Teaching Someone to Sing—Poorly

Luther College professor emeritus David Judisch

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!

Stela Burdt as Florence Foster Jenkins

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.

The real Florence Foster JenkinsStela 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!

Politics: Entertainment, Government, or Both?

Guest post by David Hennessey,
CWL Resident Ensemble Member

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”—former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, The New Republic, April 4, 1985


David Hennessey appears as Anders Lundestad in The League of Youth at the CWL.

Early in Ibsen’s political satire, The League of Youth, Chamberlain Brattsberg, an established and powerful civic leader, is quite taken with the recent charismatic speech of Stensgaard, a young politician. Brattsberg invites Stensgaard to the next room, eager to hear his supposedly innovative views on “by-pass restrictions and conservation variances.” When Mr. Hejre, the town cynic, is also invited to join the discussion, he replies in a near monotone, “I’m all a quiver.” As he knows well, the legal minutia of governing is just not as sexy as the thrill of a fiery speech.

This year’s presidential election is a perfect backdrop to Ibsen’s only comedy, a story about politics. Like actors, politicians also tell stories and we’ve heard many on the campaign trail, with varying degrees of effectiveness. There have been established candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush dishing out far more prose than poetry; a visionary like Bernie Sanders tapping into poetic, though surprisingly one-note, inspiration; the youthful son-of-immigrants narrative of Marco Rubio that never quite caught on; the I’m-an-outsider perspective of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina that failed to cut through the din; the traditional-values stance of Ted Cruz; and, of course, the Joan Rivers-like candidacy of Donald Drumpf.

“Comedienne Joan Rivers was obscene, vulgar, and cruel. No one escaped her vicious attacks. Not her friend Elizabeth Taylor, her family, or even the Queen of England. For this, we loved her.”—Stacia Friedman, Broad Street Review, September 5, 2014

sealI’ve often thought that some things that Drumpf says at rallies would be considered somewhat typical, though edgy, entertainment if uttered on Saturday Night Live. In that context, many people wouldn’t give them a second thought. But hearing them from someone running for the most powerful position in the world is a new phenomenon in my lifetime. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I don’t remember hearing such over-the-top insults—usually reserved for stand-up comedy—in a presidential campaign before. That’s probably why he’s generated so much passionate attention from both supporters and opponents alike.

Passionate attention is very much what actors and performers of any kind strive to create in their audience.  But in a theatre, the audience willingly suspends its disbelief to let actors sometimes say and do things we’d never dream of doing in real life.  And if we do our job right, audiences will think our characters are believable, but only in the context of that story.

“Back-and-forth banter with fans, as Drumpf calls them, is a staple of the act. ‘The misconception is that this is just stream of consciousness,’ said Corey Lewandowski, Drumpf’s campaign manager. ‘It’s not. It is thought out. It’s strategic. It is precise.’”—Michael Finnegan, LA Times, January 29, 2016

covers-2016-1-league-of-youth-draft01-page-001When watching a political campaign, though, I look for the candidate whose words and deeds I can trust the most. It’s a bit different than belief—I might believe a candidate’s promises just because I want to hear them, but can I trust them, too? If elected, his or her actions and words will have consequences in the real world, not just a storytelling world of suspended disbelief.
Take a break from stories of the election and listen to us tell Ibsen’s story, brilliantly adapted once again by Jeffrey Hatcher. To be sure, it will have echoes in the real world, but none of us is running for office, so the lines between story and reality won’t blur—as they do on much of reality TV and on this year’s campaign trail.

The opinions in this post are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commonweal.





Creating a Mystery

hatcherMost of you know, and perhaps have met, our amazing Ibsen adapter Jeffrey Hatcher. Jeffrey has created the last six editions of our Ibsen productions and will again this year with The League of Youth. What you may not know about Jeffrey is that he is an accomplished author of his own plays and screenplays. Jeffrey’s most notable film work includes Casanova, Stage Beauty and last year’s Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen. As a playwright, he has written more than 25 plays including Turn of the Screw which appeared on the Commonweal stage in 2010.

Jeffrey is the author of the play Scotland Road which our company of apprentice artists have chosen as their capstone project and are currently in rehearsal for. Jeffrey was kind enough to take the time to sit down recently and respond to some questions about his play Scotland Road and his approach as a writer.

Give us a premise and then your inspiration for Scotland Road.
Scotland Road is about a woman who claims to be a survivor of the Titanic, found on an iceberg over eighty years after the ship’s sinking. A man isolates the woman in an attempt to disprove her story and discover her reasons for claiming to be a survivor of the disaster. The inspiration was a World Weekly Newspaper headline that I saw at a gas station in the South Dakota Badlands. The headline read: “Titanic Survivor Found on Iceberg. And her dress is still wet!”

You have written several adaptations of the works of Henrik Ibsen for the Commonweal. How does the approach to writing an original piece differ from that of an adaptation?
An adaptation is more of a technical exercise, requiring skills of editing, combining characters and events, searching for appropriate dialogue to represent the original. An adaptation is a patient on a table. An original work is more akin to conception. Instead of a table you have a blank page and that’s a lot more frightening.


CWL Apprentices David Wasserman and Abbie Cathcart


Have you seen a production of Scotland Road performed in the past and, if so, what was your reaction?
I’ve seen at least two dozen or more productions of Scotland Road since it premiered in 1993. I’ve seen good ones, I’ve seen bad ones, slow moving, fast paced. It requires a lot from the actors, the directors, the design team. There are a lot of tricks and pitfalls to producing it. But if things line up the right way, the show tends to leave the audience with a nice mystery to think and talk about.

As the author of the screenplay for the acclaimed motion picture Mr. Holmes, why are we so fascinated and attracted to stories of suspense and mystery?
Hamlet is a mystery, Oedipus is a mystery. Mysteries are filled with questions that have to be answered. Cliffhangers create suspense, and suspense provides adrenaline, which feeds us, keeps us going. We go to mysteries to feel that sensation, and the anxiety it produces craves satisfaction, an answer to the mystery, an ending. Arousal and climax all in the course of an evening’s entertainment.

Not to spoil anything within the play, but the main subject matter happens to be the RMS Titanic. Can you explain the mania, in all of its forms, behind the ship and her sinking?titanic
Well not in all of its forms. Simply put, the story of the Titanic is a perfect story combining romance, adventure, irony, fate, heroism, cowardice and themes to do with technology, social class, the end of one era and the beginning of another in a very specific sense. I do think a lot of people wonder what they would have done would they have been aboard the ship that night. Would any one of us survive the test. Would that mean going down with the ship? Would it mean sacrificing ourself for others.

As a playwright, are you trying to “do” anything to your audience? Are there certain takeaways that you purposefully attempt to leave them with?
I’m trying to entertain them, tease them, direct and misdirect them, then give them an answer to the mystery, but one that is ambiguous enough so that the play has an effect and an after life beyond the final curtain.

On a final note, one review of Scotland Road called the climax “blatantly and pleasingly melodramatic.” Does that ring true for you and was that intended?
Obviously I was going for a theatrical and dramatic effect. I’m not sure I’d call it melodrama, strictly defined, but I’m satisfied if the audience is satisfied.

Scotland Road, featuring the Commonweal 2015-16 Apprentice Company, 
plays March 17-April 3.