Is Specialization Limiting or Helpful?

By: Edna Landau

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I recently made my third visit to the Bard College Conservatory of Music and spent two hours with some wonderful young singers who have been picked by Dawn Upshaw, Kayo Iwama and their vocal faculty colleagues to participate in the prestigious Graduate Vocal Arts Program. I was asked the following question which, at the time, had me a bit stumped.

Does having a specialization in a musical area or genre limit you, or does it make you more marketable as a performer?

I don’t think that 20 years ago, artists would have devoted their attention to what might make them marketable, yet I applaud the questioner for thinking this way. In this very competitive time for emerging young artists, achieving recognition in a certain area or genre of music would seem to be a plus. It increases the chances that someone will think of them when programming particular pieces. If an artist demonstrates that they have a great affinity for a specific area of repertoire and they perform it with considerable expertise, they may well enjoy a distinguished career. One example which comes to mind is soprano Emma Kirkby, who has mostly performed Renaissance and Baroque works and has achieved great recognition both for her live performances and extensive discography. The problem sets in when artists are repeatedly asked to sing in Bach masses and Haydn oratorios but they would equally love to perform Barber’s “Knoxville” or Britten’s “Les Illuminations”. If they have a manager representing them, they must arrive at a total meeting of the minds early on as to how to achieve and maintain this delicate balance. The manager must bear the responsibility of regularly reminding presenters and conductors about the breadth of the artist’s repertoire. One need look no further than the Artistic Director of the Bard program, Dawn Upshaw, to find a sterling example of someone who successfully met this challenge. She made her early mark in opera in Mozart roles, but her intellectual and musical curiosity led her to explore a huge variety of repertoire and to partner with leading composers of our time, such as John Harbison, Osvaldo Golijov, John Adams and Kaija Saariaho. Her major career breakthrough was the recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, which sold over a million copies. The commitment she has given to every corner of the repertoire along her artistic journey has been so complete that her fans have adoringly followed her, and presenters have waited with great anticipation to learn of her latest project. The answer to the above question, therefore, lies totally in the aspirations and abilities of the performer.  Fortunately, many artists are privileged to enjoy long careers which afford them the opportunity to change direction and embark on new musical adventures, once they have established a name for themselves. Demonstrating a special affinity for a particular area of repertoire can be a real advantage, but it does not in any way need to limit the options for any singer to excel in and be thought of for other works in the extensive vocal literature.

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© Edna Landau 2012

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