We kindly inform that your browser is no longer supported by Microsoft.

Please switch to a more secure browser such as Chrome, Firefox or Edge.

Credits: Rachel McIntosh (also in the photo)

Against the loneliness of the singer

#guestwriter #musictheater

In the Together in the Universe of Sound symposium we heard several aspects of working together with performing bodies, voice, space, norms, politics, music and sound, the possibilities and the challenges. In an artist dialogue, mezzo soprano Rachel McIntosh and I discussed the role of the singer, taking into the discussion soprano Hannah Mehler, who was in the audience as part of NAF:s performance Norm is Fiction that we could see on the following day. 

I wanted to address this question, because I find that one of the most challenging areas in opera is the role of the singer. From the outside she seems grandiose, but reality is harsher. Singers work mostly on their own and are subjected to a strong internal discipline and regime to care and fight for themselves in a highly competitive environment.

Being a female singer in the world of opera is a regular low valued female area of work with unstable working conditions and a high turnover. Can this change?

Annika: I was struck by the loneliness of the opera singers. In any group or ensemble you can experience existential loneliness, but the singer’s work is concretely lonely: rehearsing mostly alone and entering the stage work with the others often quite late in the process. Could you tell me more of the working structures for singers?

Hannah: I am perhaps not the most representative singer to talk about opera, since I actually don’t have much experience in opera. This may seem paradoxical, since I love singing, acting and being on stage interacting with other people. However, opera does not really interest me. There are several reasons for this:

First, I find competition disgusting. It doesn’t create a good working atmosphere where an artist can grow and be creative. You are replaceable. If you are not “good enough”, sick or whatever, the next singer is ready to take your place. The way you get a job is also based on competition: you have to audition in front of a jury, who most likely won’t choose you, because there are several hundred others auditioning as well. You sing very well, but this alone is not the deciding factor whether you get the job or not. Unfortunately, it also matters how you look, what your body looks like, if you are skinny, fat, what skin color you have, who you know and who you don’t know.

Secondly, I very often have a lot of trouble with the content of operas, with their narratives. It’s a fact that the stories being told in opera are several hundred years old. The stories are not contemporary and have little to do with the reality of my life. I often find that the image of women that is conveyed is misogynistic. There are efforts to perform the operas in a more contemporary way: but for me, modern costumes and a clean stage design are usually not enough.

Thirdly, I find the structures of the institution “opera” highly questionable and incredibly unprogressive. Unfortunately, 99 percent of opera is still created in extreme hierarchies. Hierarchy means that there are concentrations of power that are very often exploited. Unfortunately, opera as an institution is a place where discrimination, physical and psychological abuse, and misogyny happen every day.

I might have a very dark view on this, but I don’t see institutionalized opera as a field of work where I can fully contribute, develop and be artistically fulfilled.

Hannah Mehler in NAFs performance Norm is Fiction # 5. Credits: Regina Brock

Rachel: For me, the loneliness consists of long periods of solo preparation – knowing that the gig is coming, and knowing that there is a large amount of material that has to be learned alone, but can’t be truly understood until it is placed into context with the group (the other singers, orchestra, director, et.cetera). The imagination plays such an important role here. Furniture moved around in the apartment, forming a stage and props. Fitting the pieces together in one’s mind. And also to remember the financial isolation and responsibility, if one needs to hire a coach or accompanist to help learn the music.

The result is the sudden convergence, upon arriving in rehearsal, of many different ideas and worlds. Each person is bringing with them their own context — the solo apartment preparations, experiences of where the work has been performed before; ideas about how characters should be. The result is a sort of high risk conceptual collision — with adaptable colleagues, all can go well. But sometimes you end up in situations with multiple different worlds that somehow don’t (or can’t) intersect. 

Then again, it doesn’t always matter, in the way that opera is produced today. Singers are cogs in a machine – their work is designed such that they can be easily replaced if necessary. It is at once because of the humanity of singing, and the lack of it: singing is the most human kind of musical performance.

The sound is produced from muscle, tendon, bone, phlegm, saliva, blood, and guts. The throat is a birth canal for song. And because singing is so human, it’s vulnerable to all the things that humans are vulnerable to: illness, sadness, pain.

