During this study, I was afraid that the re-enactment process would negatively affect my own singing style and technique. Teachers and colleagues warned me not to go too far with experimental ‘imitation’. They thought it would be too dangerous and would probably destroy my identity and my technique. They noted that the performance style of Lehmann is irrelevant in today’s practice and would only damage my musicality. Their fears about this experiment affected my confidence. However, my goal was to explore my potential outside of mainstream performance practice, but Lehmann’s pre-war approach is not accepted within Western Music’s institutions even though this style is intimately connected with our shared traditions of music-making.
In answering my research question: how might re-enacting Lotte Lehmann’s 1930s recordings of An die Musik by Franz Schubert and Ich grolle nicht by Robert Schumann inform and change vocal practice, I realized that analyzing Lehmann’s interpretation helped me to explore possibilities in technique and coloring the voice. I was able to add expressive tools and incorporate them from Lehmann’s recordings into my practice. I realized that the more tools and options that I have, the more diversity I am able to add to my singing. Learning portamento langsam helped me to smoothen up my passaggio area. I re-evaluated the way I keep my airflow spinning by copying Lehmann’s recordings and the way I perceived of legato. I used to sacrifice emotion and expression derived from the lyrics and keep my performances plain in order to make the legato line continuous. I am better aware now how much freedom I can take in performing this repertoire by using tempo and rhythmic flexibility.
The re-enactment process gives me more options in coloring and for expressing music. The 1930s performance style of Lehmann has become rooted in my body as a physical technique as well as an emotional approach and way of reading the written text and score. I was used to putting a lot of subtexts and layers of meaning into my readings of lyrics, but Lehmann’s approach which emphasizes extrovert emotions from the text in her singing, allowed me to approach lied in a totally different and more direct fashion. The result of this exploration has enriched my musicality and flexibility in learning different styles of performance. I see how performance can be shaped in ways that are vastly different from what one might see when reading a written score. Overall, recordings-informed performances give me a broader perspective on music-making.
One of the greatest challenges I faced was in finding a pianist who accepts Lehmann’s style and shares my vision in doing this re-enactment process. Many musicians have their own ideals, and therefore to re-enact in an unfamiliar style, we must dare enough to put our ego and pride aside and understand and embrace it. As a singer, my performance is often dependent on the pianist, especially in the context of lied where the pianist's role is of great importance. I worked with three different pianists, wherein the beginning of the process all of them were quite skeptical about this “outdated” style. For each of them, it was very difficult to understand or even accept Lehmann’s performance style given that this style is identified as amateurish by today’s music world. Other challenges I faced were my limited physical health over the course of this project. I made the recordings while recovering from jaw fractures that limited some of my jaw movements especially in controlling the speed of descending portamento and keeping the vibrato stable around the passaggio area.
I hope this work might inspire more singers to have a more open perspective on music-making. Few singers have undertaken projects like this because of the fears that would negatively impact our taste and techniques. Apparently, these fears are unfounded. This kind of work is beneficial both technically and musically. The aesthetic I have learned has re-awakened lost tools for performance that I can now extrapolate to other repertoires and contexts. As an artist, I was also challenged to be flexible mentally, stylistic, and technically by this process. This flexibility is needed in professional musical life.
In the introductory chapter, I quoted Leech-Wilkinson’s discussion of how early recordings provide many revelatory examples that are quite unfamiliar to us now. After I finished my experiment, I feel fully aligned with his argument that early recordings are excellent sources of models if we want to experiment with performing scores differently. This experiment brought me out of our modern mainstream performance practice. The extreme changes of tempo and voice color helped me to break the habit of relying on both a regular tactus and a uniformity of vocal color.
Although ‘copying’ is often negatively perceived, it is the first tool for learning that humans develop in infancy. As singers, we are often so busy trying to develop our voices that we neglect the ways in which these voices are formed by today’s cultural norms. In the end musicologist Clive Brown puts this succinctly as follows:
Of course, there is no ‘authenticity’. Of course, we don't know all the answers. Even if we did, it wouldn't make us perfect performers. Music-making must always involve guesses and inspirations, creative hunches and improvised strategies, above all, instinct and imagination. But if we don't have all the answers, the least we can do is to set out on our journey with the right questions.1
Taking one step at a time, I was able to start my musical journey of discovery by asking the right question namely, what can I learn from the highly expressive approach of singers of the past like Lotte Lehmann? In the end, learning to re-enact Lehmann’s expressive singing has given me more than I could have imagined.
“One is never done with learning and that is especially true of singers.” - Lili Lehmann