Meet Artist-in-Residence Carol Neblett
January 31, 2012
Internationally renowned operatic soprano Carol Neblett has been appointed Artist-in-Residence in the Conservatory of Music by Chapman University Chancellor Daniele Struppa. The College of Performing Arts is delighted that Ms. Neblett’s tenure with the institution has been recognized in this official capacity. Ms. Neblett will coach opera students, helping them to develop in their roles, and conduct master classes for Chapman music students. She will also teach several vocal performance majors and prepare them for the recital season. We asked Ms. Neblett to tell us something about herself and her thoughts on this honor.
“What is an Artist-in-Residence? This question has been put to me many times. I think that one must first describe what an artist is. In my case the arts that I have come to be an “expert” in are the vocal arts, with all of their myriad applications, which can lead to various forms of the arts in general. I know many a singer who has gone into the administration of the arts having first started as a vocal artist or into stage management and other such related careers. The vocal arts for these people were in the classical field of music, and my training, for the most part, was classical. I did get to sing some Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, and even Rudolph Friml (when he was still alive to play the piano) at the Hollywood Bowl, Boston Pops, Cincinnati May Festival and in other classical pop arenas. This was great fun for me and a challenge in a different way than the strictly classical manner of singing. It was my pleasure to do some classical theatre and comedy when I was very young. I performed in a couple of movies and opera films. I was on
The Tonight Show
several times. This was all part of some terrific training, in which I was so pleased to have participated.
How does one become an artist? This is an interesting question and I have tried over many years to answer this question with a modicum of intelligence. I do not think, in many instances, one is born an artist, but one can become an artist after much exposure plus training in the arts, which includes the many forms of dance, drama, instrumental music, languages (including ones’ own native tongue) art, and film. The vocal artist needs exposure to all of these aspects of art. We singers are the only instrument who can sing a text; a play, poetry and any form of words that do or do not make sense. It is our job to make sense of these words. This requires long exposure to many languages, especially if one is going to sing art songs, oratorio and opera. During my many years of singing on the major stages of the world, I sang in eight languages and still will do so when called upon to sing here and there. I retired from the big stages in 2005 when I turned sixty. This I think was a good decision, as nothing is more painful to hear than a singer who does not know when to quit singing! I have performed here and there for a gala situation and I was proud to be a part of the 150 year celebration for Chapman University when I sang a Spanish song and an aria from a great opera along with Milena Kitic and some of the alumni from the Conservatory of Music.
There are so many songs set to music in so many languages, written for the voice with accompaniment using all kinds of instruments. We can easily think of the symphony orchestra playing for a great singer and the piano, but there are so many other combinations of instruments including the synthesizer, organ, tuba, piccolo, harpsichord, guitar and so on and so forth as one’s imagination can name them, that can also accompany the voice. The formal study of some of these instruments can benefit the singer’s education greatly. The piano seems to be the most accessible of the many instruments and of course, one needs to be able to understand the accompaniment as well as the vocal line. This is a must and at The Conservatory of Music we require the vocal student to study piano seriously, along with the theory of music.
I was lucky to have been born into a family that on my dad’s side had been trained well in classical music. My dad, Norman H. Neblett, majored in piano and political science at the University of Southern California in 1945, after he came back from WWII as a pilot who flew The Hump. My great-grandmother was a concert pianist in Boston, and when she came out west with her husband, who had been appointed Senator at Large for the Territory of New Mexico, they arrived in covered wagons with great heavy mahogany furniture that had been initially built in England. The Walton family had been in classical music for a very long time through various channels. Sir William Walton, the well-known British composer, was a first cousin. Great Grandmother Walton (nee Ashenfelter) brought her Steinway “B”, this instrument occupied a single covered wagon and was given much care to travel such a distance across treacherous land. Today, my son has this very piano in his home, having graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University in piano, voice, composition and conducting. We are indeed a musical family. When my grandmother was born in Silver City, New Mexico, she studied the violin seriously and went to University of California Berkeley to major in violin and English. Leona Walton then went to New York to study with Persinger and Eunesco. Leona Neblett premiered the Wieniawski Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1929, making this the west coast premiere of this wonderful piece of music. Later, I played this piece after 15 years of study. You guessed correctly, I was two years of age when first introduced to the violin. Do not ask me what I played, but by three I do remember some of the songs that I was learning. My grandmother made sure that I sight sang each piece I was learning and she introduced me to the theory of music as I was being trained. The theory of music is one of the most important subjects the singer and other musicians must know well to understand music in depth. As an artist in residence, I would have a student study composition as well as counterpoint. Most of our students in voice are required to take these subjects.
