Spotlight on: Claire Kuttler
Next up in our Spotlight series is American soprano Claire Kuttler, who's "embarrassingly obsessed" with being onstage. She spoke to us in the midst of the Bel Canto at Caramoor program, where she's spending her second summer on the mainstage and in recital. She gave us a beautiful interview about finding her easiest voice, taking care of herself and others, and the importance of watching "more comedies than tragedies".
Why do you sing, and why are you doing it professionally?
I sing because I've been embarrassingly obsessed with the performing arts since I was a child, watching and re-watching video tapes of Great Performances on PBS of ballet and opera, singing in choirs, being in musicals and plays, pirouetting (and sometimes crashing) around my living room in an older dancer's discarded pointe shoes, falling into adolescent despair when I didn't get the part I wanted. (I am not sure I've grown out of that habit yet!)
I'm a devotee of the theater. It started with ballet and broadway, but as I grew up, I realized my voice was operatic in quality and size, and so in undergrad I "decided" the way only a 19 year can decide, with that special combination of ignorance, arrogance and sheer enthusiasm, to pursue the career. It's all I've ever wanted as a calling, as a profession, and opera was the place where my voice could be itself, but still within the context of the theater, which is my greatest passion.
What does "good singing" mean to you? What does it feel like when you achieve it?
"Good singing" is a whole world. First it means healthy, efficient, audible and flexible technical production, which is a constant path to walk like a monk. Daily, hourly, by the minute. (I should be doing exercises right now!) I had some early encouragement and success getting into graduate school and being hired by young artist programs, but it was mostly on natural talent, and I was very confused about what was going on when I sang.
During the years after graduate school, I spent most of my time terrified and not singing well, but I had devoted myself to this. I had said out loud, "I'm going to be an opera singer", and I really struggled emotionally with my ego, with my shortcomings and mostly with confusion about what good singing actually was. Three years ago, I finally found a teacher who has helped clear away the confusion. We have worked hard together, and I can say that my voice is functioning technically pretty well because of actual understanding, not just the gifts of youth and raw material.
But that is just the bare bones. Then comes expressiveness, through diction, through text analysis, through physicalization, through spirituality and an openness of heart and character in front of your audience. Now that I feel like I'm on (basically) solid ground vocally, my current challenge is to open myself up with the most bravery and vulnerability I can muster on a dramatic, which to me means a human level.
When I achieve good singing physically, my ribs and stomach muscles are providing the power of the sound. My throat and tongue feel relaxed and open, soft and fat. There is ease in the muscles of the face, neck and shoulders. There is energetic and flexible effort coming from the muscles of the torso. There is an easy lift of the soft palate. Mentally/emotionally - I am immersed in the story I am telling and the person I am playing who is expressing the text and music. Reactions to the imagined scenario of the music drama occur and I follow the instinctual reactions of the imaginary situation. It's thrilling. But it's elusive, especially in an audition setting. It's much easier to achieve in a well rehearsed production.
What do young singers need to do more of? What should they do less of?
This is what I would tell my 19 year old self: Claire, take care of yourself and take care of your colleagues/friends as much as you can. Speak up when you don't understand something. Do not study with a teacher who makes you miserable, your singing will be miserable, too. It's okay to suck, to get tight on a note, to be crippled with nerves, to totally bomb in front of people. You're just human, and these things happen, often.
Get right with failure (again, a constant work in progress). Keep working hard, there is value in working hard no matter the outcome. You don't know half of what you think you know. Get right with being humble. Read books. Study foreign languages more. Watch more comedies than tragedies (I still don't follow this one).
Do you have any "bucket list" roles you'd like to sing (realistically or otherwise)?
Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, Ellen Orford in Britten's Peter Grimes, Arabella and the Marschallin, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, and anything John Musto wants to write.
How do you explain your job to non-music folks?
Well, when they ask nosey questions about if it's how I make all of my income, I let them know that I sing when I get the gigs, and that I take the gigs in any form they come in (I've sung in the cosmetics department of Saks Fifth Avenue a number of times and it basically funded a European audition tour), and in between I do lots of other work, including my church gig and teaching voice to great kids in the Bronx at an after school program.
A friend described my life yesterday as spinning lots of plates in the air, while riding a unicycle and having something on fire. It's kinda like that!