Q & A at the University of North Carolina. April 20, 2004
An open conversation with students/musicians during the North American Saxophone Alliance National Conference at UNC in Greensboro.
Q: How does one create a singing tone at the piano?
KC: I believe it was Paul Badura-Skoda who said that a pianist who can bring out the top voice is a pianist who can produce a “singing tone”. This is, of course, complete nonsense since, first of all, the projection of one voice over another has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the sound. More importantly, richness of tone is a result of support NOT of volume. If one wishes to produce a fully resonant melody, it must be supported by a rich bass. By giving the melody a firm foundation, the natural phenomenon of the overtone series plays to our advantage. That is to say, a healthy “bass” causes greater resonance of overtones, thus providing a fuller, more “singing” tone in the treble.
This is where, in my opinion, the so-called “Russian School” fails a more western aesthetic – because they voice everything to the top. The sound becomes forced, metallic, piercing. It is a wonderfully penetrating sound that absolutely has a place in one’s palette of pianistic colors; but it is certainly not a “singing”, “resonant” tone. The approach is to project the melody by playing it louder and making everything else submissive. That seems, to me, an oversimplification to the issue of balance – the idea that balance is the same thing as “tone quality”. To be frank, an ugly sound is an ugly sound no matter how one voices it.
Q: But, if you don’t voice by dynamics, how do you project a specific voice as in, let’s say, a Bach fugue?
KC: Well, of course one uses dynamic differences between voices to project the dominant voice. I am talking about the tone “quality” here. Frankly, there is nothing worse than hearing the lyric subject of a Bach fugue “hammered out” as if to say “here it is, in case you couldn’t hear it!” There are a number of ways to bring out a voice on the piano. But sticking with “quality” for a moment more, I am simply saying that a louder sound is not a better sound; and that using the bottom of a texture can actually make an enormous difference to the top. For instance, if I am on the podium conducting a passage in which the first and second violins double each other at the octave, I will evaluate the quality of the sound and, should I decide that I want a fuller, lusher sound, I will not ask for more from the first violins but, rather, will turn my attention to the seconds-encouraging them to fill-out the sound by supporting the lower octave. Likewise, if my goal in that passage is a more hollow sound, I will conduct to the first violins. The richness of sound always comes from the bottom. To offer a similar example for the pianist, in the trio of Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 10, the verse is played three times. Naturally, no musician will play all three verses the same way. When I decide I want that bel canto sound I will voice the octave melody to the thumb, NOT to the top. In octave playing especially, the thumb is too often ignored. Daniel Blumenthal made me do exercises in playing legato with my thumb. This was one of the most valuable lessons I was given, and it opens a wealth of possibilities to be able to play genuinely legato octaves. Yet another color added to the palette.
Q: You mention there are other ways to voice in Bach.
KC: Yes, in Bach or…wherever! Again, I don’t dispute dynamic contrast between voices. That is the primary means. I often tell my students to practice playing any melody 2-3 dynamic levels above the rest of the texture, so we hear clearly what you want us to hear, and so we don’t lose track of the contours of the melody. But, on the piano we can also use rubato and articulation to our advantage.
Q: How so?
KC: Well, if we talk about Bach, we open ourselves to criticism on how he should be played. Everyone is an expert, yet no two “experts” agree. In the end, we die and Bach survives.
First of all, I say if you are going to play Bach on the piano, you should not ignore the capabilities of the instrument. I’m not going to say one should not take care to be informed of style, performance practice, etc.. It is also very valuable and enlightening to study the harpsichord and organ as it reveals much about articulation and rubato as an expressive device. But, I don’t think it is possible to successfully imitate a harpsichord on the piano, so to ignore the possibilities of dynamic contours or textures seems to invalidate the experience of a Bach fugue played on the piano. If I can create a wonderful color with careful use of the pedal in the E Flat Minor Prelude in Book I of the WTC, then why wouldn’t I? If I am committing a sin by playing Bach on a modern piano then I may as well sin. I mean, if I’m going to Hell, it’s not going to be for THAT!
Q: So you advocate the use of pedal in Bach?
