International Singers Forum

Share Article

Opera Music Theater International, under the direction of James K. McCully, hosts the International Singers Forum in the Nation's Capital. The forum was sponsored by Musical America in honor of its Centennial Celebration, and included Metropolitan Opera stars Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, Carmen Balthrop, Dominic Cossa, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Evelyn Lear and Thomas Steward; as well as, Broadway Legends and Motion Picture Icons Marni Nixon and William Warfield. International artist manager Ann Summers moderates this distinguished panel of artists offering solid advice to young singers.

The International Singers Forum, under the direction of James K. McCully, general director of Opera Music Theater International reflected the wisdom of the great stars of the Metropolitan, Broadway Legends, and Motion Picture Icons by offering positive guidance and advice to aspiring professional singers. In this forum, these new masters of the art of singing gleaned a little advice that planted a seed from which the artist could grow. The International Singers Forum enlightened the new masters with an opportunity to gain valuable insight from the old masters.

ANN SUMMERS, moderator
Ann Summers International            

Thank you Mr. McCully for organizing this International Singers Forum. I am very happy actually to participate in this panel, because I am becoming very frustrated because we all talk around the point instead of ever getting to the point in terms of career development. In this forum we will be discussing career development, professional management, and career longevity. I thought that we would allow each of our panelists to speak for a few minutes. I would like to start with Mattiwilda Dobbs.

The Metropolitan Opera     

I think that In the beginning, the first thing to ascertain, if you want to be a singer, is to get the opinion of someone who really knows as to your talent. That's a very difficult thing to find, because a lot of times a singing teacher perhaps doesn't want to tell you the truth. Or, the person might be young, and they would say, well there is potential maybe. I think the first thing to find out is, do you have the talent. Because after that will come all the hard work, and the contacts, and everything. But you have to have that in the beginning. If you don't have that, you are going to be wasting your time.

And I have always seen with students, that it is a pity for people to spend their lives on something, for which they really don't have the chance. Most young people really have no idea of what the requirements are. They don't know what it takes. How could they, they haven't ever met an opera singer, or come into contact with anyone. So, the thing to do is to try and find someone who could give you an honest opinion. That should be someone who really knows. And it is very difficult. I have had people ask me, and I don't really want to tell them, but I have to. Because you can hear right away if a person has no talent. All right, well the first thing is to establish if you've got talent.

And then if you are lucky enough to come from a family where your parents gave you music lessons, and where you heard classical music, and were brought up around that, well you've got a head start. But everyone hasn't been that fortunate. So, if you have not had that, I would say that the person should try and cultivate a general music knowledge on an instrument, a piano or some other instrument. Even before you start taking voice lessons. Don't start too soon. That's another thing. Some young people think that they can start taking voice lessons very early. And I don't think you should do that until you go through puberty. In the meantime, they could learn music. Then, I think that the next step would be, to try and find the best voice teacher you can. When your body is ready for that, study as much as possible. Then there will come a point when you go to a college, you will have people to advise you. There will come a point, as to whether or not you should continue after those preliminary years, and really go in for trying to be a singer. Now that is the crucial time, because that is when you almost sign away your life you know. You say I am going in for this. But that will be a time, when you really have to find out if you have the possibilities. And if you don't, just give it up no matter how much you want it.

Now then, when you feel that you are to a certain point, where you can start looking for engagements, then you have to get agents, try contests. Contests before the agents. I, myself, went to New York. Because that is where everything was. I went there to study, and everything was there. Auditions, agents, so forth. Then I finally went to Europe, where I was really more successful in getting started. I don't know whether you can do this from different parts of the United States. I think it is more spread out over the country now. You can live in other areas, or you can go to certain metropolitan areas, and do these contests and make contacts.

