The Stammerer’s Song: How a boy with a speech defect became a successful opera singer
It’s hard to believe that the debonair man in tux belting out Giuseppe Verdi’s Quando le sere placido to a mesmerised audience was once a stammering wreck, unable to speak. But that’s what Amar Muchhala, the Indian tenor of international fame who has wowed audiences across the globe, tells us he used to be.
It’s 9.30 am at Prithvi Café, and Muchhala, though claiming to be slightly hungover from a party the night before, is articulate, soft spoken, charming, and everything that one needs to be to become Mr Popular. “But I had a very bad stammer and would hardly talk,” he says. “And this was as late as when I was 21!”
Muchhala was a shy, quiet child, and no one in his family made much of his stammer. But school was a different story. “At a subconscious level, to avoid embarrassment, I evaded any kind of interaction in school,” he says. “I wouldn’t mingle with the kids. I was super scared of public speaking and would dread the first day of class every year when you had to stand up and introduce yourself. At that point, I couldn’t even say my name without getting stuck. And kids those days were brutal.”
To add to his woes, Muchhala was an obese kid and hated sports. “The only thing I could manage was the spoon race where you balance a lemon on the spoon and walk,” he says. “When other kids went out to play, I would doodle or read. I was quite good at my studies, so people assumed that I was a nerdy kid.”
Fortunately, Muchhala was not really bullied in school. “I was a nice boy and nobody ruffled my feathers,” he says. “But the flipside to that was that nobody really bothered to talk to me either. So I went further into my shell. Today, when I think of it, maybe I was never an introvert. It was just my defence mechanism. I never found an outlet to express myself.”
No laughing matter
When Muchhala was in class 10, his parents sent him for speech therapy sessions. “There were tricks like adding an extra consonant before a vowel. The lessons were actually exactly how they showed them in the movie The King’s Speech (2010). Those were my lip drills. I did all of that,” he says. “But my stammering was very temperamental. For me there were no fixed letters where I would get tongue-tied. It kept changing. One day it was P, the other day it was W, the next it was some other letter. So I had to learn how to pronounce each letter. Like when I had a problem with P, instead of saying parrot, I would say PHarrot. The funny part was that many thought I had an accent! And it was hardest on the telephone.”
This, unfortunately, tended to get him laughed at. “That was traumatic, and worse were the caricatures of people with speech defects in movies,” he says. “When you have nothing positive to compare to, people make fun. Often the funny guy or the butt of all jokes in a movie is a person who stammers. And television serials are worse. Only the other day I watched a Hindi serial where the mother-in-law made fun of the bahu because she stammers while singing the aarti. Now, how can you be so ignorant? It is common knowledge that nobody stammers while singing. Sorry, I don’t get these jokes. I find them incredibly offensive. ”
The highlight of Muchhala’s life in school was the singing. “We had some amazing teachers at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai, and I just loved to sing. While singing I would not stammer,” he says. “Strangely, I never had stage fright. But I would never introduce myself or talk, I would just sing. And I started realising very early on that something beautiful happened whenever I sang.”
Becoming a singer was never part of the plan, until Muchhala went to the US in 1997 to do his undergrads. “I think my stammer was mostly anxiety related or breathing related,” he says. “The society I grew up in was rather rigid and there were many restrictions. I was always scared of offending people or saying something inappropriate. And that made me stammer more. When I went to the US to do my undergrads, that society was so open and encouraging that it helped me cope with my stammering. Also, there people would not laugh when I got stuck on a word, but wait patiently for me to finish my sentence. That was something new and I started opening up to actual conversations. Slowly I started voicing my opinions and became an extrovert. Today, I am maybe a bit too much of an extrovert!”
Also, his training in Western classical music began at Franklin & Marshall College, USA, where he completed his degree in business management and French literature. “I didn’t even know what a tenor was until I joined a choir in my college – the choirmaster instantly identified me as a tenor (a voice type between a bass and a baritone — the highest of the ordinary adult male range), and the next thing I knew I was singing Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms as part of the tenor section.
But when I started taking proper music lessons, the breathing exercises really helped. With my breathing sorted, my stammer disappeared. Well, almost. I still stammer, though very rarely. ”
Freedom of expression
Today, Muchhala is an established tenor. Having completed his studies in the opera course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he made his Royal Opera House debut in 2013 with The Opera Group, singing Chulak (The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, world premiere) in the Linbury Studio Theatre.“Opera singing fit the pitch of my voice perfectly and people started appreciating my performance,” he says. “But more than the adulation, can you imagine the kind of high a person gets when his voice fills the auditorium and holds the audience in thrall, especially when the person has not been able to speak proper sentences his entire life without being laughed at? Opera gave me the stage and the freedom to be heard.”
The theatre exercises that form part of opera training also helped him shed his inhibitions. “Apart from my stammer, I was not confident about my body, the way I looked, etc. There were thousand other things piled up inside me mostly because of my conservative upbringing and because I never really opened up to anyone. I became confident and kind of shameless, so much so that these days many people find me brash!”
Even before Muchhala started training to become an opera singer, he was famous for his part in an A cappella barbershop quartet. Later, there was a musical event at his college where his teacher offered him the lead role. Since musicals involve dialogues as well as singing, Muchhala totally freaked out at the very idea.
“I refused. I was scared. What if I started stammering on stage?” But his teacher did not give up on him. “It was settled that I was do the prologue, but that also had a monologue. I was petrified. I practiced day and night. I somehow managed to deliver the lines that day, but I vowed never to put myself in that situation ever again,” he reveals.
But he emphasises that even today, whenever he stammers, it is not because he is conscious of the audience but because of his inner demons. “I don’t want to remember those, but at times memories of people making fun of me, or laughing at me, suddenly surface. And I freeze and start stammering.”
Muchhala has mastered Komm, O Holde Dame, one of the most difficult tenor arias. But the past still comes to haunt him, choking his voice, time and again.
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From HT Brunch, August 13, 2017
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