NATS Chat with Dean Williamson - January 30, 2011

This is the transcript from the January 30, 2011 NATS Chat with Dean Williamson, conductor, and host Matthew Hoch. Please join us for future chats, which are held in the NATS Chat Room on the NATS website. All are welcome to attend.

Dean Williamson: Hi Matthew, I'm here now.

Matthew Hoch: Hi there, Dean! Welcome.

Dean Williamson: thanks.

Kari Ragan: Hey Dean. Glad you arrived in Chicago safely.

Dean Williamson: I'm in your old stomping grounds of Chicago. We're supposed to get a foot and a half of snow on Tuesday. It's definitely not Seattle weather here!

Sarah Vander Pl: Welcome to Chicago winter - I'm a recent transplant here, myself! The weather is perhaps not my favorite part of my new city, I'm afraid...

Kari Ragan: Welcome everyone!

Kari Ragan: Matt has asked me to introduce Dean tonight.

Dean Williamson: Not unlike what I had to endure for 3 years in Cleveland....the famous Lake Effect weather.

Kari Ragan: Dean is not only a dear friend of mine but has been my coach for over 20 years. Additionally, I had the privilege of singing under his baton.

Kari Ragan: He was principal coach at Seattle Opera for many years but begin conducting and eventually because Artistic Director at Cleveland Opera.

Kari Ragan: He just conducted Seattle Opera's Barber of Seville to rave reviews, closing last night. He brings a wealth of knowledge to our chat so let's get started.

Dean Williamson: Thank you Kari, it's hard to believe we've known each other for 20 years now.

Kari Ragan: Let's not discuss it Dean.

Kari Ragan: I'll hope our little group will grow. Is there a particular topic anyone would like Dean to address or shall we let him share some of his thoughts and see where it goes?

Dean Williamson: I'm open to letting the conversation wander all over the place, so fire away....

Matthew Hoch: Dean, you mentioned that there are some important considerations for American singers to consider, particularly the size of the house in which they're singing.

Dean Williamson: I think it's very important, especially when you are auditioning.

Dean Williamson: Unfortunately, in the States most opera companies inherited huge barns of theaters.

Dean Williamson: most of them were armories or large meeting halls back in the 1920's

Dean Williamson: then converted to opera houses or multi-purpose symphony halls in the 1960's and 70's

Rachel Velarde: What specifics should singers take into consideration when auditioning for these companies?

Dean Williamson: as is the case in Seattle, which began as a communal meeting hall for 4000 people

Dean Williamson: then was converted in 1961 for the World's Fair

Dean Williamson: then again in the recent renovation.

Matthew Hoch: It's very interesting to consider their historical purpose. I've never thought of that.

Dean Williamson: what happens is that above about 2000 seats, the acoustical rules change

Farmboy: Here in Vancouver, our big barn has just gone through a multi-year conversion. It's quite wonderful now!

Dean Williamson: most of the European houses are much smaller, the size that opera was meant to be sung in

Dean Williamson: I know! I heard it before the renovation

Dean Williamson: saw Ben Heppner's first Peter Grimes there years ago

Dean Williamson: it was very difficult to hear the text, and the voices sounded muted

Dean Williamson: same as in Seattle's before the renovation

Dean Williamson: in cleveland, we have the 3200 seat State Theater, an old vaudeville house from the 1920's

Dean Williamson: horrible acoustics on the main floor, great upstairs

Dean Williamson: what happens in the large spaces is that you really need to concentrate on the core in the voice

Dean Williamson: and also the squillo or brighter overtones

Dean Williamson: that is the only thing that will save you and get your voice over the orchestra

Dean Williamson: I experienced that many times in Seattle and also in Cleveland

Rachel Velarde: So in the smaller houses you don't have to sing with so much pressurization?

Dean Williamson: the rich dark voices go about 20 feet and fall into the pit, if they make it that far

Farmboy: Over in Victoria, we've been enjoying opera at the Royal Theatre, a much smaller venue - 1400 seats.

