FOCUS on PERFORMANCE


JUMP START YOUR RECITAL!


by

Shirlee Emmons


This article originally appeared in The Classical Singer

magazine in December, 2004.


            All musicians, especially those of us in the vocal community, recognize that the song recital has fallen upon difficult days. Children no longer grow up hearing serious music of any kind, because schools, citing budget reasons, have cut back on musical activities with the result that. Students are denied the experience of live music; they hear and recognizing only electronically reproduced sound. We could ourselves lucky if they have heard live music theater performances. The older audience, composed of those who did spend time with music in their youth, is disappearing—and not so slowly.


            When Newt Gingrich used his former power to cut severely the funding of the National Foundation for the Arts, almost all musicians lost impetus, to a certain degree. The Marilyn Horne Foundation and certain other organizations such as The Vocal Arts Society of Washington, D.C. are laboring mightily to take up this cause.


            Young adults are beginning to appreciate and attend opera because television has featured it and because it has theatrical qualities and large forces that are more easily understood and more exciting. But a performance featuring one long singer and one lone pianist performing songs for a whole evening is not something they are accustomed to supporting. The bottom line: The result is that the song recital has lost the core audience it enjoyed in the past.

 

            Is there anything that a singer can do about this situation? Yes, you can enhance your performing skills. You can include some theatricality in your presentations. You can try some innovations in your programs. You can stop being so relentlessly formal. Most important, you can learn the art of effective program building. This is within your power.


            Every time two recital artists manage to gather an audience, they must provide a striking and enjoyable entertainment. Yes, entertainment at a high cultural level—refined and esthetic to be sure, but entertainment.


            How can you do this? Aside from high musical, vocal, linguistic, and dramatic competence, the most important factor is VARIETY. In every possible way, your recital must have variety.


            Why variety? Think of a person who is passionately fond of chocolate. How many days could this chocolate lover eat nothing but chocolate cake before he or she became sated, even with so enticing a taste? In the same way, fervent music lovers cannot suffer happily through endless quantities of the same type of composition. Variety will keep the committed audience interested, and variety will pique the interest of those new to the recital world.

         Variety cuts down on the possibility of boredom—and boredom is our mortal enemy. Boredom must be avoided at all cost. Variety will inspire your listeners to come hear you, and probably inspire them to go hear another recital team as well.

 

            What kinds of variety are there? Visual variety, for one—not the most important recital issue, perhaps, but very effective.

 

                        Visual Variety

 

                                  Change the look of your gown a little for the second half of your recital. A jacket or cape that you remove, for example, or a stole that you add. For a special group of ethnic music, perhaps something that suggests a costume. Hei-Kyung Hong wore a white dress for her debut New York recital a few years back, just so she could add a Korean robe of scarlet silk over it for the last group of Korean songs. What a beautiful sight! The audience sighed with pleasure.

 

                                  Encourage your accompanist to change something about his/her clothing: If a man, the cummerbund, the tie, the jacket, the socks. At an Alice Tully Hall song recital, an internationally celebrated pianist came out for the second half wearing red socks that he deliberately flaunted as he pedaled. Much gasping from the audience—but no one was asleep!

 

                                  Include an solo instrumentalist in the program for at least one group. Instead of seeing the same two people in the same clothes come out yet again, the audience sees a new face and a new combination of performers, and hears a new sound.

 

                                  Stand someplace other than in the curve of the piano, if you can find a good reason for doing so. If your instrumental colleague is a guitarist, for example, you could place a 3-by-5 rug with two chairs on it—off to stage right or left, or in front of the piano—and move there for the guitar/vocal group, singing seated, changing the entire look of the stage.

 

                                  If you are singing a group of music theater pieces, as another example, use a stool in many different ways. Be creative. Find ways to employ a stool that have not yet been devised. Catherine Malfitano used a stool for her Kurt Weill group in Alice Tully Hall, and used it in ways never seen before, once standing behind it while leaning forward on her hands. She also changed into pants for that group, so that she could manage the stool. Very attractive.

 

                                  The first thing seen by your recital audience is the program. One look at the sample program (figure A) convinces most people that it is going to be a long, long, long evening. It looks lengthy, wearying, and uninviting. The other program (figure B) looks more promising and interesting. Arrange the program layout to be attractive. When you do four songs by Strauss that happen to be taken from Opus 42, give that as a title in one long line, indenting the song titles under it.


                                    Figure A


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                                    Figure B


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                        Variety of languages

 

                                  Change languages frequently. Sing in an unusual language. What about Czechoslovakian? Or Norwegian? If the language is really off the beaten track, talk about the songs and the poetry. Do oral program notes.

