Foreword Reviews

Reviewer Kristine Morris Interviews Fides Krucker, Author of Reclaiming Calliope

Reclaiming Calliope billboard

Soundraker. Marvelmaker. Spinequaker. Truthstaker. Soulwaker. Barrierbreaker. What then can you say without words? You have no idea until you try.

Fides Krucker accepted the challenge and her exploration into nonverbal sound and breath just may help you realize what it is to be fully human.

We learned of this extraordinary opera singer through Kristine Morris’s review of Reclaiming Calliope in Foreword’s July/August issue.

Reclaiming Calliope cover
In the review, Kristine notes that Fides went in search of her own “natural soundscape—one that came from her body’s own need to express, uninhibited, the full range of human emotion in a natural way,” and when she found it “her career, her singing, and her life took on a whole new dimension and focus.”

And your first step in Fides’s footsteps begins with this reviewer-author interview.

Your book, Reclaiming Calliope, makes some stunning connections between musicality, physicality, and a full, rich humanity, and suggests that the breath, and the way we breathe and use our voices, can either hinder or support the flowering of our full personhood. Writing that “fear makes us hold our breath,” you share the many ways that fear has kept women from that full expression, and show how, in our male-dominated world, women’s attempts to express themselves fully are fraught with danger. For women to hold their breath, to still their voices, has come to be perceived as normal, even desirable, so much so that it goes unnoticed by women themselves. To what degree might fear of the female voice, female power, and female agency play a role in the male drive to suppress the feminine? To what do you attribute this fear?

In ancient Greece, men strove for the personal quality of sophrosyne, or self-control. If they weren’t able to achieve this they were perceived as overly emotional and like a woman. Philosophers proposed that women might, in fact, be a separate species.

I think our confining beliefs about gender are connected to a profound distrust of, and corresponding ineptness around, the human body and emotions. We struggle to name and handle the sensations that keep us alive and connected to ourselves and to others. Our voices are the great betrayers in this arena, and we have all but shut them down.

I have been reading a fascinating book called BITCH, by Lucy Cooke. She points out that Darwin’s brilliance was framed by his Victorian outlook; his prudish, patriarchal lens, which valued female monogamy and compliance as counterpoint to male philandering, affected how he viewed gender and sex throughout the animal kingdom, and hampered the vision of male scientists who followed in his wake. Lucy’s book makes it clear that, historically, the female of pretty well all of the species was not studied until women scientists took this up. Their research overturns the idea that the male of the species is active and in control while females are passively waiting to choose. Her playful use of language makes me laugh right out loud. She is delighted by what is being uncovered and audacious in how she shares it.

In the human world, equality for women appears at first to mean that men will lose—that there are comforts, assumptions, and ‘taken advantages’ that will have to crumble.

We are in an extraordinary and widespread moment of reckoning and change. I think we are seeing a breakdown of the domestication of the feminine. This doesn’t only mean that women will experience equal rights, but that men will also be allowed to rediscover their full range of vulnerabilities and not be shamed for this.

Revising gender constructs is no small part of this. The tightness of binary thinking is an example of not being comfortable with full-range vocal expression. If each person can become their own central character, inner authority will help tongues to tell truth and breath to fuel compassion. This can only be a good thing for all sorts of relationships—the whole of a society as well as energies within each individual.

Change is inevitable—and change is uncomfortable, painful, destabilizing, and even violent. We need to fasten our seatbelts and open our minds. Pay attention and get ready for a long-haul flight.

In what ways do you think our world might be different if women were to reclaim their agency and power? Do you see us moving in that direction? If so, how, and if not, why not?

A sense of agency goes hand in hand with free breath and expression.

I was pretty excited by the #metoo and #timesup movements in 2017. I was able to pull about 20,000 unnecessary words out of that year’s draft of my book when I realized I had been overly diplomatic in my observations of women’s silence—our “holding.” So many of us had been acting as if it were normal to be treated unfairly at work or cruelly within intimate situations. Why preserve such a horrible status quo?

For whatever evolutionary reasons, we are digging into the biases of gender construct, as well as fundamental issues of racism and ableism, with more urgency and less apology. Perhaps even with less defensiveness and reactivity than ever before. I certainly see more ease in my daughters’ handling of the world. Of course, there is backlash—for example, the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

When will women not only be paid equally for equal work but for jobs that are part of the fabric of our culture’s wellbeing?

There is a whole economic rejigging that would be necessary to value, and recompense with respect and gratitude, the work that allows everyone to eat and sleep, study what they are passionate about, and maintain good health.

There are women who are in public in ways that indicate power—financial and cultural. But it is confusing when some of our richest women are also flaunting manufactured, hyper-sexualized versions of the female body—lips, hips, and not a frown. As if we still have to advertise for procreation no matter what we are up to professionally! Maybe, if we accepted our animal nature, we could look at this and laugh—and then get real about how we treat each other through honoring a woman’s expansive range of experience and expression.

