Stage Fright / My Heart and I / Virginia Kerr

George Fleeton

Stage Fright – ‘the loveliest life in the world’

In her little book How to be a Bad Singer (Braydeston Press, 1989) Belfast-born operatic soprano Marjorie Wright set out to share her gifts of a loud voice and perfect pitch with a host of adventurous students of many nationalities, building on the skills which she had developed and perfected at the Teatro alla Scala di Milano, at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Roma and in the Great Hall of the Wiener Musikverein.

In this exercise manual, laced with her mischievous humour, La Wright dealt with posture, the diaphragm, breathing, natural voices, vowels and consonants, rhythm/pacing/movement and phrasing, loud and soft singing, top and bottom notes, exercises, contemporary music, interpretation, rock and roll, acoustics, travelling, tit bits and students.

I was reminded of Wright’s fluently written monograph when reading Virginia Kerr’s more recent book Stage Fright (Turning Point Training Institute, 2014) which deals exclusively with musical performance anxiety (MPA), a topic hardly touched upon in How to be a Bad Singer.

The arguments for a book about stage fright, and how to manage it, are self-evident, particularly in so far as performance anxiety also extends to acting and to public speaking, areas in which I have had some experience but at the time without a treatise as pertinent as this (which, by the way, is graced with two beautiful watercolours by Pauline Bewick from the 1980s).

Stage Fright is an academic text, written by a practising psychotherapist who was studying for an MSc in that discipline with the focus on MPA.

Sometimes plain English suffers: I’m still struggling to make sense of "singers have the power ….. to make movements in the psyche which may be revolutionary in their creative capacity to bypass the status quo" (p.28).

But Virginia Kerr is also a renowned Irish soprano, a recording artist and a vocal tutor, with an international reputation, and all this versatility and experience are brought to bear in this short, sharply-focussed account of the value of psychotherapy for singers in classical training who might, will experience performance anxiety and the self-confidence issues to which that may, will give rise.

Kerr’s thesis deals with the impact of what can be for the individual singer a musical performance anxiety which cripples or debilitates and which can bring a promising career to a premature end; but psychotherapy, she argues, helps classically trained singers to understand and to manage MPA, to resolve the difficulties, to dispel the diffidence issues and to copper-fasten careers on stage in the opera house and in the concert hall.

Now Stage Fright does not yield up annotated examples of this working in practice; and how widely it will inform the future training of young singers is not clear-cut.

The interview sample is small by any standards (ten singers in all) and that is significantly over loaded with enormous background reading (11 pages of references comprising over 130 tomes, which include Darwin, Freud and Jung, Luciano Pavorotti and Renée Fleming, the whole compressed into about 70 pages of dense text).

Maria Callas, whose stage career I have studied for years, did not have the benefit of the support which psychotherapy would have given (in the 1950s) to her acute musical performance anxiety; her personal tactic was to separate the voice – La Callas - from the woman – Maria – and to arrange for the two of them to co-exist, not always peaceably.

In similar vein, Kerr quotes (p.33) from Pavorotti’s book My Own Story: "Friends often say to me when they see me suffering ‘How can you be nervous? You are Pavorotti, the world famous tenor!’ They don’t understand that the reputation can make it worse".

Finally I feel a monograph, as essential to its clientele as this is, deserves a large measure of redaction to make it more accessible to wider readerships.

Marjorie Wright’s How to be a Bad Singer, while not derived from academe (originally published at her own expense, and quickly sold out) achieved that kind of audience reach and was then picked up by an independent publisher.

Its saving grace was to deal with singing theory and practice together and to infuse it all with Irish wit and whimsy establishing a paradigm which works well; and the proof of its flavour and character was reinforced by Wright’s next book The Rise and Fall of a La Scala Diva (Janus Publishing Company, 2006).

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My Heart and I

When a full orchestra (the RTÉ Concert) gets behind some of Virginia Kerr’s selection of songs on her début album My Heart and I (2007) they can be transformed.

And while the selection is relatively predictable (as was the case with recent first cds by Rosalind Plowright and Sandra Oman - both reviewed here earlier this year and last) the wealth and the range of musical imagination being celebrated is invigorating; indeed these three songstresses, taken together, remind me of a line (or two) from somewhere in George Eliot’s first novel (Adam Bede, 1859) which reads ‘her heart lived with no cherished secrets of its own but in feelings which it longed to share with all the world’.

On this cd, songs in English by Tauber, Novello and Capel open the proceedings and, while a highlight for me is Tosti’s very expressive L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra, it was a pleasure to hear again after too many years Cadman’s short piece At Dawning, a native American art song replete with images of flaming dawns, crying birdlings and swaying blades of corn (and why this song is always associated in my mind with Do not stand at my grave and weep remains a mystery buried in my own childhood memories).

In an album which unites both le langage and les langues of singing, Virginia Kerr really opens up all the goodness, the hope that remained in Pandora’s box with six fascinating folksongs from Roussillon-Catalunya (which I first heard sung by Montserrat Caballé in Killarney in March 2006).

This is where the orchestra gives them that extra space to resonate, with their lyrical focus on el rossinyol (the nightingale), underpinning Kerr’s impeccable reading in a way that mere piano accompaniment cannot.

True this is too of some of my own old party pieces The Lark in the Clear Air and I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls.

And opera is well served: Musetta’s waltz song from Puccini’s La Bohème, Rusalka’s Song to the Moon (Dvořák) and the Merry Widow’s Vilja (Lehár), and the whole is rounded off with Winter Rose from a Lubbock operetta, and the csárdás from Kálmán’s Gräfin Mariza, a very demanding piece, very well taken.

(The French idiom for appreciation, admiration or approval after a performance is Chapeau! – so Chapeau! to Kerr, Oman and Plowright on their first cds and may there be many more of them).

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Both the book and the cd, under review here, may be sourced directly at www.virginiakerr.ie

©georgefleetonmmxv