The brilliant pianist and pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne used to tell her students, "Isn't it wonderful that music is not a science?" Well — yes, it is wonderful. But in these days when arts leaders seem more often to speak in terms of quantification than to assess the quality and merit of various projects, I'm all too happy to be reminded that music is not a science.
I confess that I've often been surprised by how difficult it is for many musicians to discuss the nuts and bolts of how they do what they do. When I began writing for OPERA NEWS, back in the late 1980s, it didn't take me long to discover that singers and conductors — singers, particularly — were often at something of a loss to describe the evolution of their performances in anything other than rather vague and general terms. I would nervously traipse off to an interview armed with a list of questions that I hoped would trigger a provocative, detailed conversation — and often I was disappointed in the result. Not always: Dolora Zajick, for example, can hold forth on technical matters in a way that's endlessly fascinating. Too often, though, I came away feeling that I had learned half of what I'd hoped to learn.
It took me a while to understand that many singers — many musicians, period, in fact — are much better at making music than talking about it. In the August issue of OPERA NEWS, Richard Bonynge freely admits this. In fact, in my experience, I have had many more precisely detailed conversations with writers and professors about the structure and demands of various works than I have had with performers themselves. Why? I think it's because those writers and professors tend to approach music as a problem to be solved, and understood; they're always looking to crack the code of some monumental work, as if understanding every facet of how it's all put together will lead them to a more profound appreciation of the piece itself.
There's no guarantee that that will happen, of course. I was thinking of this recently as I was listening, once more, to Eileen Farrell singing Brünnhilde's immolation scene — a live performance from 1951, with Victor de Sabata conducting the New York Philharmonic. The soprano is in astonishing form — although she sang brilliantly for much of her career, she never sounded as ravishing as she did during the 1950s, before gall-bladder surgery cost her some of the refulgent bloom at the top of her voice. Her Brünnhilde is a staggering achievement, sung in firm, taut musical lines, and in sensuous, impassioned, womanly tones. (Although Farrell is one of my favorite sopranos, I have no trouble admitting that she doesn't always inhabit her music as fully as she does here.)
I began thinking of the two years — 1997 to 1999 — when I collaborated with Eileen on her autobiography, which the publisher, Northeastern University Press, stuck with the meaningless title Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. (When the book was published, Deanna Durbin wrote me a letter from France, indicating that the title was more appropriate for her life story than for Eileen's; I didn't argue with her.)
While we worked on the book, I frequently pummeled Eileen with questions about how she did this, how she did that. Usually, what she did in response was bite her lip and frown at me. Once, she made me fall over laughing by saying, "Do you think I give a shit about stuff like this?" She had a great appreciation of the various twists and turns of her own career, a terrific, self-deprecating wit, and she told a story like nobody else. But I soon realized that she wasn't giving me much about how she had mastered various parts of the Ring or Cavalleria Rusticana or Wozzeck … because she didn't quite know herself. She'd been a good student. She'd worked hard. She'd perfected her technique. She could sing a vast and varied amount of repertory incredibly well. She was touched with musical genius, in an unlikely package. But she didn't know exactly how she'd done it all. She'd just done it. Like all great artists, to a certain degree she'd been a creature of instinct, and there was only so much she could tell me. She knew how it felt, and that was enough. Once, while she was teaching at Indiana University in the 1970s, a student bombarded her with a string of technical questions. Eileen put her hand up and said, "Listen, honey — I don't know your soft palate from a hole in the ground."
All of that technical knowledge is nice. Book-learnin' is a wonderful thing. I prize it. But how much does it really enhance our experience of listening to a great performance, which most often skips the brain and goes straight to the heart? Isn't the most important thing to be able to feel that magic, to recognize and respond to it, when it really happens?
– BRIAN KELLOW