Tag: singing

Boulez, Twyla Tharp and the Creed of Curiosity

A gallery space performance

In the first chapter of Twyla Tharp’s instructional bible for creativity The Creative Habit, the iconic American choreographer identifies a contradiction. “There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub against each other.” Musical artists—instrumentalists, composers, and singers—are highly accustomed to the daily drilling of theoretical exercises and scales required to maintain proficiency. Tharp’s comments are apt considerations for musicians, and more especially for classical musicians trained using old school discipline at conservatories. Tharp reminds us that, in addition to the acquisition of skills, there lies something more at hand—something in addition to the technical dexterities we need to practice and hone in order to produce our work to its fullest capacity.

Since the classical age, the Greeks have been calling this missing ingredient “play” (paidia). Since around 500–300 BCE, Hellenic philosophical and artistic discussions have examined “play” as it relates to education (paidei). The relationship between paidia and paidei, with their implicit etymological references, are the center of Platonic ideas. The relationship of play and education does not pose as a paradox. Rather they are complimentary values.

  • As we mature, our playtimes diminish; our learning becomes more serious.

    Xenia Hanusiak
  • Creative experimentation and skills need to be preserved as equal agents.

    Xenia Hanusiak
  • Cathy Berberian sang each song as if she had just discovered a rare diamond... I decided I wanted to be Cathy Berberian.

    Xenia Hanusiak
  • Skilled creativity requires particular courage.

    Xenia Hanusiak
  • We have spent enough time and money gathering degrees.

    Xenia Hanusiak
  • We were just kids in the playground who did not know each other and this anonymity was quietly liberating.

    Xenia Hanusiak
  • Being stuck is part of the creative process, which must be embraced.

    Xenia Hanusiak

For many, play and games are synonymous with childhood.  Play offers an opportunity to be spontaneous, leads to discovery by chance, and opens curiosity.  As we mature, our playtimes diminish; our learning becomes more serious. However, according to our Greek philosopher friends, our sense of daring and curiosity needs nourishment and experience. When we are young, the play and music tuition accidentally align. We might be flying on a swing in the backyard one minute, and playing scales on the piano in the next.  There is a spontaneous crossover, which accounts for why some young performers display fearlessness.

The challenges begin to build in mid-career if we fail to recognize and act on the importance of the trained skill-based creative play that Tharp discusses in her manual. Tharp suggests that creativity needs to be nurtured as a muscle. Our Greek philosophers don’t disagree. Tharp’s conundrum is not a paradox. In one of the surviving thirty-seven fragments of his six plays, the ancient Greek playwright Agathon wrote,  “chance and skill (techne) go hand in hand.”

Agathon and Tharp agree:  creative experimentation and skills need to be preserved as equal agents.

So how do we practice chance and daring? One answer is that we need to be constantly in search for opportunities where attributes of curiosity, chance, and daring are triggered and that we learn to trust them. In short we must constantly search for new playgrounds that suit our needs.

My personal cognition of the importance of play in my classical music career was sparked at my first contemporary music concert—a recital by the late American-Armenian mezzo-soprano and avant-garde pioneer Cathy Berberian. I was fourteen years old. The concert took place in the Adelaide Town Hall, as part of the Adelaide Festival in Australia where I grew up and received my musical education. I remember the experience distinctly. I sat in Row B, second seat from the end. The stage seemed impossibly high. I remember that I had to crane my neck for the entire concert. I can still picture Berberian’s satin green kaftan imprinted with a paisley motif. I remember her signature white-blonde locks—bubbles of curls sitting on top of her head as if her hair and her scalp were not quite attached. She appeared as a slightly unhinged post-modern Mozartian character. She was not.

The repertoire in the recital included John Cage, Bruno Maderna, and Sylvano Bussotti alongside Berberian’s iconic interpretations of Beatles’ songs and her own composition, the comic book fantasy Stripsody. I was riveted by the obscure helter-skelter intervals of the Maderna, and I was amazed that this classical singer could make an audience smile and laugh with her comedic turns and her creation of sounds that seemed to emanate from a circus tent.

At the time, I could not account for why I was drawn to this singer, or why I chose to attend this concert. After all, why not The Magic Flute? I can certainly explain it now.

Cathy Berberian exhibited a joyful exuberance. She sang each song as if she had just discovered a rare diamond and as if she was the only one who held the key to finding even more precious jewels. It hadn’t occurred to me then, but Berberian’s evident passion for discovery was a vital lesson of play (paidia) and skill (techne). She sang the most complex music with the candor of a child playing in a sandbox. She also displayed curiosity. Personality neuroscientist Colin DeYoung, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says, “Curiosity is the core of openness/intellect.”

The concert set me on the path. I decided I wanted to be Cathy Berberian—a curious, curly mop-headed woman who sang songs that no one else dared to embark on, and who instilled audiences with an intrigue for the undiscovered—the curiosity factor.

Several years later, my trek began at the conservatory. The academy of classical voice can be a precious heritage site. The tradition of the pedagogy of classical voice comes with protection and preservation. Certainly justifiable—sometimes the simple pragmatics of the short course work dictate the terms. There is a finite time of learning and skill acquisition that needs to be accomplished in a skeletal schedule of perhaps—if we can take an average—one lesson, one repertoire session, and one master class per week over the course of a degree. In that time, the singer must master lieder and art song, operatic roles together with three to four languages, leaving little room to discover different expressions of music. There is little time to play hide and seek or search for Berberian diamonds.

