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Next entry: Madsen Pirie says education may be a right but it ought not to be a government monopoly
Previous entry: What to do about the supply of and demand for hot college classes
Thursday February 14 2008

imageIn the latest (March 2008) issue of the Gramophone, Jonas Kaufmann, who is arguably the finest tenor Germany has produced in the past half-century, talks about a crisis in his singing career, and how an American teacher living in Germany enabled him to surmount it.

A year after graduating I found that I had no clue how to sing. I was very close to quitting altogether, so insecure was I about everything I was doing onstage. The voice constantly felt as though it could go at any moment. And that, eventually, is exactly what happened. Twice. Onstage, while singing in Parsifal. The conductor looked at me, I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

This is a regular nightmare for opera singers, but here I was living it. To my great fortune there was an American bass in this show who said, “You need a better teacher”. I was sceptical, and retorted that a doctor was what I needed. But eventually I took his advice and hunted for a vocal coach who could show me the right path. That’s when I met Michael Rhodes, and that first meeting changed my life.

A friend took me along to see this Brooklyn-born man living in the German town of Trier. This was 13 years ago, and although he was already in his 70s he was full of energy and power.

After we had been introduced, he got down to business. “Sing ah, ah, ah” he demanded. I obliged. “Interesting,” he said, “now sing ee, ee, ee.” I did as he asked, and he said, “Absolutely wrong”. I was stunned. “What are you talking about?”

I asked, baffled. “Your ee is much too slim and broad, you use your mouth in the wrong way and your entire sound is unnatural for you.” It was the first time that somebody had dipped their hand into that wound, but he was right. German tenors are expected to sound light and bright, with little vibrato, a typical Peter Schreier sound. I also expected this, and was manipulating my voice to sound like this. It sort of worked, but the sound was unhealthy and I would finish each performance exhausted.

In that session, Rhodes told me to open my mouth and let my own sound out. It took a while for me, and for other people, to trust this dark, heavy sound I was now making. But, whereas my voice had previously given out sometimes even before I had finished a lesson, on this occasion I sang for him for two and a half hours. I could have continued singing for hours more.

Suddenly it was so easy to sing! And by learning that new way of singing I became more and more relaxed in my voice and in myself. And I always had Rhodes as my indefatigable guide. If ever I couldn’t reach a note, he – a septuagenarian baritone – would sing a soft high B and taunt me. He challenged me, he taught me, he kept me in singing.

See and hear Kaufmann singing Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio here.