KC: Absolutely, no question about it! Using if thoughtfully, of course. My guiding principle is: practice with no pedal; practice true legato and clean articulations. The pedal then becomes yet another tool for color – add that to the palette! One method in voicing a fugue subject (particularly in lyrical fugues [the E Flat Minor again being a good example]) is to play the melody in a true legato – slightly overlapping each note as necessary for a good legato (this must be practiced without pedal). Then articulate all the subservient voices with a poco-legato, that is with a slight, slight ‘luft’ between each note. Then add pedal discretely in order to disguise the poco-legato. With these three textures combined, the legato subject will penetrate clearly through the poco-legato texture without having to be ‘hammered’ out. Adding careful pedal softens the slight articulation of the other voices and all the listener perceives is legato with beautiful voicing and tone.
In addition, and this is equally effective with strings as with piano, often a bit of a diminuendo before the entrance of a subject draws the listener’s ear into the entrance. This is particularly effective in a fugue exposition as voices enter after cadences implied at the end of a counter subject – giving the performer the opportunity to “shape” the phrase musically by use of decrescendo. This again helps us avoid having to bang out a subject when it enters – by clearing the way for it to enter more naturally.
Q: But there are those who would say that on a harpsichord one cannot diminuendo or voice.
KC: There will always be someone who says something about something! Like I said, Bach will survive despite any of us. Again, my view is to use the tools you have at your disposal to make the best music you can. That is, after all, what we as musicians are here to do. But, with that said, I appreciate the point you raise about our fidelity to the original sound. I once asked Roger Norrington how far a conductor, working with an ensemble playing on modern instruments, should go in trying to ‘recreate’ a period music sound. He simply said “go as far as you dare”. I don’t think he really understood my question, and I’ve never really decided what his answer means. But I think there is a point at which a musician must decide that if I take my “imitation” any further it will fail to be musically effective. Imitation for the sake of imitation will NEVER result in a successful musical experience.
In the case of the modern piano, we have mechanisms that allow us to imitate the human voice slightly better than a harpsichord or clavichord. So, to poke the fire a bit, who says I need to imitate a harpsichord when I play the Well-Tempered Clavier? I mean, what is in a title? Much of the material of the WTC can be found in Bach’s cantatas, which are obviously not keyboard works at all. In fact, Bach was rarely specific about keyboard instruments and even viewed them as largely interchangeable. And, even in Bach’s day, a chorus or orchestra was capable of voicing, balancing, dynamics, expressive legato, etc.. So how does it make any sense to play his keyboard works staccato, dry and rhythmically straight-jacketed?
Q: Are you referring to rubato?
KC: Oh yes! Those who make this argument about original instruments then play in this grade-school manner are tremendously and inexcusably misinformed. The harpsichord is capable of legato, and dynamic expressiveness is achieved through rubato – and LOTS of it!
Q: It sounds like a very ‘romantic’ view of Bach.
KC: He did father twenty children- this was not a man without passion! I’m joking of course, but baroque music has, for so long, been played with an unimaginable detachment that I see as being wholly inconsistent with the music. Anyone who knows Bach’s B Minor Mass, or even Handel’s Messiah, knows how powerful, how dramatic, how emotionally charged music of this period was. So it makes NO sense to think that expressiveness would not carry over to instrumental works. I think that sort of playing has just been perpetuated by 150 years of misunderstanding and bad teaching: “staccato, no pedal, no rubato” – what garbage!
Q: So you’re not a fan of Glenn Gould then?
KC: Quite the contrary.
Q: But he’s known as rather detached; plays staccato…
KC: But, Gould is a genuine thinker and he portrays his take with tremendous conviction. I don’t agree with everything he does (we would both be boring people if I did!), but Gould did play from the heart. By that I mean that he was convinced of an approach and he made it work. Young pianists especially get sucked into this danger zone of “imitation” when a teacher or colleague says “Gould was the great Bach player, listen to him!” On the surface, they hear staccato and straight rhythm. What they miss is the phenomenal control over subtleties of articulation and, most importantly, a white-hot rhythmic sense. Not only is the playing immaculate, but his rhythmic sense communicates the architecture of each piece with tremendous clarity. This has nothing to do with whether or not he plays staccato. When a student tries to imitate his playing, they can only imitate those most superficial and irrelevant details. Not only is the imitation never as good as the original, but it is impossible to be convincing either. Gould, like any great artist, operates on a unique wave-length. Without intimately and genuinely sharing his thought process, any imitation is doomed to failure because the motivation behind what he does is lost.
I have done a couple recordings, including one as a member of Duo Nuova. On that album, we recorded a few works with which we labored musically for a long time, finding a way to bring the music to life – off the page. In one passage in particular, in John Anthony Lennon’s Distances Within Me, Tim and I manipulated the sonic-scape through our use of time in one especially dramatic passage. We discussed it a lot, rehearsed and performed it many times until we felt we had unlocked the dramatic potential of this pivotal moment in the score. Since the release of that recording, many years ago, I have heard countless young players mimicking that passage; playing it as they hear it on the recording. 99% of the time, that passage falls flat, because they are imitating; they are focusing on the superficial – on the “result” of a thought-process and NOT on the process itself. It’s a bit like using brown food coloring to give the appearance of chocolate frosting. It may look similar, but without the same ingredients and steps, it doesn’t taste anything like it!
Q: Who are your pianistic idols?
KC: I don’t have any! Idolatry leads to imitation and imitation can never succeed in creating anything genuine. Hero worship is very dangerous for that reason. However there are pianists I respect and admire for various reasons.
Of those now gone, I admire Denis Mathews – perhaps the greatest Mozart player I’ve ever heard. Known more as a scholar, he possessed an exquisite and tremendously keen sense of musical elegance. Sir Clifford Curzon was also influential through his recordings – in particular his collaborations in the 50’s with Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. I have yet, in my life, heard anyone who approaches the majesty of their “Emperor” concerto; and no one has better trills!
KC: A similar refinement and elegance to Mathews, but I always wish that Lipatti’s melodies would sing. He’s too preoccupied with understatement (which I like most of the time), but when a melody demands to be sung then one must acquiesce.
Q: Which pianists do really have a singing tone? Perahia?
KC: Well, I’m not talking about the quality of the tone here. Perahia has a beautiful sound. I think it really blossomed some years after he worked with Horowitz. His sound was always lovely, but it didn’t really open up until Horowitz infused his sound with a bit of extroversion. I mean it seemed to take some time for Perahia to rummage through things (all that Liszt and Rachmaninoff and their pianistic consequences), but the result these years later is magnificent, in terms of the quality of sound. But, as with Lipatti, I find few instrumentalists who can really “sing” with their instrument.
Q: So what do you mean by “singing”?
KC: Well, we are all told, from an early age, that when we play we should “sing”; not physically, of course, but that our melodies should imitate singers. The problem is, in my view, that very few instrumentalists have any idea what that means. What it usually seems to imply, in the minds of many people, is ‘legato’, and ‘warm tone’. These are excellent qualities and essential to good singing, of course. But what makes great singing is beyond that; it is the inflection of the text. As Nic DiVirgilio says, “the sound is the meaning!” A great singer tells a story with each phrase, using diction to convey the meaning of the text – choosing important words, coloring them in a way that imparts their importance and meaning, just as we do in speech. For example, if I say to you: “Your presences makes me sick and I want you out of my sight forever!”, it is going to be delivered with certain inflections – perhaps emphasizing the words “sick” and “out” and “forever” in particular to impart their significance. This is harsh, of course, but there is an underlying character and emotion that is conveyed by the way I make the words sound. Interestingly enough, much of the ‘expression’ in these words is imparted with how I articulate the consonants, not the vowels of each word. Now, if one were to sing these words to a given melody, with the same dramatic inflections as when they are spoken, one sees that one lingers on certain consonants – in a sense, accommodating the requisite inflection through slight manipulations of rhythm. So, if I want to translate it to the piano (or any other instrument), a “singing melody” needs to impart a sense of diction; the interplay of consonants and vowels and a sensitivity to what demands that places on the melodic rhythm. Horowitz understood this very well, but very few since seem to.
Q: Do you recommend listening to particular singers?