It was only at the end of my degree, that I realized that there was something missing. I was looking for Plato’s child’s play. So I went searching for a new playground.

Xenia Hanusiak in front of a music stand standing next to another singer in traditional Chinese dress whose face is obscured by that music stand.

Xenia Hanusiak performing a work she commissioned, Zhang Xiao-fu’s Visages Peint dans les Opera Bekin, at the 2008 Beijing Music Festival.

The importance of play entered the “educational” part of my career at a moment of complete surprise, somewhat like finding the piece that fits into your jigsaw puzzle when you least expect it. This opportune moment—what the Greeks call kairos—is also a key element of play conversations. My kairos arrived after graduation—first a residency with Kirsten Denholm’s Hotel Pro Forma in Denmark, and then, a course immersion at the Banff Center of Arts and Creativity in Canada. At that time Richard Armstrong, a performer, director, and teacher, was directing a course called Contemporary Music Theater. Armstrong, now an associate arts professor at NYU Tisch, helped to establish one of Europe’s most influential schools of voice and body research. He is the founding member of the Roy Hart Theatre in France. I arrived at his workshop with the baggage of conservatory training.

In the course of three months, I traded taffeta and black patent heels for leotards and bare feet.  Instead of singing beautiful legato lines, I was creating sounds like a growling angry bear in the register of a baritone.  Instead of standing in arms-length of a piano singing lied, I spent days rolling up and down the length of a floor. Picture here, the vision of a human rolling pin.

The “play” experiences were confronting and challenging. There is nowhere to run or hide at Banff. This is a residency course and your allies could well be the elks who loiter on campus. DeYoung tells us that approaching the unknown is not easy. “The unknown is innately both threatening and promising.” Imagine for a moment the feelings of a child entering a new playground. This experience is a facsimile.

While it took me some time to register that I was playing, Armstrong’s methodology alerted me that this kind of playtime was missing from my current education.  The ah-ha moment had arrived. Armstrong’s playground—a.k.a. skilled creativity—requires particular courage.

By the end of the three months I can report that I was more open, free, and spontaneous. However, I would be the first to say that there was much breaking down that needed to be addressed and conquered before I had reached this point. By the end of the program, I performed Denys Bouliane’s composition for solo voice Das Affenlied (The Monkey Song) literally in a tree. The performance was a personal milestone.  The workshop process also delivered unexpected results in my classical technique. Most of the improvements transpired as a result of the repetitious body-voice connection exercises. Armstrong’s game playing not only stimulated my imagination, but my performance practices improved. I stood in front of the piano with more poise and gravitas and the top of my tessitura was more consolidated.  I was playing and learning at the same time.

The Banff experience provided an important milestone in my realization that the routine of play was as necessary as it was a skill. Workshops of this personal intensity take the artist to a different understanding of vulnerability and growth.  Learning how to encounter and master chance and daring are technical lessons.

In 2018, I again found myself in that proverbial “What next?” artistic moment. As I was embarking on new projects, I sensed innately that my sense of spontaneity, my ways of seeing and sense of openness was calling for attention. I also understood I had to look beyond my usual vocabulary. I needed to find a new playground.

Fortunately, living in New York City, I was happy to learn of the program of master classes and workshops run by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the Mark Morris Dance Group. BAM and the Mark Morris Dance Group have presented more than 65 master classes since 2013. The aim of the classes and workshops is to provide participants with ways to engage with the artists and productions on BAM’s stages and enhance each participant’s own practices. BAM opens its doors to musicians, writers, dancers, directors, and composers. BAM aims to keep the classes accessible, affordable, and inclusive. The process is application-free and the admission cost is low—usually around $25 for a class. These latter points are two great benefits for both bank accounts and time constraints.  Truly, we have spent enough time and money gathering degrees.

Donna DiNovelli, Kevin Newbury, and Heidi Rodewald talk to attendees seated in a circle during the BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules" (Photo by Molly Silberberg, courtesy BAM)

Donna DiNovelli, Kevin Newbury, and Heidi Rodewald during the BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules” (Photo by Molly Silberberg, courtesy BAM)

With rejuvenation on my agenda, I enrolled in two workshops last November: “Sight Sound and Picture,” a response to the Lars Jan/ Early Morning Opera’s production of The White Album; and “Making Your Own Rules,” led by Heidi Rodewald, Donna DiNovelli, and Kevin Newbury, the creative forces behind a contemporary oratorio The Good Swimmer. Both master classes were scheduled in tandem with their performance seasons and focused on multi-disciplinary applications to performance. As 21st-century musical artists, we are called to seek and to expand the auditory and visual experience. In response, BAM’s series continues to expand and reflect interdisciplinary and genre-defying work.

My first BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules” was the perfect entrée back to the playground. Upon arrival, fifteen chairs were already placed in a circle. No one was dressed in leotards, nor swinging their legs on a ballet bar.  It was somehow comforting to me that my return to play technique would be gentle.

For the first half of the two-hour session, composer/musician Heidi Rodewald, lyricist Donna DiNovelli, and director Kevin Newbury led a generous and open discussion of the processes behind their pop oratorio The Good Swimmer. The artists offered insights and personal disclosures that were satisfyingly real and thorough. We were, after all, in the company of fellow artists who had shared similar roads. In essence, how did we get here? Participants included directors, singers, writers, documentary filmmakers, and a puppeteer. All were, like me, on the threshold of a forthcoming project.