Dean Williamson: I would say that is a good postulation, Rachel

Dean Williamson: I will name names here....

Dean Williamson: years ago in Seattle, we were doing Dialogues

Dean Williamson: I remember being in the wings watching the cast do their glorious work

Dean Williamson: the ladies came off stage that night and were complaining about one of their members

Dean Williamson: Joyce Castle was singing one of the nuns

Dean Williamson: from their vantage onstage, her voice was too piercing and bright

Dean Williamson: but when I heard it in the house, she was the only voice that easily soared over the orchestra

Dean Williamson: and she also sounded the warmest and had the "biggest" voice

Dean Williamson: I mentioned that to the other women, they were shocked

Rachel Velarde: Do directors know this when listening to auditions (especially in small rooms?)

Dean Williamson: I think there is the belief that one has to "warm up" the voice

Dean Williamson: but above 2000 seats the house will do it for you....you just have to get the sound out there over the orchestra and into the audience

Dean Williamson: yes, Rachel, we do listen that way

Dean Williamson: it took me a full season in

Dean Williamson: Cleveland to figure out what sort of voices would work the best in my theater

Dean Williamson: by trial and error

Dean Williamson: I got to the point where I could hear a voice in a smaller room and tell if it had the requisite cut and core

Dean Williamson: I'm not a technician or voice teacher, so I don't profess to try to understand exactly what that is

Dean Williamson: but I can recognize it immediately when I hear it

Dean Williamson: it's a solidity in the middle register...not loudness, but a certain color or timbre

Farmboy: Is this a good time to talk about amplification?

Dean Williamson: argh! LOL

Sarah Vander Pl: I take it that this sort of cut isn't quite as necessary in many of the European houses, then?

Dean Williamson: no, it isn't

Dean Williamson: I've conducted many performances in the states with european singers making their us debuts

Dean Williamson: in large houses like Minnesota and Seattle

Dean Williamson: and invariably many of the european singers don't do as well...they end up pushing, even in Mozart

Dean Williamson: I remember hearing the first stage auditions of the Merola singers 2 summers ago....Gockley invited Peter Kazaras, Maliftano, and me to sit in

Sarah Vander Pl: Is it as much of an issue the other way around? Do American or American-trained singers end up sounding too 'strident' to European ears?

Rachel Velarde: It's really the size of the house more than the size of the orchestra, then...

Dean Williamson: it was very illuminating....only about 3 of the group could really be heard in the vast reaches of the War Memorial

Sarah Vander Pl: Wow

Dean Williamson: Yes....all of my American singer friends complain that the European coaches and conductors tell them they are "screaming" and singing too loud

Dean Williamson: when they first go over

Dean Williamson: after a few shows they learn to "moderate" their voices and sing to European tastes

Kari Ragan: Great question Sarah about the sound of American singers.

Dean Williamson: side bar here....

Dean Williamson: US singers are accused of just making beautiful sounds and not singing the text

Dean Williamson: but they do have the best technique in the world

Dean Williamson: what they lack is growing up speaking 2 or 3 languages, so they don't automatically connect to the words like most Europeans do

Sarah Vander Pl: it's very interesting to me... because I'm a soprano who was studying at RAM in London for 2 years... and quite a few people talked about my having an 'American' sound, but no one could tell me exactly what that meant

Rachel Velarde: What kinds of things have you heard singers doing to combine both technique and communicating text?

