Monday, October 21, 2013

Dr. Liu makes a point

My colleague, baritone James Liu (who also happens to be an MD), made the following point after an earlier post:
It is also interesting, how the process is so similar, and yet so different, for those poor schmoes like me who are trying to memorize operas. On the one hand, the process is structured to provide a framework for gradually memorizing more and digging deeper, and you do get coaches and people who can try to help/cue/rescue you. But on the other hand, you have to master all the dynamics, shadings, texts, and cutoffs. You have to be able to listen for your fellow singers and be flexible enough to be ready to inflect your performance based on what they just did. You have to be able to move on a stage, act and react in a vaguely consistent character. And somewhere along the way, you have to tell a very specific story. Memory lapse stories in the opera world are legion, and just as colon-evacuating as those in the instrumentalist world (though with enough repetition, sometimes you dive into the void and muscle memory takes over ...).
 (James wasn't the only one who picked up on my "restless colons" comment in that post.)

James reminds me of my conversation with violinist Rachel Barton Pine, in which she talked about conductors who memorize. She said that, when the performance came around, it was common for those conductors to forget what was discussed in rehearsal. She also said, rightfully so, that in chamber music performance there are so many interpretive changes from ensemble to ensemble that there's really no point in attempting to memorize the music. In both cases, memorization gets in the way of the performance.

From my perspective as an instrumentalist, I would think that operatic staging would make the process somewhat easier. Does the physical stage movement becomes a type of mnemonic? In my limited opera conducting experiences, I came to feel that the stage direction took away from the music. James' comments seem to confirm my feeling, although eliminating opera in the name of better music-making is not a solution!

Singers, I'd appreciate your comments about your either staged or unstaged experiences with memorization. Do the words make the process easier or harder? Does the language make a difference? What are some of your lapse anecdotes? Do you have any singer-specific advice on memorization techniques?