KC: Well, that isn’t the point as much as understanding what “expressive diction” means (I use that term in place of “lyric diction” because I think it is more accurate). But I must acknowledge that many singers, even professionals, are not very convincing with their text. It is so easy for them to be concerned with proper vowel shapes, placement of the tongue, relaxation of the jaw, good support, focused, forward tone, etc. etc.. Even the pros can forget that with every phrase they are telling a story. I always say ‘your vowels need to sing, but the text needs to speak’. Otherwise, one should stick to singing vocalizes. And, unfortunately, most instrumentalists play melodies as though they were vocalizes (one vowel and no consonants). It’s difficult to express any meaning that way! But, to answer your question, I actually became aware of this first through listening to Nat King Cole, and later by exploring the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald, early Sinatra, Jacques Brel, etc.. These are instinctive singers, not preoccupied with the mechanics of vocal production. In their performances you hear stories – the text is instantly accessible. There is rhythmic integrity, and yet the rhythm is flexible enough to accommodate the expressive demands of the music. If one sits down and plays a Chopin nocturne with the same sense of vocal style as Cole sings “Mona Lisa”, the music becomes electrified; suddenly, everything we’ve ever read or been told about the bel canto influence on Chopin, or his preoccupation with the voice actually makes sense – because the flexibility of the melody makes sense in a vocal context. You will find that, in terms of ensemble, melody and bass don’t always have to land together (this is a little difficult for those 101 musicians to swallow!)
Q: 101 Musicians?
KC: My “academic” pet name for those whose sense of musicianship doesn’t seem to venture past “Music 101”
KC: Well, I’ve given several already, dry baroque players being one. Another big example being those for whom line is about the big gesture, considering nothing but the rhythmic “lilt” of a phrase.
Q: You don’t think a phrase should lilt?
KC: That depends on the phrase – usually yes, but not to the point that it obscures the poetic meaning of the musical phrase. I think we are getting into an area that is difficult to articulate with words only; but let me say this: there is, to every rule, 101 exceptions. In “Musicianship 101” we learn the rules of “grammar”, which include the ideas of phrases that arch (I draw a diagram for young students that arches and has a vertical line drawn through it to signify the ONE place in the phrase that climaxes (one climax per phrase!) Everything in that phrase that comes before it is working to lead us to the climax – after the climax, everything leads away from it. This is an important lesson to learn early on. Another lesson is that Western music is largely derived from dance (especially in the baroque) and that rhythms need to be felt gesturally. Just as one note of a phrase leads to the next with clear direction, each impulse or gesture needs to lead to, then away. This “lilt” also is an intrical part of “feeling” the direction of a phrase. Then we can go on to lessons about determining tempos based on harmonic rhythms, etc. etc. etc. This is all basic musicianship – “101”. As György Sebok would say, this is the “grammar” of music. The point being that using perfect grammar and perfect punctuation is good, very good indeed. However, it does not, in any way, make the text poetic or profound. That comes from what one does beyond the command of grammar or, to stick with our original metaphor: once we’ve passed Musicianship 101 we graduate to Musicianship 102.
Q: Clearly your work in opera, as conductor and coach, has an influence on your thinking, particularly as a pianist.
KC: No question about it. It has had a greater impact than I expected when I picked up the baton a few years ago. It has been a very enlightening experience, to say the least, but I think the germ of the ideas about “singing” in melody were there long before I was bitten by the opera bug.
Q: How has being a pianist impacted your conducting?
KC: It has a huge impact as well, but not in how I work. I almost never study an orchestral score at the piano. I prefer to try to hear what I am reading with my inner ear. However, as a conductor, I find that I am more conscious of what I hear (things like tone, color, balance, ensemble, etc.) if I also happened to be engaged in my piano playing. Even though the repertoire is different, spending a few hours carefully practicing Mozart and Scriabin piano sonatas in the morning sharpens my ear, my mind and my attention to detail when rehearsing the orchestra with Puccini in the afternoon. Tony Pappano said it well when he said that he must continue to play the piano because “it is the only way [he] can make a sound.” It is difficult for me to imagine being a conductor who does not continue to practice an instrument – never actually producing the sound. I suppose, having spent my life to date as an instrumentalist, I cannot divorce myself from the idea of actually making sound.
Q: Is that the reason so many pianists become conductors?
