Maybe it’s time to raise your voice — in an op­er­atic way

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE

We are living in op­er­atic times. For­get what you’ve heard about opera be­ing re­mote and elit­ist. Opera is also the art form that, per­haps more than any other, spe­cial­izes in height­ened emo­tion, and in find­ing ways to com­mu­ni­cate it. And height­ened emo­tion, and big feel­ings, are the or­der of the day, ev­ery­where you look.

Peo­ple are feel­ing very, very in­volved with the news these days. When you add the “so­cial” com­po­nent to “me­dia” you’re no longer just keep­ing abreast of the news: You’re an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant. This is hav­ing pro­found ef­fects on the way we ex­pe­ri­ence world events. When a celebrity dies, any­one’s mem­ory may be trans­formed into the vi­ral sound bite of the mo­ment. The per­son on the street may find her or him­self a part of the story, sim­ply through shar­ing thoughts. “Any man’s death di­min­ishes me, be­cause I am in­volved in mankind”: We feel it, in the age of Face­book, more than ever — even if we some­times get so caught up in the emo­tion we lose track of the ex­act facts, and find our­selves in parox­ysms of grief over some­one whose death turns out to have oc­curred four years ago.

So­cial me­dia has both am­pli­fied and quick­ened our re­ac­tions, giv­ing us a mega­phone

through which to broad­cast what­ever feel­ing is trail­ing through our psy­che at a given mo­ment. Like opera, so­cial me­dia is ded­i­cated to am­pli­fy­ing hu­man ut­ter­ance so that a sin­gle voice com­mu­ni­cat­ing an in­ti­mate thought may be heard by hun­dreds, even thou­sands of peo­ple. But the at­tempt to ex­pe­ri­ence and broad­cast in­for­ma­tion about things that deeply move us, in a pub­lic fo­rum, has left many peo­ple across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum feel­ing emo­tional, wrun­gout and ex­hausted.

Opera may have some prac­ti­cal tips to of­fer to any­one who is feel­ing drained and hoarse, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween rais­ing your voice to make your­self pow­er­fully heard, and de­gen­er­at­ing into mere scream­ing: It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween com­mu­ni­cat­ing your mes­sage to many peo­ple and driv­ing away your au­di­ence. Opera, on a prac­ti­cal level, is all about teach­ing peo­ple to do the for­mer and avoid the lat­ter.

Con­vey­ing emo­tion ef­fec­tively is a ques­tion of tech­nique. And tech­nique is not, in it­self, very emo­tional at all. The ba­sic se­cret to singing that is most ap­pli­ca­ble in a fig­u­ra­tive sense is the need to dis­tance your­self from your feel­ings if you want to bring them across ef­fec­tively. If you take a Method-act­ing ap­proach and start sob­bing while singing a role like Vi­o­letta in Verdi’s “La Travi­ata,” your throat will get too con­stricted to pro­duce the notes. Singing is an ath­letic feat — jokes about fat ladies notwith­stand­ing — and re­quires a fo­cus on the phys­i­cal and prac­ti­cal. If you want to make a lot of noise, you need a firm foun­da­tion. Asked what the most im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber about singing a chal­leng­ing Wag­ner role, the so­prano Bir­git Nils­son replied, “Com­fort­able shoes.”

De­vel­op­ing that foun­da­tion can take years. But the elements are ba­sic. You plant your feet. You breathe deeply — singers can’t in­dulge in the shal­low, pan­icky breath of emo­tion, which tight­ens the shoul­ders and neck. You in­volve your whole body, so the sound is sup­ported by your di­aphragm mus­cles, in your ab­domen, rather than your neck mus­cles. And you open your­self up and let the sound emerge. If you want a vis­ual illustration of what makes opera singing dif­fer­ent from pop singing, com­pare Lu­ciano Pavarotti, stand­ing ram­rod-straight on stage, with Mick Jag­ger, hunched over the mic. If you haven’t got a mic, you can’t bend in for that kind of con­fi­den­tial ap­proach — not if you want to be heard.

So: Breathe deeply, fill­ing your lungs, en­gag­ing your whole body in the act. Sit up straight. Clear your head so that you’re not merely re­act­ing to what’s go­ing on around you. Sup­port what you’re say­ing from within. And then let loose.

The act of rais­ing your voice and pre­sent­ing emo­tion on this scale re­quires you to open your­self up in ways that are ini­tially un­com­fort­able and easy to mis­un­der­stand. But once you get ev­ery­thing lined up, get­ting your point across as loudly and ef­fec­tively as you can gives a kind of heady sat­is­fac­tion that few other things af­ford. Opera singing, in fact, can be ex­tremely therapeutic. Won­der­ing how you’re go­ing to chan­nel your feel­ings and emo­tions over the next four years? Try voice lessons.


Bir­git Nils­son, above, at La Scala in 1964, once said that “com­fort­able shoes” were a must in singing a dif­fi­cult Wag­ner role.

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