Opinions: Who do you trust and when do you listen?
In the 1988 classic film The Dead Pool, the final film of the Dirty Harry series, we live vicariously through the iconic lines delivered by Clint Eastwood. For instance, when a colleague of Harry Callahan (Eastwood) says that in his opinion the police department would be best served if Harry worked together with him in Public Relations, Harry flatly replies, 'Well opinions are like assholes. Everyone's got one.'
True enough, but as Harry's dirty comparison implies, we don't always want to hear other ideas. We all have a story about an unwanted opinion. How memorable it was is probably proportionate to how unwelcome it was. Maybe it was an employer, a teacher, a family member, or a well meaning colleague. Perhaps it was a (former?) friend. Sometimes you even know it's coming. And when it does, how you react can be very revealing.
The ability to receive and interpret criticism is an important life skill, but in the opera it is an unavoidable requirement. It's often not a question of right or wrong, black or white, but criticism is required to be efficient, effective and elite. In any given staging rehearsal a singer will receive general musical feedback from the conductor, finer musical details from the repetiteur, diction corrections from the language coach, dramatic instructions from the director, and workplace health and safety concerns from the stage manager. All these people are paid to give feedback, and more often than not they are suitably experienced to do so. At times this can become overwhelming to keep up with, but if singers can resist panic and treat these colleagues with respect, they usually want to help you do well.
In the theatre, a comment like 'you look so great onstage' can very quickly be interpreted as 'you sounded so bad I prefer talking about your appearance' by a nervous, self-critical singer.
And then of course a singer also encounters opinions from people who may not be suitably experienced. Even compliments can sometimes be illuminating. I remember singing for a friend's wedding in Australia quite some time ago. I had sung Handel's Largo from Serse (Ombra mai fu) and another piece which I can't remember, and things had gone fairly well. Afterwards, I was standing outside the church at the food table (of course), deliberating which culinary delight to sample, when I was approached by one of the other wedding guests. He was telling me how beautifully I sang, and I thanked him. However, he insisted, 'No really, you were very good. You should do singing!'
I smiled and calmly nodded, quickly made my food selection, and slipped away. I just didn't have the heart to inform him that I had completed four years at the conservatorium and was already singing and teaching professionally. Perhaps he could've exercised more prudence. I have to admit though, even I myself have run into trouble sometimes giving compliments. In the theatre, a comment like 'you look so great onstage' can very quickly be interpreted as 'you sounded so bad I prefer talking about your appearance' by a nervous, self-critical singer. So a singer has to learn to sometimes ignore opinions, even your own, especially those which aren't particularly encouraging or useful. Yet the initial question remains: who do you trust and when do you listen?
Stage directions during opera rehearsals (Peter Konwitschny - Aida, 2010-2011)
A singing teacher once told me, when taking advice always consider who the person is and what have they themselves have achieved. That's a neatly wrapped saying, but in reality I have received terrible advice from well established artists and terrific advice from a drunk in a bar. So again, how does one know the difference? How does a singer negotiate this minefield of subjectivity?
The first thing a singer must do is to get to know themselves really well. Through their education and training they must objectively assess all of their strengths and weaknesses, learning how to show more of the former than the latter. It's not just about knowing your voice - it's knowing how you come across onstage, how you yourself work best with colleagues, how you learn languages, what to do to function at your best and also, how to function when you aren't at your best - the list goes on.
As in comedy however, timing is everything.
Improving all this is pretty much your own trial and error. That means granting yourself the freedom to make mistakes. A good sense of humour helps in allowing yourself room to look silly. As in comedy however, timing is everything. A seasoned singer knows exactly when and where they can try new things out. They don't take unnecessary risks during performances, but they will constantly test their capacities in private practice and early rehearsals. Figuring out what works and what doesn't is the essence of experience, upon which an artist leans to craft their performance.
In addition to personal experience, almost all the artists I know have an inner sanctum - that is, a person or a group of people whose opinion they implicitly trust. You can usually count these people on one hand. These are people that see past the obvious, who can observe things that others can't, or articulate something in a way that can be digested and applied. Whether it's a family member, partner or colleague, this person either has to know you or the profession inside and out. They also should want to bring the best out of you and ideally have knowledge of how to do so. Any outside opinion can also be considered, but may eventually be discarded or overruled by a member of that artist's inner sanctum.
For me, one such person is my wife. Over the years I have trained her to be nothing short of ruthless with her honesty, since remaining positive about my performances has never been difficult for her. Aside from knowing my voice almost as well as I do, she tells me how the light hits my face, how my distance from the scenic backdrop affects the dramatic aesthetic, how my voice sounds from the third balcony when I'm lying on my back, the list continues. In many respects she is my eyes and ears. And somehow she always manages to give me an good impression of how my performance is received not just by well-informed critics, but also the average concert goer. But perhaps the most important thing is that I also know her very well. This means I can interpret everything she says through the lens of the person she is and the values she holds. In this way I also know which opinions to act upon and which not.
Image from Die Zauberflöte (2012-2013)
As Opera van Vlaanderen currently performs its revival production of Die Zauberflöte from 2013, I am forced to remember one of my own uninformed opinions. Both now and back in 2013, the opera was presented over the Christmas period, a logical choice considering the joy and humour present in the piece. When I first heard our version was to be a dark and serious interpretation of Mozart's charming Singspiel, I was concerned. To interpret an opera is one thing, but to change the entire aesthetic of the piece is something else entirely. And to choose such an interpretation to be performed during the joyous and festive season of Christmas? Insanity was one word that came to mind...
She shared my concern when I told her about the dark concept in combination with the festive time of year. So I was speechless when after the performance she told me it was the best thing she had seen from the company that year.
It is precisely at these times that an artist needs to defer to their inner sanctum for an objective view of the situation, a second opinion. My wife already knew Zauberflöte very well, as she had already seen me years ago in the role of Papageno at music college. She shared my concern when I told her about the dark concept in combination with the festive time of year. So I was speechless when after the performance she told me it was the best thing she had seen from the company that year. After hearing all her justifications for this, it deepened my appreciation of just how difficult it is to get a picture of a production when you are performing in it yourself. Even three years later, this revival production is a near sellout of 17 performances. Eating humble pie would be easier if it actually tasted good.
Sometimes we wish we could all be like Dirty Harry: to have enough faith in our personal experience that we can unwaveringly pursue our own idea of right and wrong, and to hell with the rest. So why do most of us choose against it? Probably because deep down we all know we need opinions to grow. If we ignore all opinions we also miss valuable opportunities to share with our fellow human beings. There are many unsavoury names for a person who won't share or listen to anyone else. It's also a sad and lonely road those people must follow. Perhaps it's a good reminder that while something might seem cool in the context of a film, it doesn't necessarily translate well into real life. But then again, you know what Dirty Harry says about opinions...
Image from Die Zauberflöte (2016-2017)
Who is Simon?
Simon Schmidt is a baritone in the Opera Vlaanderen chorus and has worked for the company for 7 full seasons. He also sings small to medium roles as a soloist in various productions. Originally from Australia, Simon moved to Europe in 2007 and has sung as a soloist and chorister in opera and oratorio in many different countries around the world. He writes this monthly blog to give honest insight into the inner workings of an international opera house and the lives of the people who inhabit it.