In preparation for the Lied and Mélodies Interpretation Course I shall be giving for the Frankfurter Bürgerstiftung im Holzhausenschlößchen (Frankfurt, Germany) May 9-11, 2011, I am reading – once again – Lotte Lehmann’s book More Than Singing: The Interpretation of Songs.
According to a note on the first page, I seem to have bought it in April 1990 in San Francisco… a longtime companion in my study of the song repertoire.
Interpretation means: individual understanding and reproduction.
This opening statement brings us right to the point I am always trying to make when I teach interpretation. There is no final interpretation, no established way of reproducing the notes and words you see before you. As Lotte Lehmann points out:
For imitation is, and can only be the enemy of artistry.
How do you find YOUR own interpretation? How do you make any song really yours? You have to find your key.
Key is a word I often use in interpretation classes. Imagination is another one. In vocal technique, there are principles that need to be taught and learned. You can’t really avoid reproducing the exact same technical gesture, you have to learn specific postures and practice until you master your vocal production. Your technique must become automatic, unconscious as Lehmann says.
In interpretation, however, the teacher cannot – should not – teach you “how to do it”. I can sing Dichterliebe to a young singer, but he will never be able to reproduce it. It is not only about the quality of the voice or the mastery of the technique (a young singer may well have a better voice than the teacher), it has to do with the images I have in my head as I am singing Dichterliebe.
When I first attempted to sing this cycle, I was “under the spell” of a recording by Fischer-Dieskau. I was mesmerized by his way of articulating certain words and by his ability to shape his voice to fit his vision of the poem. I now understand why I could not be successful in reproducing Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation, but at the time I thought I could. When I felt ready to bring the cycle to my teacher, there was nothing to work on. I had no individual understanding of the piece and obviously could not vocally reproduce what Fischer-Dieskau did.
What was missing?
My own images, my own inspiration, my own sensibility, my own message, my own expression, my own desires. I was missing. For interpretation is not only about the piece, the music, the words, the composer and the poet. Interpretation is about what YOU can bring out and share with the audience. If you have nothing to say, then don’t.
Once you have found a piece you relate to, then you have to find the keys to interpretation. Start from the tradition if you wish, but start from it and identify your own vision. Imagination will be your most precious tool. Let me give you an example and remember, this key of interpretation only works for me.
Am leuchtendem Sommermorgen (Dichterliebe)
Probably the most difficult song for me when I first started studying the cycle. I did not have the technical skills to sing lightly enough and I could not figure out my own understanding of the situation described by Heine. Flowers whispering among themselves? Flowers talking to the young poet? How do you really visualise and translate this? At the time I was living in Paris and studying in Nancy, a 3-hour journey one way for a 1-hour voice lesson. And back. As I was allowing plenty of time before my session, I once found a small park near the Conservatoire and decided to sit on the grass to enjoy a moment of relaxation. It was springtime, the sun was shining and there was a light breeze. I was lost in my thoughts when suddenly, it hit me: the breeze was caressing the grass and the long narrow leaves were softly moving as though they were whispering. I had the poem right in front of me, I was literally seeing how Romantics like Heine and Schumann were able to produce such a song. I had found my own key of interpretation.
I remember many more similar situations: a contemplation of the Saint-Laurent river in Quebec City that brought me the key to Fauré’s cycle L’Horizon chimérique, the warm embrace of the sun and the sensuous laziness I used to sing Poulenc’s Hotel. Sometimes, the trigger may just be one word within the poem: in Wolf’s Gesang Weyla’s, Orplid and Uralte have always fascinated me and made my mind travel far and wide. How do you, as a caucasian male singer, find the right emotion to sing “Etant femme avec pudeur, J’irai derrière un buisson, Donner mon sein de couleur, A notre petit garçon” in Milhaud’s Chansons de Négresse?
Sometimes, you will find your interpretation key within the key of the song, literally: in Schumann’s Mondnacht, you have to identify a certain melody that both singer and pianist find on the score. An English-speaking singer would see E-B-E or mi-si-mi as a French-speaking one would say, but only a German-speaking singer will recognize, in the E-H-E notes used by Schumann, the word EHE (wedding, union, mariage in German). But there’s more: E is the first letter in Erde (Earth) and H the initial of Himmel (sky in German). Do you now see how Schumann translated into sounds the phrase “Es war, als hätt’ der Himmel die Erde still geküsst”? Fascinating, isn’t it?
Do not be afraid to build your vision on what seems to be a tiny detail: a singer once came with Un bel dì, vedremo and could not embody the figure of Cio-Cio San, she could not identify herself with the physique of a petite Japanese 15-year old girl nicknamed Butterfly. What did we do? I noticed the singer’s hand posture, how her fingertips were lightly joined together. We used this as a starting point to find HER key of interpretation that day. I asked her to think about a specific moment in the aria, namely how Pinkerton describes Cio-Cio San. He says piccina mogliettina, olezzo di verbena (tiny wife, odor of verbena or more accurately : tiny wifey, mogliettina being the diminutive of wife) so we know that Cio-Cio San is petite to the point of being a tiny tiny wife. But where does the odor of verbena come from? Could we use this to help the singer embody the role? We found the reason of her hands’ posture: in our vision that day, Cio-Cio San plays with verbena leaves. She rubs and crushes them between her fingers, then they fall at her feet. She has been waiting for Pinkerton for what seems to be an eternity and is now standing on a pile of crushed verbena leaves. She is surrounded by verbena leaves and she looks at the horizon, endlessly waiting for Pinkerton’s return. I asked the singer to keep her feet joined together, and her fingertips as she previously did, while looking at her horizon line. A discreet sign to the pianist and, suddenly, our singer WAS Cio-Cio San, a petite Japanese 15-year old girl. The strength of her interpretation was unbelievable.
Your world is full of such occasions. Nourish yourself. Develop your imagination, until you are able to dream big and large enough. Then you will be able to do this: