We are living in operatic times. Forget what you’ve heard about opera being remote and elitist. Opera is also the art form that, perhaps more than any other, specializes in heightened emotion, and in finding ways to communicate it. And heightened emotion, and big feelings, are the order of the day, everywhere you look.
People are feeling very, very involved with the news these days. When you add the “social” component to “media” you’re no longer just keeping abreast of the news: You’re an active participant. This is having profound effects on the way we experience world events. When a celebrity dies, anyone’s memory may be transformed into the viral sound bite of the moment. The person on the street may find her or himself a part of the story, simply through sharing thoughts. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”: We feel it, in the age of Facebook, more than ever — even if we sometimes get so caught up in the emotion we lose track of the exact facts, and find ourselves in paroxysms of grief over someone whose death turns out to have occurred four years ago.
Social media has both amplified and quickened our reactions, giving us a megaphone through which to broadcast whatever feeling is trailing through our psyche at a given moment. Like opera, social media is dedicated to amplifying human utterance so that a single voice communicating an intimate thought may be heard by hundreds, even thousands of people. But the attempt to experience and broadcast information about things that deeply move us, in a public forum, has left many people across the political spectrum feeling emotional, wrung-out and exhausted.
Opera may have some practical tips to offer to anyone who is feeling drained and hoarse, literally and figuratively. There’s a difference between raising your voice to make yourself powerfully heard, and degenerating into mere screaming: It’s the difference between communicating your message to many people and driving away your audience. Opera, on a practical level, is all about teaching people to do the former and avoid the latter.
Conveying emotion effectively is a question of technique. And technique is not, in itself, very emotional at all. The basic secret to singing that is most applicable in a figurative sense is the need to distance yourself from your feelings if you want to bring them across effectively. If you take a Method-acting approach and start sobbing while singing a role like Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” your throat will get too constricted to produce the notes. Singing is an athletic feat — jokes about fat ladies notwithstanding — and requires a focus on the physical and practical. If you want to make a lot of noise, you need a firm foundation. Asked what the most important thing to remember about singing a challenging Wagner role, the soprano Birgit Nilsson replied, “Comfortable shoes.”
Developing that foundation can take years. But the elements are basic. You plant your feet. You breathe deeply — singers can’t indulge in the shallow, panicky breath of emotion, which tightens the shoulders and neck. You involve your whole body, so the sound is supported by your diaphragm muscles, in your abdomen, rather than your neck muscles. And you open yourself up and let the sound emerge. If you want a visual illustration of what makes opera singing different from pop singing, compare Luciano Pavarotti, standing ramrod-straight on stage, with Mick Jagger, hunched over the mic. If you haven’t got a mic, you can’t bend in for that kind of confidential approach — not if you want to be heard.
So: Breathe deeply, filling your lungs, engaging your whole body in the act. Sit up straight. Clear your head so that you’re not merely reacting to what’s going on around you. Support what you’re saying from within. And then let loose.
The act of raising your voice and presenting emotion on this scale requires you to open yourself up in ways that are initially uncomfortable and easy to misunderstand. But once you get everything lined up, getting your point across as loudly and effectively as you can gives a kind of heady satisfaction that few other things afford. Opera singing, in fact, can be extremely therapeutic. Wondering how you’re going to channel your feelings and emotions over the next four years? Try voice lessons.