Motion Picture Icon

In the years that I have been teaching. I find it is very hard to define how to assess talent when someone comes to you. It seems to me that what I am interested in initially, is the process that these people go through. Obviously, if they come to you very young, they don't have a developed voice. But do they have a way to focus? Have they had a history of listening? Have they been steeped in music? Do they want to be a musician? Do they know how to listen? And sometimes, if it is just to assess talent, are they able to imitate. If you give them a phrase, and they imitate it. No doubt there is probably some talent there. If they can't do it, maybe that is something that can't be taught to them. They have to have rhythm. They have to have a pitch imitation. They have to have a way of being healthy. They have to know how to assess what is important, and to observe things that are going on around them. What is their background?

Some people come to me as a music theater person. I don't only teach music theater of course. But they have no idea about issuing sound. Voice! But they are actors, they have been trained as actors possibly. And that is a very important thing for music theater. That is very interesting, because then they can conceive of something, and just make it up in their mind, and then duplicate it. I think that to be an opera singer, one has to have a history of being a musician. Knowing how to be a musician. First of all. Have some stage deportment. As an opera singer, dancing is not that important, but I think some physical discipline is very important. They have to know that it is an ongoing focus. That it is a life devotion. That no matter what happens, they will find a way to make a living, at the same time while they are studying. And being able to put their life process together. Then to find people that demand the best of you. And by demanding the best of them, they respond with glory rather than, "Oh my, she is putting me down." So that it is an attitude. I think everyone else has said something to that nature too.

The Metropolitan Opera

Now this is the thing that bothers me a lot. The state of teaching in the whole world. And I think we have read this in all the old manuals. Oh, the state of teaching! I tell my students that the first thing is that you have to have a voice. And then after that, you polish the voice.

I like my students to watch the music theater people. Because to a lot of people, I say, I do not want to see you walking on the stage like an opera singer. Like most opera singers. The people on this forum are not included. And many of the young singers today are not included, because they have become more interested in the play. And the words.The meanings of words. And so forth, I stress that an awful lot. People want to know what you are saying. The voice, if it is beautiful, fine. Now what else have you got to offer me? That is the first thing on the list, to have a voice. To have it trained well. Then you've got the languages, the know how, the movement on stage. So I ask them to please go to as many performances as you can of the people on Broadway. They are really most of the time triple threats. They can act, they can sing, etc.

They may not sing as we sing as opera singers, but a lot of them have very wonderful voices. They never sing as if they have mush in there mouths. They sing as they speak. And that is the thing that I teach. You speak on pitch. So, there are a lot of things we have to undo before we get to the point of knowing what the voice is. At that point, I am very, very, very frank with my students. And I will tell them this. The voice is the first thing. All of the rest of these things you have to know, but one of the things in particular, is memory. If you cannot memorize, if someone has to open your head up, pour it in, and then close it back up. And you still cannot memorize. You are in the wrong business. I don't care if you have a voice of a Pavarotti, a Domingo, or a Carreras, or who ever. You must be able to memorize in this business. You cannot take a book on the opera stage. I am not asking you to be a genius at this. Just normal memory.
If you cannot do that, I don't care how great the instrument is, you are in the wrong business. And I hope that they don't feel that I am putting them down. But I am trying to give them really good advice, so that they save themselves from great misfortune, headaches, and disappointment in future life.

The Metropolitan Opera

I love teaching. I started off as a teacher, before I got the guts to become a professional singer. The thing I love about teaching, is I learn so much from the process. Those individual souls that come into my studio, are as varied as those individual souls, I was fortunate enough to touch as a professional singer on stage. Different levels of ability, different ways of looking at life.

The problem of assessment of talent, is a very difficult one, I think. In the profession, I have met singers who are having excellent careers, who have confided in me, at some point in life that are told to forget it. As a teacher, I witness students who come through the program, who show tremendous promise. They have the voice, the intelligence, and the hunger. They move on, and one never hears from them again. So I think, that it is extremely important to give an assessment, an honest assessment, to a student. I think that one has to recognize, that no one knows what's around the corner, for anyone.