Voice is a way to practice these textures.

What changes might be needed to assure that girls learn their strength and worth early in life, and be able to find opportunities for full expression of their gifts as they grow?

Can a young woman keep her sense of self central in how she chooses to allot her inner resources? Can she honor simple feelings of pleasure in her body, trust her own intuition? Can she tell who is safe for her, and those who care for her growth, within her family, her circle of friends, and society at large?

It sounds like I am putting the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of a young individual who may not have any way to calibrate these things, and who wants to fit in, or to please. And I know that our nervous systems are extremely responsive to those around us. Older women need to prioritize being well in themselves, and shamelessly share this. Maybe this is why human females live beyond their breeding years. It is a mystery why only a few mammals do, but in orca culture it’s the matriarchs who know where to find food in tough times, and how to eject the young males who are causing trouble.

I think it is time to reclaim that space in order to support young women. It’s time for us to live in our pleasure and wisdom without shame, even if we are called “unf**kable.” To interact vigorously with young people and share our post-menopausal latitude!

What first drew you to opera, and what opened your eyes to the ways in which that art form, with its librettos written by men, tends to relegate women to secondary/auxiliary roles?

I think I just wanted to scream beautifully—be gorgeous while pouring out my heart! I was looking for approval, escape, maybe even love.

Meeting Richard Armstrong in the mid-80s allowed me to explore a part of my voice which had become ragged in my attempt to express angst in a power-washed way. He encouraged me to splash around in the cracks that were threatening my lower passaggio and roar and shriek my dissatisfaction with life up into the upper passaggio. These passages are known as “breaks” in English.

However, those multi-phonic sounds—meaning many pitches at once—were not welcome in classical music, so I needed to invent a container. Like my dad before me, I am a bit of an entrepreneur, and I gathered a bunch of women musicians and dancers together, applied for a grant, and began to create without men in the room. We got down and dirty and made our own fun. I didn’t mean for it to be feminist—and we would not have called ourselves that—but for me it was a political experience as well as an artistic one, and thus I grew into a feminist through the act of creation.

What are some of the ideals of Western classical singing that ignore women’s reality and keep them imprisoned in the “male gaze?”

Well … thanks to a papal decree, women were not allowed to sing in church or on stage in the early 1700s, so castrati—castrated males—took over the soprano parts. They retained their boyish range but had the big lungs of the male body. We can’t pretend that this didn’t happen, nor can we ignore how, as a result, vocal lines had become long, flashy, and difficult for female singers once they were allowed to make sound in public again.

I can’t think of a single story in the operatic canon that was written by a woman. The melodic contours in the traditional repertoire have all been imagined and manufactured by men. This places female characters within a particular (male-oriented) social context, and organizes how they feel, behave, and come across to others.

A female opera singer cannot veer into anything too rough or depraved while expressing how hurt, betrayed, or angry she is. She can be loud—but she must be balanced and beautiful at all costs. No fishwife hurling insults at god above! Or at her husband out at sea. Thank goodness folk music allows the uncultivated to ring true.

I would say that “a woman’s suffering + her vocal beauty = true love” is the most destructive emotional equation of the operatic world.

What types of sounds have been considered “taboo” for women in Western music, and are there any such restrictions that apply to male singers?

Both men and women have to sing quite immaculately in the classical world. It is athletic—and that feels juicy—but the aesthetic is determined, unforgiving, and unflinching.

There are some later 20th-century composers who have incorporated extended sounds—multi-phonics, shrieks, and peeps etc.—but often they rest in the world of the sensational more than in a deeply-linked, alternate, and true musicality. We do hear those sounds in non-classical singing. A student just brought in the Cranberries’ song Zombie, about lived violence in 20th-century Ireland, and Dolores O’Riordan’s anguished, broken sounds on the word “zombie” is deeply affecting and galvanizing.

In the 60s, Roy Hart, Richard Armstrong’s teacher, shared his extraordinary array of uninhibited and inhabited vocal sounds with classical Scottish composer Peter Maxwell Davies, and the resulting Eight Songs for a Mad King is stuffed with flamboyant vocal texture and range. The companion piece, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, frames female madness as a dulcet, roulade-filled romp. Quiet and sad and a little tragic. I performed the role wearing a corset.

Maybe there is truth to this. Maybe the loudness of the madness we are seeing in the world right now is supported and favored by the extreme vocals we allow the masculine voice—and the repressed textures of the female voice, despite the impressive range of sound in childbirth and orgasm, are what is missing in the public sphere.

Please describe for our readers how your life changed when you first liberated your voice to produce the full range of natural, human sounds.

