7 years ago

Volume 14 - Issue 4 - December 2008


OPERA AT HOMEby Phil EhrensaftThe ScientificArt of SingingThe neuroscience and physics of music areadvancing at a brisk clip. A surprising-andpleasing-amount of public attention is beinggenerated as the research results pour in.This is Your Brain on Music: the Science ofa Human Obsession, written by the McGillneuropsychologist Daniel J. Levitin, is animpressive bestseller. As a rock musicianwho is also well versed in classical music,this studio producer turned neuroscientist iswell poised to integrate art and science.Levitin deepens and updates the science writerand composer Robert Jourdain's earliersynthesis, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy:How Music Captures Our Imagination.The popular science of music is a healthyniche of the publishing industry. From theperspective of opera, I was looking for abook that provided a specific synthesis ofscience for vocal art singing. There is abookcase full of works aimed at music studentswhich integrate scientific findings intovocal pedagogy. Richard Davis' A BeginningSinger's Guide is one good example. I waslooking for a book that went further, onethat provided a synthesis of aesthetics andscience.While browsing through the new bookssection of the Metropolitan Opera Shop thisspring, I found a book that travels a goodway towards this synthesis: Dan H. Marek'sSinging: The First Art, published by theScarecrow Press in late 2007. Singing is atextbook aimed at advanced students of vocalart music. But Marek's very clear reasoningand prose, coupled with a thoughtful integrationof science and art, make his book an excellentresource for a lay audience devoted toopera and art song.Marek has appeared as a lead tenor at theMet and is now chair of the voice departmentat the Mannes College of Music in NewYork City. In 1989, Mannes became part ofThe New School , a progressive universitywhich also began as a community educationproject. The New School rose to eminenceboth through University in Exile, its refugefor European intellectuals fleeing fascism ,and as focal point for the modernist impulsein the arts.Singing is quite in the spirit of the NewSchool's philosophy of exploring musicfrom different perspectives. To cite one ofthe catching quotes that prefaces the book,one that was copied from the blackboard ofa subway ticket booth: "Keep on doing whatyou 've always been doing, and you'll alwaysget what you 've always got."Marek modestly claims that his book has adouble-core: the pioneering work of BertonCoffin (1910-1987) which integrates sciencewith music history to create a new vocal pedagogy;and his own 19 years of teaching Coffin's insights. There's more to it than that, ifonly because both the science of music andmusic history have advanced substantiallysince Coffin's death. Besides, Marek (a professorwho quotes subway clerks and paraphrasesYogi Berra -50 percent of singing is90 percent mental) is unlikely to just treadalong somebody else's path.This is a book with strong character. It beginswith a quote from Albert Einstein: "Weshould be careful not to make the intellectour god . It has, of course, powerful muscles,but not personality."The structure of the book is a three-partstatement. 1) Oriented towards integratingthe science of singing and vocal pedagogy,Marek the Met singer starts out with a historyof how opera singing has developed as anart form since the early seventeenth century.2) Marek the technician lays out the anatomyand bodily acoustics of opera singing. 3)Marek the teacher provides a series of musicalexercises to apply the insights of the firsttwo sections.Marek insistently makes the point, as atechnically oriented singer and teacher, thattechnique is a servant of art. The impulse ofmost students is to get right to it. Marek tellsthem that they won' t get to "it " unless theyunderstand the evolution of their art form.With that historical knowledge in hand, theycan advance through a first stage of craftsmanshipand mastery of techniques to thesecond stage of musicianship. When they aresufficiently confident in technique, they canmake choices about matters of phrasing andtempo. The final stage is art, where singerscan move on to inhabiting the characters theyportray and thinking about how this fits intothe total drama at hand. Opera is an art ofcontinuous learning, even for the top singers.Marek is insistent that the peak of greatsinging occurred during the seventeenth andeighteenth centuries, during what he definesas the Bel Canto era. During that era, singersand composers enjoyed an equal role. Improvisationon stage was expected. The trainingof that time focused on one-on-one mentoringby masters on a daily basis, an arrangementwhich today's university and conservatoryaccountants would never permit.Although we have no aural record of that era,Marek is confident that historical documentsback up his stance.Marek believes that Beethoven began anew era where the composer and librettistassumed dominant roles in defining the music.Singers became one part of a grand operateam that included the composer, librettist,conductor, stage director, and impresariowho marshalled and managed the resourcesto make opera happen.Marek also looks forward to the day whenscience can specifically offer more to opera.Apart from what he covers in his book, theimportant contribution of new scientific discoveriesto opera have been in the field ofvocal pathology. The bulk of the new scienceof voice has focused on speech. We await itsextension to the art of singing.561& Jzmphouy Tours, lucPerforming arts travel "in concert"with the Roy Thomson Hall Volunteersand in support of "Share the Music".For more information: contact John toll free @1-866-796-7469 or email: symphtours@aol.comWWW. TH EWHOLENOTE.COMNewport Mansions• ThnglewmdD EC EM BER 1 2008 - F EB RUARY 7 2009

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