How do you put art into a box and write about it in words? Singing is an alive, in the moment event. When you are doing it or when you are listening to it, in each second, there it is. You can’t stare at it, hold it, feel its weight, plant it, put it in the sun, and watch it grow. It is ephemeral, transitory and invisible, but when you are in its presence, it can be more magical than any other expression human beings make. It’s not for nothing that only educated people have an interest in Rembrandt, or Balanchine, or Mozart, but millions of regular folks related to Elvis, Ella and Luciano.
On Tuesday evening my husband, Jerry, and I went to see Patti Lupone in Gypsy on Broadway. It was some evening. Even though I was prepared for the show (one of my favorites) and even though we saw Bernadette Peters in this role just a few years ago, nothing could have prepared me for watching and listening to Ms. Lupone up close and personal. (We got tickets at the last minute so we were in the fourth row, center). She is singing in the heaviest chest register imaginable, although every now and then she sings a head tone. Her ability to control her volume is limited. There were plenty of places where the music should have softened that she made quite loud (usually when the notes were high), with the exception of the aforementioned two or three head tones. Her jaw visibly bounces with pressure, but the sound is open and, although pressured, comfortable, and yes, free. A true contradiction. A lot of the time she reminded me of a baritone. (Perhaps you will remember that Luciano’s entire head bounced when he sang high and loud, or that Placido’s tongue retracts in the same situation. Oh well. There you go.) I was amazed that this voice stands up to a no-holds-barred knock-out performance by Ms. Lupone 8 times a week. She must have AMAZING vocal folds! It made poor Bernadette’s performance of Rose look all the more wrong. Bernadette is a fine actress, but she was never a natural belter. She became one over time. Her voice is tightly produced and her body is tiny, thin and petite. She just wasn’t the Mack truck that Rose has to be and no amount of acting can compensate for your own physical embodiment. Patti, on the other hand, is just that and more. You cannot imagine the power she puts into this portrayal and the impact it has in the last song particularly. “Rose’s Turn” is Patti’s Turn and you want to hold on to that moment forever, but, that is impossible. It becomes oh so fast just a memory.
The chest register, the driving force in this voice, her energy that just won’t quit is representatively masculine (as in anima/animus). A woman with all the male aspects of her soul gloriously riding on the surface for all to see and hear.
We went last night to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to hear the accapella mens’ choral group “Chanticleer” in their Christmas Concert. I was invited by one of the members who had worked with me briefly to be his guest. I came prepared, also, to this concert, (with Jerry) as I knew what style of music they would sing in front of the Medieval Tree and Holiday Creche. The 12 men came out in their white ties and began singing “Veni, Veni Emanual” which we all know well. About halfway through the concert they performed some pieces by an Armenian composer that I had never heard and which went right through my heart and started me to sobbing. Honestly, it was some of the most gorgeous singing I have ever heard from any kind of chorus in my whole life. I was just beside myself. Even my retired chemist hubby thought it was truly wonderful. There are sopranos, altos, baritones and basses, but they mix and match parts all over. Throughout they sang in a head dominant production that was warm, light, pure, “spinny”, “floaty” and flawless. At the end they did three spirituals which were more chest dominant and had a great rhythmic feeling. I was just thrilled to be there.
Here, then, was the exact opposite of what we had experienced only the night before. Men singing in head register, bringing out the tender, gentle, soft aspects of their voices. Men being in sync with each other (totally), men being expressive in a subtle, refined manner. These men were singing arrangements that were musically difficult, vocally challenging and artistically distinctive and it was clear that they were having a great time. I would have loved for it to go on and on, but no, it too, of course, is now just in my memory.
Yes, that’s what’s great about New York, and that is why we live here. We were able to go from the sublime to the sublime two nights in a row and hear the best of what singing is even though the performances were 180 degrees away from each other. There is no substitute for hearing the best there is in person. No DVD, no CD, no replication can ever be the same as the live, here it is right now, singing.