Yes, I think if someone comes into the studio, and can't sing in tune, no matter what you do. That is a pretty strong indication that that person, is not going to have a career, even if the voice is excellent. I remember hearing a number of years ago, in New Jersey, a singer in recital. Beautiful voice. The voice moved with grace, and with tremendous facility. The singer was expressive, but everything was about a quarter tone flat. I thought, what a tragedy.

Boris Goldovsky's assessment of talent. I have always remembered, multiplication by one. If there are ten ingredients that are necessary to have a career, and one of those is absolutely missing. There will be no career. If there is a little bit of each one of those ten ingredients present. Then there is the possibility of a career. Why, because again, an operatic performance calls upon, performers who have different levels of gift.

The great voices, when attached to a sense of musical sensibility, and sensitivity, will probably do the leading roles. The voices that are less gifted, the singers that are less gifted vocally, but somehow have musicality, and probably more intelligence musically than some of the great voices, will do the secondary roles that are absolutely necessary, if you are going to produce the opera. And in the chorus, there will be the range of great voices, to voices that are less gifted, attached to intelligence, and a range of intelligence, that goes from one end of the spectrum to another, who will complete that picture. And without that component, you will not have the opera.

In assessing a talent, all of these things on the part of the assessor, have to be very much in the forefront of the assessors thinking. I would say for young singers who areassessed, I would say, that you would follow the same admonition that we hear in the medical profession. Avail yourself of a second opinion, possibly a third. But make sure, that when you do it, that you go to someone who appears to be as qualified as possible, to give you that opinion.    

I go back to the treatise of Garcia, when he listed those ingredients that were most important for a singer. And unlike my colleagues today, the first ingredient on his list, was not voice. It was mind. Mind. Again, all of us, are gifted vocally, at different levels. All we need to do is listen to a broadcast, or a performance of an opera. There will be the great voices, there will be the voices, that are less great. Sometimes there will be a voice, that is mediocre, but that person does something with what he or she has, that makes them stand out in that performance, in a positive way. Because the mind, is possibly at greater capacity, driving that voice, then the mind, that is driving the great instrument. We have all experienced great voices, that have never really had careers. If I have thought about the great voices, that I have heard in my life, that never sang professionally, I would have packed up my tent a long time ago, and done something else. But there are a number of ingredients that go into it.

Yes, a mind without a voice certainly, that would not work. But given the various levels of vocal gift. I would opt for the mind. Because, that is the driving force, behind a successful career. The mind is the thing, that attached to the soul, says, "Yes, I will put up with all of those things, that I have to put up with, to have this career." I am going to go into this rehearsal, and deal with whatever negative forces are there. And I am going to prevail. If the mind is not strong enough, then the talent will wither and die on the vine.

The Metropolitan Opera

George Shirley mentioned about the Goldovsky's multiplication factor. I feel this one is worth repetition. The Goldovsky idea, that anyone sitting here, if we were to come up with a list of factors, that would be necessary to make a career. The top five list. Top ten list. Whatever the list is, I think any group of people, any two people, could sit down, and do this. One person could sit down, and do this. Then to rate it numerically. Lets say, from one to five. Or one to ten.Then total those up, you might get some indication. It works like math. In math, no matter how large the number is, if you multiply by zero. You get a big zero for the whole thing. That is how this is.

I frequently hear from students, "What do I do?" "Where do I go from here?" "What's next?" "I have my Master's Degree, or I am going to get my Master's Degree in six months." "What do I do?" Well, there are a whole bunch of things, that were not available to us, when we were starting out. Those Apprentice Programs. Well, this will give you a pretty good idea, of how you rack up with the competition out there. So try out these Apprentice Programs. There are some very good ones, and some very not so well known. But they are all an experience.

The contests, are certainly an important way to go. To get your name before people. To get to sing for people, that might be in a position, that might be able to help you. A young tenor, who just six months ago, won a Richard Tucker Award, a scholarship award. One of the people there judging, who happened to be from the MET, invited him over to the MET for an audition. Now, this young man doesn't have his Master's yet. And he made his debut last week, in a small part in "Capriccio." But he is a kid. He is a young man, but, he did make a MET debut. I don't know what is going to happen now. In any event, so the contests, and the auditions, are very important.