 

                                  If you’re singing in just one language, make sure to feature plenty of variety in the music.
If you’re doing a specialized program in French, for example, be sure that each group features a different kind of French music. French song repertoire probably contains more variety than any other language. And wear a dress that suggests France (French blue?)


                        Variety of styles

 

                                  Even though Romantic composers have provided us with a great deal of beloved and beautiful music, spice your program up by digressing to something modern, or something sophisticated, or Impressionistic. More than one group of bel canto music, beautiful as it is, will tend to have a soporific effect on your audience.

 

                                   This is what I call the Tiffany window syndrome. In Tiffany’s window, you see one enormously expensive bauble. In Kmart’s window, you would not even be able to see the Tiffany jewel, because of all the many articles stuffed into the window. Showcase your musical jewel by surrounding it with music that is very different, so that the jewel cannot be overlooked.

 

                                  More than one group of contemporary music, however, may inspire fury in your audience. Unless the program is for a group of contemporary music lovers, choose carefully for audience appeal. Minimalist compositions, for example, with their endless repetitions, have a way of inducing people to nap.


                        Variety of eras

 

Not everything should be from the 19th century. Move around historically. Juxtapose the groups in such a manner that the beginning of each new group inspires a small and pleasant frisson of surprise at the contrast in the styles.


                        Variety within the oeuvre of one composer

 

If you search, you can find different types of composing within any composer’s body of work. Very few composers wrote the same way all their composing lives. Be curious. Do your homework.


Many second-rank composers wrote just one jewel of a song. Make it your business to search them out. (“Psyché” by Émile Paladilhe or “À Cloris” by Reynaldo Hahn come to mind.)


                        Variety between familiar and unfamiliar compositions 

 

A steady diet of old favorites can be dismaying, even to avid music lovers. After an old favorite or two, sing an unknown composition from that era, or in that style, or from that composer. On the other hand, if most of your audience is not musically sophisticated, be sure to include a lot of old favorites. A good rule of thumb wehen facing such an audience is to choose pieces that are so dramatically clear that your listeners can understand the drama without reading the program notes and without knowing the words.


                        Variety of tempos and keys


Too many compositions in the same key can be stultifying and monotonous even when the listener does not know why he or she is getting restless. Pay attention to the keys in each group. Make the change from one song to another pleasant and musically logical.
 

                        Variety of song types

 

Evaluate each song for its type. In general, songs fall into one of five regular types:

                                                1. The narrative song, which tells a story.

2. The lyric song, which deals with emotions, atmosphere, or sometimes personal responses (reverie, contemplation) to aspects of nature or situations.

3. The character song, which delineates through the text one or more of the following characteristics of the protagonist: gender, name, personality traits, physical attributes, personal philosophy, or romantic interests.

4. The fun song, concerned with humor, frivolity, or nonsense.

5. The pyrotechnic song, which shows off the vocal skills of the singer, and which may be, but is not necessarily, of musical worth.

You probably don’t want to program three songs of the same type from the same composer, or even three songs of one type from three composers. Move around among the types. Do not repeat types in close proximity. The great majority of songs are set to lyric poetry. Programming too many such songs in a row is not a good idea, despite their undeniable beauty.


            Do you face any problem at all when aiming for great variety? Yes. Each group must have unity in its variety. A group that has no connecting tissue—all by the same composer, all dealing with the same subject matter, all coming from the same era, all in the same language, or all in the same style—will smack of carelessness and instability.


            Unity within variety is a must. Unity wish no variety is boring, but variety with no unity is confusing and off-putting. For example, a group of Schubert songs about flowers or brooks (there must be hundreds) would have a great deal of unity, but would be dangerously close to boring, if Schubert can manage to be boring. A group with one song by Wolf one by Debussy, a Handel song or aria, and an American song by Rorem (all very beautiful) would have enormous variety, but would have no unity at all and be totally confusing to an audience, not to mention inartistic and unacceptable to a knowledgeable critic—that is, unless all four disparate songs had to do with the same subject. One could put together a group of songs by different composers, in different languages, but unified by their content, all of them about Christmas, or Hallowe’en, or madness, or some other unifying subject. This would be a sort of “homemade cycle.”


The psychology of a solo recital


            A social gathering is a beautiful example of a psychological situation similar to a solo recital. During the first few moments of the gathering, participants shake hands and make remarks that use almost exclusively social formulas: “How do you do?” “Isn’t the weather grand?”


            The hostess’s duty is to ease the transition from formality to informality by supplying a few details about each person’s background: “Mr. X. is in stocks and bonds.” This is Ms. Y. She is a singer.” Then it is up to the guests to further the acquaintance. People who have just been introduced, however, seldom if ever discuss with each other the intimate and emotional details of their lives, at least until they are much better acquainted. This is the rationale behind choosing a first group that does not require great emotional bonding between audience and singer.


