Monday, December 27, 2010

Is a High Note Like a Hole in One?

Bryn Terfel tees off at an exhibition match for the Ryder Cup in Wales.
Golf seems to be the chosen sport these days of many type-A opera singers. What is it that attracts these stage animals out into the subdued wilderness of the country club scene? I would guess the discipline that they so aptly apply to their craft is quite easily transferable to the links: skill,  precision and accuracy.


Joan Hammond with prizes from her golf tournament days.
Many believe that the game of golf had it's origins in Italy (paganica), the birthplace of opera. The game requires an intense amount of focus and major endurance if you're going for all 18 holes. This is one place singers don't have to perform for anyone but themselves. When singing on stage they must compete with ghosts of the past (some up to 80 years, depending on the age of an audience member) in any given opera. The standards are high and the pressure mounts to blast out a perfect legato phrase or a pitch-perfect high note. 

Barbara Bonney with Severiano Ballesteros at St. Andrew's in Scotland.
But on the fairway, there is a connection between the player and their club. Once that first stroke is unleashed the sweet sound of the ball splicing through the air only to drop on the green with nothing but silence surrounding the act. No bravo, no boos. It is also a sport that, outside of convivial conversation with friends, remains a sport that one does not have to use the voicebox. There is also the relaxation factor of playing at your own tempo, no maestro hiding in the sandtrap to wave his baton at you to keep up with the orchestra.
Richard Leech, Ian Campbell and Ferruccio Furlanetto

Everyone on the golf course gets equal billing. There is no rank of prima donna or basso secondo. Here each player controls their heart rate, rather than by the dictation of adrenaline. The official rules of golf state: Play the ball as it lies, the course as you find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair. Golf is also be a team sport. Whether it's a duet or quartet, the team works in unison to finish the game.

Although golf and opera both get labeled as elitist, they are both international affairs. It is enjoyed by the masses in countries across the globe. Every course has a unique design, just like every opera house.  Whether you're in England, France or the United States, the rules are always the same.
Thomas Hampson with golf professional Brandel Chamblee.

Is there a correlation between Mozart and golf? It was only after finding pictures of opera singers playing golf, that I realized the common denominator between nearly all of them was their performance history with Mozart operas. Even the legendary Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, famous for her Countess Almaviva and Fiordiligi, is a famous golf enthusiast. As is tenor Michael Schade, who has played golf tournaments in Salzburg to benefit the Friends of José Carreras International Leukemia Foundation. And not only does Thomas Allen play golf, his son Stephen is a professional golfer!
Piotr Beczała plays a few rounds in San Francisco.

Singers are often taught to sing on the interest of their voices, never on the principle. In golf, the goal is to play the game with the fewest number of strokes. Both demand the most while giving the least. Whether it's the gusto of the drive at first tee or the piano of a close-call putt, pacing is the key to success.

I've always thought of professional opera singers at the top of their game to be the equivalent of a CEO in a corporation. So should it be any surprise to find these titans of their industry out playing a few rounds? Whether for charity, sport or pure exercise, this is a sport that has grabbed the modern opera singer and does not want to let go.
Peter Hofmann, the great heldentenor who passed away this year.

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