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Review of CD Wagner, Strauss, Schreker, by Joseph Andrew Newsome

02 September 2017

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Franz Schreker — LIEDERABEND (Brenda Roberts, dramatic soprano; Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, piano)

IN REVIEW: Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, & Franz Schreker - LIEDERABEND (Brenda Roberts, dramatic soprano)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883), RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949), and FRANZ SCHREKER (1878 – 1934): LiederabendBrenda Roberts, dramatic soprano; Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, piano [Recorded in performance on 14 September 2001; 1 CD / Digital Download, 40:18; Available from CD Baby]

More diverting than the travails of Dickens characters in many cases are tales from the careers of creatures more fantastical and enigmatic than even Uriah Heep, Mr. Murdstone, and Daniel Quilp: opera singers. Singers’ lives both on and off the world’s stages brim with great expectations, hard times, and experiences that are at once the spring of hope and the winter of despair. Careful singers endure. Embodying William Faulkner’s oft-quoted affirmation, conscientious artists prevail. Amongst the chronicles of bad choices, overzealous ambitions, and abused natural gifts, there are occasional beacons of self-cognizance, well-informed decision making, and unimpeachable musicality, artists whose cognitive abilities are as refined as the products of their vocal cords. Shining amidst these exemplars of nurtured talent and continuously-honed technique is the career of American dramatic soprano Brenda Roberts. Renowned as the youngest singer to brave the demands of any of the three incarnations of Brünnhilde in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the composer’s own Bayreuther Festspiele, her voice bears few of the scars of the sort of imprudence that such a distinction suggests. The story of Roberts’s career to date is a cautionary tale in a vastly different sense than the misadventures of some of her fellow American exponents of Hochdramatische repertoire. Hers is a fire fueled on her own terms, not stoked to unsustainable pyrotechnics and prematurely extinguished.

Her rightly storied portrayal of the Siegfried Brünnhilde at 1974’s Bayreuther Festspiele, an achievement shared with Wagnerians throughout the world via radio broadcast, is but one page in an extensive performance diary that has taken her to opera’s most hallowed halls, from Lyric Opera of Chicago for Strauss’s Elektra—another broadcast performance—and New York’s Metropolitan Opera for the Färberin in the same composer’s Die Frau ohne Schatten to Teatro alla Scala for Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin and the Wiener Staatsoper for Strauss’s Salome. Born in the small northwest Indiana town of Lowell, Roberts set her sights on a career as an opera singer whilst still a schoolgirl and never deviated from that goal, eventually studying at Northwestern University with noted pedagogue Hermanus Baer, a tireless advocate of understanding and mastering the physiological components of singing in order to realize the voice’s full potential whose pupils also included Sherrill Milnes. Her successes on the world’s stages have not diminished Roberts’s lifelong commitment to unceasing vocal training and exploration of new repertoire. Her Carnegie Hall début occurred as recently as 2011, when she sang the music heard in this recorded Liederabend, as well as Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Following rather than coercing the path of the voice’s development, Roberts continues to exhibit the shrewd judgment that has enabled her to navigate the perils of a career as a singer and among singers.

Recorded in 2001, the present disc is the work of a major artist as well as an exceptionally capable and prepared vocalist. Composed in 1857 and 1858, at the apex of their creator’s passionate but almost certainly platonic obsession with his patron’s wife and host in comfortable exile, Wagner’s Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (WWV 91)—later christened as the Wesendonck-Lieder, taking the name of the author of their texts and the object of Wagner’s infatuation, Mathilde Wesendonck—are the most familiar selections in Roberts’s Liederabend. Familiarity unfortunately does not equate to an overabundance of superlative recorded performances of the Lieder, so this recording by a singer for whom Wagner’s music is congenial territory is atypically welcome.

