destination and fun Malta is.

Life ain’t perfect and it certainly isn’t fair but fate is inexorable and the day will come when someone from these shores will lift the trophy… in the meantime a big BRAVO to Gianluca and all the Maltese team who went there to have fun and fun they had!

April 6, 2013

The politics of theatre and culture

 

Bombed Valletta in 1942 with the opera house on the right.

The (new) Prime Minister of Malta hailed the under signed as a “symbol of national unity” for the Maltese people. Indeed I have always tried, within reason, to steer clear from anything that can divide opinions in our very polarized Malta.

Of course there were exceptions and one of these exceptions came up a couple of years ago when the previous government announced the (then) new plans for Valletta. I actively and immediately opposed the decision to build a new parliament versus a multi – purpose concert theatre which the country so desperately needs. Don’t get me wrong. I am not stating that having a parliament is not important, of course it is. However, weren’t the historical sites of Fort St Elmo or the MCC suitable enough venues and spectacular to boot? Both could easily accommodate parliament with minor adjustments and at a fraction of the cost spent on the new parliament. Or so the various leading Maltese architects told me. Can anyone really state, hand on heart, that the building of a multi – purpose theatre in the entrance of Valletta wouldn’t pump much needed air in our oxygen starved cultural scene? Imagine a fully functional new theatre in upper Valletta and a parliament in lower Valletta! That is what I call tackling the regeneration of Valletta at both ends…

As much as Barry’s design was beautiful the old theatre site, unfortunately, isn’t big enough for our modern requirements. A larger footprint is needed to accommodate a bigger backstage area so that the theatre would need to be able to host musicals, opera, vocal symphonic concerts, conferences, poker tournaments, ballet, theatre, pantomimes, private events and even boxing matches if necessary! Flexibility is the only way an eventual “theatre” can come close to be commercially viable and not be yet another burden on tax payers. Of course I guess nothing is in the way to adapt Barry’s outside architecture to a bigger footprint…

There is a huge PR opportunity for Malta waiting to be exploited here. The “rebuilding” of our theatre would no doubt generate huge interest by the major European media and beyond. The theatre was destroyed during one of more 3000 (!) air raids Malta suffered between 1940 and 1942 our island being one of the most intensively bombed countries in WW2!

This government has now a huge opportunity to give back to the Maltese people their cultural identity something every single administration failed to do for the last 71 years!

March 24, 2013

Challenges of the modern opera singer

Recently there has been quite some controversy regarding the “frailty” of modern opera singers versus the “hardier” older generations, specifically those hailing from the “Golden Years” of Opera. It’s a simple question with a very complicated answer. Is it harder to be an opera singer today than it was, let us say, 50 years ago?

One of my greatest strokes of luck was having met, still in my mid teens, my teacher Paul Asciak who was then in his mid 70s. Schooled by the best, Paul had an admirable career having sung with veritable operatic legends such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Tito Schipa etc. The latter meant that, through him, I had a glimpse of what it meant to be an opera singer during those times. One thing is certain; it was a much calmer life and there is no doubt that an opera singer then had much more “space” and “time” to develop and build a career in a slow and steady way. Is this possible in our day and age? I really don’t think so for the following reasons:

Back then one could sing in smaller houses and make mistakes without the whole (operatic) world instantly knowing them. News, for obvious reasons, travelled much slower which meant that news of a “bad performance” took much longer to travel beyond the city where the actual performance was taking place. Singers had pretty much a lot of control over what they sung. Many scores were “butchered” by cuts and the “diapason” (pitch) was considerably lower. Orchestras tended also to be smaller and their sound less bright making it easier for voices to cut through the wall of sound not to mention that the physical size of opera houses rarely exceeded the 1800 seat mark.

 

Nowadays even young opera singers singing in small houses are instantly exposed to the whole world thanks to social media, youtube etc. Yes one has to be prepared before stepping on stage but make no mistake, there is no substitute teacher for the greatest teacher of all – the stage. It is another undeniable fact that there is less room for mistakes and opportunities to learn from, what I call, the good mistakes.

Operatic scores nowadays are usually performed in their entirety with little to no cuts. Compounding the problem the orchestras of today can be as much as twice the size as intended by the composer not to mention the huge opera houses, especially in North America, that “unamplified” operatic voices have to fill.

Pitch is the other issue. Nowadays we perform the whole 19th century repertoire around a semitone higher than intended as displayed here by operatic legend Piero Cappucilli – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKKQp5_5u-M It is interesting to note that Cappucilli is doing the comparison between A 432 and A 440. Situation is worse today with many opera houses tuning up to A 444 and sometimes even beyond!

