Participants’ Responses to Take Off Your Emotional Clothes and Sing – Barbara Cook’s Master Class at Juilliard
December 13, 2005
Paul Kwak, pianist
Metaphors are only as insightful as the perceptions of those who coin them. As agents of symbolism, given over to the investments of experience, myopic opinion, and even wrongheaded interpretation, their artistic potential is approached, if not equaled, by their potential to misguide and to mischaracterize. The vapid and frustrating critical patter that has poured forth from at least two of New York’s dailies following a masterclass given at Juilliard two weeks ago by Barbara Cook illustrates the perils that result when ego meets uncritical audience, when cultish fandom runs amok, and when metaphor is ill-applied to undeserving objects.
Charles Isherwood, apparently a card-carrying member of the Barbara Cook quasi-cult that seemed to overtake the orchestra section of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at that masterclass on December 1, began his review of the class in Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times with an inexplicably obtuse metaphor borne out of the handbag that Barbara Cook carried with her onto the stage upon making her entrance. A “massive, mutant tangerine with handles,” the bag became for Isherwood “emblematic of the central lesson this peerless artist struggled to impart to six students from the school’s classical program. Love me, love my funky orange purse, she seemed to be saying. This is who I am, and guess what? It matters to my art. Everything about me does.”
The fundamental flaw in such banal and saccharine analysis is that, as the brave students themselves realized after the class, the purse was not an endearing emblem of eccentricity and personality, but a tokenistic demonstration of supposed authenticity that would give rise to what became the class’s true and underlying centrality: the pursuit of affectation. For someone who so eagerly berated the students that afternoon about their inability to “take off their emotional clothes,” Barbara Cook became a walking irony as she carried her baggage onstage for no apparent reason. That bag was nowhere to be found backstage in her interactions with cast and crew, and it remains yet unclear why she needed it onstage. It – the bag, and therefore the class and Ms. Cook, as the metaphor goes – became a study in contradiction, an subversive portrait of unwitting irony that pitted Ms. Cook not against the students, but against herself as she struggled methodically to carry out her formulaic agenda in the “transformation” of these students by means of her back-to-the-basics smoke-and-lights show of “teaching.”
If, as Isherwood gushed, Cook’s message was for these artists to sing “truthfully, borne aloft on the natural rhythms of human speech, and passionately, as if the world hinged on a whispered confession of love or a man that got away,” a style of singing Isherwood prophesied to be “a tradition that is in danger of going the way of the dodo,” (the decline of Western music seems only to be occurring in the minds of critics whose self-fulfilling jeremiads advance nothing except their own profession) she – perhaps intentionally – refused to acknowledge the central element of performance that made this class so falsely satisfying for the devoted throngs watching, and so empty for those participating, namely the issue of style.
Isherwood and Post critic Barbara Hoffmann condescend as they write similarly of the “struggles” these “classically trained singers had,” yet fail utterly to recognize why that classical training would have been such a fruitful issue for Cook and the singers to explore together. “Classical training” demands the cultivation of vocal technique above all; the singers that appeared at the class spend hours each day in pursuit of an understanding of the vocal mechanism, how to maintain its health, and how to harness it in an organic artistic process.
The reviews, prematurely ready to hail Cook’s pedagogical skills in contrast to the performative mediocrity of the “young singers,” however, assumed that as part of such classical training and in the emphasis on the reliable and artful production of sound, these singers are therefore left without any training in interpretation, in acting, or in movement, so that Cook’s message was somehow a revelation to them. Oh, I’m supposed to communicate when I sing? Gosh, Ms. Cook, I had no idea. I just assumed that we opera singers just stand on the stage and do our best to make as much sound as possible. Isherwood’s failure to acknowledge these stylistic tensions not only belittled the authenticity of emotion in the operatic repertory that the students study (because, of course, there are no “whispered confessions of love” in opera, nor is there pathos, intrigue, and/or psychological subtlety with which modern audiences can identify), but furthered the ironic arrogance of certain musical theater devotees that implies that one can only be genuine and authentic when singing in English and in a musical vernacular that is colloquial and popular. It is this sort of maddening attitude that not only frustrates young singers who grapple with the challenges of communication in other languages, but works toward undermining the future of opera for those who should be its most ardent advocates.
