Thursday, January 31, 2008

Where have all the singers gone?

(repost from my LJ, 12/9/05)

Interesting article: Where Have All The Singers Gone?

My reaction to Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway was not dissimilar to this writer's to a late-run performance of PotO -- I felt like the stage was full of people who had real voices in there somewhere that they weren't letting out. I couldn't even tell whether or not they knew how, although it seemed like they didn't. What's worse is that I was mentally contrasting them with the pre-Broadway tour I'd seen just two years before, with Robert Cuccioli, Linda Eder, and Christiane Noll. All of whom I therefore knew for a fact knew how to let the voice out -- but you might never know it from listening to Noll on the Broadway cast album! It was enough to make me start wondering if my memory of her voice in person in '96 was accurate, until cuts from The New Moon, a revival of a Victor Herbert operetta she starred in subsequent to J&H, started turning up on my Launch station, demonstrating the assured full soprano I was sure I'd heard in her Lisa (they hadn't changed her name to Emma yet). All I can think is that she was directed (like the King & I incident mentioned by Rebecca Caine in the linked article) to sing in a manner considered by Them What Was In Charge to be more "accessible." The result is that she sounds completely spineless -- which is exactly how the character of Emma is viewed by practically everyone I know who first encountered J&H in that form. She's not written that way at all, but I can't blame people for getting that impression when her voice has been gutted of its power.

Even at this level, I've been flat-out told at one audition to make it "less operatic and more Broadway." And in listening to what they encouraged, it didn't take long to figure out that they really meant "less Shirley Jones and more Kristin Chenoweth in the TV version." Considering that Kristin's rendition of "Till There Was You" on A Prairie Home Companion was one of the few things I've ever heard her do that I didn't much like, that sort of thing doesn't inspire me with confidence. Especially when what I was told to do it on was "My White Knight," the most full-out soprano number in the show! I don't want to hear a wispy Marian the Librarian, any more than I want to hear a wispy Emma Carew. Soprano jokes are identical enough to blonde jokes when we don't go around deliberately sounding like a bunch of six-year-olds!

That said, I'm curious to know when this article was written, because I do think sound vocal technique is at least on the way back to being recognized as an actual asset, partly as the general public is exposed to people like Idina Menzel or Norbert Leo Butz, who demonstrate (like the strong singers in the megamusicals of the 80s) that you can use sound technique in a pop idiom. There are options other than sounding like you should be wearing a horned helmet on the one hand, and sounding like your larynx has no access to your air supply on the other. I'm hearing singers again on recordings of newer shows, and I was despairing of that for a while. I still have hope that Rebecca Caine's comment that "my kind of voice is dead in musicals" is wrong.

Of course, one threat to the improvement trend is coming, ironically enough, from the renaissance of movie musicals, where the very "non-professional-singer" sound coming from the likes of Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger is repeatedly remarked upon as a good thing, and is rapidly becoming the standard of what people want to hear. Even in a quasi-classical score like PotO, where knowledgable critics and existing fans overwhelmingly trashed the bejeebers out of Emmy Rossum and Gerry Butler, but the new fans latched onto them as the gold standard. I wrote my own movie review intentionally judging them as pop performances rather than traditional, and I do still enjoy the movie. But it doesn't bode well for the future.

The conventional wisdom is that audiences won't accept classical technique because they don't "understand" it. Yet filmmakers use it for dramatic effect all the time. The exact same principles people are getting in a "subliminal" way in underscoring, and having no problem with, are what we're told they won't accept in the foreground. You don't have to understand what kind of soprano Renee Fleming is to feel the effect of her contribution to LotR. For that matter, people still watch The Sound of Music year after year. You think it matters if they "understand" Julie Andrews' voice?

Yes, some people hear a type of music they're not familiar with and just think it's weird, or fake, or whatever. But frankly, shoving unsuitable voices into it isn't going to change that very much. Meanwhile, in my experience a great many more people react positively -- even if it's "I don't know much about that stuff, but boy is it pretty," that's all it NEEDS to be. It's the myth of "elite" art that's getting in the way, not any actual incomprehensibility of the material.So, frustrating. But still hopeful spots too.

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