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July 14, 2021

The Heart of Opera: Artists on stage

Kirsten Schötteldreier

What is the greatest wonder that opera can work? 

Art, and music in particular, can move, excite and transform people. I firmly believe in this – and luckily so do many others, others who work tirelessly on the stage and behind the scenes to ensure that the curtains go up every evening in both the analogue and the digital venues of the world. These people are the living, feeling, beating heart of the opera, and the singers play a very special role in this. 

For a performance to become a truly outstanding experience, it is important that everyone involved in the production, such as directors, technicians and orchestra, work hand in hand to help each other rise to the highest possible level of excellence. 

But how does this work for a singer? 

The human voice, finely developed and well trained, can be profoundly moving. But it is important to realize that a singer’s body is a very sensitive ecosystem. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that this seismographic human instrument is exquisitely sensitive to external circumstances and can quickly become imbalanced.  

Production processes are complex and multi-layered, and naturally involve many different personalities. As a coach, I have been working with singers and entire productions for many years, and in the course of my time spent in theaters, I have had the opportunity to experience how greatly conditions can vary for singers. 

Unfortunately, I far too frequently see highly motivated artists, particularly younger ones and those just beginning their careers, who are unable to bring all they have learned onto the stage with them, or who experience great psychological stress already during initial rehearsals. 

The reasons for this can be myriad and differ from one individual to the next. Learning how to distribute one’s vocal, physical and emotional energy and strength across an entire production phase or evening of opera is a balancing act. It helps to have someone by one’s side who can sometimes shoulder the responsibility and thus lighten the load. A coach who takes on this role should also help singers learn how to be their own mentors. This can enable singers to learn to soothe themselves, encourage themselves and know that after every imperfect note they can still joyfully approach the opportunity that the next phrase presents. After all, every new phrase is a new opportunity! 

Singers can learn to shape the sound of their voices and thereby truly transform the impact of a scene. There are so many ways for a voice to enhance and complement a scene’s set and lighting. However, this magic can occur only when the rehearsal process grants artists the time, freedom and trust they need in order to develop, without undue stress, as actors and as singers.  

And there’s something else I’d like to emphasize regarding the emotional and mental aspects of singing. 
Singers are often compared to high-level athletes in discussions of performance and achievement, but this comparison is only partially accurate. It’s true that singing consists largely of endurance, technical skill and muscle strength.  

However, the interplay between singers’ emotions and their openness and energy is even more important to their ability to find a balanced state of perfect intonation, clarity, warmth, expressiveness and authenticity. Singing is high-level performance that is based in part on the ability to “take a step back” internally and find tranquility and positivity inside. This allows singers to develop their inner strength and essence, and their own, uniquely personal sound. Strength always develops out of a positive sense of tranquility. 

Remaining grounded while on the stage, even as fellow performers sing and act in their own ways, is a special skill that young artists must learn. Singers’ vocal cords vibrate silently when they hear another singer, and the listener’s own singing is affected by this involuntary, unconscious experience. A technique called “standing meditation moments,” which a singer can learn and easily utilize, for example during rehearsals, offers a way to become aware of this influence. The singer learns to listen actively and openly yet remain grounded internally.  

For this reason, it is important to carve out small creative “islands,” starting from the very beginning of an opera production’s rehearsal phase, in which singers are encouraged to experiment and engage in open, respectful conversation about what kind of assistance might be needed. At this point, it is worth mentioning how important it is that all those involved in a production remain in continuous conversation and constructive discussion beyond the initial concept meeting. Ideally, this allows all the musical and stage directors’ ideas and visions to be fully realized, without unnecessary stress. An experienced coach can provide valuable suggestions and serve as a liaison between individual participants in a production. 

I am convinced that working together in an open, respectful way, based on an understanding of all the specific creative groups involved, can transform all levels of an opera production. Singers who have already made a name for themselves in the field are often allowed more freedom right off the bat, but for young artists in particular, opening up such specific opportunities for development is enormously important. Singers who are just beginning their careers must be given a chance to learn how to stand up in a friendly yet determined way for what they need under particular circumstances.  

My hope is that more and more singers will take on this kind of self-care and responsibility for themselves, and that theaters will also have the courage to work with their performers to blaze these new trails and to make financial and organizational resources available for this work. 

What inspired me lately...

As my greatest passion - singing and the human voice - has become my profession which fulfils me deeply and for which I travel a lot (my second passion), there is neither time nor space for something like a hobby.  But I am inspired every day by so many people or things around me, that it is hard to make a decision. 

- An Interview with Kirsten -

In German with subtitles

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