But indeed, if the class was meant to be about communication – “having the courage to take off our emotional clothes” – it would seem to have best served Cook to encourage students in that endeavor. Instead, she was dismissive and blunt to the point of hostility, hiding behind the mentor-as-therapist ruse of “tough love.” Things like “You sing with the kind of diction that really puts me off” or “No one really talks like that; what do you think you’re trying to do?” or, my personal favorite, “What is that smile? That is totally phony. You are trying to be charming and it’s not working” are not likely to encourage first-time musical theater singers. Simply kissing someone on the head (even if it is “sincere,” as Isherwood writes) does not grant absolution from the effects of megalomania, nor does offering someone a tissue (perhaps that’s what Cook was keeping in the orange bag) after your endless berating makes them cry.
That, in fact, was perhaps the most offensive misstep of the reviewers who wrote of the class. Isherwood described what for him was the “most arresting moment” when Arianna Wyatt (who, it must be pointed out, performed musical theater repertory that day for the first time in her life) shed tears after Cook called her phony and interrupted her to the point where her text was unintelligible. Here follows Isherwood’s version of what happened:
But the most arresting moment came when a svelte redhead named Ariana Wyatt came onstage. Radiating charm and confidence, she began to sing a little-known Gershwin song called “In the Mandarin’s Orchard Garden,” about a misfit flower. Ms. Cook clearly wanted to find the woman behind the poise. She tried the same techniques she’d used on the others, but still Ms. Wyatt seemed intent on delivering a perfectly manicured performance that was just what Ms. Cook didn’t want to hear.
As frustration mounted on both sides, Ms. Cook finally turned to face her student and said, with real sincerity: “You are a beautiful young woman. You have a beautiful voice. You don’t have to prove it to anyone.” Ms. Wyatt nodded, and a couple of tears ran down her cheeks.
I’m afraid those words are paraphrased. The pen stopped moving when the heart stood still. Although it was not part of a performance, the moment may well linger as one of the most moving things I’ve witnessed in a theater. Ms. Cook dabbed the tears away, then watched a little dumbstruck as her student insisted on leaving the stage for a moment to gather herself. “This is a first,” she said a little sheepishly.
And what had happened? It’s hard to say. Maybe, in the unlikeliest of contexts – on a public stage – two people made a brief but meaningful connection. Certainly, an established artist gave a small gift of assurance – of love, even – to an unformed one. The serenity of age looked back at the insecurity of youth, which marshals technique and posturing to defend itself, and said, try to let it go. You don’t need it. You are enough.
Ms. Wyatt returned to the stage, determined, and sat down, and sang. She was still riven with emotion, maybe a little too much. Ms. Cook asked her how it went. It was harder to sing this way, Ms. Wyatt confessed. Ms. Cook said it would get easier. The audience applauded her enthusiastically, wanting to honor both the progress she’d made and the discomfort she’d endured to get there.
One is dismayed at the way that fandom will apparently color a paraphrase. What Cook actually said to Wyatt in that moment was “What is that smile doing there? That is so phony. You’re just trying to be charming and it’s not working.” The insincere flattery that followed was transparent as an affected performance of sincerity and caring. Isherwood’s sap is irritating, but worse, disingenuous, for where he paints Cook as a benevolent artist who finally broke through to a young singer, the truth shared by all of us who participated that day was that the tears emerged not from inspiring revelation, but from pure, unadulterated frustration at the relentless and nonsensical rantings of a woman who only barely took the time to learn our names and whose only investment in our actual performances was her opportunity for delivering her preprogrammed sound bytes. As Wyatt put it later offstage, “She didn’t get through to me, she just got to me.”