Another factor, I don't think anyone has mentioned this. Creative Self Promotion. Let me give you a couple of vignettes. They happened to me. And I am not saying, you have to do this. But you have to find a way, to make you stand out from the crowd. Now, assuming that you sing well, and your technique is good. And all those other factors are in place. How to get this ball rolling. Many years ago, I had heard that this opera company out in the Midwest, was going to be doing a FAUST. The FAUST was going to occur, but we were just coming into a season. We were coming into VALENTINE time. And I searched all around the Westside of New York for this card, that said, "May I be your VALENTIN." And I scratched out the "E", and sent it on to the impresario, with a little note. And I got the job. He said, he was completely disarmed by that. He had heard me sing, and I knew I was in the running for it. But I got the job. So Creative Self Promotion.

I made my debut in San Francisco, in the Pearl Fishers. At the time, there were seven or eight newspapers reviewing out there. And I got some very nice reviews. And I spread them all out on the table, and they looked wonderful. And I said, I have got to find a piece of paper big enough. And I did, and I pasted them all, on a great big piece of paper. At the time, we didn't have photocopy machines any place. I am talking about 1960, I don't know. Kinkos wasn't there. So, I went to a blueprint place. And I said, "Could you make this up, not in blueprint, but in the white copy." Yeah. It wasn't cheap. I think it cost about $4 each, so I only had twenty made. I folded those things up, and they were really thick. I put them in an envelope, and sent them out, with a personal letter. I must have gotten five, or six jobs out of that thing. Creative Self Promotion.

The Metropolitan Opera

I remember the exact day that I decided I should be an opera singer. I was 8 years old. I was sitting on the steps of the basement in my family home. My father use to repair radios and televisions just as a part time job. He worked for the Justice Department. When you live in Washington, DC your parents work for the government. So I remember one Saturday, on the Texaco broadcast, Miss Price was singing. And I said, "Daddy, what's that?" "That's opera." And I said, "Who's singing?" And it was significant to me. He said, "Well that's Leontyne Price and she's a black woman."

I said, "Oh!" "Oh, okay, opera, sounds good to me." So I went upstairs and my mothers says, "Now vacuum the living room." So I turned on the vacuum cleaner, and started imitating what I heard. So it is interesting that you should mention imitation. Because imitation is what inspired me to reach down inside, and to discover that God had given me a voice.

I had a teacher who basically feed me proper repertoire. You have to sing what is correct for you at your age, and where you are. A voice that is going to sing, or become a performer, is going to reveal itself, as having a certain pull, in a certain area for lyric things, for things with rapid coloratura, or something. The voice is going to say, "I like doing this." "I like it. The home of the voice is going to speak to the ear of a good teacher. And basically, at that young age, I say between 17 and 19 or so. If you can just feed proper repertoire, that doesn't strain, or struggle, or cause the young singer to struggle. And while you are doing that, they are building their confidence, but also you can slowly begin to incorporate things that require a little bit more thought, and a little bit more difficulty physically, muscularly, and in the body.

At the time that I was an undergrad, there was no opera program. A total program per se. So this is what I did. I had electives. I took dance, in and of itself. So, I understood the discipline by itself. I took theater, in and of itself. And, of course voice. So, I was taking each discipline separately. So that I understood what my baby toe was doing in improvisational class for movement. I understood subtext. Now you know that I learned the term subtext in theater, not in opera. And that was a revelation, because that meant that doing those musical interludes, or doing even rests in music, I could fill it with text in my mind. And use it to motivate the voice line, what I would sing to the public. So, that was how I was trained, or how I was intuitively moved to be trained.