Dean Williamson: Great point, Sarah

Dean Williamson: I would say the American sound is full, round, extremely beautiful at all times, even tone production, etc

Dean Williamson: to me the classic American soprano is Ruthann Swenson

Dean Williamson: at her best, it is the most velvety and luscious of sounds

Dean Williamson: the European singer is more willing to play with the voice, take chances, make uglier sounds, anything to communicate the text first

Dean Williamson: and if you think about it, it's because the theaters are smaller and easier to sing in...therefore you can get away with murder technically

Dean Williamson: do things you couldn't do in a 3000 seat house in the US

Rachel Velarde: Which is safer, because they don't necessarily have to maintain the squillo so completely

Dean Williamson: exactly

Dean Williamson: it also affects the type of roles you prepare

Dean Williamson: in the US, it's safer to sing or offer arias or roles that are one notch lighter and higher than you could do in Europe

Dean Williamson: In seattle, for example, the same soprano sings Mimi and Susanna

Dean Williamson: it's what's needed to send the sound out

Dean Williamson: now sometimes Sp8 will experiment and go slightly lighter for

Dean Williamson: Susanna, if a good Mozartean soprano is available to him

Matthew Hoch: This is very interesting and informative, Dean.

Jordyn Palmer: I agree.

Dean Williamson: I truly wish you all could sit on the other side of the table with us for a full day of auditions

Sarah Vander Pl: Very. Thank you for this

Rachel Velarde: When?

Dean Williamson: then cast a show, and sit in the audience and hear your results

Dean Williamson: LOL

Kari Ragan: By Sp8 Dean means Speight Jenkins-General Director at Seattle Opera. In case that wasn't specified.

Sarah Vander Pl:

Dean Williamson: Even Sp8 cringes sometimes at his choices....one never knows until you hear the voices in performance

Dean Williamson: he told me once the hardest part of casting the Ring is not the lead roles

Dean Williamson: it's the Walkeries.....all of them

Dean Williamson: he waits in panicked anticipation until the first music rehearsal of act 3 of Wakyrie is done

Dean Williamson: he said he never knows if all the women's voices will blend well or not

Kari Ragan: Very interesting.

Dean Williamson: I found in Cleveland the brighter voices did better

Dean Williamson: and the smart singers figured that out quickly when they first sang onstage in the piano tech or sitzprobes

Kari Ragan: Even with our college singers it's sometimes surprising which voices carry and which do not.

Dean Williamson: I learned after the first year to tell everyone that brighter is better in the State....adjust accordingly

Kari Ragan: Once upon a time, lighter singers were told to go to Europe to audition. But that's not really the case anymore is it Dean?

Dean Williamson: all it usually took was for them to hear each other in rehearsal....then it would improve dramatically in the next rehearsal onstage

Dean Williamson: I think one can find a niche anywhere

Dean Williamson: if you're a smart singer who knows one's limitations, you can work anywhere

Jordyn Palmer: That's encouraging!

Kari Ragan: Finding the 'niche' is the key.

Dean Williamson: that means of course you many never sing your dream roles, but frankly this is a business, and one needs to know one's strengths

Dean Williamson: notice I didn't say weaknesses, LOL

Rachel Velarde: It's harder, though, here in the states to find a stable place - isn't it a lot more travel required here?

Dean Williamson: I've learned a new term from Kari....singer's forment

Kari Ragan: Teachers need to do a better job helping singers understand their 'niche' I think.

Dean Williamson: that's probably the cutting ability

Dean Williamson: yes, the travel sucks

Dean Williamson: in the Barber cast in Seattle, for example, we were all talking about that

Kari Ragan: We heard the singers formant in full bloom with your recent Figaro. Gorgeous.

Dean Williamson: most of the cast are in their 30's and early 40's

Dean Williamson: and many of them like Larry Brownlee, Sarah Coburn, and Burak Bilgili all just got married and had babies

Dean Williamson: it was a huge adjustment to their lives, and I could see a monumental change in attitude in many of them

Dean Williamson: where they really would rather be home with family and not on the road

Rachel Velarde: What kinds of changes?

Dean Williamson: they would say that outright

Farmboy: By the time singers are in their 30s and 40s, they've usually figured out their niche. How do we best help the younger ones... late teens and early 20s who are just discovering their voices?

Sarah Vander Pl: It's very encouraging to hear that singers are able to have families and still work in opera though.