‘Der Engel’ is frequently offered in recital by singers who do not perform all five of the Wesendonck-Lieder, intensifying debate about whether Wagner’s intention was for the Lieder to constitute an interconnected cycle in the manner of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Schumann’s Dichterliebe or for the songs to be separate entities linked only by the common authorship of their texts. Rather than clearly espousing either view of the songs’ structure, Roberts focuses on the emotional content of the texts, her superb diction used as a catalyst for the chain reactions with which Wagner builds musical and dramatic tension. Supported in all of the performances on this disc by the elegant, rhythmically alert playing of pianist (and acclaimed organist) Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, the rare pianist who faithfully observes Wagner’s marking of ‘sehr sart und weich’ at the start of ‘Der Engel,’ Roberts likewise honors the composer’s instruction of ‘Sehr ruhig bewegt.’ The second Lied, ‘Stehe Still,’ also bears a mandate of ‘Bewegt,’ and soprano and pianist discharge this beautifully. In the passage beginning with ‘Wesen in Wesen sich wieder findet,’ in which Wagner requested that the vocal line be sung ‘Sehr ruhig und mäßig,’ Roberts manages the piano ascents to the top of the stave dulcetly. Prefiguring thematic material later heard in the Vorspiel to Act Three of Tristan und Isolde, ‘Im Treibhaus’ was the last of the Lieder to be composed, but Roberts wisely concentrates on the song in its proper context rather than as a study in miniature for Tristan und Isolde. The precision of her intonation, extraordinary for so large a voice, is invaluable in the chromatic writing of ‘Im Treibhaus.’

It cannot be claimed that Mathilde Wesendonck was a major poet, but when a singer traverses the restless line cresting on top A? with which Wagner allied her words in ‘Schmerzen’ with the attention to note values and textual clarity that Roberts brings to her performance the earnest Frau Wesendonck’s endeavors assume heightened importance. Poetically, the finest of Wesendock’s texts is that used by Wagner in ‘Träume,’ in which Tristan’s and Isolde’s ecstatic love duet was born. Roberts and Schmitt-Engelstadt unerringly blend the piano vocal line with the pianissimo accompaniment, and the soprano again impresses with the accuracy of her pitches, not least in the A?-A?-B?-B?-C-B?-C-C? sequence on the words ‘sanft an deiner Brust verglühen’ and the consequential descent from B??4 to C4 on ‘sinken’ in the Lied’s final bars. Roberts refuses to wallow in sentimentality in her singing of these songs, approaching them not as exalted products of a legendary genius but as songs that require no ostentatious grandstanding. Still, this performance of the Wesendonck-Lieder is an indispensable document of Roberts’s preeminence as an interpreter of Wagner’s music.

Virtually all of Richard Strauss’s 174 Lieder for voice and piano are performed with some degree of regularity, but even within this trove there are songs that seldom appear on singers’ recital or recorded programmes. Published in 1918, the Sechs Lieder of Strauss’s Opus 67 are works of great difficulty, appealingly tuneful in the fashion of the composer’s most popular songs but also bitingly modern. The Drei Lieder der Ophelia are settings of passages from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and they suggest that Ophelia might have been as engaging a Strauss operatic heroine as Salome, Elektra, Ariadne, and the Marschallin. Roberts and Schmitt-Engelstadt perform the first of the Ophelia-Lieder, ‘Wie erkenn’ ich mein Treulieb vor andern nun,’ idiomatically, Roberts’s integration of the climactic top G? into her expansive phrasing identifying her as a Strauss singer to the manner of Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, and Irmgard Seefried born. Her singing of the frenzied vocal line of ‘Guten Morgen, ’s ist Sankt Valentinstag’ conveys the girlish bawdiness of the text, her top A projected with an apt demonstration of the vigor with which Ophelia hurls her words at Claudius in Hamlet. The darkest of the Drei Lieder der Ophelia, ‘Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloss’ is characterized by alternating passages of grim lyricism and manic episodes in triple meter, the vocal line again rising to top A. Here, aided by Schmitt-Engelstadt’s committed playing, Roberts proves herself to be as estimable a Shakespearean heroine as a Strauss singer. Pronouncing the words of Karl Simrock’s translation of Hamlet with the instincts of a great tragedienne, she finds and discloses to the listener the significance of each of Strauss’s shifts of musical direction, elucidating both the character’s and the composer’s psychological motivations.

