Part of the art of singing is to make it look easy. From the point of view of the audience, the singing must look effortless. Classical singers study for years in order to develop techniques that allow them to sing difficult music beautifully and make it look easy. What most non-musicians do not realize is the amount of time, effort, practice, study, expense and just plain work that goes into preparing even a short recital program.
My friend Ms. Moxie and I are both classical singers. She is a mezzo-soprano and I am a soprano. I live in New York City and she lives in Boston, but we see each other frequently when she comes to New York for voice lessons or coaching. For a long time we had been mulling over the idea of doing a program together. Finally, early in the spring of 2010, we began to seriously discuss both repertoire and a possible venue.
It isn’t easy to find a good recital venue, even in big cities like Boston and New York. Most places require a fee to rent the space, and some of them are quite expensive. Other places, such as some churches and museums, have regular concert series and do not take a rental fee, but performers are required to audition and the chance of being chosen over hundreds of other soloists and groups is not good. If you can find a cost-free space that also has a good piano and good acoustics, it is a rarity.
Fortunately for us, Ms. Moxie knows Jeffrey Mills, the music director of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Boston, which has a regular concert series on Wednesday evenings and that does not charge a fee for the rental of the space. She was able to secure us a date: Wednesday, October 20, 2010. This gave us several months to get our program together.
The first things we had to do were to finalize our repertoire, find a pianist to accompany us and get hold of copies of any music we didn’t already have. The program ended up looking like this:
Me: Gioacchino Rossini: La Regata Veneziana (three songs in Venetian dialect)
Ms. Moxie: Camille Saint-Saens: Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix from Samson et Dalila
Me: Three Neapolitan Songs
De Capua: I’ te vurria vasà!
Tosti: ‘A vucchella
Cioffi: ‘Na sera ‘e Maggio
Ms. Moxie: Three Spirituals
“My Lord, What a Mornin'” (arranged by H.T. Burleigh)
“Were You There” (arranged by H.T. Burleigh)
Hall Johnson: “Ride On, King Jesus!”
Both of Us: Mozart: “To Greet You, My Lady” from The Marriage of Figaro
Humperdinck: “Evening Prayer” from Hansel and Gretel
A good friend of ours, who lives in Boston, agreed to be our accompanist. Under normal circumstances, an accompanist will charge a fee, which can be several hundred dollars, depending on the pianist. Accompanying a singer entails a lot of work, not to mention the expertise that comes from years of study, practice and experience. A good accompanist is a treasure, and treasures do not come cheap. In this case, however, our friend agreed not to take a fee from us. Instead, we would give him whatever we would gather at the church in the way of voluntary contributions from the audience.
Our friend’s name is David Baker, and, in addition to being an excellent pianist, he is a well-respected organist in the Boston area. He is also a lawyer, specializing in consumer bankruptcy cases. In this capacity, he has appeared before the Supreme Court of the United States.
In the meantime, we had to have copies of all of our music, for ourselves and for David. Both Ms. Moxie and I already had plenty of printed music from all of our years of studying and performing, and we were able to find some of our pieces in our mutual stacks of old music. However, I needed to buy copies of the Rossini song cycle and one of my Neapolitan songs, ‘Na Sera ‘e Maggio. Ms. Moxie wanted to find the Burleigh arrangement of “Were You There” in a medium key. I had already looked all over the internet for a sheet music copy of ‘Na Sera ‘e Maggio and had been unable to find it, despite the fact that it is one of the most popular of all Neapolitan songs. Ms. Moxie had a similar lack of success locating the Burleigh “Were You There” in the right key. It is published in a high key and a low key, but the version for medium voice is no longer in print.
In our quest to acquire the music we needed, we turned to what is probably the best source in the world for finding classical vocal music: Classical Vocal Repertoire. The man who runs this wonderful service, Glendower Jones, can find almost any piece of music a classical singer might need, including things that are hard to find. Sure enough, I was able to get my hard-to-find Neapolitan song, as well as two beautiful copies of the Rossini song cycle. Ms. Moxie was able to get an old copy of the Burleigh “Were You There” for medium voice, although she ended up having to pay about $10 for it. We already had copies of all the other music we needed, so we were all set.