David Driver (standing) and Sophia Byrd (sitting) in front of a group of instrumentalists and a vocal ensemble from the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The Good Swimmer (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz,

David Driver (standing) and Sophia Byrd (sitting) in the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The Good Swimmer. (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy BAM)

The second section invited participants to offer found, non-literary text that we believed could be unique and serve as a stimulus for performance work. Once again, I was struck by the openness and generosity of all the participants in the play circle. In many of these discussions, the flow of ideas had a way of positioning my own work. I refreshed the button not only on my project at hand, but solidified ideas and recalibrated others. The experience was a success because the leaders provided a thoroughfare. We were just kids in the playground who did not know each other and this anonymity was quietly liberating.

On the very same day, and with a lunch break to engage in stimulating conversations with new colleagues from diverse disciplines, I entered into the dance space for the “Sight, Sound, and Picture.” This was leotard time. As I entered the studio, music was playing. There was no safety of chairs. We were left to stand in our stocking feet. Some participants jived to the music. Others wrapped their arms around their torso trying to warm their limbs. Some simply stood still.  As per the morning session, this workshop reflected on a concurrent show of the Next Wave Festival. In this case it was The White Album, a multilayered theatrical realization of Joan Didion’s seminal essay. Lars Jan, the work’s director, led the workshop. His voice is mellifluous, harmonious even, and intones a kindness. The age and experience of the participants was varied, so Jan’s skills as natural communicator were welcomed. For two hours we played games, but in essence we were quietly instructed on layering techniques. It was highly directed and structured. We played games, and we opened ourselves to curiosity through skill-based play.

The midcareer artist is always faced with forks in the road. Being stuck is part of the creative process, which must be embraced. Without conflict there is no resolution. Resolution usually brings a higher response.  The trick is to capitalize and understand through flexibility and openness on how we can move forward and what playground works for us. We must heed these warnings in our various pursuits of not only creating and interpreting the music of our time, but how we collaborate. Researchers, psychologists, educators and philosophers are all in agreement on the need to consider various methods to awaken our creativity and our patterns of discovery. Boulez used to say, “The moment you lose your curiosity, you might just as well keel over.” There is no one path, but a path must be taken.

Writing for “The Chorus”: Text, Dynamics, and Other Occupational Hazards

NOTUS standing outside

As a composer-conductor who works primarily with new choral music, I encounter over 500 freshly minted new works for chorus each year. Sometimes, I am considering newly published works for potential programming; other times, I evaluate new manuscripts as part of a jury in a composition competition. At still other times, composers will send me scores via email and ask that I consider programming them.

Some of these scores are beautifully crafted, expertly notated, and idiomatically written. More usually, however, the scores will often make exceedingly unwarranted demands on the singers or include some rather basic errors.

In order to guide us all toward a more perfect harmony in writing for the chorus, and because writing for the chorus is often neglected in the training of composers at academic institutions, I am including below some of the most prevalent pitfalls that I have seen over and over again—even by some of today’s most reputable composers.


Point #1: “The Chorus” contains multitudes.

According to Chorus America’s 2009 Chorus Impact Study:

[A]n estimated 42.6 million Americans regularly sing in choruses today. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.

You can probably surmise that not all of the 42.6 million Americans who sing in choruses are paid professional musicians. This leads us to our first consideration: for whom am I writing?

Unlike in an orchestra, where you can probably expect a section of violins to sound a certain way, a section of sopranos can be any one of a vast range of possibilities—10 trained opera singers, 16 Anglican boy trebles, 50 non-professional community singers over the age of 55, etc.—and it is quite critical that you have some awareness of which choral instrument you are envisioning before writing. As you might imagine, the fortissimo of an opera chorus will likely be very different than the fortissimo of a high school chamber choir.

Whether writing a new commission for a youth chorus or a professional chamber choir, recognize that your role in writing for the chorus is closer to what in fashion is known as “bespoke.” You are tailor-making a new work for a specific group of individuals, and those individuals may come from a wide array of professional or non-professional backgrounds.

The same is true in publishing: you probably wouldn’t submit a sacred anthem for mixed chorus and organ to a publisher that offers its catalogue predominantly to a secular, educational market.

So: before you do anything else, define “the chorus” for your situation or project. It will anticipate and surmount a whole host of problems before they even have a chance of existing.


Point #2: “The Chorus” is not “The Orchestra.”

Where many composers lack academic training in writing for the chorus, nearly all composers are expected to learn how to compose for the orchestra and its various instruments. Composers are taught the technical considerations of the string family—harmonics, bowing techniques, which strings are open, etc.—and about optimal voicings when combining the winds and brass into harmonic sonorities.

Composers also learn what is inadvisable in writing for the orchestra: namely, which pitches do not exist on certain instruments, the dynamic tendencies of certain instruments, why you can usually only write seven pitches for the harp, etc.

Here, then, are some regular rules for “The Chorus,” especially as they differ from “The Orchestra.”

1. Dynamics:

Most voices are naturally quieter in the lower register and naturally louder in the higher register. (Very few people naturally “scream” low in their voice; young babies, when they want your attention, will cry high and loud in their range.)

For this reason, it is very difficult to adequately balance a choral sonority when the sopranos are high (F5-A5) and the basses are low (F2, etc.), as the basses will naturally be softer than the sopranos. This is unlike an orchestra, where a dramatic crescendo may often be built with the low instruments descending (cellos, tuba, bassoons) and the high instruments ascending (violins, clarinets, trumpets, etc.).