Employing texts from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s West-östliche Divan, the Drei Lieder aus den Büchern des Unmuts des Rendsch Nameh are the second half of Opus 67, and these songs contrast markedly with the Drei Lieder der Ophelia. The first of the Goethe songs, ‘Wer wird von der Welt verlangen,’ embodies the cynicism that lurks beneath the surfaces of these songs, and the unaffected performance that it receives from Roberts highlights the sagacity with which Strauss mined the loads of philosophical profundity in Goethe’s words. In addition to alluding to his Alpensinfonie, Strauss visited the melodic realm of his then-unperformed opera Die Frau ohne Schatten in ‘Hab’ ich euch den je geraten,’ the ‘borrowed’ melodies soaring above the low-lying vocal writing. The plunges to the bottom of the voice do not trouble Roberts, whose intonation is as secure below the stave as elsewhere. Entitled ‘Wanderers Gemütsruhe’ by Strauss, ‘Über’s Niederträchtige niemand sich beklage,’ should be counted among the composer’s finest Lieder. The Lied’s unmistakable kinship with the weary, wistful moods of music dating from three decades later, in the last months of Strauss’s life, is made all the more apparent by the emotional sincerity of Roberts’s singing. Her delivery of the line ‘Wandrer! Gegen solche Not wolltest du dich sträuben?’ is no stentorian outburst: the words are truly sung, not shouted, and the top B? is caressed. Many singers perform Strauss Lieder, but far fewer perform these Strauss Lieder—and fewer still perform them well. It is not surprising that an accomplished Salome, Elektra, and Färberin is closely acquainted with Strauss’s music, but Roberts’s performances of the Sechs Lieder of Opus 67 revel in the intimacy that many singers fail to perceive.

It is not inaccurate to assert that Franz Schreker’s music is widely neglected, but the obscurity imposed upon his Lieder is particularly inexplicable and unjust. First published by the Viennese firm Eberle in 1904 and likely composed in 1899, the Fünf Lieder of Schreker’s Opus 4 present many challenges to both singer and pianist, challenges that, when met, reward performers and listeners as marvelously as those of the most popular Lieder. Leo Tolstoy’s words inspired Schreker to writing of unquestionable brilliance in ‘Unendliche Liebe,’ and Roberts reaches first the top A and then the fortissimo top G with obvious reserves of power. The text of ‘Frühling’ is by Karl Freiherr von Lemayer, and Roberts and Schmitt-Engelstadt bring the words to life by punctiliously heeding Schreker’s ‘Zart bewegt’ direction. Theodor Storm’s words in ‘Wohl fühl’ ich wie das Leben rinnt’ are similarly enlivened by Roberts’s vocalism. The technical acumen with which she executes the diminuendo on ‘du bist mein letztes Glück’ should be studied by all aspiring Lieder singers. There is an almost Baroque sensibility to Schreker’s setting of Julius Sturm’s text in ‘Die Liebe als Recensentin,’ and the fidelity of Schmitt-Engelstadt’s realization of the composer’s ‘Zierlich’ marking enables the soprano to traverse the vocal line with perfectly-gauged but what seems like near-improvisatory freedom. The arching phrases of ‘Lenzzauber’ uplift Ernst von Scherenberg’s text, and singer and pianist perform the song with flawless cooperation, both of their instruments singing in tandem. The modicum of toil that it costs her gloriously repaid, Roberts’s sterling top B recalls the fresh-voiced ease of her dashingly youthful Brünnhilde and the blazing top C with which she conquered Bayreuth. That a quarter-century lay between that Bayreuth Siegfried and this Liederabend is scarcely apparent. Voices evolve as they mature, and too few singers demonstrate cognizance as complete as Roberts’s of the fact that artistry must also evolve.