I can see in the rear-view mirror that the deepest changes were slow and progressive, though the glee and relief at making full-bodied sounds was sudden, surprising, and euphoric. At first the roars were reactive—how could they be anything else?! Then, as I clung to my anger, they were depleting. I had to integrate mad, sad, and glad—and more genuine joy—to feel balanced.

It has taken over thirty years to align the freedom my voice has offered me with my full being, and it is still a work in progress! Recently I noticed that I don’t quite make “the best” of a situation—I make “the slightly better” of a situation. My upper resonators are feeling bubblier and more sustainable since that aha! Why not foster pleasure and more humor in a sticky moment?

And, of course, aging helps—it forces an honoring of energy and brings perspective. A good reason to keep our elders close at hand—they hold so much in the cells of their bodies.

Can the vocal changes you suggest to facilitate a full range of emotional expression be applied to beloved operas of the past? Would such an approach be accepted, or is this something best reserved for new works that embrace a more ample view of women’s realities and voices?

I would be so curious to try this—it would be interesting to not only have the interpreter-singers bring a range of sound to bear, but also to have an in-house composer or two to facilitate any transformations that might allow the full human voice this new centrality in a formerly aesthetically fossilized work!

In your teaching, what do you find is the most common form of resistance to producing a full range of natural sounds? How do you help your students overcome this resistance?

I don’t think we trust non-verbal vocalization. It makes us appear too “animal.” Such sounds reveal what and who we are ‘in the moment’ without any social veneer—they betray the secret of how we feel.

We have a hard time imagining that non-verbal sounds become singing—we think singing is extended speech. But I think music is pre-speech—the flutter of a shudder turning into a series of cascading notes; the ache of a wail becoming the arcing melody of a song; the gravel of my low F indicating my moan and how that is the point of departure for a story of desire, and maybe even resilience.

When we embrace the undefended belly and pelvic floor, and the opening of ribs, throat, and mouth, these sounds emerge naturally. A ten-minute yawn session is a great way to let the body lead into the self-expressive nature of vocal cords and resonance. The body is an excellent teacher when it comes to “sound based in feeling,” so we yawn, sigh, moan, laugh, and explore all our resonances with impunity—in front of one another around the piano. And then we organize the bottom and the top of those sounds into a full tube of easy-on-the-vocal-cords vibration.

Please tell our readers a little about the benefits your students have seen in their own lives and art as a result of their work with you.

How we sound—how we were permitted to sound growing up—reflects our sense of self and how we expect the construct of man or woman to sound. Finding full resonance and vocal cord ease can transform identity. The translation of this vocal work into art-making and “real life” ranges from students telling me that ten years after working with me in the studio they still drop their belly and yawn to open themselves up before stepping on stage, to individuals who feel that their ability to express themselves more clearly in everyday life has been enhanced by learning to scream or growl with equanimity and joy.

I have been told that singing a series of balanced “NO” in “Slipper Camp” (my version of a “Boot Camp” that starts with rest and digest and eventually becomes Emotionally Integrated Voice) supports students to say “no” more easily in real life. A sung “NO” unearths a sense of core that is part of the human design. It reclaims equanimity in the face of hierarchies and “power over” behaviors.

How can your approach be applied to freeing the spirits of other musicians, say, pianists or violinists? How might a painter or other visual artist benefit?

Breath opens imagination and potential. It can provide health while allowing for risk. Playing with resonance throughout the body and head (a part of the body!) is a way to free ourselves of biases we hold, against or in favor of, various emotional states. Often the artist expresses in order to heal—and that work is felt by the listener and the viewer. To be in a fluid and nonjudgmental relationship to our deepest self is useful support for any performer and/or creator.

In your multi-faceted creative work, you accentuate the joy and power of collaboration and equal partnership. This, in itself, is a way taking a stand against the competitive nature and “star mentality” that underlies the music world. What do you find so enriching about true collaboration, and how do you identify those whose nature and abilities will most align with the spirit of a creative project?

Collaborating asks me to know how to receive and how much to give. I didn’t find this easy in my early thirties—perhaps I was more naturally a soloist due to how much we moved around when I was young—but with each passing decade the value of partnering has deepened and enriched me within my practice of vocal creation.

I love the surprise of what someone else has to offer. I find it compelling that I don’t need to like or agree with what they are offering, but that the thing they bring in can either challenge or surprise me in a way that gets me out of my ruts or “good” ideas and into a shared space that goes beyond any of our initial offers. The feeling between artists when we have worked through our challenges and made something is deeply connecting and meaningful.

What inspires your work as a creator, and what aspects of your work bring you the most satisfaction?

I find the physical pleasure of singing unmatchable—it feels good all over. It affects how I experience being a corporeal being and a spiritual entity. How we breathe—that we breathe—that sound is a result of the uniting of breath and feeling—these things still blow me away!

