Friday, June 29, 2007

Making Business Sing by Michelle Kunz

I am by formal education a professionally trained opera singer, with a hard earned doctorate's initials after my name when I choose to add them. Transitioning to coaching was a natural extension of having spent many years teaching in studio, masterclass and classroom situations, but it wasn't until recently that I noticed a very powerful similarity between how an organization and an opera performance work (or not).

There are obvious metaphors to be drawn, and they are certainly worthy of discussion, but one I'd like to focus on in this first post is the primary relationship between conductor and principal artist (management and staff). Typically in a high level opera house, both conductor and artist are hired several years in advance of the actual performance, and often do not actually meet until the rehearsal period has commenced. In the interim, both have studied hard to know the score, the plot, the intricacies of musical phrasing, articulation, tempi and dynamics, and have developed ideas about how this opera is going to be sung.

These ideas, of course, are based on their point of view. The conductor is looking at the opera as a whole -- orchestra, chorus, small roles, secondary roles and principal roles. Solo arias as well as ensembles and even possibly ballets. The entire musical idea in its gestalt lies with the conductor, and with a well known opera, whether the performance will be stale or fresh depends on how well he or she can differentiate his ideas from others who have come before. At first rehearsals with both orchestra and singers (individuals and chorus), the conductor must establish an essential balance of authority and likability as well as possess the ability to communicate her unique ideas with utmost clarity to the musicians.

The singer, meanwhile, is looking at the opera as a whole as well, but is focusing more closely on his or her specific role in the overall picture. She must take into consideration her technical abilities, her temperament, her physical stamina, her musical preferences and abilities, her previous experiences with the piece, her understanding and development of the character and her relationship to the others in the opera, and any other physical, emotional, mental or intellectual limitations or strengths which will help or hinder a fantastic performance.

If the opera in question is popular, it is highly likely that both conductor and singer have performed this piece before, perhaps many times, with success (or failure) before meeting each other for the first time. They may have strongly held opinions about how it should go. And these opinions may not match at all.

So far do we see any similarities at all between management and staff?

Now comes the tricky part. On first meeting if the conductor does not manage to establish some truly great rapport with the singer, the likelihood of any new and fresh musical ideas coming out of the relationship between the two is pretty close to doomed. A singer has a lot to manage in the moment of a performance. To ask them to change anything they have already done with success in the past is asking a lot. It's risky. To ask that to happen when you don't like the conductor, or when you don't trust their judgment or their values, or their ability to hold it together when the going gets tough -- or just be there for you if you get a little shaky -- is asking too much.

I have personally witnessed conductors who totally abandon the stage during a performance. They don't know the opera, don't know the music, have no idea what the needs of the stage are, and are focused primarily on the pit. Is a train wreck in that situation such a shock?

On the other hand, I have also personally witnessed the will -- or carelessness -- of a singer ruin the hard work of rehearsal during a performance. They either forget to watch the conductor and get out of sync with everyone else, or they decide they want to change things without warning, and suddenly everything is a little off for a while. There is a moment of panic while the entire attention of the conductor is not so much on making music as on preventing disaster.

Any other similarities coming to mind?

And we haven't even brought in the effect this has on the ticket buying audience and long term subscribers -- the bottom line.

Establishing those foundations of trust and open and healthy communication are essential from the very beginning of any working relationship, and they must be nurtured and maintained until the fat lady sings to ensure ongoing success. Without this foundation, any performance is on very shaky ground. Whether you're on the stage or in the pit, this is not a good place to be.