When meeting Stephen O’Mara, the first thing that greets you are a big pair of blue eyes and a warm smile. Perhaps God gave Stephen these blue eyes as a symbol of the ocean of humanity, compassion, and generosity which abundantly permeate the soul of this great man. Of those who have walked the boards of the international opera stages there can be only equal souls to Stephen’s, but none superior. Some of you may be thinking “Jack loves O’Mara” – and you would be absolutely right! The man deserves and commands love, respect, and attention.
Stephen’s understanding of the voice is the fruit of profound self-awareness and a keen ability to verbalize imagery and sensations – a gift for the student. He has clearly worked very hard to perfect his technique, but has not lost memory of the struggle, unlike many other tenors. This coupled with a natural sense of empathy, endows the Maestro with a vivid sense of why something is right or wrong in another’s voice. This empathy in singing is but a shadow of the profound empathy characterizing his character as a man.
I vividly recall my lessons with Stephen. One of these took place at the Metropolitan Opera in one of the warm up/dressing rooms for soloists. We were both performing there – he in his final run as Radames, and I in Lohengrin. It was there that I finally understood what I dubbed “O’Mara Vocal Yoga” – head tone exercises meant to help the tenor understand how to release chest voice upon the ascent to the higher register. Stephen’s guidance helped me bring greater balance to my voice.
Without further ado, I present my first interview in a series of interviews with renown operatic tenors of our day.
JL: How has a career in opera impacted your life?
SO: Singing for a living has widened my perspective, shown me other ways of living and believing, caused me to question my own philosophy. I was able to take my son all over the world, months together in Austria, England, France, and Germany. The process of learning a role and performing it with some great singers, directors and conductors led me on a journey into myself that has taught me a great deal. Of course, it provided a level of comfort and financial security which few other fields can do, and enables me to do the work I do now without financial fears.
JL: Have you ever experienced fear on stage?
SO: It was an almost constant presence. The performances where I just went out and did it were few and far between. My nature, which is highly emotional, gave me technical trouble on stage, having to try to keep the vibrato even when singing Niun mi tema for example. I had tools to help me, meditation, slow chest breathing between phrases or when a colleague was singing. I was not afraid of letting some tension into my sound for interpretative reasons, and to release the nervousness inside me.
[Aside: the linked youtube recording of Niun mi Tema is a sensitive and heartfelt rendition. The emotions are palpable. Bravo Maestro!]
JL: Has technique helped or impeded you in expressing your feelings during performance?
SO: I learned early that a planned performance was no less an expressive one than a totally spontaneous one. My job was to give the performance away to the public, balancing being in the moment with planning my breathing or when to save and when to give to make the maximum impact. My ability to go from a heavier to a lighter registration gave me extensive interpretative possibilities. It is a sine qua non. [Aside: and for some of those interpretative possibilities I invite you to view a tremendous performance as Don Jose’ Act 4 – Carmen]
JL: What is the most important aspect of technique in your estimation?
SO: First of all, to have one! I cancelled 3 performances in 28 years. I often had to put in a show at less than my best, and this was when technique was needed. You have to balance the voice for the performance you are able to give on the day. You balance from the top down, and build from the bottom up. On a good day, I could build in a lot of heft.
On a day when I had less, I would have to blend down a lot from the top and balance the voice in a slightly lighter fashion to come through. I was in Frankfurt seeing a performance of a friend when at dinner after the show, at about 10:30PM, the Intendant asked me if I could jump in for a Faust the next afternoon. He had no other option, so I said yes. I had not sung the role in 6 years and had 12 hours to get ready. I deliberately balanced my voice in the key of Ab with a high C so I could sing the aria ( Salut demeure O’Mara 1991 ), and deal with the final trio. I did not have the heft I wished for the first act, but I came through fine.
JL: Is there a relation between over compressing a vowel (pressed phonation) and correct passaggio and upper register?
SO: There needs to be appropriate firmness in vocal fold closure, except for a specific vocal effect calling for a more diffuse sound. Maintaining appropriate firmness in the prima zona di passaggio is crucial to balance the voice. You will hear many of the tenors of the last 25 years having trouble coming off a high note into the D-G area, where the sound gets noisy and not appropriately firm.
There are choices to be made, and I have tried most of them, closing firmly with a heavy chest component on an Ab – you will hear this on my Pollione (L’empio Altar) at the end of the cabaletta, using a looser sound for an emotional effect, or using a more suspended from above feeling when the tessitura will rise on the next phrases. I learned over time that a vowel-based approach was not always working for me; I had to think function and “sing on the ring” to be successful.
[Aside: This is an important technical point to be spoken of more in-depth – the vocal function calls its vowel. When the voice rings right, then you have your right vowel structure.]
JL: Do you feel your voice leaning anywhere when you sing from the passaggio upwards? If so, how does that help on stage?
SO: It varies widely. Sometimes, for maximum effect, I feel great height AND depth AND width for a climactic high Bb; sometimes the concentration is on suspension from above and width in the upper pharynx. I used tricks to add weight to the top and make the transition smoother. In Nessun Dorma I learned to portamento up from a G to the High B natural at the end to give the note more weight but still be successful. This has been called by some critics scooping, but it is not really. It is a kind of portando la voce. Some high notes are “chestier” because the context allows for it. Others are more heady in approach. The interval to a high note makes a difference. The interval of a sixth, as in Salut Demeure gives a natural lift of breath to vault you up there. For many, the fourth leap is most difficult, as the upper partials of dominant and tonic can oppose each other. There is a lot to be written about this. [Aside: we want you to write about it!!!]
[Aside: Stephen’s rendition of Ingemisco is absolutely spectacular. Besides sounding like a real prayer, the play between light mechanism and heavier phonation, with lightning bolt high notes is altogether spectacular! Ingemisco O’Mara 2001 Stuttgart]
JL: How do you breathe, and how do you feel support?
SO: It is a unitary movement, opening the vocal tract and torso to receive the air and make the shape you require for the phrase. [Aside: breathing in the shape of your next vocal set up] How much width in the upper pharynx, how much depth and appropriate narrowness in the epilarynx, how much width in the singing tube from top to bottom (more for Otello, less for Siegfried) are all planned before [Aside: more on this when I will speak of the Intention in future posts]. Energy is running in the same direction, although opposition of forces takes place in the body. Unitary flow and focus of energy is my focus.
JL: How do you keep a low larynx?
SO: On the intake of breathe, a relaxed face with lower abdominal expansion allowing the larynx to relax down.
Interview with Stephen O’Mara – October 12, 2010