A Positive Voice

Athletic trainer Don Greene teaches budding opera singers how to quiet their fears and turn anxiety into energy.

May 06, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

The way Don Greene sees it, you get to Camden Yards the same way you get to Carnegie Hall:

With raw talent and physical power. With years of training. With the ability to understand weaknesses and capitalize on strengths. With practice, practice, practice.

On the big day, you step onto the playing field. Depending on where it is, there's a bat, or a baton, and it all comes down to how determined you are, how much energy you can muster, how well you focus right now.

But there's one big difference: in baseball, you get three strikes.

Greene walks to the front of a large room and stops next to a blackboard. He takes a long look at the six opera singers who sit in a line on folding chairs then turns and writes one word on the board in large letters: STRESS.

Greene knows all about it.

At 51, he has curly hair touched with silver, a waistline that barely hints at middle age and the moves of a long-time athlete. Not the muscular swagger of a football player, but the balletic step of a gymnast.

He's in Baltimore on this mid-spring day to teach opera singers how to transform performance jitters into adrenalin-fueled creative energy. The two-day workshop is part of the Baltimore Opera Studio, a program run by the Baltimore Opera Company that's designed to prepare emerging singers for the rigors of professional life. More than 125 men and women vied for a spot in the five-month fellowship during which they take master classes, study acting, learn stage fighting and practice auditioning. Six singers aged 23 to 30 were admitted. (They will perform May 12 in a concert titled, "Catch a Rising Star.")

A former Green Beret, a sports psychologist and a faculty member at The Juilliard School, Greene brings an unusual perspective to the performing arts. For years, he trained athletes like Olympic divers Greg Louganis and Michele Mitchell how to excel under pressure. He also coached swimmers, golfers, race car drivers and gymnasts.

Then he discovered the world of performing arts.

Based in Manhattan for the last several years, he has worked with members of the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and the New York Philharmonic. He teaches at Juilliard and Miami's New World Symphony, a three-year post-graduate program for musicians, and recently began coaching traders at Merrill Lynch.

"As with anything new, there was a certain level of skepticism at first about Don's approach," said Juilliard's president, Joseph W. Polisi. "Now his courses are over-subscribed.

"The parallels are clear in all sorts of ways between sports and performing arts. These are solid procedures, there's nothing New Age about them, and they have had a very positive effect."

For Greene, switching from sports to performing arts made perfect sense. "It was a fascinating new world of highly talented people under extreme stress with very little stress training -- other than a music teacher saying, `relax.' "

Concerning opera, he says, "hitting a baseball is a much more simple skill. You pick up a bat and hit the ball. In opera, you have to act, sing, emote and you have do it in German and Italian."

Opera places exceptional demands upon its practitioners. Unlike violinists or tuba players, singers' instruments are their bodies. Stay out too late? Eat too much? Fly in from Paris? Your voice will give you away.

Opera singers' voices may not mature until they reach their 30s. Or 40s. And it takes nearly that long to learn everything they need to know. After studying voice in college and sometimes graduate school, singers may continue taking singing lessons, studying French, Italian and German and mastering repertoire. There's also plenty of opportunity for rejection: There are endless auditions, and, occasionally, long gaps between paychecks.

"Opera is very glamorous for the two to three hours that you are on stage, and when you hear the applause," says Lisa Di Julio Bertani, a retired soprano and artistic adviser of the opera studio.

"Then you go home and realize how hard it is. It's worth it, but it takes a really committed person. Those who aren't committed, aren't going to make it. You need the skin of an elephant to survive in this business."

Some singers cross themselves before going on stage. Some spit, knock on wood, walk backward, count floor boards. There is a singer who regularly visits shrines, one who won't travel without her collection of frogs, and a third who sits in renowned Italian soprano Renata Scotto's dressing room to soak up the artistic vibes.

Still another performer, "who shall remain nameless, can't go onstage before she arranges her crystals in a certain pattern," says Michael Harrison, Baltimore Opera Company general director. "And there was a teacher in New York City years ago who had a bottle that he said was full of Italian air and he would let his students have a sniff for courage."

Before Greene teaches his students how to combat anxiety, he encourages them to talk about it.

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