Much as they have suffered in the world’s conservatories and theatres in recent years, large voices have almost never been treated kindly by microphones. Among all of the products of the extensive time that she spent in recording studios throughout her career, only her 1972 recording of the title rôle in Puccini’s Turandot—a part that she never played on stage—conveys a true-to-life sense of the amplitude of Dame Joan Sutherland’s voice as heard in opera houses and, in some cases, on noncommercial recordings. A similar assessment of Kirsten Flagstad’s recordings is not unjustified: her 1954 Norwegian Radio performance with piano accompaniment of ‘Im Abendrot,’ the fourth of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, is perhaps the single best recording via which to appreciate the pure impact of her voice. There is a disturbing trend of substituting volume for projection evident in the work of many of today’s singers, precipitating forcing that is especially dangerous for large voices. Recorded without the exhaustive processing that renders many discs technological rather than vocal feats, this Liederabend is a rare instance of a recording permitting the listener to encounter a remarkable voice without non-musical impediments. Merely as a recording of one of America’s great voices, this disc is uncommonly enjoyable. As an artistic journey through Lieder by three masters of the form led by the sapient proprietress of that great voice, it is a Liederabend to quiet the laments of those who wrongly believe that the insightful, imaginative, and indefatigably musical interpretation of song is a dead art.

This is my comment to his wonderful review!

Mr. Newsome,

I have had great difficulty composing comments to your wonderful review of my CD, An Evening with Wagner, Strauss, and Schreker. I am overwhelmed by your praise, your knowledge and the time consuming research you put into your work and review. No critic has ever showed so much understanding and insight into the works referred to. I asked myself, how do you know so much about me and the works performed. I am very honored and humbled. Thank you. I have sent the review to Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, my gifted pianist (also organist), and he was also thrilled and honored by your words.

My task in singing is to uncover the truth in music. What does the composer really hear and write? There are so many aspects of this quest. How do you differentiate a pp from a ppp that the composer writes, for example? What in the world is he thinking? What does the composer say, what does the librettist portray? How do I sing this music and act it? This requires long research.

What was a joy for me, was your pointing out the difficulty in the chromatic lines in the Wesendonck Lieder. You knew, Mr. Newsome, how much work goes into the performance of correct intonation and when is the torturous work more or less completed, so that you think the passages are finally “acceptable”. In performance, the singer has to forget the techniques of singing these passages and concentrate on the emotion, so that it becomes automatic.

Thank you for commenting on the ascending phrases in “Im Treibhaus”. I was certain that I should not be tempted to sing them with some sort of crescendo, even if it meant disaster! I must leave them wave in the air fragily. What about the chromatics at the end of the Lied “schwere Tropfen seh ‘ ich schweben an der Blaetter gruenen Saum”? How do I keep the legato through the half-steps and, at the same time, grasp the notes intonationally in the center? I ask myself, “Do singers really sing these passages without the crucial intensive practice?

I ask myself, “Are other singers as afraid of beginning “Traeume” after completing the other 4 Lieder in the cycle as I am? Do they say “simple, easy”? Oh, there must be something wrong with my healthy psychic. Perhaps I am the only one who finds Traeume “unhealthy” in my mind, making the singing interpretation an almost insurmountable problem. But perhaps Mathilde Wesendonck and Richard Wagner might have found their dreams more like nightmares in the restlessness of night. Or, maybe I’m crazy like Ophelia!

Let’s look at Ophelia. How do I sing the Strauss’ music and portray Ophelia and bring this “sound” into the music. For example, how can I portray her “madness”, her sadness, her cynicism – yes, I came to the conclusion that in her madness she showed cynicism. I think anyway. How can I portray her being in life and yet not anymore in life. She was a pure being manipulated by all around her and finally frustrated in Hamlet’s love and violent rejection – of course the lies also manipulated by her obedience. I think anyway. I had to show this in the songs of Richard Strauss.

I discovered, as you pointed out, Mr. Newsome, that these songs are rarely sung and that the Goethe Lieder practically never. I found them interesting and – yes! – what drew me to these songs – was that I heard the studies for “Frau ohne Schatten”. They were quite dramatic, as is the Faerberin. Singing Faerberin was a very great joy!

I also searched for Schreker Lieder that have almost never been sung, as far as I knew. My son, Mark Roberts, helped me dig them up! I love the songs! They look sooo easy to sing, but are highly difficult – as you pointed out in your review. I love the Sturm song, “Die Liebe als Recensentin” as a lively reprieve from heavy, tragic music I so often sing! Trying to sound like a bird is not easy!

So, in ending my very long comment, I would like to say that my professor, Hermanus Baer, told me that I must always keep the lightness in my voice, be able to sing a good piano, and should test myself from time to time. I should never be tempted to sing “like a dramatic soprano, letting my voice get heavy and thick”. Any kind of force makes a voice tense and smaller, not larger. That has been my motto in singing all of my life and has saved my voice from ruin, I believe!

