Back to Back Issues Page

July 29, 2008

Tuesday,July 29, 2008

Well, here it is. I have finally transcribed the interview with Kathleen Flynn, opera singer extraordinaire. I'm sure you will enjoy this as much as I enjoyed speaking with her!

I know, I know, she is not a piano player and this is a piano website. So why am I interviewing her? Music is music. Whether you are learning how to play the trumpet, violin, piano, or voice (so to speak), you are discovering a language of communication through sounds and vibrations.

The only difference is the medium. I know many jazz vocalists who learn how to scat ONLY by listening to horn players. And I know many pianists who can benefit from listening to the breath and musical line of a great singer. So here it goes..... here is Kathleen's bio followed by the interview.

Kathleen Flynn has performed a repertoire spanning five centuries and in locales ranging from Japan to Aldeburgh. A Sullivan Foundation award winner, Ms. Flynn has sung under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, Julius Rudel, Robert Spano, Christopher Hogwood, Mario Bernardi and Jane Glover. She has sung with Chicago Opera Theater, New York State Baroque, at the National Arts Center of Ottawa with the Winnipeg Ballet, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Juilliard Theater and The Kennedy Center. She is also an accomplished recitalist having performed in many chamber music programs and solo recitals in such locations as Lincoln Centerís Alice Tully Hall and Lincoln Center Theater, Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, and Harris Concert Hall at the Aspen Festival of Music. In 2007, Ms. Flynn completed her DMA at SUNY, Stony Brook. Previously, she completed her residency at the Juilliard Opera Center, after having received a master of music degree from Juilliard.


Debbie: You received your Masters Degree in Vocal Performance from the Julliard School of Music, one of the finest music schools in the country. What about a vocal performance makes it musical and powerful to you?

Kathleen: Apart from the choice of music and text that a performer makes, the honesty with which any musician communicates is the most important thing. You need to have a real emotional and intellectual connection with both the music and the text. If something resonates with a performer and they are open enough to share that with the audience, then that will resonate with the audience, whether or not they have anything in common. The performer could be singing an 18th century aria which one would think would be so distant from our experience. But if there is an honesty and directness and willingness to share on the part of the audience and the performer, then the audience will respond to that. That is why we spend so much time on technique Ė learning how to catch up. Our technique is usually behind our musical ideas.

Debbie: The technique is the tool to express emotion?

Kathleen: Exactly. The technique is the medium to express the message.

Debbie: You have a classical background. Have you ever sung popular, Broadway music or jazz?

Kathleen: Actually, I started singing Irish songs growing up. There is a big Celtic tradition where I am from, which is the Maritimes in Canada. My Dad was from Newfoundland and my mother is from Nova Scotia. Thatís kind of where I started. My first love, what I really love singing, are those Irish songs. I have tried a little of jazz standards but particularly now that I am married to Mr. Jazz himself (Mark Shilansky), I am scared that I will sound like one of those goofy opera singers singing jazz. Some do it extremely well and some have that bel canto sound which is not really appropriate.

Debbie: How would you approach a jazz song differently?

Kathleen: I think that one of the biggest distinctions between classical music and pop is this. In classical music, you need to have this incredible technique and a recognizable signature sound. You turn the radio on and right away, you know itís Renee Fleming or Kiri Tekanawa. In pop genres, you just have to have a recognizable voice Ė like Tom Waits. Look at Bono or Annie Lennox. They are all really recognizable but they all had really severe vocal troubles. Annie Lennox has had surgery a couple of times. And Bono doesnít sound as good as he used to. He doesnít have that incredible falsetto and extension that he used to have. With jazz, you also need a great technique but itís not the same as classical technique. The more I learn about jazz from listening and from Mark, and the incredible facility that you need with harmonic structures and really training your ears to do things like scatting and understanding a chart, well, it feels overwhelming to me. Itís like a whole other field. I have so much respect for it. I kind of donít want to fool around with it.

Debbie: Youíre afraid to touch it.

Kathleen: Kind of. I think I really would like to sing it but right now I am scrambling to keep up with my own technique!

Debbie: Do you have a regular routine? Do you practice everyday?

Kathleen: Ideally. Certainly everyday. I usually take a day off a week. On Tuesday, I am going to the Carmel Bach Festival and weíre going to be singing every day with several hours of rehearsal. For those days, I need to have a really good warm-up so I am not tired. If I am singing a really intense rehearsal schedule, itís easier and easier. Many years ago, I was having a conversation with a rugby player. He had never met a classical singer before and he was asking me all sorts of questions. He asked how do you warm up? So then how do you warm down? I had never warmed down. And he said, ďyou mean you just stop singing?!Ē But I thought that was a really interesting and astute question, one that we need to address a little bit as singers in our daily practice. Ideally I like to physically exercise before I sing Ė walking or some kind of cardio. Well, for me, I like to practice in the morning and if I exercise before I start my day, my body is all warmed up and ready to go. My body is then warm and responsive, not tired and cold. And the breathing mechanism is going.

