Opera doesn’t always prepare you for real-life situations. My education in stagecraft did not include many “practical skills,” unless you include sword-fighting and swooning. I certainly know how to: a) fall in love with a tenor b) go insane c) die of grief or d) slay an enemy. But if there are no tenors or enemies in my general vicinity, I sometimes feel unprepared.
On the other hand, opera does teach you how to listen well, and that turns out to be a very important life skill.
Listening has become a lost art. Our world is full of wonderful distractions like smartphones and nanospeakers. Multi-tasking is the norm; we need laws to prevent people from texting and driving at the same time! We communicate with everybody, but it’s hard to give anybody our full attention. We’re talking more… but listening less.
Musicians have one key advantage in this situation: we already know how to focus our attention on sound. We’ve learned to identify pitches, intervals, melodies, chords, and rhythms without any visual cues. We’ve analyzed thousands of hours of music. We take our “ear training” very seriously!
Just think of a concert violinist, alone in her practice room, drawing her bow across a string. The intensity of her concentration is absolute. If she notices the tiniest inconsistency in the vibration, she will immediately correct it. Later, when she is onstage with an orchestra behind her, she will already know the exact amount of pressure that she needs to apply to the bow to create the effect that she wants.
Like a delicate violin, the human voice is very expressive. Just by listening to somebody’s vocal resonance, you can usually tell if that person is healthy or sick, relaxed or hurried, happy or miserable. This information is always available, but we miss it if we’re not paying attention.
I once sang an opera about the art of listening! In Mark Lothar’s opera, “Momo und die Zeitdiebe,” I played a little girl who had a talent for listening to other people. To prepare for the role, I observed people having conversations with each other. Many people were slightly distracted by what was going on around them. But the best listeners were able to give their undivided attention to someone else; they were totally absorbed in what the other person was saying.
Of course, it’s harder to pay attention if you don’t understand the words. Because I travel so much, I am often immersed in other languages. I always learn a few phrases in the local language, but it doesn’t always help. When I visited Bangkok, for example, I spent two entire days “lost in translation.” But even in situations like that, the best strategy is to listen carefully.
One day, I got lost in Prague. I had disembarked at the wrong train station, and I couldn’t find my hotel. I was wandering around a strange neighborhood, dragging my suitcase behind me, and it was getting dark. Finally, I showed the address to a man who only spoke Czech. I didn’t understand a word he said, but he used his voice to “draw” a map of the neighborhood for me. By moving his voice up and down the scale, he indicated that I was supposed to go up a hill and down a hill. Then he slowed down his voice and stretched out his hands to indicate a long street. Finally, he mimed turning left and seeing a house, and then he gave a satisfied sigh. His directions were crystal clear! I thanked him and started to climb the hill. I was at my hotel in less than 10 minutes.
So I am very glad that my music teachers taught me to listen carefully. My ears have helped me in all kinds of situations – from music to interpersonal relationships to navigating in foreign countries. Opera training can be quite practical, after all!