Sarah Vander Pl: Even with the difficulties

Dean Williamson: or you could tell it was more a job, and the excitement and fun in rehearsal wasn't as high

Dean Williamson: it's hard.

Kari Ragan: Great question Farmboy.

Dean Williamson: Sarah Coburn told me there were some gigs last year where her follow-along nanny made more money that she did after she paid expenses

Sarah Vander Pl: Oy.

Kari Ragan: First and foremost, a frank conversation don't you think?

Dean Williamson: for the young singers it's very tough

Dean Williamson: yes, a very frank conversation

Dean Williamson: I believe in tough love, LOL

Dean Williamson: tell them early, do it nicely.

Kari Ragan: My college kids seem relieved when I talk about the realities.

Dean Williamson: if you don't the business will

Dean Williamson: and they will be crushed later

Kari Ragan: Don't want to be a dream crusher.

Jordyn Palmer: Crush my dreams Kari!!

Rachel Velarde: What about those young singers who need time to grow into their voices. I have a 17 yr old tenor, going to be dramatic, who is SO frustrated

Kari Ragan: Ellen Faull always told me "find your OWN way in this business. She was right.

Dean Williamson: you don't have to be, but it helps to put it out there

Kari Ragan: No crushing Jordyn. You're already making your own path.

Dean Williamson: I know...that's a difficult issue

Dean Williamson: I tell all young male singers they'll have to wait

Farmboy: It's nearly impossible to tell what a young singer is going to become, as Rachel says!

Dean Williamson: have families, get married, get another job and learn your roles

Dean Williamson: you really can't tell what a young singer will become

Dean Williamson: especially with the larger voices

Dean Williamson: do you all know about the big voice institute that Zajick has created?

Farmboy: Young kids are not used to waiting... they want instant gratification and success NOW!!!! It;'s a hard lesson for them to learn.

Rachel Velarde: My young ones with large voices want it all now & get really frustrated with me saying "wait 10 years"

Dean Williamson: she's convinced that the large voices are there, and always have been

Dean Williamson: but they are pushed too early and too hard

Kari Ragan: interesting.

Dean Williamson: so she tries to find them as teenagers

Farmboy: Or stifled and shushed too much!

Dean Williamson: I heard the demo CD she created for funding....it was the final recital

Kari Ragan: Or poorly taught.

Dean Williamson: they are invited for several weeks to her institute in the summer (I think in Utah)

Dean Williamson: they are not allowed to sing more than 30 minutes a day

Rachel Velarde: Yes, I have 2 I want to get in there...it's hard.

Dean Williamson: the rest of the time is spent on acting/diction, etc

Dean Williamson: the results in the piece I saw was pretty spectacular

Farmboy: For a young singer, I think that's reasonable. There's a lot more to singing than just singing!

Dean Williamson: and everyone, including the Met/Lyric and other houses are watching what she's creating

Jordyn Palmer: Interesting!

Kari Ragan: Dean, how are you finding our emerging singers with regard to diction and musicality.

Dean Williamson: can I be frank?

Dean Williamson: most are lazy

Rachel Velarde: please

Dean Williamson: there I said it, LOL

Kari Ragan: Has the acting chops changed over the past 20 years? Gotten better since expectations have changed.

Kari Ragan:

Dean Williamson: you have to work hard, perfecting the roles, the voice, the diction, the acting, the movement, everything

Kari Ragan: Who is lazy? What makes you say that-I'm fascinated since I have such hard working students.

Dean Williamson: expectaitons are much higher in the acting department than 20 years ago

Dean Williamson: when I look at my famous singer friends and compare them to the younger singers....

Dean Williamson: how hard they worked in the beginning to get started

Jordyn Palmer: As a young singer fresh out of college, I can say that diction and musicality are hardly EVER emphasized.

Dean Williamson: how often they coached

Kari Ragan: That's sad Jordyn.

Dean Williamson: how often they worked to perfect just 2 bars of music

Sarah Vander Pl: Jordyn, depends where you study.

