Renee Fleming: Strauss at a Proms Concert

On Christmas Day 2002, the arts channel (Ovation) in New York offered a special musical event: American soprano Renee Fleming performing the Strauss Four Last Songs with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London at Royal Albert Hall. One question that might arise to an observer watching this program might be, "Why was the entire audience so spellbound by this singer and what was so engaging and special about this particular performer?" Another question to consider is why did the audience give such a roaring standing ovation wanting more and more encores? Any singer desiring an international career could benefit greatly from studying Ms. Fleming's performance.


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Considering Priorities: How is a Performer Viewed by an Audience?

One important segment of a singer's education is, how and in what light is he or she viewed in the professional arena? Of course opinions vary depending upon priorities and personal taste. However, it is important to attempt to offer adequate information that a teacher might consider important in a singer's professional education and development.

Consider these facts:

  1. Usually singers are first judged by their entrance into the audition room (including clothing and style of walking)

  2. Then by their demeanor (smile, body posture and style of communication), and

  3. Last on the list, by their vocal technique and musicianship.

It is very important to realize that the vocal talent is the third and usually the LAST factor on the list. Physical presentation is extremely important in a world that has highly sexualized and mystified opera over the last three decades. The industry of classical music video has changed what audiences expect of the singer's image on stage and the camera is not very kind. Obviously there is really no escaping the direction that the opera and concert world has moved during these last years. Does it seem fair or just? Absolutely not! From a personal standpoint, my first priority in a world where there is a lot of inferior singing is whether or not the singer possesses a beautiful instrument with great musicianship and a solid technique. Since stage demeanor can be taught to most any performer, I do not consider judging a person's talent by looks an honorable evaluation of career potential. But the music business has begun to use this approach as a way of lessening the numbers in the competitive circle; this mainly due to the fact that there are so many singers auditioning for so few jobs. Obviously there are some career singers who do not sing consistently well, but the most serious question is why do they have careers? What makes the total package? Many younger singers trying to excel as a professional singer might find this frustrating. But the fact of the matter is that the level of competition in the classical music world today is fierce. If a singer is serious about a career, he or she must compete on every level including appearance.

Entrance to the Stage: The Professional Image

In her entrance to the stage in this Proms performance, I must say that Ms. Fleming's apparel was tasteful and appropriate, elegant yet simple, never drawing the audience far from her face. The dress simply offered a beautiful backdrop for a wonderfully interpreted performance. Her walk to the front of the podium was slow and graceful, involving smaller steps rather than larger ones. This creates a sense of confidence for both singer and audience. Another great artist to study is Ms. Shirley Verrett, an elegant and beautiful performer who knows how to present an elegant image on stage. Both these singing artists flow onto the stage with elegance and grace. When studying videos of performances such as these two artists, notice that the singer usually uses smaller steps that remove the possibility of the bobbing head (the head bobbing up and down). The bobbing head syndrome can make a singer appear to be an inexperienced amateur. An elegant style of walking is designed to allow the singer's body and demeanor to come together as an ensemble of consistency, a behavior that most professionals acquire through instinct or through schooling. If a singer does not possess elegance naturally, then it must be a studied craft in his or her performance education. The craft of impressive stage demeanor is a necessary study for male singers as well. Both style (clothing) and stage presence (entrance) create a thread toward charisma, a factor that enhances a career. In Ms. Fleming's video performance, she creates a professional environment when she enters the stage.

The Open Face: An Invitation for the Audience

The second major observation in this performance is the aspect of welcoming the audience. After acknowledging the conductor and the concert violinist with a small nod of the head, Ms. Fleming then took a short moment to acknowledge the audience with a very bright smile as though to say, "Hello, I am glad you are here so we can share this music together." Her smile relaxes, the audience fades toward silence, then she looks slightly downward, then up toward the audience. The entrance and welcome are extremely important parts of opening a truly professional performance. While including the audience, these two aspects of the performance paint the mood of humility and willingness to serve the music. It also mirrors the fact that she is serious about delivering an honest musical experience. Renee Fleming's face was very open and uplifted without spreading the mouth shape (the 'inward' smile of the Italian School), something a vocal pedagogue knows is helpful in order to prepare the singer's open throat by lifting the soft palate

How does the ensemble begin? First of all, there was NO nodding of the head to the conductor as to say, "I am ready now!" This type of obvious signaling is a behavior that can often be observed at a concert of an amateur. A less trained singer will often turn to the pianist or conductor and make a huge nod. This is strangely distracting to the audience. Ms. Fleming first looked slightly downward and then raised her head offering the conductor the message that she was ready to begin. Her face remained uplifted and open as though she was going to really enjoy performing for a very willing and excited audience.

