Carol Vaness made her Seattle Opera debut in the title role of Massenet’s Manon in 1985 and has returned to the company as Anna Bolena in Donizetti’s opera and Violetta in Verdi’s Traviata, Leonora in Verdi’s Trovatore, and Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. Most recently, she has sung the title role of Puccini’s Tosca and Amelia in Verdi’s Ballo in maschera at Seattle Opera. In January 2005, she will sing the title role of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut here.
Since her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984, Vaness has sung such Mozart roles there as Elettra in Idomeneo, the Countess in Nozze di Figaro, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, and Vitellia in Clemenza di Tito. A Californian native, Vaness has appeared at Teatro alla Scala, Vienna State Opera, Paris Opéra–Bastille; and Royal Opera Covent Garden among many others in Europe.
What is your basic singing philosophy?
Sing with your body as a whole! There are three places to sing from, and you have to use all three. Your resonance is in the head; your actual mechanism is in the throat, of course; and your support, or your engine, comes from the diaphragm. The throat is the computer; the body and diaphragm are the electrical outlet, the energy provider; and the head is the monitor, with loud speakers, and all the areas around the computer. It all has to work together.
Your voice is very large and rich, yet you don't get heavy, as some dramatic voices tend to do. You manage to stay slender and flexible throughout your range. How do you maintain that suppleness?
Well, through breath and support. I also keep in mind that even the darkest, biggest voices should be high-placed, so that they don't sing down on the mechanism. You have to think of the whole mechanism as a flexible tension, as opposed to just tension and strength. I also think that people can get a funny idea of support as something that needs to be nailed down, but support needs to stay flexible. It's like singing with your knees slightly bent as opposed to keeping them locked. The reason is: You should be able to move in any direction with your knees bent and still stay strong from the waist down, while allowing your breathing to be free. I always emphasize that with my students.
Do you do any particular exercise backstage to get into performance mode?
Sometimes, when I don't feel engaged, I focus on breathing and do some panting—not too much. I try not to be too frantic, but just stay controlled and quiet. Some people really like to stay hyper. I am hyper by nature, but I like to hold my hyperactivity in, which is a little painful at times. But the minute I get on stage, I try to really concentrate all that hyperactivity into a single place, staying aware of everything—whether I need to focus on the words here, on technique there, on the breath, or on "oh, the tenor is lost," or the conductor is doing a slower tempo—that multi-layered cake that is performance. Hopefully, by the time you get onstage, you are able to use everything—your physicality, your vocal technique, your breathing, the words—as the character would use them. So you're not out of character really, it's just that your character happens to sing. That's what I mean about "it has to be all one."
How do you prepare for a role?
If it's something I'm totally unfamiliar with, I sometimes listen to a recording a little bit. But when I actually start to learn it, I just go to a pianist, or I pound out pitches and rhythm myself, marking it, translating it. I start with the bare bones and try not to jump to interpretation before I am technically ready. I have it almost memorized by the time I start to interpret. Roles attach themselves quickly in my mind because I do associate a pitch and a word with that character. So by the time I get to be the character, the music had already moved me to understand what the character really needs. Of course, it's all in the music and the words. One doesn't have to exclude the other. You should be able to make the words perfectly understood and still sing well. That doesn’t mean you have to sing a pure "i" as high as you can go, but you should be able to approximate a good sound close to an "i," so that the word is understandable.
You participated in the inaugural year of the San Francisco Merola program. What did you learn from Kurt Adler?
He taught me something very valuable: When you take a breath, you don't just take a breath! You take a breath depending on the type of phrase you will be singing. There's no point to gasp and inhale fast, if you’re going to sing a really slow phrase, or to inhale slowly if your next phrase is fast. Breathing and the silences are just as important as the music, the diction and the support. It's all connected together as part of the Zen whole, so to speak. He also taught me that you don't have to be the most perfect singer and you are allowed to have bad days. But you need to really work hard at being consistent within a framework, so that you don't have extreme highs and lows. I learned to always think ahead, be prepared, and be consistent in everything I took on.
Another important figure in your career was Beverly Sills. How did she influence your path?
She is just very nurturing. I sang the small role of the Queen with her in I puritani, and she helped me get an audition for Julius Rudel for the New York City Opera. It happened in the middle of my second year at Merola. Kurt Adler wanted me to return for a third year. But when Maestro Rudel offered me my debut in New York, I wanted to do it, even though it was much less secure to go there with only some performances of La clemenza di Tito and no other work under my belt. But I sold my car, and went to New York. I was very blessed because I didn't have to go through the German Fest system. If you go into that you're doomed to whatever Fach they hire you for, which would have been tough for me, since I always jumped Fachs.
What would you advise singers to do or not do when in the process of studying?
I would say: never, ever self-criticize. Don't be overly hard on yourself. Don’t negative-speak to yourself. Certainly, be diligent but not harsh. Then, when you enter the professional field, be prepared to continue studying, and don't think you’re ever finished. It's always a work in progress. Each performance is a rehearsal for the next performance, which is a rehearsal for the next performance! That's all. Never stop going forward!
What do you think American singers bring to the opera world?
They bring energy and flexibility. However, we still need to encourage Americans to let their voices be individual and not try to sound like someone else. It's important to stay true to yourself, so if you have a fast vibrato, don't necessarily struggle to erase it out of your voice, if it's not a technical flaw or a problem of balance. I mean, if your voice just has a fast vibrato because that is its personal color, well, then that's what you should use, instead of trying to sound like someone who has a slower vibrato. Don't make your voice darker or brighter, but rather find what it naturally is, and make it the healthiest and most balanced it can be. Thus you will be an individual voice. You will not be a clone: "Oh, she sounds like Leontyne Price, and he sounds like Jon Vickers!" You'll be compared to others anyway, but don't aim for that. The greatest singers have instantly recognizable voices. It's because they are individuals, and that means you get to recognize their flaws as well as their greatness. I'm not saying: "cultivate your flaws," but don't beat yourself up about them. Just continue to work and try to be better—but don't think you're terrible because you have a flaw. Above all, we should avoid, in America, having assembly-line singers, all formed to sound the same. No two operas are alike, no two singers are alike, and no two interpretations of a part are the same. Every singer who has the guts to get up and take that first breath to sing deserves to be heard. Whether that person will have a long career or not, who knows? The greatest voices in the world have not had careers, and some minor voices have had major careers.
What do you think is the secret to a career?
I don't think there is a secret. It's fate and preparation, along with how much you are willing to give to it. You have to love it more than anything, because there is a lot of great pain involved, and a lot of stress. There is also a lot of joy that you can't get anywhere else. But in the end, this profession has to fulfill your soul so completely that you can’t imagine life without it.