Debbie: So the exercise really rejuvenates you for singing?

Kathleen: Yes, because singing is such a physical thing. I have also started to do a lot of meditation and I know lots of singers who do regular yoga and have found it extremely beneficial Ė for concentration and for breath. We can get very cerebral and detached from our bodies. We have to be a combination of brain and body, because it is very physical and it is very athletic as well as being a combination of the imagination and the intellect.

Debbie: You just received your doctorate so congratulations! Would you like to get a job teaching voice in a University or college?

Kathleen: I would love to teach in a University situation.

Debbie: What do you enjoy about teaching voice?

Kathleen: I enjoy teaching students at the undergraduate level because at that age group you are getting a grip of what you want to do musically and also be at an age emotionally and intellectually where you can really take off. What I love is the dialogue that you have with students Ė the discussion and discovery of exactly what weíve been talking about. It is also so satisfying to see somebodyís voice develop and to hear the freedom that they have gained. I always learn about myself too. Thatís also very fulfilling.

Debbie: With a beginning singer, what do you focus on first? Breath, posture, tone?

Kathleen: It really depends on the student. I like to hear them sing. You can have a person who is extremely confident and ready to go. But they might over-sing and push.. With someone like that I would work on a slow breath, centering the body. I like to work a lot on posture, the Alexander technique. Itís important to be conscious of oneís body and alignment. If someone comes in who is really shy but wants to do the singing thing, then there is probably an enormous amount of tension in the body and we have to figure out ways of getting them to relax. And this is probably done more through talking through the musical ideas. I would do acting exercises to get them to open up a little bit so you can actually here the voice to see what needs to be done. If you can physicalize a musical line, it sometimes helps ground the technique to attach movement. With each individual, you have to diagnose what they need.

Debbie: How important is learning to read music and ear-training for the student?

Kathleen: I think it is incredibly important. And I think every singer should play at least one instrument.

Debbie: Thatís what I wanted to hear!

Kathleen: Yeah, even if itís badly.

Debbie: Did you study piano?

Kathleen: Yes, I did actually from the time I was 5. I think chordal instruments are extremely important. It is a real way into the studentsí understanding harmonic language. And certainly the ability to play your own pieces and just being able to play the bass so you have a concept of the most basic harmonic structure. I think one of the most important things for singers is to sing in choirs. There is an incredible opportunity to learn how to train your ears. And you work on tuning and develop a sense of rhythm. It is so incredibly important. And also, if you play an instrument, play in a chamber ensemble. And singing in a jazz choir is really fantastic. If there is any way to train your ears, singing in a jazz choir is it!

Debbie: As you know, I teach a lot of piano so I am always encouraging singers to play and pianists to sing. Onto the next question Ė what is the biggest misconception about opera and opera singers? A lot of people who donít go to opera think of it a certain way.

Kathleen: I think the biggest misconception is that it is boring. I find it quite funny and it used to drive me absolutely crazy but if there was opera in a commercial, the woman is wearing horns and is screaming at the top of her lungs! But now directors are working to make opera incredibly theatrical and it is unbelievably exciting. There is a lot going on! Opera on television or video is not very interesting. But you really need to be there in the theater and it is exciting.

Debbie: Where would you recommend people go to hear opera? The Lyric Opera?

Kathleen: Yes. Iím not actually sure if they it here in Boston, but in New York they have live opera in the five big parks. You can get tickets at the last minute that are really inexpensive. At the Met, you can buy standing room seats for $12 and $15. There is also a woman who gave an enormous endowment to the Met that allows for people to get last minute seats that are left over. If a $250 orchestra seat is available 1-2 hours before the show, you can buy it for $25! Itís incredible. You can buy that right at the box office. There are ways of doing it, it is not prohibitive. For the Boston Symphony Orchestra, you can get a student subscription and a mix and match for new subscribers for a reasonable price. But really look into those last-minute seats. Itís a fun and exciting way to enjoy something new Ė spur of the moment.

Debbie: Will you be auditioning for the Met?

Kathleen: I probably will this year. Because I switched voice types, I am now a dramatic soprano rather than a mezzo-soprano, I left my manager and am auditioning for several different management companies in the fall. I am hoping to be able to get an audition for the Met. Many of my colleagues at Julliard sing at the Met.

Debbie: I guess thatís it, Kathleen. Thanks for all of your time and best of luck to you!

Kathleen: Youíre so welcome!

I hope you enjoyed reading this. Shortly, I will send out the upcoming schedule of all the classes I will be teaching this fall with another audio piano lesson. (gotta keep you motivated!)

Enjoy your summer vacation and have a great week.



Back to Back Issues Page