Of course there are advantages nowadays mainly in the medical side of things treating vocal ailments promptly and surely. Antibiotics take care of bacterial infections in record time and doctors are able to diagnose allergies, viruses, infections etc. promptly before the latter are allowed to do extensive damage. The prescription of “cortisone” can help with certain afflictions but I strongly advise young singers to stay away from “overuse” and to only take it when prescribed by an ENT. My rule of thumb is to never sing when the larynx and surrounding tissue , specifically the vocal folds, are compromised in any way.

 

To conclude I think that yes it is harder to be an opera singer in today’s world with the inevitable result that yes we might, occasionally, tend to cancel more than our predecessors. The latter is regrettable and I cannot think of one cancellation that was easy or over which I didn’t brood for days. However better to disappoint one theatre, one night than going ahead to sing only to damage one’s instrument risking a whole artistic career!

February 15, 2013

On the Road

What a whirlwind couple of weeks. I calculated that in little more than 3 weeks I have sung in 10 different cities and took part in 5 different television shows in as many different countries. One weekend I was Friday in Paris, Saturday in Copenhagen, Sunday in Munich and then Tuesday Prague. Packed and unpacked my luggage more than 22 times and people around me invariably ask me “how do you manage?”

The answer is; discipline. The only way the human body can cope with this kind of stress is by resting at every available opportunity. Working out, intensively, is also a must as it gives the immune system a boost and the blood circulation revitalizes the body making it easier to get over fatigue. Diet is of course important and did I mention sleep? If there is one thing I cannot sing without is the latter. It is, apparently, scientifically proven that sleep is the only time when the “vocal” tract gets some real rest. Just staying quiet doesn’t have the same effect apparently.

Some folk point out that I manage to do this because of a “good technique.” But a good technique has to be there whether you are in a heavy schedule or not. I know of no singer who actually managed to last for longer than 5 years without a solid technique. Truth is that technique is only one part of the equation where vocal health is concerned. Rest, pacing oneself, the right repertoire and being surrounded by the “right” kind of people are just as important.

Last but not least no singer should be subjected to such a heavy schedule long term. Despite all precautions, discipline and good technique there will come a time when tiredness will start gaining on all the other factors….
Festina Lente!

December 30, 2012

End of the year 2012 Blog

I can’t believe that 2012 is over. Career wise this was probably the most successful and eventful year in the whole of my fifteen year career.  My latest album “Be my Love” topped the charts in several countries. From the Grammy award nomination to being nominated and winning the Gramophone Artist of the Year 2012 – I was so proud to bring these honors for the first time to my home country Malta to the delight of my compatriots whom I am privileged to call “fellow Maltese!”

Of course a lot went on stage as well and this year my best experiences both happened in London. The first, chronologically, was the run of “La Boheme” in London where I had the extraordinary privilege of working with director John Copley. Pushing 80 he has the exuberance and energy of a man 50 years his junior. His insight on acting and singing are truly revealing and it is simply unnerving to witness his still humongous “hunger” for this beautiful art form despite the fact that he clocked more than half a century on the world’s greatest stages. Add to this we ended up being a cast of “true bohemians.” Real friendship formed with Carmen Gianattasio, Fabio Capitanucci, Matthew Rose and Thomas Oliemans – what was going on stage was really a mirror of reality rather than being an imitation.  Semyon Bychkov in the pit aptly reminded us that even Puccini can be sung, not screamed, over the orchestra…

……and then the proms….Never in my life have I been so nervous knowing that I was going to sing the great tenor warhorses in front of a live audience of more than 10000 and a television audience running into millions. After Nessun Dorma the whole Royal Albert Hall erupted and “football stadium style cheering” ensued. Maestro Jiri Belohlavek immediately suggested an encore but I was frankly feeling too emotional of doing a “da capo.” It was a magical moment and I just wanted to breath it in…such an amazing event and wonderful colleagues like Nicky Benedetti, Mro Belohlavek, orchestra and the real stars of any Proms – the Prommers!

2013 is starting with a bang ie; a sold out concert at the Royal Festival Hall, another recital disk for Decca, a complete recording for the same label and performances in around 20 different cities around the globe including in my beloved Malta!

 

To all of you a great New Year without forgetting to thank the amazing team I have around me including (but not limited to) CSAM agency, 21c Media and Albion!