KC: Well, there are many reasons people choose to pick up a baton. Some reasons are good, some are bad. I think there is an inherent logic in progressing from piano to podium. Pianists are the only instrumentalists adept at handling polyphonic music – keeping track of multiple voices, balancing them, coloring them – controlling 100% of the musical performance. Of course, as a conductor one has to relinquish a large amount of “control” – but the similarities of musical skill required are more similar between the two than with other instruments. Also, pianists are used to dealing with large-scale musical forms – sonatas that run 40 minutes, for example. In addition, our repertoire covers virtually every genre and every period of music – so we are expected to understand a bit more about playing Mozart or Schubert than a tuba player. Therefore, the transition from piano bench to podium makes sense.
Q: What is the most difficult aspect of making that transition?
KC: It is different for different people. Ashkenazy said it was learning how string sections respond: attacks, bowing, etc.. Fortunately for me, I’m very comfortable with strings, having spent 15 years playing violin in orchestras. I suppose there aren’t many pianists who can say that, so it helps me to feel that I am set up well to conduct. Combined with several years of study as a brass player and even a few percussion lessons when I was young; I feel comfortable and fairly confident in front of an orchestra.
For me, the most difficult thing (and I’m still working on it, of course), is giving up control. That comes with a bit of experience, and it took me a few turns to start trusting the orchestra. You just can’t play them like a piano! A young and inexperienced conductor will try to muscle their way through a score, working exhaustively to move the tempo or create energy. Of course, the only moment at which the conductor actually “controls” the orchestra is in the initial impulse or “prep” – once the orchestra plays, the conductor has to shift gears, reacting and affecting the music – guiding the music, but not controlling it. This is, of course, assuming your players are musical to begin with. If a conductor can get his musicians “on the same page”, so to speak, then it is easy to make music. But if he/she is too meddlesome, it will only come unglued. This is a difficult thing for pianists to learn, I think. Gustav Meier said “set the tempo with the prep, and then pray that you set the right one!”
Q: And does this, in any way, help in playing the piano?
KC: In many ways, yes! Especially in the concept of space within music. I don’t know how well I can explain that, but in any performance that is free and purely musically driven, there is a sensation with the performer that everything is, in a sense, moving in slow motion. There is a sense of expansiveness; climaxes take as much time as they need, tensions leading to those climaxes have enough room to be fully effective. As a pianist, I experience it when I am very comfortable with a program. With orchestra, I experience it when the music, its emotions, its drama, its line, all click with the players. Then there is an ease, an inevitability about it; a point at which the music can breathe and flow naturally without the performer imposing or driving it. In the film “Madam Sousatzka” she would say “let it play”. This is one of the most insightful musical comments I have ever heard. Prepare well enough that you can let the music speak for itself.
Q: But it takes preparation.
KC: Tons of preparation. Music is, after all, a discipline.
Q: What do you view to be the most important qualities of a conductor?
KC: Musical vision. Without it there is no point in being on the podium, and no hope. What purpose does a conductor serve if he or she does not know what musical aim they are pursuing? I see this as one of the most disgusting phenomenons in music today. It is more difficult for an instrumentalist to “fake” his way through a performance than it is for a conductor. If I don’t practice and thoroughly prepare my Chopin, you will hear it on stage. For a conductor, they can flap their arms, shake their heads, make gushing faces while making sweeping “vibrato” type gestures with their left hands, but it is ultimately pointless without a clearly defined sense of musical purpose, and a connection to that music. There is nothing more offensive than a conductor who just takes a ride on the back of the orchestra’s combined musicianship. After all, the Berlin Philharmonic will sound like the Berlin Philharmonic regardless of who is standing in front of them. It becomes a travesty when that conductor has such a magnificent instrument but has nothing to say musically. Imagine an amateur learning Suzuki book I on a Guarneri, or a magnificent Hamburg Steinway being used in a pub’s pick-up polka band every other Tuesday. It’s painful to think about, yet is happens constantly.
Q: Why is that?
KC: One of the most abhorrent reasons for “becoming” a conductor: “because I can’t do anything else in music.”