Unlike an orchestra, the most effective choral crescendos occur when ALL vocal parts move to the upper part of their vocal range.

Four different chord voicings sung fortissimo: not good (SATB=G5,D4,B3,G2); better (SATB=G5,B4,D4,G3); best (SATB=G5,D5,G4,B3); and best with multiple voices (divisi: sopranos singing E5 and G5; altos singing C5 and D5; tenors singing F#4 and G4; and Basses singing B3 & D4)

Voicings beneath a soprano high G and how they will likely sound.

2. Breath

It is easier for a section of strings to sustain a sonority than it is for a chorus of singers. This may seem self-evident, but singers need to breathe to produce their sound, where string players need to breathe to stay alive, yes, but not to create sound with their bow.

When a chorus is clear on how, when, and where to breathe in music, the resulting performance is always more compelling and artful.

Two different settings of the word stars. In the first one, all sing at piano level the word "stars" on whole notes for four full measures without a breath (SATB = C5,A4,F4,D4). In the second setting, the pitch values are the same but only the sopranos sing "stars", with a crescendo and then a decrescendo halfway through and taking an eighth note rest in the penultimate measure and returning to their pitch intoning "m" pianissimo. The altos, tenors and basses intone "m" throughout and all also take a decrescendo in the penultimate measure with the altos taking an eighth note rest halfway through, the tenors taking an eighth note rest at the end of the first measure, and the basses taking an eighth note rest after the first beat of the penultimate measure.

Of course, a chorus can stagger their breathing—where some voices in the section continue singing while others breathe, and then they switch off—but there are limitations to this technique, too. It is easier to stagger one’s breathing without a noticeable effect during passages that have quieter dynamics and lower ranges. It is much more difficult to do so without noticing when louder dynamics and higher ranges are in play.

If you want to sustain a chord over a long period of time, consider planning the breaths and releases into the over-arching sonority and texture. Not only will it be more successful in performance, it will also probably be more interesting to the listener, too.

There is an easy solution for this: when you are writing choral music, sing every part as if you were performing it. Is it clear where the breaths should be placed? Are you having trouble sustaining a particularly long line? When you begin to put yourself in the place of the singer, your choral writing will improve.

3. Range & Tessitura

Singing high notes is difficult. Singing high notes over a long stretch of time is especially difficult and especially fatiguing, just as it would be if a composer were to demand the same of a brass player. Singing high notes non-vibrato, at a very quiet dynamic is exceedingly difficult. Asking a singer to do this for pages on end is simply cruel.

One of the most common mistakes I see in choral writing is a disregard for the tessitura of the singers. Tessitura—according to Wikipedia (I know)—is “the most aesthetically acceptable and comfortable vocal range.” It’s not just an issue in the higher registers either. It is fatiguing for singers to be in any narrow range for a long period of time.

An extremely slow (all whole notes and fortissimo) parallel setting of the text: "Night has fallen on the lot of them." (Sopranos sing C5 B4 E5 D5 A4 B4 F5 D5 C5; alto sing B3 C4 D4 B3 C4 B3 A3 B3 E4 D4; tenors sing E4 F4 G4 E4 F4 E4 D4 E4 F4 G4; and basses sing A2 B2 C3 A2 B2 A2 G2 A2 B2 C3.) The ranges are all rather condensed and it makes much better sense to swap the tenor and alto parts so they are both singing in more comfortable ranges.

In composition, it is best to consider questions like, “How long has the section been singing in this range?” If you find that the tenors are only singing between D4 and G4 for six pages in a row, you should probably consider re-voicing their part. They will grow tired, their intonation will suffer, and they probably won’t enjoy singing your piece.

So, vary the range and tessitura of your vocal parts, especially for longer and more extended works.


Point #3: “The Chorus” does not have valves, keys, or slides.

From whence cometh the pitch?

While some highly trained choruses can perform any selection of pitches put in front of them, even the very best professional radio choirs in Europe often have to use tuning forks to find pitches in extremely complex music. It is to your benefit as a composer to make this job easier for the singers by skillfully preparing your score to be more successfully executed.

To be clear: I am not advocating for a “dumbing down” of your music. I am saying that we should be aware that a singer cannot just push down a key to find an F#. It is helpful to sometimes find other ways of forecasting the pitch prior to singing.

This may be apparent in the motives played by other instruments before a choral entrance, in the case of choral-instrumental music. In a cappella music, it might be a skillfully placed unison statement for the chorus before a treacherous 11-pitch sonority. Be resourceful but also kind.

A good rule of thumb: Can you, as the composer, pitch every note in your score accurately? If the answer to that is not “yes,” then perhaps consider a rewrite.


Point #4: “The Chorus” does have consonants, vowels, and other assorted phonemes.

Ah, text! Nothing differentiates a chorus from an orchestra more clearly than the use of words and all that they entail.

If you are not used to writing texted music, then some basic disclaimers are worth mentioning:

  • The vowel sound of any syllable is what occurs “on the beat” or “on the note.” So, if you write the word “Strength” on a downbeat, the “Str” will all have to occur before the notated pitch, and the vowel will occur on the beat.
  • Some consonants can be lengthened (m, n, f, v, s, z, sh, zh, etc.) and some cannot (t, d, k, g, p, b, etc.).
  • Chorus releases after notes usually occur on the rests in the music: so when a quarter note on the word “great” is followed by a quarter rest, the “t” sound will occur on the quarter rest following the word. (You do not have to notate this as the composer; the chorus will do this naturally.)

