Saturday, 26 January 2008

Odyssey: Olga Averino

Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe, January 21, 1989...

The soprano Olga Averino died Tuesday night in her sleep. She was 93, and didn't get out much. But she was teaching up until the very end. She lived every moment to the full, and music was at the heart of her great heart. Open on her piano when this writer went to see her a few years ago was a well-worn copy of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." At one point, she gestured toward the music. "It is necessary."

"You really ought to go and see Olga Averino," said Phyllis Curtin about four years ago. "She was the most exciting woman I ever met; she still is." Curtin, currently dean of Boston University's School for the Arts was for more than 30 years one of America's most prominent opera and concert singers, and an important part of her preparation for that career was her study with Olga Averino. Curtin was a political science student at Wellesley when Averino "opened the door to the world of music" for her.

Olga Averino lived amidst some memorabilia of a remarkable past - in her apartment there were inscribed photographs of the composers Glazunov and Rachmaninoff, the pianist Siloti, the conductors Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos with whom she sang, the Boston Symphony violinist Paul Fedorovsky, who was her husband. She made short shrift of a remark about how people like these had set impossible standards. "On the contrary," she said, "they show you what is entirely possible."

Born in czarist Russia, in 1917 Averino fled with her infant daughter across the country to Vladivostok and down into Manchuria; from there she ultimately made her way to Boston in 1924. She was a regular soloist with the Boston Symphony during the Koussvetzky era, and sang in the Beethoven 9th, Bach's B-Minor Mass, Ravel's "Sheherazade," Debussy's "The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian," Berg's "Lied der Lulu." She sang early music with the pioneering original-instrument groups of her day and a lot of what was then modern music, Ravel's "Chansons madecasses" and Schoenberg's Second Quartet, which she performed with half a dozen leading quartets. She knew Ravel, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and toured in joint recital with Piatigorsky. She obviously knew what she was doing, because she sang well for a very long time - her farewell recital was at the Longy School when she was 74.

Throughout her life in America she also taught singing at Wellesley, the Longy School and finally the New School of Music, sometimes taking as many as 50 pupils a week. She also wrote a small, privately published book called "The Principles and Art of Singing" that is a distillation of a lifetime's discoveries about an elusive art.

Just a year ago Olga Averino returned to the Longy School after an absence of several years to teach a series of master classes, and everything she had to say reflected her profound musicianship, vast experience, good sense and high humor; she was still opening the door to the world of music.

Very little seemed to upset her beyond the presence of cameras ("I have retired from having my picture taken") and any sign of a relaxation of artistic standards. She could be very outspoken about what she didn't like in the work of celebrity musicians (of Leonard Bernstein she remarked, "he reacts to the music so much there's nothing left for the public to feel." But with a student she could be infinitely patient ("It's very good -- that's why I'm stopping you," she said, relishing her own joke. "What's desirable is one thing. What happens is something else").
As she talked about the songs the students sang, she would occasionally indicate rhythms and pitches, usually transposed an octave down, but once or twice, she would forget that she was past 90 and "didn't sing anymore," and there, serenely floating in the air, would be the sound that Tchaikovsky's favorite tenor once likened to diamonds and pearls, the voice of a young woman, which Olga Averino always was.

Phyillis Curtin in 'What's the Greatest Voice You Ever Heard?', Opera News, September 1999...

Impatient of sloppy musicianship, demanding emotional commitment, she gave me a vision of the art of singing that led me the rest of my life. On the few occasions when she sang, I learned what a great singing artist is.

Greg Sandow in 'View from the East: Learning from Proust', New Music Box, April 1, 2004...

Olga Averino, a voice teacher with whom I studied many years ago, would bring her students all together for a class. Somebody would sing, and, in her Russian accent, Olga typically would ask, "What emotion does the person in the song feel?" "The person in the song is angry," the student would reply. "But which kind of anger?" Olga would demand, and then sing the opening of the song six times, in six precisely differentiated shades of anger, as distinct as six different people.)

Olga Averino, Principles and Art of Singing, 1989...

"The voice is the instrument, but the performer is the imagination. The instrumentalist knows where the printed notes are to be found on his instrument. His technique consists in the rapidity and sureness with which his hands can find the keys of positions which correspond to those printed notes. But this is not the case with the singer’s instrument. The singer must imagine the desired sound, hear it very clearly, and feel the urge to produce it. This urge is the very essence of vocal sound. The singer then releases the breath and an audible sound is produced. But the singer’s vocal chords—the source of the audible sound—are involuntary membranes operated directly by energy and therefore they cannot be trained. Because of this fact, vocal technique is of a very different kind from that of the instrumentalists. It is energy and imagination that produce the song, but posture, breath, and speech align the instrument. The singer who coordinates these elements well and whose imagination works freely is indeed well trained. "

"Singing is an expression of life, and if you have no time for your life, how can you sing? Quality always needs time, not only in music but also in life itself."

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