Recently I was listening to Amy Winehouse and stumbled on a quote of hers saying:
"I'm not frightened of appearing vulnerable." (Amy Winehouse as an opera character by the way could easily be comparable to that of a Carmen or Violetta in my eyes ― especially the latter in terms of drug abuse.)
Well it so happens that in the world of opera, we talk a lot about “what it means to be vulnerable”. It’s the hot topic on everyone’s mind that everyone’s trying to figure out.
What does it look like? Why are tenors so good at it? Are being and acting vulnerable the same thing or completely different all together? How can it be achieved?
I can’t even begin to tell you how much this one word has mystified me over the years, ever since I first heard it at Joyce DiDonato’s first masterclass at Juilliard and then in a personal letter from her in regards to a video application I sent out.
Why? Because it’s so complex! There’s a multitude of meaning behind that one word! How can one, single word hold such vastitude of meaning?
Upon a quick Google search of the word “Vulnerability” I am inundated with sites on dating tips and why being vulnerable is so attractive. Apparently this isn’t just a buzz word in the opera world after all…
I found quotes like:
So if to be vulnerable is to love, then no wonder opera is all about vulnerability. It's 99% about love! (You'd think opera is also about revenge or death, but really they all stem from love.)
So after further investigation I found:
“Somewhere along the way, we lose our nerve, and that vulnerability begins to scare us.” (Brian Speck, http://www.houstongrandopera.org/Musings/the-courage-to-sing/)
Throughout our lives and as we grow older, we're taught by our teachers and parents to control our emotions and tongues. Not to speak unless we’re told.
Of course only to find out that when learning how to sing classically the opposite is in fact true and that what you really need to do is to “let go”.
Well, isn’t that precisely what being vulnerable’s all about?
After receiving that personal letter from Joyce I decided I needed to figure this out once and for all. I went to every singer, director, conductor and coach that I could find and asked this very question:
“What's your idea of vulnerability?”
“Is there a specific look that you could equate it to?”
It’s no surprise that I got a different answer every time. Obviously, no two people are a-like in thinking, but still. So let’s look at the comparisons I got:
A majority said it’s “open-ness”.
Ok…but how to LOOK open? Is it in the body or face or both? I’m assuming with the body shoulders are back and relaxed, face is upward and receiving, any tension in the joints and jaw are unhinged.
But what about the face? What can I do right NOW to get that “O” face? (Ha, no pun intended.)
This brings me to ask, have you ever watched Anna Netrebko perform? (Opera’s most famous singer of today. Of course we all love her. Those who don’t are just in denial.)
I can’t help but notice whenever she sings how “open” she is. What do I mean?
Well…it’s, sort of complicated.
See, in opera we’re taught the importance of “expression” in one’s face. We’re told things like “inner smile", "think of a third eye” or “the look of astonishment”. Why? Because they’re all ways of thinking to help us achieve that inner stretch and cavital space we need in order to have the space to produce those high a$$ notes, because God forbid we sing flat…
...there's a reason why they're called "money notes" ya know...
But whenever I watch Anna Netrebko…in that special moment it’s as if her face becomes expressionless. And it’s beautiful. At that moment we know she's become vulnerable. And me not even fully understanding what the look of vulnerability was, could physically SEE it on her face. And I felt it deep inside:
“But what about all the things we’re told to do with expression?!”, you ask.
Just because her face becomes expressionless doesn’t mean it’s not forward thinking!
Can you see where I'm going with this? Key word here is *Forward! >>> Always, always in opera and any of the performing arts you must think ahead in thought and intension.
You see, having an expressionless face is one thing.
But having an expressionless face facing upwards how she does, where one can feel the heat of the spotlight illuminate their face and their body’s not collapsed (feel a string pulling you upwards from your spine)…well that, I believe is more like the look of vulnerability that we’re all trying to achieve. That physical “open-ness” that everyone’s talking about.
Try standing where you are and do that. Feels a little strange, huh? It’s not like you walk into work standing tall like Hercules every day, does it? But it's starting to feel a little more empowering, right?
Let's take it a step further.
Have you ever thought about something really hard where after a while you begin to space out? It's mostly the kind we deal with when thinking about our future or a specific person. Forming futuristic ideals, if you may.
Just think about it. Whenever you’re deep in thought like that, focus on what your eyes are doing. Are they wide open? Are they squinted? Which one looks more free? More inviting, less obtrusive?
The ones that are O P E N , of course!
You see, Netrebko hooks us all because she speaks with her eyes. And when she opens those puppies, it’s like we all melt in our seats. Heck even Paula Deen aint got that much butter melting on her skillet for a family of fifty! (Ok I’m exaggerating, but come’on…last time I heard she was cooking with lard?)
You see, it’s all in the being subtle. Many times we’re told “less is more”.
Well, now you can see why!
See, in opera there’s always a “finding the balance” in everything, including tension…oh boy now I’m really getting deep into technique. I’ll have to write another blog post just about tension...