            A recital is a social occasion in which the same psychology prevails. This is why many successful programs present more formal, less emotional music for the first group, music from the Baroque, Renaissance, or Classical periods. If you do your job well, each succeeding group of repertoire asks for more emotional involvement from the audience. The barriers fall bit by bit, and by the end of the program, you and the audience have become friends; you can sing virtually anything and they will approve. Informality, therefore, should increase as the program goes along.


            The first group on your recital is your calling card. It says: “This is how I look. This is my personality. This is the quality of my voice. This is my musical ability. This is my dramatic flair. These are my linguistic skills. This is the breadth of my repertoire.” It says, “Sit back and enjoy. I will capture your attention because I am ever so ready to perform. You will have a wonderful time, because I too am going to enjoy the evening. I am very good, and I can’t wait to show you this music that I love.”


Other suggestions


            Give your recital a title. When Stanley Sonntag and I wrote The Art of the Song Recital (as long ago as 1979) we tried our best to persuade people to do this. Ten years later, singers began to title their programs, and it has helped.

Think of these wonderful concert titles that were so inviting: “Second Helpings,” a charming title used by St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble. “Seriously Satie,” a joke about the composer’s sense of humor,. Was the title for a concert at which the ushers wore roller skates and carried blue balloons on strings. “Classicabaret” worked for a soprano’s recital of cabaret music by Poulenc, Britten, Schoenberg, Weill, Babbitt, and Bolcom.


            Don’t be afraid to talk from the platform when it’s appropriate. Do you realize that an audience is absolutely longing to hear your speaking voice?

Some time ago, Swedish soprano Elizabeth Söderstrom gave a marvelous recital in New York; she broke all the old rules with great panache. There were no groups. She sang one song at time in whatever language it happened to be written, explaining before each song—nine in each half—why she chose it and how it related to the previous song. The variety was there, and the unity was served by the fact that the songs were all her own favorites. Her speaking was exactly what it should have been: charming, amusing at times, musically informative, informal, autobiographical, and delightfully revelatory of her artistic feelings,. The audience was enchanted.


            A recital is a one-man or one-woman show. You must appeal to all levels of music lovers. Songs are small dramas. You must make it possible for your entire audience to share in your understanding of those miniature events.


            Don’t make your program too long. A good rule of thumb is thirty minutes of music for each half. “There is no such thing as too short a recital,” a renowned vocal coach once said. You can always lengthen it with encores. What you want to hear after the concert is: “ I could have listened forever!”

Speaking of encores, the last song on the program is usually a “blockbuster,” loud,high, and rhapsodic. Programming something short, light, and humorous for your first encore is effective, or an operatic aria (one for which you are known, which you deliver in a spectacular fashion, or one that everyone knows and loves), after which you will absolutely be called back for another encore. This second encore should be serious but contain a summary of your singing virtues. After that, the choice doesn’t matter. Just remember: variety.


            No matter how good your reasons, no matter how much you love the music, no matter how well it fits the program—do not sing anything that doesn’t show you off to your advantage.

Keep a log of songs that might be good for you. Pull it out when you start a new program. Put your best foot forward. Don’t be modest. Self-awareness is the bedrock of success. Know what suits you. Judge your skills and gifts objectively.


            Remember that you are not stuck with your first choices. Learn the pieces you have chosen, and while doing that, ascertain if they are as good for you as you had envisioned. If not, abandon them immediately and without regret. The less skilled and experienced you are, the more careful you must be about your choices. Try to program only songs that elicit intensely personal reactions from you, and do some serious study on how to become more skilled at transmitting your feelings to your listeners—in other words, become a better actor.


            Leave room for some non-blockbusters. Everyone, you and your audience, needs a rest now and then. Program some simple, lovely, attractive, but easy pieces in the midst of your other selections. Everyone will relax.


            Audience members are of several types. Some come to your recital because they know and love you and want to hear anything you care to sing. Some come because you are singing wolf, and they would come to hear anyone who sings Wolf. Some come because a friend or spouse dragged them there. Some come because they want to see you fail (yes, it happens). Some come because you are singing chamber music for part of the recital, and they love vocal chamber music. You must captivate them all, so that they will come again and tell others what a good time they had.


Summary


            The prime purpose of a song recital cannot be educational, although it might turn out to be just that. Every recital, every group of songs should have a scenario as interesting and absorbing as you can concoct artistically. The word “entertainment” does not connote lowered standards, worthless musical values or inferior poetry. On the contrary, entertainment can mean exciting music of high caliber, challenging repertoire, total communication, elegant execution, two people of attractive physical presence, and—perhaps most important—subtle and discriminating taste in programming.


            You can do that. Go to it. Good luck.


© Shirlee Emmons

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