A Question of Technique

Photos: Thomas Kunsch
Singing class with Francisco Araíza.

Francisco Araíza gained global fame as an interpreter of Mozart and Rossini. In 2003, the star tenor also became a professor at the State University of Music and the Performing Arts in Stuttgart. In addition, he gives master classes and is a member of the “Neue Stimmen” jury. In this interview, he talks about learning to sing and explains why so few Germans walk away with top prizes at “Neue Stimmen”.

change.story: How do singers from different countries differ from each other?
Basically, they aren’t different – they’re united in their love of Western music instead. Many young people – from Asia, for example – are attracted to this music even though it’s part of a foreign culture. It’s incredible the way they identify with it. It’s something I admire again and again – the incredible respect with which they approach the literature and music.

Do the cultures and attitudes in different countries have an effect on music training there?
Yes. Every culture is valuable in and of itself. Being open is of course a big help when it comes to communicating onstage. At the same time, and this has changed the situation a bit, for roughly the last 20 years there have been professors of music in all of these countries who studied in Europe. That means younger singers now learn early on that they have to overcome certain learned limitations and become more open.

Many young talents would like to have careers in Germany. What makes studying voice in Germany different from studying in other countries?
I believe that our programs are very effective. When you study music in Germany, it’s much more structured than elsewhere. In Italy, for example, there’s the danger of being stereotyped. They want to create great, dramatic voices – often with the result that the voices are quickly ruined. The French approach is very introverted and concentrates on style and line. And the French language is not always accommodating, but quite technical instead. That’s why I think the German system is very beneficial for singers from many different countries.

What makes a good singer?
Talent is everything. The voice is the foundation. After that the teacher goes to work, and it’s his or her job to provide young performers with outstanding technique. (Francisco Araíza)

And to make sure no one starts performing a demanding repertoire too soon?
That is essential. Young people who have an extraordinary gift can already do many things on their own. That means they can move into a vocal range without the proper technique. And that becomes a problem over time. It’s therefore important to make sure these young talents acquire a solid technique as soon as possible, so that they can make optimal use of their voices and their physical resources over the course of their careers.

Why are there so few German singers among the top winners at “Neue Stimmen” and at other singing competitions?
In the 2009 competition, the top three spots were all taken by singers from South Korea. Everyone of course asked why there were no Germans and hardly any Europeans among the finalists. That gave us the opportunity to discuss the reasons. We quickly realized there was one country that was producing very special voices: South Korea.

All three of the prizewinners from South Korea studied at German institutions. They were trained in Germany. So you can see the system works. At the same time, two very promising singers from Germany could not participate in “Neue Stimmen” at the last minute. That also played a role. In addition, young German singers are often given roles very early in their careers. Frequently they don’t make use of the various competitions but take what many consider a more traditional path.

What path is that?
It starts with a voice teacher who makes sure they can sing all the roles from A to Z. The singers haven’t trained at a conservatory or music college. They begin auditioning instead and become familiar with all sorts of venues – from small theaters in the provinces to mid-sized houses. Those of us who teach at colleges and universities see it differently. We think it’s important to give our students all of the knowledge right from the start that they will need at mid- and top-level institutions. In other words, we spare them the time they would otherwise spend learning in the provinces.

Which could become a problem if they meet the wrong people there.
Exactly, because the threat of burnout is great. That’s why it’s incredibly important to have a solid education. If a singer has only a voice and no proper technique, then the voice will no longer be there in one or two years. And immediately there will be signs of wear and tear. In contrast, we give them all the tools they need to protect themselves. It’s a sort of guarantee that they’ll be prepared to face the demands their coming career path will bring.

What role can “Neue Stimmen” play to make that path easier?
A huge role! The actual competition only takes place every two years. The master classes are held in the intervening years. That’s where we help the highly talented singers who made it into the top tier but didn’t actually win. We invite them to participate and we work on exactly the things they are lacking.

If you could choose, would you prefer starting a career now or back when you began yours?
I’m someone who likes challenges. I think it’s more difficult for young singers today. All the same, I’d find it interesting to try and begin a career now, even though the slower pace and generosity we experienced back then simply no longer exist.

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