So when we get sick, we can’t do our work; and just like that, we are removed and someone else replaces us as if we were never there to begin with. A cog in a machine. And because people get sick or otherwise indisposed fairly frequently, the machine of big-stage opera is designed to be as modular as possible. Who is singing is not as important as the work being sung; while there are a few opera singers who have managed to become household names (i.e Renee Fleming), most people are more interested in seeing La Boheme than in seeing Billy baritone and Sally soprano singing the lead role. I guess what I’m saying is singers aren’t celebrated as individuals in the same way that pop stars, composers, and other kinds of creators are. But it’s not because singers aren’t creative – it’s because the work is structured in a way where they are at the bottom of the creative hierarchy of an opera house. But I guess this isn’t unique to opera – there are many settings in which the individuals are subservient to the work at large, if that makes sense.
I think that this environment breeds a certain kind of opera directors – people who can view the work of stage direction from 100 meters in the air, pulling the strings on marionettes from far away. Stand here, walk there, stand again, sing, don’t move. The details can easily get lost with this kind of broad view.

Hannah: I agree with Rachel on everything and I would like to add a practical example. Sitting at home in the first lockdown, I couldn’t motivate myself to practice – in fact, I didn’t sing or practice for about 4 months. There was no reason to: I had no more concerts, no projects, nothing. And I simply didn’t see the point in going to my rehearsal room all by myself and learning or singing random arias. For me, music and art only come into being in togetherness. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go down that path, because working for the opera simply means too much loneliness.

Annika: This is a paradoxical situation: singers are the proletariat of the houses, on the bottom of the hierarchy, yet the names and glamorous aura of the soloists draw the crowds.

Rachel: The singers are the product. They are the ones on the front-end of what the opera house is developing. The house could be full of the world’s best directors, producers, orchestral players, et cetera. But if the singers weren’t there, it wouldn’t be opera.

The singers are also usually the largest group of people in the opera house, with some large-scale, full-chorus operas bringing dozens of people on stage. But the singers do not often participate in the creative work of developing the opera — they are told where to stand, how to emote, where to sing loud and where to sing soft. In the general course of things, they follow directions. You might get a director who offers a more collaborative process — they are out there, and they are wonderful. But generally, singers are treated as the clay, the blank page, the empty canvas. The creative work is left to the composers, conductors, directors. And there’s something so off-putting to me about the fact that most singers are women, and most composers, conductors, and directors are men.

Annika: In the background I can see a big expensive machinery: a need for efficiency, ticket sales. Where and how can the art of opera be furthered?

Hannah: Opera costs a lot of money, but it also creates a lot of jobs. A wide variety of professions are in demand and that makes it very special and well worth protecting. Opera is a central European cultural asset. But I ask myself at what cost. Should we reproduce something over and over again, even though it is not up to date? I also wonder to what extent and how long opera will continue to exist in this way. To put it bluntly, opera is losing its audience. New formats have to be found that appeal to a broader section of the population.

Structures and hierarchies in all institutions need to be questioned and dismantled. Systematic abuse of power must no longer be the order of the day. I would like to see work at eye level. I would like to see Opera becoming more collaborative, inclusive, and diverse.

Annika: Hierarchies are hard at work in the world of opera. How would you like to work?

Rachel: I have been in a couple of small productions that had no director. Instead, they were collaboratively directed, composed, and conducted by the singers. Not only was the end result genuinely good, it was also extremely fun, and challenging in the right ways. I would love to do much more of this kind of work. I’m also interested in breaking some of the other “taboos” of opera, like using electronic amplification and other electronically-generated effects with the voice. I believe this could make operas easier and less expensive to produce, which would allow singers to make their own shows without the financial behemoth of an opera house behind them.

Hannah: I like to use my voice as a vehicle, as an expression. I see myself as a singer, but also as a performer, as a body in a space that interacts with other bodies. I want to address issues that affect me as a young woman or as a human in today’s society. I want to address plight. I want to create beauty. I want to make people think. I want to touch people.

I like working together with people from different arts and backgrounds. Collaborative and interdisciplinary work are particularly appealing, inspiring and fulfilling. I love collaborations where something completely new gets created. Where everyone is involved in the process. I’d like to work more in that direction. Togetherness is the future.

Rachel McIntosh is an American opera singer and noise artist based in Helsinki, Finland. She has worked extensively at the intersection of experimental and traditional stage works.

Hannah Mehler studied classical singing. She performs both as soloist and as ensemble singer, collaborates with artists from diverse backgrounds and also conceptualizes her own staged pieces. She is focused on creating a contemporary approach to classical music with her perceptive interpretation of language and music and her ability to captivate with her artistry in singing, acting and reciting.