Now, about my parents, and the day I won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions. Shirley Verrett handed me the prize the day I won the Met up in New York. And, my mother was in the audience, and she came backstage. I was crying. And she said, "Why are you crying?" I said, "Well, I won!" She says, "Yeah, but you could of used your hands a little more." Now, this is my mother. "Somehow when you use your hands you really look involved, and the audiences feels it." My father is one who would always say, "Yeah, that voice is getting stronger all the time. Yeah!"

"SHOWBOAT" motion picture icon

I would like to share an antidote. I thought of, that happened to me, when Carmen Balthrop was talking about using your hands. It was several years ago, and I was to do the solo work of Boris Godunov, with Robert Shaw, and the Atlanta Orchestra and chorus. Three weeks before, Bob Shaw called, and said, "Bill I will never get this choir to do the Russian correctly." Can we do this in English? I said, "Wow", very cavalierly. Oh, yes, sure that will be all right. I looked at the score, and as all of you know, in English translations, all of a sudden, the thought even was so freely translated. It was a matter of really learning, word for word, the English. And the Russian that I knew, didn't help me at all. I knew the Russian translation, but what they had translated, was just unbelievable. It was close, but not the thought itself. At the last minute, before I had to go on, there were certain phrases that I completely wasn't sure of. So, I took a pencil or tracer, and across my hand, I put certain English things, as cues on each finger, on both hands. When I got to those place where it was difficult, I would do like this. (raises hands) And I didn't think anything of it. But afterwards, a very close friend of mine came up, and said to me, "Bill, it was wonderful. I have never seen you use your hands so expressively." And I did like this, (shows us his hands) and he went into hysterics.

Now one other little thing, people do come to me for advice. I have a friend of mine who said, "Do you think I am good enough to have a career? Well, two things I tell them, if they are a tenor, I say, "Well, do you think you can give Domingo or Pavoratti competition?" And they look at me. And I tell them, "Well, that is the league you are talking about. That's what the standard is."A friend of mine use to say, I am tempted to tell them, "No, I don't think you should continue." Because the person that has the talent, who has the drive, is not going to pay one bit of attention to me if I tell them not to.
And that is the one that is going to succeed.

The Metropolitan Opera

For this is what one should say, or one should inquire of young people who aspires to be a singer. The key is, that person has to admit to himself, that if he doesn't sing, he will wither and die. That ultimately is the thing. Because what he has to go through, in order, to become a singer, whatever he wants to sing. Either it is to sing at the Metropolitan, or whether it is to sing on Broadway, or whatever it is. If he doesn't sing, then he is nothing. That is the key. And if he is not willing to sacrifice everything that is part of his life in order to sing, then he is not really committed. Because it is not an easy life. And all the technical aspects of what you tell a young person about where he should study, and what voice he should sing, and what repertoire he should sing.
These are all decisions that come after the commitment. COMMITMENT!

If the young person wants to be a singer ill regardless of what it takes. That to me is the essence of it. Now, we could go into all the things of what I went through as a young man, what determined me. I had to sing. I sang. When I became a professional, as my grandfather use to say to me, "Well, what are you doing?" "Well, I am a singer Grandpa." "I know you are a singer, but what do you do for a living?" I had been singing since I was three years of age. America is full of shower singers. There are millions of people who love to sing. Singing is something that we do, or we don't do. We love to do it, or we don't care whether we sing or not. Some people never sing a note. Fine. But, if you love to sing, then that is one thing. If you want to make a profession out of it, that is another thing. If you want to make a professional out of it, then you have to commit yourself, to offer yourself, to do whatever is necessary. Then you find people along the way. If you do have the talent, believe me, there are enough people out there when they hear you, they will say, "Oh, you should work at that. You have talent." Just sing at every opportunity, where ever you are, in a chorus, a high school glee club, or when you go to college. Just sing period. That way, you know whether you want to sing. Other people will hear you, and know whether you have anything worthwhile to offer them, or offer the world. But first of all, there has to be a commitment.