Further: It is your responsibility as the composer to know not only the meaning of the text you are setting, but even and especially the inherent stresses of the language. Nothing shows a novice choral composer more obviously than when the composer writes a motive for a text that inadvertently stresses the inappropriate syllable. Check your dictionary, especially when writing in a less comfortable language, to ensure that you are stressing each word appropriately in your setting.

One of the most common problems I encounter is when a composer hears the composite text of a part in their head, but does not think carefully about what each of the singers have to perform.

Two different settings of the text: "What must you bring?" In the first one, each section sings a different word and sustains it: basses singing "what" on a C3 for two measures, then tenors joining two beats later with "must" on F3 followed by altos singing "you on B3 at the beginning of the second measure and finally sopranos singing "bring" for a single beat two beats later. In the second setting the basses sing all four words on half notes with tenors joining for the final three words, altos the final two, and sopranos the last word, all on the same pitches as the first setting. DiOrio further comments that the first setting sounds like "Wha mu you bringstt" whereas the second one listeners can actually hear the full sentence.

In instances like this, the conductor has to reconfigure the arrangement of syllables to make the composer’s intention clear.

Finally, text is expressive. The chorus can communicate not just the text, but also the meaning behind the words. Make sure you, as the composer, have given some thought to how you would express the text—poetically, rhetorically, etc.

A good practice that works for many composers I know: memorize your text and speak through it regularly, until its natural rhythms, inflections, and lines begin to emerge. Do this before you set any of the words to notated music.


Point #5: “The Chorus” is made of people.

At the end of the day, a chorus is a collection of people. These people come into the rehearsal room with an assortment of daily experiences: one of the baritones may have just won an award, while one of the altos may have lost a parent. They both enter that room to have a communal singing experience that will connect them to others and give voice to where they are on that day.

Millions of Americans sing in choruses because making music is part of being human. To truly be successful as a composer of choral music, we have to recognize that all choral music is in some ways communal music. And all choral music gives voice—literal voice, with text—to our human experience.

So let’s be empathetic composers. Let’s put ourselves in the singers’ shoes. And let’s make the study of choral composition and its rudiments as usual in the academy as the study of string harmonics.

Adapting an Ever-Changing System

A nonbinary person wearing a suit laughing

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installments delved into how types are gendered and why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward. The final installment will draw conclusions from this and previous conversations to provide practical advice for all those involved in creating new opera.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

We’ve phased out castrati…

A study of opera history quickly reveals the continually shifting nature of voice classification. We’ve phased out castrati, created distinctions such as mezzo-soprano and bass-baritone, and added modifiers to each to create the Fach system. Just as more recent classification has built upon older systems, I believe we can make tweaks to the current system to create one that’s more inclusive, descriptive, and wholly separate from binary gender identities.

Granted, we could keep classification as it is and attempt to strip the gender expectations from it. But, as I discussed in the last installment, it’s hard to change associations built into an established system. It’s worth considering changes or something entirely new, if only to allow for a more immediate adoption and implementation.

An ideal updated system would serve singers, composers, and producers. The goal is to create more flexibility for singers, a more usable tool for composers, and more detailed information for producers when it comes to casting and programming.

An ideal updated system would serve singers, composers, and producers.

I encourage everyone to engage me in this conversation. My suggestions aren’t a be-all and end-all or even completely polished. I propose these next few ideas with as much openness and enthusiasm as possible. I’ve spent far too much time thinking about this and not enough time writing. I’m afraid of leaving something out, of missing an important piece of the puzzle and exposing myself to an exorbitant amount of criticism, but I’ll push forward regardless.

The way I see it, the most important elements of voice type are range, flexibility, and timbre.

Range

Obviously, the lowest and highest notes sung within a role are the basis for its type. That’s easy enough to delineate and notate. But anyone familiar with the operatic singing voice will know that there are additional factors to consider. A full lyric soprano and a coloratura mezzo may have the same range in terms of low and high notes, but how they navigate that range, and how often they’re in different parts of that range, are what differentiate their voice types and the roles written for their voices.

That said, I find it extremely helpful to have a range listed for each new role. At the bare minimum, that would indicate the highest and lowest notes of the role. At best, it’ll also indicate where the role generally sits and the frequency of the use of the extremes. This could be a graphic or text-based element placed at the front of the score with the role list. I’ve included a simplistic example of what could be included by the composer, using the title character of Griffin Candey’s Sweets by Kate as a model. The first measure is the role’s entire range and the second shows where the role sits most often within that range.

Music notation showing the complete range (eb' to b'') as well as the range of the majority of the notes (b' to g'') for the role of Kate in Griffin Candey’s opera Sweets by Kate

A more common example is Cherubino from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. With the range laid out in this way, it’s easy to see why producers can choose from sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and countertenors when casting for this role.

Music notation showing the complete range (b to g'') as well as the range of the majority of the notes (b' to f'') for the role of Cherubino in Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro

Another idea that I find helpful comes from my composer friend, David Howell. He thinks about repertoire ranges like an NFL draft or product recommendations: “If you sang X, you would probably also like Y.” This would be especially helpful for new operas. A singer could easily determine a role’s general fit before digging into the opera in its entirety. The implementation of this is more suited to range and flexibility than timbre, since timbre is less tied to a singer’s ability to sing a role and more dependent on a producer’s preference, the performance venue, and the instrumental ensemble available.

David Howell thinks about repertoire ranges like an NFL draft or product recommendations.