My mother had a beautiful natural soprano voice and all of her family on her dad’s side could sing so masterfully without formal training. They were ranchers and farmers, eventually doctors, lawyers, accountants and so forth, and they sang all types of music, mostly the big folk tunes of the time and church music. I learned many a great song from my grandfather Brown when we would go out into the ranch land in the bumpy pickup truck or on horseback to round up and feed the horses and the cows. I was a true “Girl of the West,” which I later was privileged to sing, record and film live at Covent Garden Opera house in England in my late twenties and into my early thirties. Placido Domingo was my partner in this great Puccini masterpiece of an opera. Without quite knowing what was happening to me, I was being groomed to be a musician and eventually, my interest in singing took over from my studies of violin and piano. Today I play piano for my students during their lessons, although I certainly appreciate the help of a skilled pianist to play their concerts, as I am not as accomplished on the piano as I would like to be. Although an artist in residence wears many hats, one cannot wear them all expertly, so I sincerely appreciate our skilled collaborative artists and their abilities to play so beautifully for our students when they perform their concert work and for opera rehearsals. Many of our opera scenes, which are performed in the Salmon Recital Hall to sold out crowds, are accompanied by the piano. We are lucky to have such a fine group of players.
So, I have set up a partial explanation of the training of an artist in residence and I will continue to divulge more. In high school my choral director, Dr. Thomas Wilson, recognized that I had a good voice and he encouraged me to join the Madrigal group of singers, as well as remain in the large choir. This experience was so important to my future singing career. In four years I sang many a musical play, did some comedy and drama, and even was allowed to be the soprano soloist in a faculty recital of Haydn’s
, which is still a favorite piece of music for me. When I was at the University of Southern California in the sixties, I sang in a small group of singers and we performed many of the great chamber works with orchestra. By now, I had completely stopped playing the violin, for which the world should be grateful! I had the scary privilege of studying with Jascha Heifetz for one semester. He was the toughest and most exacting teacher I had ever encountered and I was naturally in awe of his tremendous technical prowess and his truly musical violin playing. He was daunting to be around, but before long, he discovered that I could sing, as I sang when I was frustrated over certain phrases that I was trying to play for him and the class. I was not the most talented of the group by any means. Soon, I was granted the right to study voice, when Jascha Heifetz declared to my father that I was to be a singer and that all the classical arts of singing could be mine. I was fifteen years of age and I was thrilled that I could finally put the violin away for the final time. Although I adored (and still do) a great violin sound and appreciate the difficulty of trying to master this instrument, I was relieved to not have to play again, ever.
Now began my very serious studies with William Vennard, who wrote a great book called “The Mechanism and Technique of Singing”. He was a kind man and a fine, fine teacher of voice and started me on the correct path to good technical singing. I learned many songs and one aria, which put me in good stead to win some competitions in my teens. I was still attending high school at the same time I was matriculating at USC and so I was a very busy young woman .My musical connection to Jascha Heifetz continued, but by now, he was advising me about vocal repertoire, as he so loved the human voice. His many violin transcriptions were based on some of the great art song composer’s works. I met many a great musician at this time, including Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubenstein, Gabor Reito, Isaac Stern, John Crown, Zubin Mehta and the like. My father had become a premier piano technician and I was able to attend many a concert and recording session with him to listen and learn. At this time, I was also granted the right to sing for a few sessions of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. I was paid under the table, as I was not a union member, so all that is left of these sessions is a few recordings in which my voice in its youth is recognizable to some. Many a finely trained singer has sung background music for pop stars, including Marilyn Horne, Harve Presnell, Marni Nixon (the queen of this art) and so on and so forth. These are more than respectable jobs for trained singers who can count and read the intervals of music. I continued my vocal studies with Esther Andreas who was professor emeritus at California State Los Angeles. She ran the voice and opera department for thirty-plus years. She was a grand musician and lady who played the piano brilliantly and taught me a great deal about music and voice over a twenty year period of time. I shall always be grateful to these teachers and mentors.