The further irony is that amid all the posturing about being genuine in communication of text, Cook was unfamiliar with most of the songs, which led her not to listen more, but to listen less and instead revert to her stock of tricks to fix the supposed problems with the students. The agenda was obvious for any who have seen Cook in masterclasses before: have student #1 sit in a chair and speak his text, have student #2 sing her song to student #1 while holding his hands. Have student #4 take off his clothes (“Ooooh, won’t the critics love the symbolism of his ‘taking off clothes?!’”), then make student #6 sing to the woman in the fourth row. It was formula misapplied, because she did not know the music, and did not know what to do with the people. All that trouble she was having with her music binder? That binder – which included copies of all of the music the students chose – was sent to her weeks in advance, carefully compiled by the administrative staff. Her fumbling inability to find any of the music was a simple result of the fact that she had not looked at it once and had not taken the time to look at what the students were singing.
In fact, the students were asked months in advance of the class to submit selections for Ms. Cook’s approval. Nothing was heard from her, so the assumption was made that all selections were acceptable. Backstage, five minutes before curtain, Ms. Cook implied to some of the singers that some of their selections were not appropriate. When asked why the students were not notified so they could make a change, Cook responded that she wanted to make a point of it in the class, to discuss how to select appropriate repertoire. One could have tolerated the willful and premeditated chastising of students in public if Cook had been truly insightful about selecting repertoire and, more specifically, why their choices were less than ideal.
It would only take only a basic knowledge of the music selected to understand that Cook was not at all helpful in this regard because she simply did not know the music, and obviously therefore could not identify why it would be inappropriate. Her insistence that the “cuddles” in “The Cuddles that Mary Gave,” were actually about sex (as Barbara Hoffmann of the Post so gleefully and vacantly reported) reveals her embarrassing lack of knowledge of the song, sung in the show (Flaherty and Ahrens’s A Man of No Importance) by a recently widowed Dubliner. Cook’s animalizing suggestion in fact did injury to the song and trivialized its interpretation. When discussing the misfit of Gershwin’s classic “Summertime,” one of Erin Morley’s two selections, Cook advised that “it’s a song about atmosphere, about mood.” One is confounded for at least two reasons: 1) To profess that “Summertime” is about mood and atmosphere seems as dismissive and superficial as saying that “I’ve Got Rhythm” is actually about rhythm, and 2) it remains unclear why a song about mood is any less worthy a candidate for Cook’s regimen of colloquial diction, heart-on-sleeve emotionalism, and insistent connection with audience. The fact that it seems to elude Cook’s method says more about the method than it does about the song or the choice thereof.
The greatest disservice, however, was perhaps reserved for Michael Kelly’s selection of “Finishing the Hat” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, which Cook pooh-poohed as “a song you can hide behind.” Perhaps Cook was thinking of a different song (in which case she could simply have listened to Kelly sing it), but it is precisely the beautifully repetitive vocal line and orchestral writing that give the singer, in fact, nothing to hide behind; it is a vehicle for ardent expression, and Cook’s dismissal of the song as the opposite reinforced the awareness on the parts of all the participants that this was an encounter not with mastery, but with self-exonerating carelessness at the expense of others.
Moreover, one wondered if the real problem was that Cook’s undoubtedly worthy message of honest communication had mingled slightly too much with the headrush of celebrity, the unresolved bitterness of an ingénue career long gone, or simply the mild delusion that any prophet crying in the wilderness must summon while tooting her own horn and preaching to what she perceives to be wholly uninformed and embryonic masses. No one on that stage that afternoon questioned the importance of honest textual communication and genuine feeling. What we questioned was what Isherwood termed the “abandonment of technical propriety” and the implication that “preparing to sing” was inherently wrong. Vocal technique will always be, at some level, “artificial” as Cook defines it, because indeed, daily speech is not song. To imply that clear (or in Cook’s world, unnatural) diction diminishes the authenticity of communication not only misunderstands the physical enterprise of song, but denigrates an essential part of what makes song artful in ways that speech cannot be.