To continue with the example above, if you sing Kate in Sweets by Kate, you might also sing: Pamina in Die Zauberflöte (Mozart), Musetta in La Bohème (Puccini), Gretel in Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck), Nanetta in Falstaff (Verdi), Young Alyce in Glory Denied (Cipullo), The Rose in The Little Prince (Portman), and Helen in The Great God Pan (Crean).

Ranges could be standardized and then identified; these classifications could be as simple and clincial as numbers or as interesting as new names. Singers could exist within multiple established ranges to show their voice’s unique abilities and propensities. As I delved into in earlier installments, labels could remain as they are but without the expectation of gender, or completely new terms could be created. As a compromise, new standardized ranges could join the already-standardized types. However, I’d push for a new set of labels for ranges.

Flexibility

I define flexibility as the role’s tendency to have fast and/or moving (running or jumping) notes. The terms “coloratura” and “lyric” are currently in use for this aspect, but I believe we could be more specific.

My suggestion would be something akin to three categories: no flexibility, moderate flexibility, and high flexibility. Lyric roles would fall within both “no flexibility” and “moderate flexibility,” while most coloratura roles would be labeled “high flexibility.” For example: Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro would fall into “moderate flexibility,” but Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia would carry the “high flexibility” label. Then, the same character in John Corgliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles would be labeled with “no flexibility.”

Timbre

This is where, for me at least, things get interesting. It’s the most subjective aspect of a voice, and therefore the least helpful in creating “types.”

Timbre is the most subjective aspect of a voice, and therefore the least helpful in creating “types.”

I think we can keep many of the Fach system’s descriptors in relation to timbre. A light lyric or a dramatic makes sense, no matter what voice type it’s modifying. It really comes down to giving names for ranges and then adding modifiers for flexibility and timbre.

An important aspect of timbre when creating new roles relates to the instrumental ensemble’s size and the density of the orchestration. The dramatic voice types emerged as the operatic orchestra changed throughout the Romantic period (and beyond) and signify a particular size in the voice. Since dramatic voices aren’t the necessary norm for new works, it would be helpful to include a size indicator within the timbre labeling system.

Timbre and Gender

Even though almost all the words we use to describe an operatic voice’s timbre (warm, steely, heavy, bright) are ungendered, timbre is where I personally find it most difficult to disentangle gender from type.

Timbre is where I personally find it most difficult to disentangle gender from type.

My major hang-up relates to the difference in timbre in the treble range between cisgender women and cisgender men. This most likely stems from my past as a mezzo-soprano and my tendency to listen to both cisgender women and cisgender men singing the same repertoire. There’s a quality to a cisgender man’s voice in the high treble range that immediately genders it for me.

Granted, this is a personal issue and not necessarily a systemic one. I didn’t notice my own gendering of the voice until I first heard Marijana Mijanovic’s recordings a few years ago. Her performance of Cesare (Händel) reminds me so much of a cisgender man’s voice that I had to question everything I already thought about the gendering of the physical vocal mechanism and its inherent ability to create certain sounds.

As my own voice box began to change, my concept regarding the difference between a “male” and “female” approach to shared notes diverged again. (I use quotation marks here, because, as I delve into in Part 2, gendering body parts is problematic and inaccurate.) I’d expected the change from my “female” voice box to a testosterone-affected one to be more like learning how to play the violin after playing the cello. Instead, it’s much more like giving up the cello for the trumpet.

The jarring difference makes it both easier and harder to separate my voice, and therefore all voices, from a binary gender structure. It’s harder, because it’s re-enforcing my idea that the voice-owner’s gender does affect the core sound, but it’s easier because my voice is even less binary than before. As I explained in Part 2, the voice’s gender reflects the gender of its owner, so my voice has always been nonbinary; but now that it has physically transitioned (an irreversible and finite process in the case of my voice box, but not my body), it has entered a space that far less voice boxes occupy and this fact re-enforces the need for a system that’s less reliant on gender.

One of the ultimate goals of this new system is to allow for a character’s description to determine the gender of the role, rather than the gender of the performer. This will not only free up composers and librettists to create gender-diverse characters, but it will allow more versatility in roles for all singers regardless of their gender identity and a wider range of choice for casting directors and producers.

I’ll pull this all together in the next, and final, installment of this series. In the meantime, I’d like to make a quick announcement.

The voice is unpredictable and incredibly unique to each person.

Since starting this series, my voice has changed again. I’ve left my tenor days behind me, and I’m now fully entrenched in the bass-baritone range (below). If I’ve learned anything through this process, it’s that the voice is unpredictable and incredibly unique to each person. I want to find a way to mirror that individuality in a specific, detailed, and helpful way. This series is just one step in that direction.

Music notation showing Aiden Feltkamp's current vocal range (G to e')

Does Opera Need Gendered Voice Types?

From a 2016 production Higglety Pigglety Pop 2016 featuring Aiden Feltkamp as Pig with soprano Sophia Burgos

This is the first of a four-part series about operatic voice classification for the 21st century which will explore the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. All experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general.

My path as an opera singer has been a strange one. I started out as a coloratura mezzo-soprano with a high range, but then I slowly developed into a low, full lyric mezzo. Then, just when I thought my voice couldn’t get any lower (or higher), both occurred when I started hormone replacement therapy (testosterone) as part of my medical transition. Now, my countertenor range sits higher than my mezzo range did, but my chest voice’s range is that of a low tenor. If I were to step into an audition tomorrow, what could I possibly list as my voice type?