Body Posture

Ms. Fleming's body posture was important to note. Her chest was open without lifting up too high or hyper-extending. This allowed her to keep her back rib cage open as well. Remember that we have a front AND back rib cage. Many excellent teachers refer to this concept as the singer's barrel chest. Remember that a barrel has two halves, a front half AND a back half. Many singers tend to open the chest (front rib cage), yet lift it too high, which collapses the back rib cage and over-blows the vocal cords. Open front and back rib cage is a concept that is taught in the Alexander Technique. It is a wonderful self- study to become aware of the entire body, not just part of it. My teacher in New York, Evelyn Reynolds speaks of the front rib cage as feeling "slightly shorter" then the back rib cage. (Note: posture exercises can be found on David Jones' CD, "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones")

It is obvious in this performance that Renee Fleming's posture is a help to her vocal technique. (Alan Lindquest often wrote of the role of proper posture in singing and the positive effects on the voice.) Most vocal professionals know the positive effect of excellent posture on the act of singing. There was not a moment that Ms. Fleming looked uncomfortable in her body. This allowed her to trust the vocal function from which this beautiful sound could simply flow. We now know from scientific research that correct body posture is a fundamental study in the achievement of good singing primarily because of the balance in breath management that results. Many individuals are so disconnected from their bodies that proper posture in singing is never fully realized. When considered, it is obvious that most cultures throughout the world are not teaching proper body posture. Perhaps this is why the Alexander Technique teachers are so busy with actors, singers, dancers, and corporate executives. In American culture, the television has become a functioning world for many people. Sitting for hours at a time usually results in improper or unhealthy body posture. Similar cultural circumstances could be the very reason that so many singers need to study posture (i.e. the Alexander Technique) in order to begin to connect with their bodies. Emotional trauma can also invite a singer to disconnect from his or her body. This is a consistent problem for many college and university voice teachers and the complaints surrounding this issue are many. Teaching correct posture for singing is a huge job for these teachers and more and more singers seem to need this focus in their vocal education. Ms. Fleming's performance was a shining example of the importance of correct body posture, not only for proper singing, but also for creating a positive appearance and a healthier life.

Facial Posture

Any excellent vocal pedagogue will share the fact that facial posture has a direct effect on the internal posture of the throat in singing, therefore creating a direct affect on vocal acoustics. Alan Lindquest used the concept of the "joyful surprise" at inhalation with the jaw relaxing slightly down and back. The larynx drops almost automatically when this emotion is used in the preparatory breath as the soft palate lifts gently. Ms. Fleming uses a lifting of the muscles under her eyes when she breathes to sing. This lifts the soft palate further away from the root of the tongue making it easier to achieve an open acoustical space. Another consideration in this study: Ms. Fleming's jaw relaxes slightly down AND back when preparing to sing. This back position of the jaw is a characteristic of what many call the pre-yawn feeling in preparing to sing. (I also observed this jaw function in the singing of Olga Boradina from backstage at the San Francisco Opera house.) It should be common knowledge that we do not hold a pre-yawn with the jaw jutting forward. This would close the acoustical space instead of open it.

Another important factor in the study of the facial posture of Ms. Fleming is that of NOT showing lower teeth, yet lifting the muscles under the eyes until a little of the upper teeth show. This makes for higher overtone dominance in the quality of a singer's vocal timbre. When a singer shows lower teeth, the soft palate is most often pulled down and the jaw begins to hold tremendous pressure. (Note: The mouth opening is oval, NOT spread. The muscles under the eyes are lifted without spreading the corners of the mouth.)

Acoustical efficiency is greatly dependent upon the study and execution of correct facial posture for singing. Ms. Fleming never abandoned the slightly rounded mouth posture, a factor in allowing for a slightly lower larynx position. For many, correct facial posture is not a natural response, but a studied craft that takes consistent work in a mirror. Use of this kind of mirror work in practice is of critical importance and the benefits are many.

Considering Body Size and Shape

In an ever-growing classical video industry, it is important to note that there is prejudice toward larger-bodied people. This is yet another way to eliminate some singers. This kind of prejudice is wrong and abusive; nevertheless it is a common criteria in hiring practices, mainly due to different audience expectations. Yes, there are larger singers with huge careers, but most often their journey has been a slow and difficult one. Sexism in the classical world reigns in that this type of prejudice seems to be less for men than for women. Heavy men are acceptable while larger women are rejected. If yours size is a consideration, it is important to find an image consultant to present the most positive first impression possible. I have had singers loose over 100 pounds of weight and then find that they are hired more often. It is a sad commentary on yet another type of prejudice that is rarely confronted.

Ms. Fleming presents a beautifully balanced form, yet she is not underweight. The old belief that singers need to be heavy in order to sing well is an untrue statement. It is also important to note however that many underweight singers have much more difficulty finding correct and solid body connection. The same is true with the other extreme: obesity. When one considers that singers are always attempting to find vocal balance (usually with two opposite concepts working together), then it is important to note that any extremes in body weight can cause vocal difficulties through imbalance in muscular coordination. In fact, every singer needs to consider the concept of balance. This can apply to physical appearance, emotions, or discipline in practice.

Acknowledging Applause

Renee Fleming presented a technically beautiful and musically exceptional performance with the Strauss Four Last Songs. At the end of the concert, she graciously acknowledged the audience with a beautiful smile and a gentle nod of the head accompanied with a slight bow. She then immediately acknowledged the conductor and the concert violinist. Again, elegance in movement was expressed by taking lots of time for each body movement. She never rushed her gestures. Most singers need to study this style of movement in front of a mirror or video camera. It does not come naturally for many. Even though it can be intimidating, performing for a video camera can be a wonderful tool for younger singers attempting to develop an impressive stage demeanor.

The study of becoming a singing artist is multi-faceted, which makes it exciting and interesting. Good luck in your study and in your journey toward professional development.

(c) David L. Jones/2003

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