Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Right now, it's Day 2 of my very first recording project. I'm at the Teldex studios in Berlin recording Nerone in Handel's Agrippina for Harmonia Mundi. I arrived from Innsbruck yesterday, got off the plane, ate a pizza, and went straight into the studio for my first session. As I was boarding the plane from Munich (no direct flights from Innsbruck to Berlin apparently) I thought to myself, " Whose life is this? I'm working on one exciting project in Europe, and jetting off to Berlin to make a RECORDING? When exactly did this become my reality?" But no time to wonder, because there was work to be done.

Can I tell you something? Recording is stressful!! I mean, of course, you have the opportunity to stop and do everything over, which is comforting. But the reason you have that option is because what you're doing has to be perfect. Every single note in tune, beautiful, full of color and expression, perfect diction. Certainly, this is what we strive for in every performance, but no one expects actual perfection in a live performance (well, except maybe some really mean reviewers). But in recordings, you have the opportunity to do everything perfectly at least once, so you'd better do it.

I almost had a nervous breakdown after the morning session because there was this phrase that I just couldn't do well enough. Every time I tried it something went wrong - I ran out of breath, or went slightly out of tune, or made some diction mistake, or went out of tempo. And the more times I did it wrong, the more stressed I got, and the worse the phrase sounded. And that was the end of the morning session, and when we returned, I would record my first aria. I knew I had to keep it together so I could do the aria justice.

And then during the afternoon session, I suddenly figured out how it all worked. I realized that when you're standing mere inches from a microphone, the type of sound you are required to produce is quite different from when you are on a stage. First of all, you can sing as softly as you want to. Secondly, you don't need to expel or compress nearly as much air because you don't have any need to project past the footlights. Third, if you sing too forcefully, the flaws in your voice will be over -exposed. Now - this is probably pretty specific to baroque music - obviously if you're singing Verdi or Wagner on recording, you use a different technique. Also, I'm making this recording with Rene Jacobs, whose recordings are so successful precisely because of his incredibly exacting standards. But in baroque music, the voice is utterly exposed, and requires a certain type of finesse in recording. I was just singing with my normal voice, as if I was trying to project in a theater, and I couldn't finesse each phrase nearly as delicately as one must in a recording. When I realized what I needed to do, it didn't get easier, but at least it started to make sense. We got my first aria recorded, and I didn't get fired, so I guess it wasn't too bad.

This is my first recording, so I'm just learning the ropes. But for most of the artists in this cast, this is one of many recordings they have made. Last night at dinner, some of the other singers were talking about how much the recording industry has changed since they made their first recordings 10, 15, and 20 years ago. One colleague was recalling a time when the record companies arranged for a uniformed chauffeur to pick each singer up in a Rolls Royce and bring them to the studio, where champagne and caviar would be served during the breaks. Other colleagues recalled getting paid 3 or 4 times what recordings pay now, and this was in an economy 15 years earlier. But even though we may have the vast earnings and the luxuries of the 80's behind us, another colleague pointed out that 15 years ago, all of us singers wouldn't be sitting down to a meal together like we were at that very moment. Apparently, there was so much money in those days, it caused a hierarchy among artists that seems to be far less intrusive in today's operatic circles. And we all agreed that we'd prefer to have wonderful colleagues with whom we could connect, communicate, and break bread, rather than all the champagne, caviar, and Rolls Royces in the world.


pat said...

Ella sends her love and says remember to howl just for the joy of it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jennifer, I hope you will ultimately relate that your recording experience was not an exercise in slice and dice editing, with perhaps a only few flaws left in. I was disheartened recently when a highly prominent singer described in great detail how she went back to the studio to fix all her mistakes before they released the final product. Perhaps this is standard practice now, in the digital age? I cherish the belief that recordings should not be completely artificial, whether we are talking about repertoire or quality. Very, very impressive that you are doing a recording, all that being said!