Thank you, Mr. Newsome, again! Hope to see you and talk with you one day soon!

Brenda Roberts

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An Evening with Wagner, Strauss and Schreker – CD available

My CD, Wesendonck-Lieder of Richard Wagner, “An Evening with Wagner, Strauss, Schreiker”($12.97) is on sale at www.cdbaby.com.    Once you enter www.cdbaby.com, click on view music store and enter my name.

Please order, listen and enjoy!

As the Bayreuth Wagner Festival is approaching its end this year, I am reminded of my “Siegfried”-Bruennhilde engagement and working personally with Wolfgang Wagner, director of the Wagner Festival, grandson of Richard Wagner and stage director of the “Ring” in which I performed. It was a unique experience!

240Bruennhilde at Bayreuth Wagner Festival in 1974

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Brenda Roberts singing the Song Cycle Les Nuits d’Ete in Schwetzingen April 2, 2017

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When I began my career in the opera world, I had just graduated from college and was very young. Over the next years, singing Elektra and Salome in my early 20’s, I received press, mostly positive. But there was much criticism that I, in their opinion, was singing on my natural, uneducated voice and the consensus of “professional” opinion was that I was going to ruin my voice within two years. The truth is that I had studied voice since I was 11 years old. I had trained my voice with the best vocal technique for many years. Actually, I maintain that a voice has to be trained so well, that finally it would sound “natural” and easy: no strain, no heaviness in the voice, but a voice that had a large volume (because of the correct breath support) without forcing.

Well, in my opinion, I believe, I have survived a good number of years and have retained the lightness, range and technique in my singing. I have been told just recently with my concerts in Germany on April 1 and 2 of this year that my voice has not aged and still sounds very young, brilliant and responsive in forte passages as well as piano passages.

Most of my repertoire during my career was the “hoch-dramatic” repertoire of German opera: Wagner, Richard Strauss (Elektra, Salome, Dyer’s Wife (Faerberin), Bruennhilde, Isolde, Venus, Ortrud, etc.). Only with the correct technique and discipline can a voice retain the beauty and ease of singing this repertoire without damage to the vocal cords and larynx.

The key to a long career is a combination of important conditions. One must have a born physical build with the ability to be strong of body (not fat in weight), correct build of the vocal cords that allows strength without force. To these conditions, the singer must have an excellent vocal technique and live a healthy life: exercise, healthy diet, adequate sleep and rest between performances, not smoking and not drinking alcohol.

But, let us not forget that I have always been disciplined. I still practice every day – even today – and I not only “sing” every day, but work my vocal “gymnastics”, vocalizing and working all registers and all dynamics with a well-founded vocal technique. I also am a voice teacher and faithfully teach my students this technique. (Please read my earlier entries in my website on vocal technique .)

In the next recordings of Hector Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’Ete which I just sang on April 1 and April 2, 2017, in concerts in Germany, I want to give all singers the courage to keep up their work at any age and give other singers the knowledge that they can be role models to their students and other singers who might be tempted to give up their careers too early.

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My Concert, Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’Ete on April 1, 2017

My concert in Mannheim, April 1, 2017, singing Nr. 4, l’Absence from Les Nuits d’Ete, a song cycle of 6 songs by Hector Berlioz. Conductor is Johannes Corn with the Sinfonieorchester Walddorfschule. Unfortunately, the camera failed and the last measures were not recorded. Hope you like it anyway! I will upload the first 3 songs, which I have complete. These songs are some of the most beautiful in the concert repertoire – and the most difficult to play and sing.

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Fall of the Wall in Germany, November 9, 1989

Tomorrow on November 9, 1989, the Wall dividing East and West Germany fell.  Hardly two weeks before, I sang Venus in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Semper Oper in Dresden – still East Germany.  After the performance, we were asked to remain onstage for a reading of the Principles of Freedom.  As an American, I was asked specially if I would also do so.  I said yes and stood there on the stage with my colleagues while the people voiced their desire for freedom and the opening of the wall.    Some people got up and left to show their protest, but the majority remained for the reading.

