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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 4

Daniel Taylor, More than just a pretty voice

by Wah Keung Chan / December 1, 2000

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Of Note

CD Reviews

Singing is an extension of speech. The key is the text,” said Daniel Taylor, as he demonstrated to voice students during a masterclass at the University of Ottawa. “Good singing becomes easier when people allow themselves to speak the music—to be a conduit for the music.” At age 30, with more than 18 years performing for the public, Canada’s leading countertenor is in the midst of an exciting ascent in his career. Recording star, baroque specialist in song and opera, and now teacher, Taylor’s activities take him away from his home base in Montreal for over half the year—including a December performance in Beijing.

There is something rather odd about hearing a female timbre emanating from a man. As more and more countertenors appear before the public, the quality varies from to wonderful to painful. A singer like Daniel Taylor, with his beautiful tone and sensitively shaped line, makes us forget the novelty. Indeed, Taylor helped popularize the countertenor voice in Canada with his best-selling ATMA recordings. “I never get tired of listening to Daniel, even after spending 30 hours in the studio editing his recordings,” said Joanne Goyette, president of ATMA Records. Her five-year relationship with Taylor has been beneficial to both parties, winning numerous Opus awards and a Felix from ADISQ.

The secret of his success

The secret of Taylor’s success is rooted in his honesty and convictions: “It’s about the music. You feel good when you hear good singers. The object is to heal people. Performers like CeciIia Bartoli and Emma Kirkby—there is a sincerity of person and generosity of performer that make them unique. I try to take my own path and not copy what other singers and countertenors do.” How did he come to this? “When I was growing up, I enjoyed music as a hobby. As a student at McGill, I lost track of what I wanted to do and why—trying to impress and do what was expected of me instead of what I wanted to do.

“Eight years ago I was severely unhappy—I had finished my undergraduate degree and started my master’s. I had an awakening of part of my consciousness. I realized that I had to do this for what I think are the right reasons. I wanted to be the kind of person that people go to hear in order to feel better, to hear beautiful music, to have some sort of profound experience instead of being part of the circus act of, “Oh, there’s a countertenor!” —the curiosity. I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t in a position that allowed me financial comfort.”

A year ago the priorities in his life changed once more when Taylor’s sister was diagnosed with cancer. “The day I found out, I cancelled a concert at Domaine Forget. I got into the rental car, and I tried to hum but nothing came out. I had never lost my voice in my life. I went to Dr. [Françoise] Chagnon [of the Montreal General], but she couldn’t understand what the problem was. She asked me if there was anything wrong. That’s when I cried. The presenter thought I was singing elsewhere. I called Suzie LeBlanc and she flew in from the Maritimes that evening to fill in.

“I realized that day that if any serious personal matter came up in my life, no concert would be that important. You lose sight of that as a young artist. I decided that I wanted consciously to concentrate on the celebration and sacredness of music. My records are not known for the light, off-the-cuff songs. If someone is buying them, I assume that they want to share in the same process I want to share.”

Taylor admits to performing about one hundred concerts a year. “Performing isn’t tiring—it’s getting there with the flights. Thankfully, I have a good support system of friends.” Accompanying Taylor on his first major trip to London and Halle five years ago, his friend Ted Schrey remembers, “I was privileged to help deal with the stresses that accompany all artists when they set out on a major career.”

Says Taylor, “It’s a very unstable environment that we have to work in. It’s peopled with a complete cross-section of character types. If a conductor decides that they don’t like you, you could be sent home without your fee or a severely reduced one. The logic in the business is that you establish a clientele that will hire you for a number of years. You have to get along with conductors, directors, assistant directors and house managers. If you put anyone off on the way, it will be difficult to get hired again. For me, when that happens, I choose not to work with them again—but these are very few. Essentially, the people who hire me are drawn to the music for the same reasons I am.”

It’s not the money

“You don’t become wealthy in this business. The agent takes 10% to 20% of your pay cheque, and in some countries, income tax accounts for 40% to 50%. Although the presenters pay for transport and hotels, there is the expense of long-distance phone bills and food. I see about 20% of a pay cheque.” Among Taylor’s essential equipment are a laptop and a cell-phone.

