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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Advice from voice professor to college voice students - must read

    Opera Lively has interviewed a professor of Music, Voice, and Opera Workshop at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Mr. Brian Arreola. The interview was connected to his singing a comprimario role in the upcoming production of Nabucco at Opera Carolina, but his answer to a question about advice he would give to voice students, while being rather off-topic for the purpose above (the set of interviews which can be found by clicking [here] is of more interest to patrons attending the Nabucco show rather than to students), is a must read for current and prospective voice students and their families.

    Instead of publishing the long and thorough answer there, which might be too lengthy for that purpose, we decided to publish it here and make of it a permanent feature of our Educational area, so that students now and in the future can consult this remarkable piece of advice.

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    Opera Lively - You are involved with teaching voice, as a professor at UNC-Charlotte. What would be some of the advices you have for youngsters who want to approach an operatic career?

    Professor Brian Arreola - I would start by drawing a distinction between studying voice (or more generally, music) as a college student, and pursuing an operatic career. I am completely supportive of people pursuing their passion and interest through an undergraduate degree. An undergraduate degree in music can be a classic liberal arts education: a starting point for learning how to think critically, write, delve deeply into subject matter and broaden one's horizons.

    Many parents these days are determined that their children study subjects that will guarantee future employment. If we are honest, the only fields of study that can make that claim with any credibility are those in which qualified workers are in short supply, or aging out of the workforce, such as nursing and teaching. Parents therefore discourage their children from pursuing studies in subjects like music, literature, the humanities in general. But what they should understand is that, with the exception of those fields like teaching or nursing, a college degree is just a college degree, not a ticket to a job. The college degree shows a potential employer that the degree holder has a certain amount of follow through and intellectual (or at least, academic) capacity. All of which is to say that I don't think that you need to think of yourself as being the next Caruso in order for it to make sense to study voice in college.

    Now, if a young person is really interested in becoming an opera singer I think they would be well served to do a very honest assessment of what it is they enjoy about singing and what others enjoy about their singing.

    There are people who are just born to sing: people with unusually beautiful, resonant and powerful voices and an inherent musical genius for singing. The sad thing is that these people are often told at a young and vulnerable age, by a well-meaning music teacher, that they should not sing, usually because their voice is so strong that it does not blend well with those of their peers. A young person who continues to sing in spite of this sort of discouragement may well be one of those "born to sing" types (hereafter BTS).

    An honest self-assesment of a BTS might include statements like, "people say my voice is really loud" (not necessarily beautiful), "I just love to sing," or "singing is the thing that sets me apart from other people." The BTS needs to understand that even though their talent is precisely what is needed in opera, as they continue their studies and start to ascend the ranks in the field, their talent will start to count less, to set them apart less.

    At some point in their career, whether the first big graduate voice program they enroll in, or the first big young artist studio they land a spot in, they will find themselves surrounded by singers who sing just as well as they do, whether through BTS talent, hard work, or a combination thereof. At that point they may find that their terrific singing is no longer enough to get them the opportunities they desire: the role may go to the singer who is more conventionally attractive, a better actor, a more dependable musician, etc.

    So, precisely because they are natural singers and singing well is not a huge challenge it makes sense for the BTS to spend time and energy early in their studies shoring up any weaknesses that may eventually trip them up. Take acting classes, study Italian, German and French as much as possible, and invest in your health and fitness through exercise and dance. Most important of all: do not give up.

    Opera websites and magazines are full of laments from older opera buffs: where have all the great voices gone? Well, perhaps our image-focused culture is weeding them out of the opera field before they got a chance to become the next Tucker or Caruso. We need those big, powerful voices in the theater so that opera can have the impact it should.

    All this talk of the BTS may leave some students saying, "well, that's not really me. I mean, I love to sing, and always have, but nobody would say that my voice is remarkably powerful." Well, let's call this singer the "love to sing (er)", or the LTS.

    I consider myself to be an LTS: of average stature and build, with a not particularly loud speaking voice, I have been fortunate enough to have terrific singing teachers that have helped me make the most out of what I have. While not overly sanguine about the uniqueness of their voice the LTS would perhaps assess as their strengths tenacity, work ethic, and intellectual curiosity.

    As a teacher of singing I of course have to believe (and I do) that anyone with a normally functioning physiology can be taught to sing well, and it is the LTS's lot in life to strive through study to elevate their singing to a level that will meet the industry standard. The LTS needs to listen to historical recordings (1970's and earlier) to begin to grasp the concept of sound production that the BTS often makes instinctively. They should also of course invest in their artistic development and shore up any weaknesses that they may have, just as the BTS should.

    I of course understand that a bifurcation like this (Are you BTS or LTS?) can be problematic, and that self-categorizing can be unhealthy, leading to ill-outcomes from self defeating attitudes. Like many things in life singers likely lie somewhere on a spectrum from BTS to LTS. And I don't suggest these categories to discourage the LTS (after all, I am one, and I would be surprised if many opera singers didn't self-identify as such) so much as to encourage the BTS to carry on because the big rep, in the big houses, requires their great, powerful voices.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Mr. Arreola is spot on! As an LTS guy, I studied singing and had a ball doing strictly amateur stuff on a strictly amateur basis, and I loved it! Making music is one of life's great experiences. Of course, "amateur" derives from the latin (amo, amas, amat) and means, in general, one who does something because he/she "loves" to do it. As most friends know, in addition to being an opera addict, I am an amateur cook, wine consultant and historian. "These are a few of my favorite things".

    Implied in what Mr. Arreola says is the impact of our "amateurisms" on our quality of life. In a way it defines us, but give a moment's thought to the effect of being deprived of whatever it is you do that defines you.

    Age has deprived me of the joy of making music, but not of enjoying it, which is enhanced by the experiences of having done that. Thanks for the opportunity to reflect on that aspect of life, Alma.

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