Song, Lied and Mélodie
by Milagro Vargas
Advice for vocalists and pianists on the importance of the song repertoire in the emerging musical culture.
THE WORLD of classical music is changing. Fewer people are going to concerts and fewer purchasing recordings. Arts organizations from opera houses and symphony orchestras to music festivals are in economic trouble. We can pretend this is not happening. That’s fine for some, but for teachers, especially at the college level, part of what we are paid for is honesty. It is our job to prepare our students for the future. That future is looking very different than the one we faced decades ago. To not acknowledge this and not respond in some ways in our teaching seems irresponsible to me. This article is one response, and suggests that solo voice and piano, because of the limited musical forces and requirements for performance, has a special place in the new musical culture.A Genre That Will Flourish in Today’s Musical Culture
Opera has always been the goal for many singers. But even in the best of times, the numbers of trained singers who end up making a living in opera compared with the numbers who pursue it are very few. If I had to guess, I’d say that 5 per cent of singers will ever sing in a professional opera production, but the numbers who make a living in opera is fewer. I could be wrong about these numbers, but not by much. And it’s an issue that teachers and singers are reluctant to face.Song (Lied in German, Mélodie in French) is a genre of music that will flourish in the new cultural environment. Unlike opera, it’s not expensive to put on. It won’t make most artists a lot of money -it never has. But the recital can constitute an important part of a musical life when other opportunities can’t be found. Opportunities
What are the kinds of work other than opera for classically trained singers today? There is concert work, mainly soloists for oratorio and other music for voice and orchestra. But while major orchestras perform this repertoire regularly, they tend to employ soloists whose main career is opera. The singers often are chosen from the conductor’s agent’s roster.
Many amateur choral groups program oratorios and the singers often support these organizations themselves. Thus, these choruses have a financial base and will continue to provide opportunities in this period of economic downturn. But think of the numbers. Let’s say that there are 1,000 potential jobs in the United States each year from “regional” choral organizations. The singers who get these jobs most often have a track record and have sung these pieces many times. It’s not uncommon when an organization is looking for a particular soloist to ask another singer who has performed the work for a suggestion. Agents, too, must promote their singers with these amateur groups. So the actual number of singers getting these 1,000 jobs is a rather small group.
However, depending upon the chorus, their location, and their finances, amateur choral groups present an important opportunity for a young soloist. A conductor of an amateur chorus is far more likely to listen to a “demo,” or grant an audition than the conductor of a more prestigious organization. Understandably, local groups are anxious to find good singers at a low fee, often the case with someone starting out. And using a local soloist may bring in audiences.
Churches are another source of employment. But as the general interest in classical music has declined, the number of churches that perform oratorio has declined also. But churches represent another opportunity for a young singer. The fee may be small, in fact it may not exist, but it’s a chance to perform with an orchestra (hopefully) and sing a particular piece.
Teaching has been and remains an important source of employment. But at the college level, these opportunities are shrinking also, especially as many working singers decide to “hang it up” in a world of fewer jobs and economic insecurity. The phrase “you can always teach,” once reliable, isn’t so today.The Recital
No matter what the state of your career and musical life, you can always give a recital! You may often find a pianist looking for performances also. You’ve both been trained as professionals. You’ll want to keep at it. While all initiative in the world may not be enough to get an opera going, putting together a recital is always possible.
I have no objections for the inclusion of operatic arias on a recital. But that performance is not what the composer had in mind. And in the hearts of many singers, the intended goal singing the aria in recital is “someday I’ll be singing this on the operatic stage.” This is not to say that arias can’t have a wonderful place in a carefully planned recital. But we have to honest about the context. Additionally, the available repertoire for the singer and pianist is rich, varied and extensive.The Opportunity for Pianists
Song performance is a co-effort. The pianist is an equal partner. Yet few pianists have the interest or spend the time learning how to perform and rehearse with singers. Those who do, and especially those who have the talent and the training to play for singers and also coach them have always found work. I don’t see this changing. Depending on the city, there are usually a number of pianists with good reputations. Except for major cities, that list is often quite small. The good pianists are always busy. Like singers, professionally trained pianists dream of winning prizes and performing concertos with great orchestras. But there’s still the issue of making a living. If performance of Song, Lied, and Mélodie seems important to you, I offer some basic principles and attitudes to help your career.
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