This was the first of our out-of-pocket expenses. There would be a lot more.
Once we had our music, the next task was to actually learn it, work on it technically and master it. Because singers can’t hear themselves the way other people can hear them, we need other sets of ears. We also need to work out ensemble problems with the accompaniments. Here is where voice teachers and coaches come in. It is necessary for classical singers to continue to study with voice teachers and coaches, even after they have been performing professionally for many years. Voice teachers help us with vocal technique issues. Coaches help us with ensemble work and interpretation.
Ms. Moxie and I both study with Bruce Norris, an excellent voice teacher who lives and works in New York City. He teaches at the Aaron Copland School of Music (of the City University of New York), and some of his students have sung at the Metropolitan Opera. Of course, we brought our planned recital music to our lessons. In addition, we worked with a wonderful New York City coach named David Holkeboer. Between the two of them, they helped us whip our music into shape very nicely. Of course, we had to work on the music on our own, in between lessons and coachings.
We had to pay for each lesson and each coaching, which added to the expense of this program. I won’t disclose the fees that our teacher and our coach charged us, but the good, top voice teachers in New York City charge anywhere from $90 – $150 per hour, and the good coaches are $60 per hour and up.
Nobody makes money from recitals, other than “big names” who perform in large concert halls and attract huge audiences. The rest of us give programs because we love the music and we love to sing it, and we almost always expect to take a financial loss or, at most, break even.
Eventually, the time came for Ms. Moxie (who was in New York for a lesson and a coaching) and I to take the bus to Boston, on Sunday, October 17, a few days before the recital. I had boarded my cat at my veterinarian’s office (yet another expense to add to the tally). We took the inexpensive Lucky Star bus out of New York’s Chinatown. It only cost us $15 for a one-way ticket. I stayed with Ms. Moxie in Boston, which saved me the cost of a hotel room.
Over the next couple of days, we rehearsed with our pianist, David Baker, to iron out any problems with ensemble and tempi. We rehearsed in David’s home on Monday, and on Tuesday we were allowed to rehearse in the church where we would perform. This was a great boon, because many venues will not allow this. It gave us the opportunity to get used to the space, the acoustics and the sound of their piano.
On Wednesday, the day of the performance, we arrived at the church early, so that we could get into our performance clothes, get everything together and get ourselves relaxed and focused. The program was due to begin at 5:30 PM, and as the time grew near people began to drift in. We were expecting a very small audience and we were not disappointed. About twelve people showed up. Jeffrey Mills, the music director, was there and he graciously introduced us and encouraged those in attendance to put money into the basket for us.
The program went very well. Ms. Moxie and I were both singing music that we loved, and the small audience was very appreciative. Afterward, there was a small reception in an adjoining part of the church, and we had a chance to sit, enjoy some goodies and chat with some of our audience members. We gave all the money that had been collected from the audience to our pianist, David, in appreciation for all his work. It only came to $63.00. He accepted it with good humor.
After we left the church, David took Ms. Moxie and me to dinner at The Olive Garden and ended up spending most of his “take.” He also drove us back to Ms. Moxie’s place. We appreciated it.
So the next time you get a glimpse of classical singers in recital, you will have an idea of the hard work, the dedication, the training, the expense and the love that go into the presentation.
Church of St. John the Evangelist, Beacon Hill, Boston: http://stjev.org/ .
David Baker, Lawyer: http://www.bakerlawoffices.net/ .
Classical Vocal Repertoire: http://www.classicalvocalrep.com/
Bruce Norris: http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/music/index.php?L=0&M=153
In large cities such as Boston and New York, it is difficult to get people to come to small recitals because there are always so many other concerts, recitals and shows going on.