On one hand you can’t have too much tension, otherwise you’ll hit a wall. But if you don’t have any tension, then you’ll fall flat like spaghetti. Not cool, bro. Not cool.
It takes strength — but a certain kind of strength.
For example, if I was to put my arm up in a flexing position and flex my muscle really hard, sooner or later my arm would start to shake, right?
And if I relax it completely then my arm would fall to my side, right?
Well what if I held it up without trying to flex my muscles. Just rest it in the air, my body still working to support it.
See, that’s the kind of balance I’m talking about. Strength finessed.
Not fitness — but finessed.
(If you still don’t get it, write me a note and I’ll try and send you a short video demonstration of what I mean — just don’t go posting it everywhere…I don’t want to turn out like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton.) ;)
Now don’t get me wrong. We all love those badass characters when they enter the stage like a m.f. beast and can slaughter their aria or coloratura like the lion(ness) they are! (Hollah, Diana Damrau!) Yes, all of you Don Giovannis, Queen of the Nights and baroque counter tenors out there, you know we love you!
But it's those characters like Violetta (from Verdi’s La traviata), Jiuliette (from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi [aka Romeo and Juliette]), Marie (from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment), Blanche (from Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites), Nemorino (from Donizetti’s L’elisir d'amore), Charlotte and Werther (from Massenet's Werther) or Tatyana (from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin) who really get our blood boiling and cooling all at once.
If you don't believe me, just watch the following: ...oh and BTW what you're about to witness is EXTREMELY RARE — it's called an encore. (When the audience begs the performer to repeat the ridiculously difficult aria they just performed, so by doing so they must be of Godly proportions):
If vulnerability is to love, then this one tops them all. Here in this remarkable moment we see Villazon spilling his guts, baring his wounds for all to see. (Seriously, who wouldn't want to lick those wounds?) And in doing so, him opening up his heart to us, in turn opens up our hearts to him. In this perpetual giving and receiving of love from both sides it's as if one can see the circle of life! (Er'body knows Disney references are the best.)
They are the ones who can ignite a fire within us and a yet cool us all at once.
Interestingly we can find a similar parallel in Christian teachings of the Holy Spirit, using the metaphors water vs fire.
John the Baptist came preaching repentance and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea, and he was sent as a herald to announce the arrival of Jesus, the Son of God. He announced,
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful that I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
This can also be seen in Luke 3: 7-17:
“John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you will the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Luke 3:16)
So what are our key take aways?
What are 5 things we could do to achieve vulnerability?
The audience can tell in a split second if you’re not 100% honest and committed as the character. Do some serious character analysis. Who am I? Where am I? What do I want? What is getting in the way of what I want?
#2. Body & posture
It’s important to keep an upward physical sensation no matter where you are on stage. Take a look at professional dancers. Think, where are my shoulders? Are they too high or can I relax them a little without compromising my posture? How about my jaw? Is it tense, or can I focus on relaxing the space between them (aka unhinging the molars - it’s important to know these key words within the anatomy).
#3. The thought of “tomorrow” (aka "thinking forward")
I love this one and it’s perhaps one of my favorites. My French colleague told me about it from working with an acting director. He said, “sing as if whatever you’re talking about is something you want tomorrow.” What he means is that by thinking of it as a futuristic action you will feel less restricted. By actually "thinking forward", the "forward thinking" that we're trying to achieve will happen naturally. (Man, that was a tongue twister.)
#4. Love your audience
This one might seem a little scary at first, but just remember, don’t be afraid! Look, I know how scary it can be to get on-stage in front of a huge orchestra, conductor and entire audience staring at you with beaming eyes, but trust me. The more you “love thy audience” instead of trying to “figure out how to be comfortable”, the more successful you'll be at owning the stage. If you’re not comfortable with that, it’s ok. “Fake it till you make it”, as my sister would say.
#5. Love bath
Whether you’re singing to the audience (upwards and out) or to your partner on stage (hopefully not blocking you), imagine that you’re literally raining love onto them. Take all the love and appreciation from within you and spray it on them as you perform, showering them in a bath of love. To be honest, I can’t take full credit for this tip because again my one and only sister had reminded me of it before my debut with the Saint Louis Symphony. (Their stage is super close to the audience and it can feel intimidating when you’re on it for the first time.)
It totally works. Not only does it work, but it’s super gratifying as well.
And you’ll have people from the audience come up to you after the show and say how amazing your stage presence was and that they felt like you were singing right to them! Believe me, I’m NOT making this stuff up!
Disclaimer: Be careful. Your look of vulnerability can make you become so attractive that you might attract others without even knowing it. Make sure your on-stage partner is completely aware that you're a 100% committed actor on-stage and in rehearsals, and that whatevers happening is just “acting”. Super important.
So there you have it. My tips for how to be vulnerable on-stage and even in life. And for those non-performers, try it on your next date. See what happens! Just don't forget to let me know how it worked. ;)