Dean Williamson: I agree sarah

Jordyn Palmer: True, where I was it was not.

Kari Ragan: Do you think are training programs have degressed, Dean?

Sarah Vander Pl: That definitely hasn't been my experience

Dean Williamson: I'm finding the emphasis is different in the various conservatories

Dean Williamson: it's hard in YAP's

Dean Williamson: when I ran the Seattle YAP, I tried to make it a training program

Dean Williamson: emphasizing acting/diction/Italian, etc

Rachel Velarde: Which would you say are the most successful training grounds - where are the "complete" singers coming from?

Kari Ragan: But a lot of that training should come before YAP programs.

Dean Williamson: there just weren't enough hours in the day to make up for what everyone needed

Dean Williamson: exactly

Dean Williamson: the fallacy everyone has about YAP's is that they will polish you up

Dean Williamson: couldn't be further from the truth

Dean Williamson: they are glorified auditions

Dean Williamson: you have to be about 90% ready to go before you get into a YAP

Dean Williamson: especially at the higher level ones like san fran/lyric/met

Dean Williamson: I wish YAP's could be more like advanced degrees at conservatories

Dean Williamson: but most opera companies don't have the time nor the money to really pursue the training

Dean Williamson: they need covers and small roles filled

Dean Williamson: and unfortunately when you are thrown on, the bar is raised so unfairly high

Dean Williamson: you can't expect a young singer covering a role to do as good or better a job as the principal they are covering

Dean Williamson: but that's what is expected....everyone is looking for the next superstar to emerge magically

Kari Ragan: Dean-would you speak for a minute about the next tier down. The regional houses where a lot of singers are making a go of it.

Sarah Vander Pl: What can we as young singers do, then, to best prepare ourselves for this?

Dean Williamson: to best prepare yourself....one, get the best voice teacher you can find that understands your voice

Dean Williamson: two, get several great coaches or travel to a city where you can coach regularly

Dean Williamson: unfortunately it means spending a lot of money

Kari Ragan: Yes and Yes!

Dean Williamson: but it can pay off

Dean Williamson: you have to trust one voice teacher and several coaches (preferably ones who know the vvoice teacher so they can work in tandem)

Dean Williamson: I've seen friends of mine just ruin their voices by going from one teacher to the next looking for the miracle cure

Dean Williamson: and you need a coach who will not just make you feel great at the end of the hour but one that will really hammer you on diction, rhythm, musical preparation, and interpretation

Dean Williamson: put you thru your paces, challenge you

Dean Williamson: and make you a better singer

Kari Ragan: LOL! That's what Dean has done for me all these years. But I always knew things were coached well at the end of the day.

Dean Williamson: and if you have access to it, work with a good drama coach or acting teacher

Dean Williamson: refine your audition arias

Dean Williamson: and if you are lucky to get a full role

Dean Williamson: work every aspect of it

Dean Williamson: take it to your teacher, learn it with your teacher, note by note

Dean Williamson: Vinson Cole told me he would work a role literally note by note into his voice with his teacher

Kari Ragan: Once upon a time singers saw their teachers nearly everyday. Can you imagine?

Jordyn Palmer: I would love that!

Dean Williamson: and a coach should help you prepare the role cover to cover, singing all the other parts until you can do it with just him/her playing and not cueing you

Rachel Velarde: Money

Dean Williamson: in a complex ensemble opera like Mozart or Rossini you need to know everyone's part as well as your own

Dean Williamson: yes, money

Dean Williamson: I know

Dean Williamson: a lot of preparation you can do yourself....like studying hard

Kari Ragan: Since we're all voice teachers here anything you want to speak directly about that?

Dean Williamson: don't ever let them criticize your musical preparation

Dean Williamson: when you get to the gig

Dean Williamson: they can not like your voice or acting, you cannot control that, but don't ever let them say you didn't learn the role well

Kari Ragan: Are you encouraged, Dean about the current state of teaching in our business?