The problem was most stunningly captured in Cook’s repeated criticism: “I’m hearing a lot of singing.” Well, yes, Ms. Cook, these people are singers. Telling “classically trained singers” that their education leads to artificiality is likely to be neither successful nor meaningful for them. Furthermore, equating authenticity with the ‘abandonment of technical propriety,’ only reinforces the mistaken perception that musical theater is from Mars and opera is from Venus, when the message ostensibly is that honesty of communication is requisite in all art forms. Cook herself moved easily between Cunegonde and Marian the Librarian; there is no reason she cannot understand the issues therein and help these singers with the “crossover” in a positive way.
Indeed, the failure to recognize this stylistic divide was made only more frustrating by the implication that because this style of music was new to many of the singers, these lessons were new to them as well. But watch Matt Boehler perform Shostakovich songs and tell me he doesn’t know how to compel an audience while seated. Listen to Michael Kelly sing a Baudelaire song of Debussy and tell me that his technique divorces him from convincing communication of text (and frankly, let him sing more than 10 bars before you tell him that he doesn’t know what he’s doing with the song). Watch Erin Morley as Tytania and Arianna Wyatt as Helena in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and tell me they don’t know how to build character and sell it to an audience (but maybe that’s just because they get to sing in English for that one).
What ends up being most disappointing, then, about Cook’s class and the reviews that followed it is a sadly inevitable result of the elusiveness of music, its performance, and its criticism. Isherwood and Hoffmann waxed sentimental about “breakthroughs,” about wiggling as a means to communicative freedom, about how structure is the enemy of honesty, about meaningful connection – and the sobering fact is that it was largely fake. The affectation of Cook herself has been discussed at length, but the greatest injury was done to the singers, who were not given liberty to express themselves, but devolved into ironically artificial sentimentality in a necessary concession to win over Cook and her adoring fans, and in so doing, betrayed their own truth. They played the game to get through the masterclass, and they were rewarded for being less than themselves. For a class that was supposed to be about authenticity, the fakeness of it all was disheartening. One participant remarked sardonically after the class, “I learned that if I take all the resonance out of my voice and sing to the woman in the fourth row, I’m a genius.”
For someone that, as Isherwood writes, preaches a message that “artists achieve their peak when they learn to stop proving themselves and simply, to borrow the Shakespearean phrase, let be,” Barbara Cook’s handbag, her affectations, her canned one-liners, and her narcissistic performance at the end of the class were dismaying punctuation to an afternoon that she dedicated to proving herself to the audience. In a class that was purported to be about communication and connecting with the audience, it is perhaps most disappointing that the critics that brought the class into print could not perceive that in order to “connect” in the Cookian way, these performers had to disconnect from their truest selves, and Charles Isherwood, Barbara Hoffmann, and most devastatingly, Barbara Cook, couldn’t tell the difference.
Matt Boehler, bass
As a participant of the class, I can tell you that, while Ms. Cook’s main message (communication and individuality) is a noble and essential pursuit, I can’t recommend her methods nor what the final result was. This master class was an exercise in playing the dummy.
I’ve done enough master classes to know that you throw away your ideas/preconceptions and go with it. It’s hard to do in front of an audience, but that’s the nature of the game. For my part, I sang “When I Fall in Love.” I was stopped a few measures in, was told I was “singing” too much, and needed to make a personal connection to the song. Fine. So the game is “opera singer only concerned about making sound is taught about communication.”
Her method of extracting “communication” from me was having me pare down my instrument to a mere filament (perfect for a miked performance, really), getting rid of my stultified diction and having me sing to the woman in the 4th row. Yes, there was some communication that went on. The medium was all wrong. To Ms. Cook, it seems, there is only one path to divinity (read:
artistic integrity) and it is not through any kind of classical technique. Odd for someone who sang Cunegonde and Marian the Librarian.
After my lounge performance (which, I’ll admit, was an interesting experiment — it was, to a degree, honest, but at what expense?), the crowd erupted into applause. And anyone who’s done a master class before can predict the comments from patrons afterward: “You should sing like that all the time.” Next time I do the Ramada Inn, I’ll keep that in mind.
The glowing responses to Ms. Cook’s redemption of our “soulless” performances (thank you, New York Post) and the perception of our ignorance of truly desiring to communicate with an audience is, in short, maddening. And it’s antithetical to everything I’m about as an artist.