And when a human animal next to me expresses something palpable, I am woken up and grateful. A scrap of truth. A moment of connection. Breath in rehearsal brings endless, renewable creativity.

Please suggest some techniques, breathing or other, that non-singers can use to integrate body, mind, and heart. What can they expect as this integration starts to occur?

Put your thumb at your belly button and your pinky finger on your pubic bone. Soften or drop your belly into your hand. Open your mouth to receive air into your lungs. Let it tumble in by itself.

To give your mind something to do ask it to invite genitals, perineum, and anal sphincter to soften. Feel how the diaphragm—when sensed and responded to (not coerced) through the back of the body, below the ribs—encourages your lungs to open from bottom to top. You don’t need to DO this. Just open, drop and receive. Swell open till your upper lungs tumble your shoulders over into a shrugging sigh of relief.

The other great gift is yawning. Yawn for ten minutes. Let all your yummy pandiculations spread you out in a willy-nilly, non-brain-driven way. A pandiculation is one of those unpredictable stretches that we don’t decide to do but the body offers us spontaneously. Don’t cover your mouth! Let your vocal cords phonate any spontaneous vibration that might arise. Don’t decide what these sounds are, just allow them to tell you how you are.

What do you feel is the purpose of the arts in human life and society? How might they serve as vehicles for individual and societal transformation?

We are makers … creators. We imagine things that don’t yet exist. Sometimes we need to escape what we are caught within, or make our felt reality utterly clear to ourselves and for others through the four dimensionality that visual arts, music and movement have to offer. The ephemeral, the beautiful, the raw, the other-than-quotidian, the taboo—strangely these things reorganize me so that I become more whole. We make visible dreamscapes—and even nightmares—that have transformational power.

I am currently interested in utopian moments. This might seem out of step with what we read in the news. But, as a woman reclaiming my full being, I would like to feel my body in a way that is true to its design potential—full of pleasure and curiosity as opposed to chronic stress or fear. My approach to a sustainable technique is that it should feel good! Open, connected, free, and situated in a world that welcomes both my yes and no. I know that is not the case, and this is not magical thinking, but it’s a way for me to be in accord with my body. No one else can do that for me.

Moving farther afield, yet deeply into women’s reality, what connections have you found between your teaching methods and the way you have parented your children? What effects have you seen in their lives?

My daughters arrived so full of themselves! How can you argue with that? I could see how much they “knew” as animals by how much they simply “were.”

I audio taped Magda’s birth. When I listened back, I not only heard the things my body needed to sound in order to be at one with the stages of labor and delivery, but I also have her first vocal sounds on tape. Maybe hearing her recorded voice for the first time a few months after she arrived gave me what I needed to make more room for the human animal? It certainly threw my need to “perform” rather than “inhabit” out the window.

It is true that my pedagogy is based on Richard Armstrong’s genius at following voice, but it also includes my experience of mothering: the regularity of bedtime; the tenderness and intimacy a child elicits; the potential for self-acceptance; the damage shame can cause. So, I followed their need to say no, and redrew boundaries, and let us be wild with each other.

Parenting is something I continue to feel and discover my way through, even though my girls are now women of twenty six and twenty nine years. I do think having learned to follow voice as a singer and teacher helped me follow theirs. As well as provide a container.

I am now examining what it is to be sixty-one. It is very different and very beautiful. My daughters have always impressed me, and I hope I can be present to their needs as well as open with my changes as a way to keep us talking about life—about what it is to be human … and women.

Please tell our readers a little about projects you are currently working on, and when and where they can be experienced.

Oh boy! The pandemic has been a parched desert for performers!

I have a few things online that give a sense of what I did with voice right before the pandemic.

Three recordings:

  1. Improvisational - Vanishing -

  2. Canadian Pop Song Covers - In This Body -

  3. Classical - Berio’s Folk Songs -

A performance piece: Sophrosyne -

This is a performance piece that is currently on YouTube (my set within the Women from Space Festival starts at 1 hour, 39 minutes). I made it mid-pandemic and it is about my mother’s impending death and her glorious irreverence as this threshold neared. I sing five songs and speak the text that I wrote as a way of processing her last three months.

The women who created the Women from Space Festival also made a “holobox” stage out of cardboard which a viewer could have delivered to their home, assemble, and place on a computer so that when the YouTube link shone through the plexiglass front the performers appeared as small 3-dimensional versions of themselves on the cardboard platform—how ingenious!

As for my back burner, the singing I have yet to do and can feel coming through includes:

  1. an album of quiet, intimate, covers

  2. another of layered vocal improvisations based on pleasure and curiosity

  3. a theatrical piece that merges Tiresias, the blind seer of ancient Thebes who is turned into a woman for seven years after angering the god Zeus, with the experience of menopause’s glorious hormonal and attitudinal shifts. That should be a little raucous!

Kristine Morris

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