Opera's Got Talent

I have been watching America's Got Talent.

Ok. I admit it. I am easily drawn to the allure of talent shows. The first one I ever saw was Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour (in black and white) in the family living room of our blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia. Later was the Gong Show in more than just living color-psychedelic color. In between were the variety shows that showcased all types of talents, albeit in a non-competitive arena. Who can forget the fellow keeping all the plates spinning on poles?

Yes, on AGT I am charmed by the family acts, the amazing dancers, magicians and even, at times the singers. Less charming, though, is the packaging of the "opera" singers.

AGT has had a few aspiring opera singers. Most horrifying was last season's fellow in a gaudy 18th-century outfit making flamboyant gestures. This year I was moved by the 40-something woman who had had little encouragement. She came onstage, shaking like a leaf, to sing her heart out, albeit technically raw. Although she was no where near AGT material, it was nice to see her so welcomed by the audience and judges.

There is an absolutely beautiful young woman, complete with personal trauma, who is going to the next round. Without a doubt she has a God-given instrument. Her first audition, all of 60-90 seconds(!), was enough to show something special. Both singers, I might add, were dressed simply, used a mic and recorded accompaniment. The audience and judges seemed amazed that a beautiful, slim, attractive person should have this voice.

This past week, this same beautiful, slim, attractive person was singing, quite well, an aria from Bizet's Carmen but will all sorts of tasteless projections behind her and a set that looked like the St. Louis Gateway Arch in miniature. Evidently the producers felt her voice and beauty were not enough. What a shame. I even sensed a bit of awkwardness on her part.

Just what is an opera singer anyway?

When did operatic singing become something that needs to be souped-up or dumbed-down? Ok, not everyone has been exposed. I would like to add a little perspective on what it is like to make an operatic sound.

Let's just say, for starters, that one is born with this type of instrument. This is not enough. Opera singing is an athletic endeavor.

Just as an athlete is trained, we are trained in the technique of propelling a sound into a large space -- sometimes 3500-4000 seats. Many assume we are amplified. No mic. No net.

Here is a good analogy. We, like baseball pitchers, have to get the right speed, spin, placement of a ball way out over home plate. They wind up and release. We wind up and release. Like pitchers, we do not play two games in a row as we need days off to rest our instruments. Like pitchers with their jackets over their arms, you will see us with scarves around our necks.

We have two little strings in our throats upon which our talent and livelihood rely -- the vocal cords, which we also use to speak, hum, snore, cough. We cannot put them away when not in use. Temperatures, humidity levels, diet, exercise, hormones, emotions, illness, and age affect them. We have little choice but to stay in pretty good shape.

Just as nine innings in baseball can brief or endless, operas can run 45 minutes to 5 hours. This does not include the prep time to get into makeup, costume and warming up, which usually runs 90 minutes to 2 hours. With, on average, 3 weeks of rehearsal 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, our team of cast, orchestra, crew all works together for the game. We even have the covers aka understudies as "relief pitchers" in some companies.

Unfortunately, that is where the sports analogy ends. Solo singers have no guaranteed pay as we are classified as independent contractors. Paid by the performance, we might rehearse, shell out money for lodging, and other expenses only to fall ill for the performances and not see a dime. We pay for our own health insurance as well. Our physical health is so integral to what we do.

Most classical arts organizations in the US are considered non-profits. There is minimal advertising and no big product endorsement contract unless one is extremely famous, in which case you get a Rolex ad. We should have one for Ricola, as that seems to be the lozenge of choice. Even the relatively new cinema broadcasts do not earn much money, unlike the network fees paid to professional and college teams. One rarely opts for residuals when recording since the classical music sales are so low.

Why do it then? I sing for the love and the challenge of it. It is a privilege try to do justice to the work of a live or dead composer and to continue the 400-year legacy of the art form. Great art lasts for a reason. It is timeless. It is genius. Like Shakespeare, it is a reflection of humanity. God bless the audiences that "get it".

While compared to the world population, opera singers are a small drop in the bucket, you might be surprised to find one right next door or passing by, taking kids to school. We are actually normal, down-to-earth people with two eyes, a nose and skin all over our face, as my late father would say. Incredibly, we have no breastplates or horned hats on our heads. Most singers are pretty attractive and some are downright hot.

To America's Got Talent, I hope one of these days the producers will trust that it is enough to hear a person sing beautifully, to express a primal emotion with just the sound of their voice. Lose the silly packaging. Drop the stereotypes.