It was an historic occasion.

Morgen am 9. November 1989, die Mauer, die Ost Deutschland und West Deutschland getrennt hat, ist gefallen.  Kaum zwei Wochen vorher sang ich die Venus in Richard Wagners Tannhäuser an der Semper Oper in Dresden.  Nach der Aufführung hat man uns auf der Bühne zu bleiben gebeten.  Es wurde einen Ausruf für die Freiheit vorgelesen.  Man hat mich speziell gefragt, ob ich als Amerikaner bleiben würde.  Natürlich sagte ich zu!  Ich stand da während die Menschen ihre Bejahung der Freiheit und ihren Wunsch, daß der Fall der Mauer stattfinden sollte, äußersten. Ein paar Menschen sind aufgestanden und verliessen den Zuschauerraum, um ihren Protest zu zeigen!  Aber die meisten blieben und wurden sehr emotional.

Es war ein historisches Ereignis!

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My life’s work and career and the Northwestern University Archives

I am very honored to have been asked by the Northwestern University Archives, Mr. Kevin Leonard, Archivist, to organize and archive my career and life’s work.  This is thrilling to me as my documents will now never be lost and always available for viewing – forever.

I am now collecting everything I possess:  performance programs, photos, reviews, interviews, DVD’s, cd’s, letters, etc., – absolutely everything.

If anyone can add to these documents, please contact me.  Anything you may have in your possession that can be documented, I’d appreciate.

Thank you!

Ich bin hoch geehrt, dass die Northwestern Universitaet mein Lebenswerk archivieren moechte.  Herr Kevin Leonard, Archivist von Northwestern, hat mich gebeten alle Programmhefte, Interviews, Kritiken, DVD’s CDs, Fotos, Briefen usw. zu sammeln, um sie fuer die in ihre Archive einzuordnen und fuer die Ewigkeit aufzubewahren.  Die Dokumente koennen auch jederzeit eingesehen werden.  Dies ist eine gross Ehre und jetzt kann ich sicher sein, dass meine Karriere und mein Lebenswerk nie verloren gehen.

Sollte jemand irgendetwas in seinem Besitz haben, das er beifuegen koennte, bitte kontaktieren Sie mich!  Vielen Dank!

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Gottlob-Frick-Gesellschaft event October 18, 2014

These are a few pictures of the Gottlob-Frick-Gesellschaft event October 18, 2014.

Here I am with the great Rene Kollo.  I sang the role of Ortrud many times with Mr. Kollo as Lohengrin (Hamburg State Opera, Paris Opera, etc.).  It is great fun to see and talk with the artists with whom I appeared many times on the operatic stage.

And here I am with Siegmund Nimsgern, my very good friend.  We sang also in Lohengrin (Ortrud-Telramund) at the Hamburg State Opera, Paris Opera, LaScala Milan, etc.  Lohengrin was not the only opera that we shared:  also Don Giovanni, Lulu, and many others.   I’ve known Mr. Nimsgern since I began my opera career in Saarbruecken.

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Fidelio and Salome excerpts in YouTube

Finally I have uploaded excerpts from Salome and Fidelio in YouTube.

Salome begins with her entrance:

Then follows the rest of the 9 excerpts until the final scene at the end of the opera. I hope you like it. Salome together with Elektra and the Dyer’s Wife in “Frau ohne Schatten”, all from Richard Strauss, belong to my best and most often performed roles. I sang Salome at the Vienna State Opera, Stockholm Kungliga Operan, the Vlaamse Opera in Gent, Belgium (here in YouTube), Santiago, Chile, Cantania, Sicily, the opera houses in Wiesbaden, Mainz, Dormund, Bremen, etc. I have sung the role over 160 times to date.

I have also uploaded 5 Fidelio excerpts from Bad Hersfeld most recently. The first excerpt begins with the aria and continues until the end. The first YouTube excerpt is:

From there you can work your way through the 5 excerpts. Some of the many theatres where I have sung the role includes Antwerp, Belgium (Vlaamsa Oper), Bad Hersfeld, Frankfurt Opera, Warsaw Opera, Poland, Wuppertal, Aachen, etc. I really love singing Leonore. She is a truly modern heroine, a woman willing to go through extreme situations to achieve her goal. She was determined to find her husband, wrongly arrested as a political prisoner, and save him, bringing Pizarro to justice. It was her strength of mind and heart, and her beliefs (“Gott, steh mir bei”) that brought her success in achieving her goal.