December 4, 2012

Family and Opera

It is 10.30 in the morning and my adorable terminator and princess have just left the building. I am sure that most of my neighbors are thankful that they are now spared the constant rustle and bustle a 6  and an 8 year old inevitably bring with them. On the other hand here I am, missing them terribly already which brings to the fore the, arguably, only really serious problem that one has to live with in order to have an international operatic career; long periods away from loved ones. I mean, really? How can you not miss someone who tells you that you are still a great, graceful skater despite the fact that your skating prowess is not unlike a drunken bull in a china shop?

I think few established opera singers would argue that there is anything more difficult than being away from one’s family and friends. Skype and long weekend trips make it easier but the latter still doesn’t really replace the beautiful everyday moments like picking up your kids from school or tucking them into bed. I have flown to Malta at crazy times, sometimes immediately after concerts, just to be able to pick my children from school the next day.

This is one of the reasons I take a sabbatical off singing professionally a couple of months a year and it is also why you might see me, very early, checking in for a flight sporting a face that should really be still resting on the pillow.

In the end the most beautiful sounds I have heard to date are the spoken words “papa.” Of course the phrase “you are the best dad in the world” comes in at a very close second….

November 16, 2012

Honoris Causa

On the 2nd of November I was awarded with a Doctor of Literature degree (Honoris Causa) by the University of Malta in the Jesuit’s church Valletta. It was a really moving ceremony with salient, somber moments and some pretty funny ones too.

I was both honored and quite moved by this conferral and flattered by the high turnout of academics, family and friends that filled up the church in Valletta. Afterwards it was a veritable pleasure to get to know the administrators of the University and again it was nice to hear that so many people consider me as one of the few “uniting” factors in Malta. The latter was meant as a compliment but I actually find it shocking and in fact quite sad. I do understand that it is the “political season” in Malta but I cannot find a real reason why we Maltese should be so divided and sometimes so bitterly spiteful towards each other. The whole country is so polarised in these instances, beyond anything I have ever seen during my frequent travels.

We have to keep in mind that we do live on an island where it is possible to walk from one end to the other in a single day. Is it that difficult to be united and sometimes just agree to disagree without losing all notion of basic courtesy?

The festive season is on our doorstep. Let us all remember on what great things we achieved by being united and take our differences a little less seriously……

September 24, 2012

St Emilion

Imagine a place set in a beautiful rural landscape, great weather, a Unesco world heritage city that also happens to offer excellent food and perhaps the world’s best wine…..

Well no need to imagine anymore as St Emilion, located in Bordeaux – France, is all of the above and more. If you ever get the chance try to get there in the weekend of “La nuit de patrimoine” and/or “Ban des vendanges” which happens in the second week of September. I promise you that you will not be disappointed.

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Joseph's Blog

May 16th, 2016

Quo Vadis Eurovision and other stories

Malta did not win the Eurovision but lo and behold the sun still rose and the island (the center of the known universe) still spun…

My two cents is that Ira Losco gave a really good performance and that the whole presentation was excellent. She shouldn’t have performed cause she is pregnant? Come off it – I have performed repeatedly with pregnant opera singers well into their 7th and 8th month of pregnancy and trust me when I say that rehearsing and performing for a full opera production is much more physically demanding than a couple of days at the Eurovision. Of course there are those who know much better than the undersigned and who went on to say that the presentation was a tad “camp”…oh the irony when one considers that the Eurovision is the campest of them all.

Meanwhile, this wouldn’t be Malta and the Eurovision wouldn’t be the Eurovision unless its politicized to the exhaustible hilt. The inevitable “mud slinging competition,” which we will see a lot of in the coming 22 months, ensued and even yours truly (inexplicably) ended up in the midst of the fray, in yet another “supernova” in a tea cup. The Eurovision suddenly became an interchangeable bullet to be used ad nauseam by both sides much like bitter parents who use their innocent children during disputes.  I have always found sycophants interesting, even amusing but they will not be getting the much desired Streisand effect from me, thank you very much. It is part of human nature after all to conjure conspiracies and we are not going to let the simple truth get in the way of some exciting and convenient fiction.

Speaking of “conjuring” is it me or is a company advertising real estate using a chap “connected” with the tragic and unnecessary death of an underage girl? It must be a clone or a”doppleganger”, otherwise this would be the epitome of bad taste and a 100 shades of wrong. Don’t get me wrong I am all for “second chances” and all of that but shouldn’t there be due process first? After all Lisa Marie didn’t get a second chance did she?