I’m not trying to imply that one must be a world-class virtuoso on any instrument to justify picking up a baton. But, what I see, is that many people start conducting too early. Loving music is not enough! I have always intended to eventually learn to conduct. My background set me up very well for it. But I consciously chose to wait until I felt I was a developed enough musician before standing on the podium. Now, perhaps I don’t have the prettiest conducting technique (that’s bound to happen when one is predominantly self-taught), but I always know exactly what I’m after musically. Something in me prevented me from standing in front of an orchestra at a young age, exposing my naïve musicianship to people who knew better. I know now, when I stand in front of an ensemble, that there may well be better musicians in the room, but at least I bring informed musical convictions and decisions with me to the podium. An orchestra isn’t the least bit interested in admiring a conductor; they just want to know how he/she wants it played and, if they see that some good music making may be in the works because the conductor is a solid musician with good ideas, then perhaps the players will be inspired to play as musicians and not as employees.
Q: Are there any disadvantages to having waited until you were nearly 30 to start conducting?
KC: Yes there are, namely the lack of opportunities. They are difficult enough to come by for any conducting student. A conductor must exercise his/her craft with an orchestra just as a cellist needs a cello. But who is going to give a practice orchestra to a wannabe conductor? The advantage to studying conducting earlier is that, perhaps, you have opportunities in conducting programs to practice, develop, just become comfortable in front of a group and with one’s own physicality on the podium. It is difficult for me to think of wanting to develop my musicianship FIRST as some sort of “mistake”. But, it is a bit unusual, I suppose, and so now that I’m over 30 the immediate assumption most people make is: “well, I guess he just isn’t any good or he would have made it by now.” I don’t know, maybe they’re right. On the other hand, I think my experiences as a musician make me very adept. If something doesn’t work, I can change gesture instantly, or can articulate my musical thoughts fairly effectively. Every opportunity I have had in front of an orchestra left me feeling that I was 100 times the conductor when I stepped off the podium than when I stepped on. I think every conductor should feel that way every time they step off the podium. Unfortunately for me, those opportunities have been all too infrequent for me to grow at the rate at which I’m capable. Perhaps if I had become a conducting major at 22 and quit the piano I’d have more opportunities, maybe my own orchestra or opera house today. Of course, I wouldn’t be half the musician I am. Does that sound right to you?
Q: Have you had many mentors?
KC: No. I never found anyone willing to invest much energy in me. Perhaps I should take the hint. All my life I’ve heard how talented I am and how successful I will be and so on and so forth. But it is very easy to dismiss someone with talent, because one assumes that everything will work out for that person; that someone ELSE will take them under his/her wing or give them the opportunities they need to grow. Worse still is the teaching philosophy that says “he is talented, he’ll figure out how to do what he needs to do”. I suffered that with conducting especially. True, every musician needs to become their own best “teacher” before they can really call themselves a “musician”. But abandonment is not teaching, it’s pure laziness. Talent is an awesome responsibility, not only for the student in question, but to all of those around that person who have something they can contribute to cultivating that talent.
Q: You sound a little bitter, perhaps.
KC: I have my moments; but I’m not bitter. Life is too short and too complicated to be bothered with such things. It simply makes me more aware of others, because talent is too often dismissed and good work too often ignored. If a talented individual possesses the proper artistic character, they will use positive feedback to fuel their creative energies and NOT to fuel their egos. Ego has nothing to do with art and egos don’t produce good music. I’ve always attempted to keep my ego in check, so I can’t really become “bitter” about being neglected. One has to have a crushed ego to truly be bitter.
Q: But doesn’t it take a big ego to be a conductor, or any sort of performer for that matter?
KC: No. It takes something else, but not ego. Confidence, absolutely. Confidence coupled with humility. I’m in this for the music – I always have been. I play and I conduct because I feel I have something to say through music; and that something is not “hey, dig me!” In a way, that is what attracted me to the opera pit in particular. I have no interest in standing at the front of the stage and being admired. In the pit there is a bit of a sense of anonymity as an opera conductor. It’s not about me, but rather I’m a part of something bigger. I really like the ensemble or collaborative nature of the theatre
Q: What other aspects attract you to opera?
KC: The fact that it is the only complete art form, or Gesamtkunstwerk as I believe Wagner called it. As artists we strive for perfection; as humans this goal is unobtainable. In our aspirations to obtain perfection we hope to achieve, at best, some form of “excellence”. In opera, excellence is only possible if all elements work wholly and fluidly together in perfect proportion. Elements such as staging, music, lighting, costuming, scene changes, etc.. Any element that is skewed disrupts the impact of the performance.
