‘Mystery’ of Opera Singing Revealed (1) – Personal Reflections

PATRICIA STILES ON TEACHING VOICE, AND SINGING HỒ XUÂN HƯƠNG

Patricia Stiles as ‘Nancy’ in “Martha” by Flotow – Photo courtesy of Patricia Stiles

With the experience of twenty years singing in Germany and more than ten years teaching at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Patricia Stiles is undoubtedly a deep well of knowledge when it comes to opera singing. She is still performing and has recently released a new album titled “Song Tapestry” in which the Hồ Xuân Hương songs collection called Spring Confession by P.Q. Phan is included.

Is it true that Asian women tend to have soprano voices?

The Asian languages call for totally different productions of how to say words and Asian women develop a lot of height in the pitches as they speak. It does seem that they often are sopranos, but not all of them are. Still I think the language has a big influence. When I listen to Asian students, often I hear them talk much higher than I would normally speak. The fact that within the language, different spoken pitches affect the meanings of the words is not true of western languages with which I am familiar.

If you have bigger lungs to hold more air, does it mean you can sing bigger?

I don’t think that it has such a big effect. But if you also have a heavy body it takes more force of air to produce the sound. I know heavier people with big skeletons and big lungs, and people with very tiny bodies and small frames, and in each body type some singers have excellent breath control and long breath lines and strong, clear voices. Good breathing for singing is a skill. I can tell you that I have a good breath line and over time it has gotten better and better. Some principles which contribute to good breath support are 1. making every tone as efficient as possible and that means that there is no air escaping, all of the air is going into the tone; 2. that means that the vibrations of the sung vowels are really connected and that the consonants do not take up so much time and do not make so much extra noise that takes away from your air stream; 3. that means always having forward motion through the phrase that sends the tone (vibrating air) energetically into the hall.

My teacher, who was my mentor, Oren Brown, a very famous pedagogue of the 20th century, emphasized the fact that we “think/imagine pitches and our vocal folds respond to the thought and produce the pitch” – not that you have to do something in our throat to get from one pitch to another. Somebody plays a melody for you and your brain tells your vocal chords what to do. So the more you learn to depend on the things about singing that can be at this instinctual level or that can be managed just by thoughts, the more efficient you can be in your singing. If you always try to make every tone just right by physically doing something to the tone, altering your resonance space or tensing your throat muscles or your articulators, that also takes more air. Professor Brown taught for years at Juilliard, and three of the principles he talked about most in our lessons are 1. to think the pitches and let your voice sing, 2. to always sing and speak in your space, and 3. to release your sound.

I work with my students on these principles all the time. We do exercises sometimes that are so fast that you only can think the tones in order to do them. I try to encourage people to realize what the voice can naturally do when they give the right mental commands and when the air stream is vibrant and energetic.

In what way is the relationship between the student and the teacher in Voice different than in other fields? 

I suspect that such a relationship is more close than with other instruments. Your voice is a very important part of yourself. In studying singing, most people learn a lot about themselves. They find out things that are very positive, surprising and also things which are frustrating about themselves. Sometimes the revelations are almost too much emotionally, but in the end, knowledge is power. When you know what is going on, you have a better chance to effect a change or changes for improvement than if you do not know. Studying voice, with all the connected feelings, is a journey and can be a little bit of a roller coaster – with frustrations, and incredible joys.

As a teacher, I have been on vocal journeys with many students. A lot of times, I learn things about my students they are not aware of. Sometimes they confide in me, I must keep their trust. So I get to know a lot of my students at a personal level. Often I don’t tell them what I learn about them, because it may hurt them. In singing, especially, you are your instrument – it is personal. If you cannot convince yourself that you can really sing well, then you won’t be able to. You get up there with only a piano accompaniment. All you depend on is you and your air and what skills you have trained and your brain, your personality. Singing for an audience is a bit like a public strip tease. So it brings with it a lot more risk and challenge.

What is the challenge in your teaching?

The challenge is to find the balance between these things, you have to be a bit like a psychiatrist and decide how much truth a person can take so that when I tell them they are good they know that I mean it, not that I say it to make them feel good.

What is the satisfaction in your teaching?

To see people grow and develop towards reaching their full potential as a singer and as a person. I feel a strong commitment to my students and I care about them very much.

What is your experience singing the Hồ Xuân Hương songs collection by PQ Phan?

I learned them over time. I thought in terms of language; those are such incredible texts of the time. They show such force of personality and the poet’s need to be true to herself, regardless of what others may think. What an interesting person Hồ Xuân Hương must have been. I thought musically, because the songs are challenging and interesting to sing, and the texts are meaningful and beautiful. I enjoyed working on them but I didn’t try to learn them quickly. The songs have a lot to say. What a revelation these songs are to the audience as they read the program notes and understand the background. Then they can hear and see this woman’s thoughts and feelings in her day and time. I felt very honored that P.Q. Phan dedicated them to me and I enjoyed recording them and still enjoy singing them.

How did you deal with the sexual implication in the texts?

I have sung operatic roles that are more sexually explicit, but it is something to think about. I thought that that the text wasn’t always in good taste. I talked to PQ about the section where I had to say the word “screw” over and over again, and suggested it might be possible to find another word like “damn” that would have fewer sexual connotations, but he didn’t want to do that. So when I gave my family ‘Song Tapestry’ with the songs by P.Q. Phan – Spring Confession, I told them, “I have to say that word very often, so maybe you don’t want to listen to that song.” As a singer, I respected P.Q. Phan’s judgment, and I sang and recorded the songs as he had written them. These are Hồ Xuân Hương’s words and I am singing her words and playing her as a character just as I would play her on stage. I tried to get into her mind and see it from her point of view. With Hồ Xuân Hương, of course she is very angry at her position as ‘second wife’ and she wants power and she’s going to do whatever it takes to get it. It is not a moral thing to her at all. Bad or good, that’s what she wants and she’s going to do it. If you see it from her point of view, it is not a problem. I might not react as she did, but everybody has their dark, willful, selfish moments, so when I sang that song I don’t think of it as sexual at all. I thought something like “damn,” that my position is a horrible thing, and I have to rail against it. I feel very privileged to have learned about Hồ Xuân Hươngand to have had the opportunity to introduce her to the West.

***** The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News, also available online here.

Curious for more about opera singing, read ‘Mystery’ of Opera Singing Revealed (2): Patricia Stiles on the Training of an Opera Singer.

About the Hồ Xuân Hương songs collection.

Listen to Patricia Stiles singing Spring Confession – the Hồ Xuân Hương songs collection.

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