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Inhalation technique

Oxana Senina from California has recently emailed me:  “I just read your article “A Handbook for the Development of an Expressive Voice”, and this is exactly what I am trying to learn.  I do have a few questions that have come up as I practice, and I would love any insight or advice you might be able to give me.”  I think it would be interesting to my readers to answer her questions here in my website.

1. “…My teacher…mentioned that the voice should be placed in the middle of the forehead.  When I place the voice there, I feel a lot of vibration and even sometimes a ringing in my ear when I sing at louder volumes.  I just want to make sure this is the right spot for the placement of the voice  (the middle of the forehead)?”

Oxana, I warn against PLACING the tone ANYWHERE.  You will begin to “manipulate” the voice.  This will bring tension in the voice and take away its freedom.  There are all kinds of repercussions that will hamper the quality and quantity of tone.  The voice needs “many places” of resonance to function freely.  By attempting to limit the voice to one place, the production of tone will beome controlled and not allowed to take on its FULL resonance and beauty of tone.  Even resonance ocurs in the body as well as the head, and it should be allowed to use ALL of the resonance areas. 

If you have learned the feeling of “inhalation” – that the tones are coming to you and not being sung outwardly (exhalation), you will find that the voice will take on resonance in the head and upper palate (raising the soft palate automatically) and also the body.  This is what we want.  Don’t limit the resonance area.  Let the voice be free without tension.  Freedom without manipulation, but with full body support from the epigastrium and back using you “counterpressure”, will give you the optimal tone.

2. “When I sing quietly in my middle register, I feel like I am sending the air to the front of my mouth just behind my front teeth.  From there, I feel the air bounce up and into my head just behind my forehead.  When I sing at louder volumes, though, I feel like the air is taking a different pathway.  Instead of moving forward to my teeth and then bouncing up, I feel like it travels up the back of  my mouth, then up and forward into my forehead.  I’m confused about which is the correct pathway.”

Oxana, it seems to me that you are thinking too much about non-essential things and probably not concentrating on the right things.  There should be NO feeling of air moving anywhere.  Very probably you are exhaling your breath and not inhaling.  Concentrate on your breathing and body strength (never let up with your “counterpressure”), concentrate on the feeling of inhalation, concentrate of your freedom and RELAXATION in the throat, concentrate on the position of the tongue (forward and away from the throat) and an optimal articulation.  When you are out on stage, these things must come automatically so that you can express your thoughts and feelings.

 “Lastly, I was just wondering if you had any exercises you could recommend to practice the inhalation technique.  Up to now I have been praticing the technque just by focusing on placement, but I would love to learn some exercises that would give me more specific direction.”

(Forget placement!) Yes, pratice a lot on “oo’s” and “oh’s” with the feeling that these vowels are coming to you in the upper palate area.  Not placement, but a sense of direction.  Practice a lot with “th’s” (voiced).  “Th” is the best consonant(s) to use because the tongue in in the most forward position possible.  In this position you can be certain that you are not swallowing the tongue and blocking the back of the throat, nor depressing the larynx.  (The base of the tongue is connected to the larynx.)  Oxana, I will be scanning and putting some exercises online soon.  With the above, however, you can make a very good start.  With “counterpressure” (not collapsing with the muscles of support which are the muscles of inhalation – don’t forget the back expansion) and the feeling that the tones are coming to YOU and not being projected outwardly, you will find that you will progress rapidly.  Flagstad, who had this Bratt technique, said she had doubled her voice in a month – almost instantaneously.  Doubling our voices is a good sign that we are singing with our bodies correctly and not putting pressure on our throats that will minimalize the quantity as well as quality.

I am open to more questions.  I will try to guide you through this process, even though I am not with you in person.  Tell me how you get along and if you understand.  Thank you for your interest and contacting me, Oxana.  Please keep in touch.  I’ll be thinking of you!

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