Guest author—Souvenir musical director Dr. David Judisch, Luther College Emeritus Professor
“How do you teach someone to sing badly without causing harm to the singing voice?” My involvement with this aspect of the play, Souvenir, is a first-time experience for me. I had never really been confronted with this situation before. My main job in this play was to help the character, Florence Foster Jenkins, so ably portrayed by Stela Burdt, to sound as though she sang very badly. Not only did we have to deal with that specific issue of Madame Flo sounding awful, but at the very end of the play she must sing in a beautiful, healthy, and artistically gorgeous way. So after going through various kinds of vocal gymnastics which would potentially be harmful to her, Madame Florence must sing the final song as she would have imagined herself to sound. Sound challenging? Yes!
During my forty-seven years as a studio voice teacher I had never before been asked to try to accomplish anything like this. Luckily the woman chosen to perform the role of Florence was none other than the amazingly talented Stela Burdt, a former voice student of mine at Luther College. This was a distinct advantage because I felt I knew Stela’s vocal habits pretty well. Other than the usual requests from pop rock band singers who would sometimes ask for my help regarding their vocal fatigue while performing, or perhaps the Rabbis who came to me for assistance with their tired voices after singing in synagogue for hours, I had never really had to deal with this kind of vocal danger. My training and experience has been with what is called a bel canto type of singing. Bel canto literally means beautiful singing or beautiful song, and refers to training in a way which accommodates classical music, such as art song or opera.
When I was sent a copy of the script of the play along with the musical scores of the songs to be sung, I discovered to my surprise that the scores were the actual notations of the original music. There were no indications as to how to “mess” with the music so as to make the rendition of it sound quite awful. That particular task was up to us to decide. So now Stela and I had two tasks before us. First, how to “mess” with the music so she could sing badly or that her voice could sound awful, and second, how to maintain good vocal health so that she could sing the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria at the very end of the play.
Months before actual rehearsals began I had an interview with Alan Bailey, the stage director. One of my first questions for him was to ask what Stela should have prepared before the cast gathered for rehearsals. Should we have already made decisions as to how exactly those misappropriated notes should be, or should we allow some flexibility so the natural rehearsal process could work itself out? We decided that we needn’t have every note, phrase, predetermined. This allowed Stela to make on-the-spot adjustments to suit the moment.
Stela and I began working together for a few months before play rehearsals started. We met for an hour or so every two or three weeks. Even though this play dealt with the real live historical figure of Florence Foster Jenkins, it was never our intention to have Stela sound like the real Florence. Our rationale for doing so was to avoid predictability. Before messing with the music, we decided that she should learn to sing the real actual notes, and that she should be able to sing each aria/song in a healthy, beautiful way.
Then, we messed with it. We came up with a list including wrong intonation, anemic sounds, straight tone, fast/narrow vibrato, slow/wide vibrato, nasality, throatiness, incorrect rhythm, overall quality, wrong syllabic emphasis, register breaks, and breathlessness. Each segment of a song could have one or two of these ingredients.
Even though we worked as hard as we could, along with my cautioning Stela about healthy habits, there were bound to be times when she did step too close to the cliff’s edge. So long as we could avoid outright vocal abuse we could enable Stela to continue the entire run through the summer. As audiences have indicated thus far, we think we have met our goals.
Please go see this beautiful play!