A Feast for the Ears
photo by Brent Cline
Diane Haslam serves a feast: rich burgundy in crystal, dark chocolate on velvet. Eat as much as you like—you won’t gain an ounce. This is a feast for your ears, not your stomach.
Of course, you can’t hear Haslam’s rich mezzo-soprano voice in a magazine article. But if you could taste it, burgundy and dark chocolate would be a good start. But add some fillet mignon for her voice’s delicious tenderness. And warm honey for its smooth, golden sweetness. The rich aroma of bread baking in the kitchen for its warmth. A touch on the cheek, a pang in the heart.
And that voice is a gift she loves to share. Diane sings all around Aiken, where she has lived since 2004. After a career in Europe singing with the BBC Northern Singers, London’s Opera Roundabout and the Netherlands Opera Company, she moved to the States, singing with the Cincinnati Opera and then a cappella sestet VoiceBox before moving to Aiken with her husband, Bruce. In the CSRA she has sung with Symphony Orchestra Augusta, soloed with the Augusta Choral Society and performed in many concerts and recitals.
But singing is the smallest part of Diane Haslam’s gift to the community. What she loves most is giving others their own voice. That’s why she teaches voice in her own studio and at USC-Aiken, formed the Aiken Singers community choir and wrote her 2010 book The Heart of Singing: Steps on the Path to Becoming the Singer You Want to Be.
Diane’s childhood near Nottingham, England (“No, my father was not Robin Hood…though he was very generous”), was filled with song. Her mother sang around the house all the time and frequently in local Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Diane soaked it all in. “When my grandfather told me, ‘What a pretty voice you have,’ well, I wanted more of that.” She started voice lessons at 11. “From then on, I never wanted to do anything else.”
Haslam graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music in 1979, then sang opera in London and Amsterdam for about nine years. “The life of singer is always struggling with improving. I was still not completely in control of my instrument. I worked with coaches and teachers. But I was not driven to be a big star as some people are. That wasn’t a necessity for me. I just loved to sing, loved the music, wanted to share it with people. I was trying to find my authentic voice.”
That authentic voice—as well as Haslam’s stage presence—caught the attention of English and Dutch reviewers. She “unleashed a mezzo voice with enough power to penetrate the orchestral textures, and it was as secure as it was expressive,” wrote one. A reviewer in Delft praised her “beautiful, dark timbre, which had a shine and a power even at the very bottom of her range.” Another gushed, “It was...Diane Haslam, an English mezzo-soprano, who stole the show Saturday night: a delight for the eye and ear, this lovely singer.”
When she moved to Cincinnati in 1989, the praise kept coming for her performances in concerts, musical theater and major works with orchestras. She had a way of communicating emotionally that was much more than merely performing. One critic praised her for her “presence, beauty and power...She held us breathless.” She began singing with Voice Box, a professional a cappella group, and teaching voice. VoiceBox, was the joy of her life in the 12 years she spent in Cincinnati. But then her marriage to Bruce Hammond took her to Indianapolis and then to a little town in South Carolina called Aiken.
Haslam smiles, pointing out that her life has been lived in successively smaller communities: London to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Cincinnati (“That was like moving from Sodom and Gomorrah to a convent”), Cincinnati to Indianapolis, Indianapolis to Aiken. She had never been to South Carolina. She only knew that it was warm and that the Spoleto Festival in Charleston was there. When she looked at a map, though, she saw that Aiken was far inland of Charleston. “And I thought, what is this place?
“I flew down on my own into Columbia and rented a car. It was a rainy April day. As I drove into Aiken, it stopped raining and the sun came out. It was so pretty—wisteria, honeysuckle. I’ll never forget the smells. The azaleas were blooming. Spring in Aiken! A phenomenally beautiful time of year. We visited Hopelands Gardens, went to polo matches, took tours of horse farms, discovered Hitchcock Woods, unpaved back roads. The town made a great impression on me. I was hooked. It turned out to be more cosmopolitan than I could have imagined with businesses with Dutch and French connections, retirees from all over the country.”
Haslam opened her private voice studio, Vocal Dimensions, in her home. A cutaway chart of larynx and pharynx stands next to the piano. “It’s amazing how little most people know about the voice,” she says. Everyone sings, but singing well requires understanding and training, just as a casual jogger would have to train to become a real athlete. Her goal is not so much to turn out professional singers as to help individuals uncover what she calls their “authentic voice.”
In 2005 one of her voice students made a request: “Would I be willing to create a group for adults who weren’t looking for church choir but wanted some way to have fun and sing? It would be for adults who might not have a lot of singing or musical experience, who wouldn’t dare audition for the Choral Society or Masterworks Chorale...people who just love to sing. And that is really dear to my heart. Because I really think there are a lot of people who absolutely love to sing who are terrified at same time and yet who could so much benefit from the joys of singing and the healing properties of singing. So when that student asked me to start a group, I thought that is exactly what I’d love to do.”
Thus was born the Aiken Singers. Diane directs this 40-voice ensemble and it represents all she loves most about the power of singing. “Song in itself is this fabulously unifying element. Singing is good for us physically and emotionally. And it’s good for the community, unifying people, bringing them together.” The group sings popular music from the 1930s to the ’50s and beyond. Diane does some of the arrangements herself. “These are some of the songs my mom used to sing, so they take me back to my childhood memories.”
The ensemble’s mission is to take music to nursing homes, retirement communities, assisted living facilities and community functions “to take our love of singing to other people who might also love to sing.” Outreach is more important than choral perfection. Touching people through singing is everything.
“We were singing at a retirement home and a little lady, in the middle of the concert, said, ‘Just a minute, just a minute! I want you to stop. I just want to say they brought me here so it could be my home before I go to the angels, but now the angels are singing to me right here!’ Oh, it was so sweet.”
Singing is powerful, both for the singer and the listener. But many would-be singers never find their own voice. Some are too shy, some too diva-ish. Some imitate a pop star or obey a voice teacher or master a technique only to lose contact with the heart of a song. To reach singers beyond her studio, Haslam wrote The Heart of Singing in 2010.
“I started jotting ideas a long time ago. I learned from my experience as a singer and as a teacher watching my students that there’s an enormous amount to singing you can’t teach in a one-on- one situation. I realized as a singer that there’s an enormous amount we have to teach ourselves, really, and you can only do that by opening yourself up and observing. I wanted to give people the opportunity to think about these things without going through all the years of learning I went through to get to this point. It was a book that could have helped me when I was in college. I wanted to write that book. I wanted to open doors, even a chink, to help singers find their authentic voice, their free voice, quicker. The book isn’t so much about the techniques as the psychology of singing.”
Ultimately, says Haslam, if you want to sing, it’s not about you. It’s all about the song. And a song isn’t just a melody. The singers you love to listen to enter into the song to take you on a journey. “You have to really decide that the song is it.” She repeats it slowly. “The song is it.
“And if you can really immerse yourself, that means your ego and everything, into the song, then the song becomes your protection from all the things you’re self-conscious about. Commitment to the song won’t prevent mistakes or cracks, but it makes the way you sing it so authentic and honest that they don’t matter.”
As I drove home from the interview, I found myself singing all the way back to Augusta.