Spend a few minutes talking to the group that sang last night at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, and you have to start revising some of your pet ideas about sopranos. In fact, the whole image of the prima donna -- temperamental, competitive, a sort of predatory monster who will allow no other member of her species to encroach upon her territory -- begins to crumble.
Suddenly, here is a group of sopranos who get together to help one another, who talk about their nurturing instincts, their desire to give of themselves to one another and to the community. In the five centuries, more or less, since the term "soprano" came into common usage, this may be a historic first.
The group is informal and nameless, though its members sometimes call it "the consortium." Its members are all respected singers and teachers in the Washington area; all are married and five are mothers; they have explicitly chosen marriage and a family rather than a career in Europe or on the national level in America. Their group has been in existence, quietly, for about three years, but has just gone public with a couple of benefit concerts -- last night for the Hospice of Holy Cross Hospital, tonight at the Vienna Baptist Church for the Hospice of Northern Virginia. Five of its six members are sopranos -- lyric, dramatic, coloratura, spinto; one is a mezzo-soprano, "because we need her," her colleagues say, and "because someone has to be on the bottom."
That someone is Catherine Huntress-Reeve ("Kate" with a "K" in a group that has three variations on the name), who has worked with the Washington Opera and other local companies and lives with her husband in the city. As a mezzo, she is theoretically less subject to the soprano syndrome. Her kind of voice traditionally gets the maternal roles in opera, but she is the only member of the consortium who is not yet a mother. She describes the soprano syndrome (which can also affect mezzos, tenors, even baritones) colorfully: "Singing is almost by definition a very selfish art, and that's not a happy way to live your whole life. It's so easy to start thinking, 'Oh, I must sleep in, and I can't drink anything with ice in it, and keep the children with colds on the other side of the room' -- it's really awful. The consortium allows us to give back a little bit to each other and to the community at large."
Before it became a matter of friendship, involving reciprocal baby-sitting, the loan of concert gowns and other nonmusical gestures, the consortium began as a response to economic pressures. Being a soprano is expensive and, if you are not Kiri Te Kanawa or Arleen Auger, not terribly lucrative.
"The investment required in our profession is enormous, and you really get very little financial return on your investment," says Maureen O'Day-Nicolas, who has sung in opera, oratorio, concerts and recitals from St. Louis to Vienna (Austria), teaches at Northern Virginia Community College and lives with her husband and two daughters in Falls Church. "The learning never stops, and one has to continue to invest -- monetarily, emotionally, physically -- every day. That brought us to the consortium: How could we continue to grow in our art and better ourselves and not become destitute?" One problem is that you can't hear yourself as others hear you; you need an expert listener who can diagnose problems and make suggestions, and that is about as expensive as psychiatry.
The group came into being because Cathryn Frazier-Neely ("Cate" with a "C"), who started it, "became very frustrated with how much money I was dishing out for lessons and coaching." Neely sings in eight languages, is a published composer, has worked with John Cage and lives in Kensington with her husband and son. Before starting the consortium, she observed the work of other sopranos who, like her, were teachers at local colleges, and picked the ones she considered best. "I saw the improvement in their students and liked in general what I knew about them. I thought, 'Well, why don't we get together and coach each other and talk about singing in general and exchange information?' I had tried to do this about 10 years ago, after I finished graduate school. I called around, and absolutely nobody was interested ... the door was shut. So I waited. Then the time was right, and I found what I feel is an excellent group -- artists and teachers who are open and secure enough in themselves to participate in this kind of sharing without feeling they might be swallowed up."
So, once every month or so, the six (or as many as can make it) get together, taking turns at hosting, to sing for one another and critique what they hear. "Sopranos tend to be very competitive," says Nancy Almquist, "and I don't think the six of us lack competitive spirit. But in this group the spirit is definitely one of helping each other and offering constructive criticism." Almquist teaches at St. Mary's College of Maryland, lives in Mount Rainier with her husband and son, and has sung a lot of baroque, renaissance and medieval music in the Washington area, including songs on the Folger Consort's recording "A Medieval Tapestry."
"We have enormous respect for one another," says O'Day-Nicolas, "and we realize that what they are saying, although it hurts and stings sometimes, is really given out of concern and sincerely wanting us to improve." The members don't come to meetings with their best work -- they bring music with which they are having problems. Elizabeth Daniels ("Liz") sums up the operating principle: "We're not interested in hearing your glorious tones, and we don't want to work on Schubert's 'Ave Maria' because we can all sing it in our sleep. We want to do something difficult." Daniels has studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, sung at the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap and the Baltimore Opera, and has a private voice studio in Silver Spring, where she lives with her husband, son and daughter.
"We've all been up for the same jobs many times, and that's tricky," she says. "If one of the others gets it, it's difficult on both sides. At the same time, we've also handed each other jobs. If someone calls me for a job and I can't do it, I stop and think, 'Well, which one of my pals has a voice that would fit this job?' And I will phone her and say, 'Call this man immediately and see if he will like your voice.' "
Like her five colleagues, Daniels finds things in the consortium that she has found nowhere else. "I was bothered by a lack of direct talking about vocal technique," she says. "I get tired of going to master classes and hearing only coaching about a particular piece. I want to know how did you make that pianissimo, what do you do when you do a diminuendo, how do I crescendo without tightening my throat, etcetera, etcetera, and nobody will talk about this, they really won't. I can ask Cathy about such things. She does stunning coloraturas and pianissimos that I would just die to have. I can ask her, 'What are you thinking when you do that? What's your stomach doing, what's your diaphragm doing, what's your jaw doing, where is your tongue?' With people outside the group, you just can't do that."
Kathy Kessler-Price agrees. She has taught for more than 10 years at Northern Virginia Community College, sung for such conductors as Aaron Copland and Neville Marriner, and lives in Vienna (Virginia) with her husband and son. "I have seen many voice teachers come and go," she says. "I have talked with them, and no one has been willing to discuss how they teach their students from a technical standpoint. Until I joined this group, it was very hush-hush -- nobody wanted to talk about it. It's like a trade secret." Now, she gets technical talk from all directions. "Having four or five coaches can be intimidating or -- initially -- confusing," she says. "You go home with all that information, from people who have different ways of saying things and come from different philosophies of vocal technique. When you have time, you sort through it. You have to ask yourself, 'What, in my world of thought, did she mean by that comment? How can I use that the way I sing? How might I change what I am doing to accommodate that if it is missing in my voice?' "
"One thing that strengthens us as a group," says Huntress-Reeve, "is that we come at it from so many different angles. We have technicians, we have instrumental musicians, we have composers, we have people who come at it through acting and directing and conducting, and we touch on so many other disciplines I think it has helped all of us to round out the package."
Vocally, too, members of the consortium come from very different backgrounds. Some have studied with Todd Duncan, others with Elizabeth Kirkpatrick Vrenios, many with the late Randolph Mauldin. Most are pianists as well as singers, and some play other instruments as well; several are composers,including Frazier-Neely,who has written a five-part piece, "Music Makers, Dreamers of Dreams," for her five colleagues to premiere at this weekend's concerts. "I tried desperately to write myself into it," she says, "but I could not. I never heard it that way -- I just kept hearing the five of them."
That doesn't sound at all like a soprano, but it does sound like a member of the consortium.