Escaping Perfection – Elizabeth Gentner

You know the drill. Literally. You’ve been drilling runs, exercises, passages from arias, motifs and more since the moment you became involved in this crazy profession of classical music. It is a perfectionist-friendly place of thousands of details that have to be correct because at least one person always knows if you are doing it “incorrectly” because they’ve seen the score, or they’ve been speaking Italian since birth, or they were there when Maria Callas did it 50 years ago and she was perfect (at least they thought so).

Everyone is working toward perfection. It entails a lot: language, rhythm, pitch, line, inflection, staging and more. There are coaches, teachers, conductors, and directors telling you what to do, how to do it, where to stand and when you may sing. We want to get it right, we want these paragons of our industry to like us and value our ability to take direction. We want the next letter of recommendation to be filled with the accolades that we were prepared, knew our music and arrived on time to rehearsals. We go to these individuals to learn, they have been involved longer than we have so they must know something we don’t. We work, we practice, we drill to be better, and we work harder to get the next gig. It becomes an imperative to be “perfect.”

As hard as it is to admit, we all know that perfection is an unattainable state of being. But there are times in our profession when someone gets incredibly close. I have seen a handful of these “perfect” performances, and at the end, oddly enough, I am always dry-eyed. The most precise singer is rarely the most passionate. At what point is a performer so “perfect” that they cease to be themselves? So pristine that a human tale is no longer being told? When does the performer’s unique self become lost in other people’s ideas of what it means to be perfect?

Most schooling and tutelage of opera singers fails to include exercises in creative thinking, expressivity, and experimentation, and the average voice degree barely gives lip-service to acting. Somewhere along the way there is teacher or two who help – an individual who cultivated expressivity in singing outside of a prescribed curriculum. However, it is much more difficult to practice being creative. What is the drill for being expressive on stage? We are in a profession that exists at the apex of art at its highest form. So where does the art happen?

The folks over in Music Theater have to work much more intentionally to be unique – there are a lot of people who can belt a ballad. Those who succeed make every word precious and challenge every expectation on a song you know by heart. Their performances demand far less perfection and a whole lot more life.

Opera needs a large dose of life to survive. The Powers That Be cannot make that happen alone. Only a performer can create life on stage. A great deal more risk is crucial to make what we do fresh and exciting. It doesn’t matter what Mozart wrote if it does not live for an audience in the moment. To reach the edge of creation, the singer must risk doing something wrong for the sake of saying something real. Only an opera singer can bring life to these ancient works of art so they can live in the now and inspire the living. All of that drilling, work and practice is for nothing without life in every moment of a performance and no teacher, coach or director can create that for the singer.

There is a way to make music, to make art within the context of opera and I challenge you to risk perfection for the sake of creating living art.

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