One of the many important things I teach about music, which is crucial to having any kind of a career as a singer, is the ability to count and be musical. One cannot get into the profession of singing with much success without the ability to be able to read music well or to phrase music so that the public wishes to listen with interest. On occasion, there are singers who never learn to read music very well, but they have had wonderful ears and can learn by rote. The names are few, but they have an infallible ear and are coached thoroughly to do this. I think this would be frightening, as I would not know what to do if I could not read music or words well. In learning hundreds of recital pieces, over a hundred oratorio/symphonic works and 85 leading roles in the opera, I would have been up a creek without this background and these abilities in classical vocal music. So we at Conservatory of Music insist this is a great part of the learning experience, along with the technical and musical aspects of the vocal line. We are a human instrument that cannot be put away into a case at the end of a practice session, and we have to live constantly with our instruments. We talk, sleep, snore, eat, cough, sneeze, hiccough, breathe, laugh and cry with our vocal instruments all throughout the day and night. This means that a singer has to learn to rest the voice at every opportunity possible, in order to be successful and not sound vocally worn out. As an artist in residence, I teach this also. I know that my vocal teacher colleagues teach the same. It is a life of stern discipline, which often goes against the social nature of singers in general. At this point in my life, after a forty-plus year career, I can talk more and be more free in my actions, but this was not always the case.
Rehearsals in the professional world lasted six to nine hours every day of the week and one had to be warmed up and ready for these rehearsals with no excuses. Once in a while, one had a day off and hopefully with good management, one had a day to rest here and there. We looked at fourteen hour days without pause, as one had to eat, get dressed, and vocalize carefully before rehearsals started. I was travelling worldwide and eventually, I was trying to balance a life with marriage and children. A balance not easily achieved for sure. When I made my Metropolitan Opera debut in 1979 (after singing first at The New York City Opera and in Europe, The Middle East, and in the USSR), Rise Stevens, the great mezzo soprano of the forties, fifties, and sixties, asked me to judge for The Metropolitan Opera competitions and asked me to direct some master classes in opera. Horrified that I should be asked to teach, I wanted to know how and what I was going to teach, and she replied without hesitation: “Teach what you know!” So, that is what I still do today and I keep learning more and more about teaching as I progress as an educator and musician. This work is never finished and this is what keeps this profession one of the greatest of interests which never gets boring in the least. I cannot imagine retiring from music ever and especially not in my area of the vocal arts. What else would I do with myself?
So, to get back to the artist in residence status: I believe that when William Hall, Dean of the School of Music at the time, appointed me to this position, I was fully ready, having been a choral singer with The Roger Wagner Chorale in the sixties and having taught privately since the nineteen eighties in my field. I was feeling ready for a full-time job at a school of music and I had sung soprano solo with The William Hall Master Chorale. I believe that Bill thought I was ready to be a teacher at the Conservatory level. I started in 1995, by teaching a series of ten Master Classes titled: “The Complete Singer.” I taught many a professional singer while I was still having a career and also in the San Diego area where I was living, I was getting quite a studio together of young professionals who were singing locally and in other areas of the world. I moved to the Los Angeles area eventually, making my commute easier for this position. I suppose if I continue in this field, I should move to Orange County, but for now, I have the house with the pool and room for my three grandchildren when they visit their Nana. I also teach privately at my home and this has been a good way of keeping in touch with the professional level of singers, which keeps me on my toes.
I am proud to be a member of The Conservatory of Music faculty and I look forward to an excellent collaboration with all of the arts in this college. I believe the fields of English, history, foreign languages (especially the Romance languages), psychology, physical education (singers on the stage need to be strong — I was a swimmer, basketball and volleyball player) are particularly important. Of course, the other arts are conducive to producing the artists of the future. Today, learning about mathematics, chemistry and of course, business, can all be of the best assistance to a singer trying to get going in today’s competitive market. Whatever it takes to succeed is of the utmost importance and a well-rounded education is absolutely necessary. I coach some instrumental players as well as singers and this has been of great interest also. I want to be a well-rounded individual and although it is impossible to be an expert in every field, it is of considerable importance to be well versed in as many subjects as possible. I hope to impress this upon all of my students. They should treasure their time at this wonderful university for the rest of their lives. I know that I will do the same.”