Dean Williamson: I'm not sure....it seems to go in cycles

Dean Williamson: I still think the best technique is taught in the US

Dean Williamson: the traditions of bel canto are carried on here more so than in even Italy

Dean Williamson: but I don't envy you teachers, as you are expected to cover so much material nowadays

Dean Williamson: as well as rep, style, diction, coaching, etc

Dean Williamson: I do like how the "technique" of teaching is getting better and better as more singers understand the mechanics of it

Rachel Velarde: Do you find more singers are understanding the pedagogy more deeply?

Dean Williamson: I do....and I find myself having more pedagogical conversations with singers in rehearsal during breaks

Rachel Velarde: Does this, do you think, lead to better singing? Or just better technique?

Dean Williamson: I love talking technique with them....if there is a particularly good singer I'll bring up the subject and see what they have to say

Dean Williamson: the good ones usually have very strong opinions

Dean Williamson: sometimes they seem to know scientifically, sometimes they know intuitively

Kari Ragan: and they probably come by it more naturally sometimes.

Katelin: Hi Dean. I know I'm entering the conversation a little late. Can you comment on how the expectations compare in Europe for regional/national opera houses.

Dean Williamson: and the really good ones that don't teach much are all very modest

Dean Williamson: I just had this conversation with the Barbiere cast in Seattle

Dean Williamson: at the A level houses in Europe everyone sings well. It's expected, and you go in at that level

Dean Williamson: there is no room for error, and the pressure and stress on you is incredible

Dean Williamson: at the more "regional" european level, it's varied, much like in the US

Dean Williamson: there are good singers, good actors, good technicians, good musicians

Dean Williamson: everyone has a modicum of a career because of certain strengths

Dean Williamson: I think you are judged more on a vocal level the higher you go

Dean Williamson: Carol Vaness told me when she made $500 a night at City Opera in the beginning it was fun and easy. When she made 20K a night at La Scala the pressure was almost unbearable

Katelin: is the audition process similar?

Dean Williamson: somewhat....to get into the highest levels takes the voice, of course

Matthew Hoch: This has been a wonderful chat tonight--I hate to have to give a 5-minute warning to wrap things up.

Dean Williamson: but also a certain level of connections and politics

Katelin: of course

Rachel Velarde: Thanks Matt!

Dean Williamson: that's not to say the unknown with a spectacular voice is never going to sing at La

Dean Williamson: Scala

Rachel Velarde: Ah, connections...

Matthew Hoch: Does anyone have any final thoughts/questions for Dean?

Kari Ragan: Thank-you Dean. you're always so generous with your experience and information.

Sarah Vander Pl: Mostly, I just want to thank you for your very frank responses to our questions, and for laying everything out so completely and honestly. This has been an extremely helpful conversation for me.

Katelin: Thanks so much for the info Dean

Jordyn Palmer: Thank you very much!

Rachel Velarde: I second Sarah's thanks.

Dean Williamson: It's been my pleasure....there's so much information that's not out there

Jordyn Palmer: This has been wonderful!

Juli-Ann: Thank you so much - fascinating to "listen" in on.. And I loved Barber last night! (Saw it twice here in Seattle)

Matthew Hoch: You were a WONDERFUL host, Dean. Thanks so much to Kari for recommending you too.

Dean Williamson: thanks! it was a fun show because both casts were fantastic with lots of chemistry

Dean Williamson: they looked after each other onstage and it showed to the audience

Kari Ragan: So happy some of my students joined in tonight. Good-night everyone.

Rachel Velarde: Good night! Until next time!

Dean Williamson: good night!, thanks for dropping in

Jordyn Palmer: Goodnight!

Katelin: this was extremely informative and insightful!

Katelin: goodnight

Nancy Bos: Goodnight, and thank you, Dean.

Sarah Vander Pl: Thank you again. Goodnight!

Dean Williamson: thanks....and thanks to Matthew and Kari for asking me!

Intermezzo