Taylor’s ability to sing as a countertenor is an extension of his days as a boy treble. “When my voice broke, I was still able to vibrate at the high frequencies. I trained that ability but intrinsically it was always there. I think that there are lots more people who can do this.” Taylor admits this isn’t great news for mezzos. “There are people who just want a countertenor, any countertenor. Personally, I think [Canadian mezzo] Catherine Robbin sings the alto in Messiah better than anyone in the world.”

Contrary to the wisdom that countertenor singing is a form of falsetto, Taylor says, “I had my vocal cords filmed by Dr. Chagnon. The cords come together and vibrate essentially like other singers. I don’t believe in three different registers. Either it is all the same register or every note has its own register. The video showed me that if I approached a note with an aspirated attack, I could have a healthier sound that would carry better. The glottal attack produces a louder sound at closer range but does not carry. You can hear the difference between British, German, and North American countertenors. I sang in the recent production of Rinaldo at the New York City Opera with two other countertenors. David Daniels has no hint of falsetto and Christopher Josey has a lot. I use falsetto if I want to colour a note a certain way. My natural speaking voice is a baritone. I use this when I want to create an effect—if there is a mad scene, it is perfectly adequate, or when a character is a villain.”

Learning a lot of music

Taylor’s busy schedule means learning a lot of music. “To be professional means that one has to practice between shows, even if you’ve sung the work very often, because not every performance is the same. It is important to have a good musical foundation. If you know that much more about the music, you are better able to express it—like having a much larger vocabulary. I would take out my dictionary to translate word for word for my part and the others, and research the historical context of the piece. To know that the Agnus Dei of the B-minor Mass refers to Cantata no. 11 is to understand that Bach was parodying what he was saying. Then I would learn the notes and sing through it with a pianist before going to coaching. Before rehearsals, I would have sung through it 50 times, 20 times from memory.” Taylor admits to mild dyslexia. “It means I have a lot of trouble writing, put letters in the wrong order or upside down. A page of recitative takes me a day to learn and memorize, maybe three times as long as it does others.”

So what else drives Daniel Taylor? “I do need an outlet for my creativity. The recording and multimedia projects I have lined up are very important.” Taylor has been asked back for four more masterclasses. “I would love to do more teaching. The students want to sing. You need a dose of that, otherwise music becomes a business.”

Daniel Taylor — Vital Facts

6 joins the St. Matthew Church Choir, conductor Richard Dacey

10 treble soloist for the National Arts Centre Opera

11 treble soloist for the CBC Children’s Television Series ‘The Raccoons’

12 treble soloist for the National Arts Centre Theatre

16 private lessons with the late countertenor Allan Fast

17 studies begin at McGill University, soloist with the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal

18 founds the ‘Baroquen Voyces’ Ensemble for benefit concerts

20 appears with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra

22 establishes Canadian career, performing with all major Canadian orchestras, commences Master of Music Degree at the Université de Montréal, begins international contracts

25 completes MMUS degree, debuts at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, records Handel’s Rodelinda (EMI/Virgin Classics)

26 records Bach/Zelenka for SONY, begins recordings for ATMA

28 wins an OPUS award for his debut on the Purcell disc with ATMA,
wins an ADISQ award for Dowland disc ATMA

29 appears at the Metropolitan Opera New York, wins an OPUS award for Canadian Artist of the Year, records Rinaldo for Decca with Cecilia Bartoli, records for harmonia mundi/Herreweghe

30 debuts with Montreal Symphony and Montreal Opera, records Bach cantatas with Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists for DG, wins an OPUS for Best Disc Recording with Suzie LeBlanc for ATMA, wins an OPUS award for International Artist of the Year

Current Teachers: Michael Chance, Jan Simons

Upcoming: Messiah with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Dec. 19 and 20) and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (Dec. 15 and 16), SMCQ (March 8, 2001), Grands Ballets du Canada (March 8-12, 15-17)

Future Recordings: Bang on a Can (Teldec), Orlando with Paul McCreesh (DG)

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