Granted, this isn’t anywhere near the average experience for an opera singer. It’s estimated that about 0.6% of the United States population identifies as transgender. Even fewer people identify outside the gender binary. While the mere existence of trans and nonbinary artists should be enough to change things, I’m not arguing for an ungendered system of voice types for our sake alone. However, my experience as a transgender nonbinary singer has led me to question the effectiveness of the voice type classifications that we currently have in place.

I began my operatic career as a female-presenting mezzo-soprano. I almost exclusively played trouser roles, first out of coincidence and later out of desire. It was during my preparation for these trouser roles that I first discovered the online transgender community. Even though I was 19 at the time, this was my first introduction to the idea of transitioning and the first glimpse of something that had been nagging at me since I was very young. I’ve always felt out of sorts in the gender binary, but I could never pinpoint the issue or explain how I was feeling. For example, when I was in third grade and we used the gym locker rooms for the first time, I didn’t understand why I was in the girls’ locker room. I lived with the pressing anxiety that they’d find out I was a fraud and assign a punishment. But feelings like this were inexplicable to me at the time, and for long after. As an opera singer, I loved learning how to present male onstage. It felt comfortable and right, like pulling on a well-loved, nostalgia-inducing sweatshirt that I’d found unexpectedly in the back of the closet after giving it up for lost. While playing those roles, I felt, for the first time, something much more like “me.”

My time as a graduate student in the Vocal Arts Program at Bard College Conservatory served as the catalyst for my acknowledgement of my gender identity and the beginning of my social transition. The faculty there, Kayo Iwama and Dawn Upshaw especially, continually pushed me to dig deeper, to understand myself, and to be myself without reserve or shame. With this new courage and some study of gender theory, I started to put things into place.

Aiden Feltkamp as Cherubino from a 2015 production of Le nozze di Figaro (photo credit Nikhil Saboo)

Aiden Feltkamp as Cherubino from a 2015 production of Le nozze di Figaro (photo credit Nikhil Saboo)

As I came into myself, my physical dysphoria made everyday life extremely difficult and I could no longer put off starting hormones. I’d never intended to take hormones, because I wanted to keep my mezzo-soprano voice. The vocal changes caused by testosterone are inevitable and irreversible. When I had to choose between myself and my voice, I had to choose myself. It has absolutely paid off, since I’m more myself and more centered than I’ve ever been before. I’ve accepted my new voice, no matter what it is or will be, and I’ve grieved my mezzo-soprano voice as I’ve grieved the end of a relationship or the completion of a spectacular experience. But that’s a story for another time.

We can’t assume that a transgender singer has experienced, or will experience, a vocal change. Hormones do not make someone any less/more “legitimate” or “trans.” They were necessary for me, but they’re not necessary for everyone. There is no universal trans experience. My experience is singular. It might resemble someone else’s, but it equally might be completely different. Therefore, trans singers could fall into any of the current voice types.

Let’s return to my first question about the hypothetical audition and dig into that a bit. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I’ve decided to train and identify as a countertenor. I’ll be walking in with a resume full of mezzo-soprano roles, male clothing, and an androgynous appearance. Since I’ve written “countertenor” on my resume, most judges will assume that I identify as male. Since many mezzo-soprano and countertenor roles overlap, there will be less question of what I’m capable of singing. However, when the audition panelists read further down my resume, they’ll see that I’ve played female roles that are generally sung by cisgender women, such as Hermia and Jo March, in addition to my trouser roles. They may have read my biography and know my current gender identity, but they may not have. They have a lot of material to work through and it’s not on them to know or remember my gender identity. Unfortunately, this may lead to confusion that overshadows my singing, making the audition interaction more about my gender than my performance. Perhaps this is an issue caused by the lack of gender education in our society. Regardless, the outcome is the same.

Elizabeth’s Act I Aria from Sweets by Kate sung by Aiden Feltkamp
Music by Griffin Candey; Libretto by Thom K. Miller
Stage Director: Amber Treadway; Music Director: Griffin Candey; Costumes: Kaitlyn Day
Piano: Peiharn Chen; Cello: Spencer Shen; Violin: Sara Sidley
Video: La Cuarta Productions
Performed live at The Stonewall Inn – July 12, 2017

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard mentors tell singers, myself included, to go out of their way not to “confuse” the panel by listing roles of different voice types on their resume. This isn’t to say that audition panelists are uneducated or incapable; it’s to illuminate the fact that auditions are short and your singing is easily overshadowed by a preoccupation with other details or the unintended bias caused by those details.

  • My experience as a transgender nonbinary singer has led me to question the effectiveness of the voice type classifications that we currently have in place.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • When I had to choose between myself and my voice, I had to choose myself.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • This isn’t a gender issue, but rather an issue of the current classification system’s inability to handle change.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • The onus should be on the system to support and correctly describe the artists within it, not on the artists to fit within its established parameters.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist

Let’s go to a more common example. Imagine a soprano who has just changed her voice type from mezzo-soprano to soprano. She’s immediately at a disadvantage if she lists every role that she’s performed on her resume, because it will immediately cause the review panel to question the legitimacy of her soprano-ness. The next inevitable step is that they’ll question her ability to sing the role for which she’s currently auditioning. This isn’t a gender issue any longer, but rather an issue of the current classification system’s inability to handle change.

And perhaps you’re thinking, “Our current voice types aren’t inherently gendered. What’s the issue?” Stay tuned, because while I won’t get to that here, I’ll go more in-depth into that aspect of the discussion in the next part of this series.