Q: So you do not feel that music is the most important element?
KC: Music is the most important element in that it is the substance of what brings people to opera. An opera can be beloved in spite of a bad libretto, unbelievable characters or circumstances, bad staging or poor lighting. But no opera will be visited if the music is inadequate. However, it is not the only element and like a good recipe, it is only scrumptious and delectable if all ingredients are in their right proportion, complimenting each other perfectly. Tony Pappano said it best when he said that the concept cannot be more important than the music, which I think is true. But only when all elements are working completely together can the performance be its best. A poor reading by the conductor can ruin the performance as easily as the stage manager dropping the curtain at the wrong time. While that may be “dramatic” in one sense, it is certainly not the kind we are after. Music is about drama and nowhere is this more self-evident than in opera.
Q: What is the nature of drama?
KC: Conflict. Tension. There is no drama without clear antagonism; and without tension there can be no climax; and without climax there can be no cumulative experience in music – and music MUST impart a cummulative experience or else it feels unorganic. It feels unnatural because it is unnatural. Nature, life itself, is composed of conflicts and resolutions from before birth until after death. All life begins with a struggle; acheivements are made only by overcoming obstacles. Death itself is, in a sense, a climax. Physical, emotional, intellectual conflicts and resolutions are natural and any music that does not utilize this process well leaves us feeling that the work was forced or artificially manipulated. To be in tune with the tensions inherent in a well-written piece of music is to be able to effect an organic performance of it. Then, and only then, will the performance be “dramatically” effective.
Q: So climax is accumulated tension?
KC: No. A climax is the release of accumulated tension. It is both physically and emotionally the moment that all tensions that have come before are expelled.
Q: So it is a resolution?
KC: Correct. There can be no resolution without an accumulation of tension, whether we are talking about the ultimate climax of an opera, or the simple resolution of a cadence at the end of a phrase. As life itself moves towards the “ultimate climax” that is death, so music as drama must have direction towards a clearly defined moment of release.
Q: You’ve mentioned Antonio Pappano a couple times. How do you feel about the recent controversy over Ms. Voight at Covent Garden?
KC: I couldn’t care less, to be honest. It doesn’t affect me!
I’m being flippant of course, but to be honest I haven’t personally read anything about it first-hand. I have, however, heard many opinions expressed – most of them pro-Voight. I just haven’t been curious enough to investigate Pappano’s response. I can only assume he has given one since it is HIS house and, therefore, publicly his responsibility to address this – regardless of whether or not he had anything to do with the decisions that led to this.
But, I think we can tie this a bit into what I was just saying about opera being a complete art form. Most of what I have been hearing have been complaints that Ms. Voight was fired because she did not meet the visual concept of the character of Zerlina. Here Mr. Pappano needs to reconcile this with his views of concept vs. music. Complaints that she did not fit the bill of a sultry young dancing seductress has taken fire from those who insist that she sings this role better than anyone, and that opera must allow for some suspension of belief. I cannot argue with the notion that in opera we must check our sense of believability along with our coats. But opera being a “complete” art form means that the visual concept cannot be ignored either.
Granted, most attend opera for the music, some attend specifically for the singing, some attend for the spectacle of the theatre. The experience is only complete and excellent when all elements are working in concert with one another in due proportions. While one may not care that Zerlina does not look the part so long as she sounds wonderful, the person in the next row may find that fact too distracting. It is a valid complaint and cannot be summarily dismissed. If Ms. Voight does sing the definitive Zerlina, then she should absolutely do the recording! But if she is physically that far removed from the allowances of the visual concept then she should not be on stage in the role. Now, that begs one glaring question: Why was she cast in the first place if her physical appearance was an issue? Surely they knew what she looked like! They cannot claim to have been surprised to learn she would not fit into the little black dress.
Not knowing the facts, I can only ask the same questions others have likely already asked. To be honest, since Covent Garden didn’t want me, I just haven’t been interested enough to care about this. Make sure you point out the fact that I’m laughing when I say that!