EVELYN LEAR, soprano
The Metropolitan Opera

As if you didn't know. I belong to this man right here next to me. For those of you who do not know, Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear, are husband and wife. Over forty years of a career, a joint career, a single career, his career, my career. Our career! Oh yeah, I said that. Didn't I say that? See that, we are still married after all this time because, I agree with him. Very smart!

Singing! Do you ever ask yourself, why do I want to be a singer? A professional singer. Because we all sing, in one degree, or another.In the shower, out of the shower, in the car, along with Rosa Ponselle records, Richard Tucker records, or Janet Baker records. (Even Evelyn Lear records comments
Thomas Stewart.) This is true! Young people today, who want to be singers. Are faced with an enormous problem. There are more young singers today, than there have ever been. We certainly have all experienced this in the competitions, and the classes that we've been involved in. And the goal has to be one of excellence.

First, you start with the premise, that you have a voice. We assume you have a voice. A professional singer. Everybody wants to sing. But how they deliver, and communicate what they have, to their audience, is what puts them apart from the shower singer. I don't know if the young singer, would be faced with, or would have the knowledge of, what is ahead of him if he were to venture upon his voyage of a career. You understand that you have the voice, and the talent, and the style, and the languages, and the musicianship. All of these are part and parcel, of what makes having a career, so essential.

There are other elements that a young singer must face. And that is the telling point. Not, do you have to sing, or you will die. We all have that quality. We all must sing, or our lives are over for us. Singing in one form or another. If you have that little something here, that puts you apart from someone who does not sing. But, it is more than that. It is the drive, the courage, the desire, to share what God has given you, with someone else. In the best way that you know possible. Singing is such a very, very, fragile thing, as we all know. You know the old business, if you are a singer, and you get up in the morning, and your voice is all there, then you are just thrilled, and wonderful. And you hear that your favorite dog got run over, or you lost the lottery, it doesn't matter! The voice is there, and if the voice is there, everything else is marvelous. Or, you wake up, and the voice is not there. You won a million dollars in the lottery, your best friend married the perfect man, your lover said you are fantastic. Doesn't matter. If you can't sing your "Costa Diva", the world stinks.

Unfortunately, we let this little thing here, rule and run your life. We have to understand, do we have the courage, the commitment, the nerves, to withstand conductors who can be.....Excuse me...any conductors here today? Yeah, all right. CONDUCTORS! Present company excluded please. Conductors who can be abusive. Critics who can tear you apart. Managers who abuse you. Directors who use you. These are all things that come into our lives, and into our careers.

We have to be able to withstand all of these things. In other words, have the skin of a crocodile or elephant, and the soul of a lily. Be sensitive in your art, but be able to have the guts to withstand the bad things. And there are plenty of them out there. Just want you to know this. This is real. This is life. It is not just singing a pretty tune. I would like to leave you with a thought. There are not that many positions in this world that are number one. You can't all be number one. Not everyone reaches the holy grail, the Metropolitan Opera, and not everybody can go to La Scala. But, if you give joy to the people you are performing for, then you are successful.

# # #
On the 13th of August 1991, James K. McCully founded Opera Music Theater International (OMTI) as a nonprofit organization to help international emerging singers bridge the opera and music theater gap through international competitions, international performances, international master classes, international conferences, international symposia, and international forums.

Opera Music Theater International (OMTI) positioned itself at the monumental International Trade Center at the prestigious address 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue across from "The Theatre of the Presidents", The National Theatre, on the "Avenue of the Presidents" at Federal Triangle, directly in the center of a triangle connecting The White House, The Capitol, and The Washington Monument.

Opera Music Theater International (OMTI) was the host of the 43rd National Opera Association Convention in Washington DC sponsored by Musical America with a Welcome by Placido Domingo at Kennedy Center; and the Marjorie Lawrence International Vocal Competition with International Honorary Chairs Maestro Richard Bonynge and Dame Joan Sutherland at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.


Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

James K. McCully
Visit website