Voice type classification doesn’t only relate to the vocalists performing existing repertoire – this system also relates to the operatic roles we’re creating now and the roles we will create in the future. As a librettist, I’ve found that the current system severely limits and/or complicates the characters I write. When I write a trans or nonbinary character, many composers (rightfully) ask, “How do I write for this?” or “How do I identify it in terms of casting?” It’s quickly discovered that it’s not enough information to state a range or a standard voice type.

In the past, opera has intelligently dealt with the gender/voice interaction with its trouser and skirt roles. It’s still working with a gender binary, but it made a point of deciding how best to express certain variations and experiences in gender. I believe that changing the voice classification system can continue that adeptness into the future of the art form, allowing opera to continue to grow. The system has been purposefully designed; it can similarly be redesigned.

More and more trans artists are realizing that they can be both trans and an opera singer, something I once believed impossible. How can we be welcoming to their presence and artistry if the very structure of our system works against them? We’ve revised the operatic structure again and again, allowing it to flourish for hundreds of years. We can do it again to dismantle barriers for gender-diverse artists.

I’ve asked a lot of questions and I’ve purposely left most of them unanswered. First, I’m not a pedagogue; I’m speaking from my experience and the experiences that others have shared with me. Second, I don’t think that this is something that should be decided by one person. I’m far more interested in opening up the conversation to as many as are interested as a way to lead to a change in protocol. In later parts of this series, I’ll map out my ideas for the necessary elements of this new voice type classification system and how we can begin to combine these into a new system.

In the end, the onus should be on the system to support and correctly describe the artists within it, not on the artists to fit within its established parameters. A system that no longer serves its purpose, or that cannot expand to meet its purpose, must be redesigned.

If Elton John Sings But Everyone Else Does Too, Does It Make a Sound?

I spent my adolescence doing musical theater. As teenagers, my friends and I went through life singing and dancing—in hallways, parking lots, cars, and kitchens. Our friend Nick was a harsh critic of this practice.

Whenever someone launched into a melody, he’d ask, “Hey, who sings that song?” And regardless of our enthusiastic answer, his grim punchline was always the same: “Yeah—let’s keep it that way.”

I thought of Nick this past Saturday night, as I sat in an unnervingly large crowd at the Allstate Arena to hear Elton John. Because the problem was, sometimes I couldn’t hear Sir Elton over the other eighteen thousand people in the room.

Scene from an Elton John concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2009

Scene from an Elton John concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2009
Photo by Sean Biehle on Flickr

As a performer myself, I found it deeply unsettling to see someone as legendary as Elton John get sonically engulfed by the voices of his adoring fans. These people had paid hard-earned money and traveled on a cold night to hear one of the great heroes of pop music perform live. That’s really him up there! It’s not your stereo this time! I argued silently. John sounds fantastic, and to hear the way he delivers these melodies as a man in his sixties is fascinating. Yet at the climactic moments of “Rocketman,” or “Your Song,” or “Yellow Brick Road,” it was their own unremarkable voices the audience apparently wanted to hear.

Today, I will put on the mantle of the classically trained elitist curmudgeon and inquire: what is it with people and singing along? No really, what is it? Here, I offer four possible explanations for a phenomenon that, for anyone who celebrates live performance, doesn’t make much sense.

1. Let’s start with the most compassionate explanation—the one that assumes that human beings are good people who don’t want to endlessly aggravate each other. This explanation goes as follows: audiences sing along at concert because singing is fun, and it feels good. Singing your favorite songs with a big group of people, being close to all those bodies breathing and resonating, can be a joyous expression of togetherness. Most adults haven’t been part of a singing community since they were thirteen years old. On some primal level, they miss it. They crave the experience of merging with and becoming part of their favorite music. And then one evening, they come face to face with one of the greatest songwriters of all time. They get excited. And when human beings get excited, they sing.

2. If we’re not feeling so generous towards our fellow human beings as they drink Miller Lite under a giant dome and drown out Sir Elton’s subtle melismas and timbre changes (seriously!), it may be time for a slightly less warm-and-fuzzy explanation: they’re blithely singing along because they do not acknowledge the humanity of the live performer. To these singers-along, what Elton John decides to do with this spontaneous vocal moment is irrelevant. What matters to them is the melody they’ve heard, memorized, and sung along with for the past three decades. Trying to convince them to pay attention to a live vocalist is like trying to present a homemade bechamel sauce to someone who loves Kraft macaroni and cheese too much to care. (I know—ouch.)
3. Still angry about the sing-along, but don’t want to hate everyone around you? Consider the possibility that, plain and simple, the hegemony of the recorded “hit” is to blame. It’s hard to imagine a piece of music whose recording feels more definitive, more final and complete, than “Tiny Dancer.” The way that a typical listener relates to these recordings—via some speakers, an iPhone, and the American open road—has obliterated the song’s possibility of existing as a live, changing, in-the-moment experience. I mean, even the cast of Almost Famous couldn’t resist singing.

4. Not convinced by any of the above? There’s one final, sobering possibility, which is that the singers-along aren’t the problemI am. Maybe there’s nothing offensive about belting along to music that, after all, seems custom-made for exactly that. “Bennie and the Jets” can survive the senile humming of the man next door in a way that a Mozart string quartet cannot. The massively powerful sound system of the Allstate Arena made it possible (most of the time) for me to hear Elton over the crowd. Instead of casting sidelong glances at my neighbor, perhaps I ought to have remembered the all-important adage for surviving a crowd: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.