Gun-Tottin’ Brünnhilde

Do not bother to see the last few performances of “Annie Get Your Gun” with Deborah Voigt at Glimmerglass Opera House in Cooperstown, NY. Truly, save your money.

Ms. Voigt is a genuine operatic star, and deservedly so, singing the big gun operatic roles, but she should stay there. She may have done music theater in high school (like Renee Fleming sang jazz in college) but both of these women should stay in their home turf at the opera house.

Ms. Voigt could perhaps have sung Marian in “The Music Man” and done a nice job. She could probably have done a number of other music theater roles written for classical soprano from composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, but she should have had her head examined for trying “Annie”, a role written for Ethel Merman. Mr. Tommasini was very kind to her in his review in the NY Times. He should not have been so careful.

Singing alongside Klea Blackhurst, a real deal of a fabulous belter, Voigt was outclassed vocally. Her singing inhibited her in the role, making Annie seem gentler and sweeter as well as more haughty and phoney than she should be. As Frank, insofar as his singing went, Ron Gilfry was awful. The acting was OK, but his “opera” singing is forced, manipulated, stiff, unnatural and he sang interpolated high notes that were done simply for show (very bad taste) and modified everything above middle C. His pronunciation was oh-so-articulated and completely out of character for a country cowboy. It was just stupid singing in every way.

Ms. Voigt can take her chest voice up to about an F or maybe a G above middle C. Although this part, Annie, is rather low (it was prior to rock and roll’s influence of “screaming” the high notes, belted up as far as a throat can manage) it certainly should have been possible for her to sing in a chest mix instead of a head mix. Especially if someone who knew what that was had taught her how to do it properly.

The songs like “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” were an insult to Mr. Berlin and Ms. Merman. Here is an unschooled country woman saying she can’t read, saying she is from simple roots, using an effected “cultured” tone in her song about illiteracy. The sound had NOTHING whatsoever to do with the character and, as such, it breaks a sacred “rule” of theater, which is that you must always be in character and authentic. Annie would never had been able to make the sounds that came out of Ms. Voigt’s throat. Further, you can barely hear Moonshine Lullaby (the show is not amplified) since it is low. This is because it lies too low for her head dominant sound to gather steam, but is also too high for her to sing in chest. She was stuck in nowheresville, and stayed there throughout the show. She warbled back and forth across her obvious break in every song. Since I saw this last night, meaning the run has gone on for a long time, and should have by now had time to figure out what to do with these pitches, but clearly she did not. She is afraid to take her chest voice up too far, lest it “hurt” her voice, when, in fact, singing Annie has already had an effect on her technique. The one high note she interpolated (again, very poor taste) was wobbly and slightly flat for a bit. Sticking in high notes “because you can” to show you are an opera singer!!!! I can imagine Gilfry, Voigt and Zambello justifying these little “insider” moments. “Maestra: After all, the audience knows you are opera singers. They expect it!”

Since she had no specific way to train her voice to make the appropriate sounds for this role, she clearly did not have a way to train herself to get out of those same sounds so she could get ready for her Brünnhilde. Too bad. The lack of a clear vocal approach inhibited her performance and it was preposterously silly for the character.

Add to this that Francesca Zamballo had no clue whatsoever about this show. The set was static and she did not know how to use the stage space effectively. The jokes felt flat (her fault) because there was no timing to them. The orchestra had no clue, either, thanks to the conductor, about how to play the rhythms of these wonderful energetic tunes. “There’s No Business Like Show Business” without the beats on the words was an uphill battle for the rest of the talented cast. And the operatic chorus (especially when they were singing as “Indians”) was also inappropriate.

What’s wrong with these people? Do they not respect Irving Berlin? Do they not respect music theater? Do they even KNOW that music theater has a history?

It’s not a new problem or attitude. It showed up way back when Donna Murphy sang “Anna” in “The King and I”. Ms. Murphy, a wannabe belter (who has improved over time) sang the entire role one-quarter tone flat in a speaking voice that was totally inappropriate for a cultured, educated school teacher from England in that era. She sounded like a washer woman. Her performance was magnificent, but her singing was dreadful. No one cared. The same can be said going far back to Michael Hayden as Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” and Sophie Hayden in “The Most Happy Fella”. Neither of them could sing but they were wonderful actors, and all three got Tony’s for their performances. Awarded to them by their peers. Their PEERS.

Think maybe singing comes second to acting on Broadway? Naw.

Stephen Sondheim recently wrote about the lack of respect for a music theater work in his letter replying to a Times article about the present version of “Porgy and Bess” which is being “re-done” by three women who think they know more than Mr. Gershwin and his collaborations. These women, Diane Paulus, Suzan-Lori Parks and Audra MacDonald, suffer from the same thing that allows Broadway producers to bring in “stars” for musicals who have no experience in theater, who cannot sing or dance, but are famous from TV or movies. This is a very common practice now and is tolerated because it keeps the shows going. The list of actors cast in shows for which they had no talent, aptitude or even similarity to type is very long. It is always a disservice to the work. Of course, it’s as bad or maybe even worse in opera, thanks to the “euro-trash” stuff that is popular with those who are “cool”, (not so much with audiences, but with people on the opera Boards or with high level musical people who are very “sophisticated” about such things). These people suffer from an abundance of arrogant ignorance. They do not think they need to know anything about the work, the composer, the lyricist or their intentions, and they do not think the audience matters. I can hear them saying, “They won’t know the difference. It’s such an OLD work. Our ideas are so much better.”

Yes, art is always changing. Yes, art is open to personal interpretation. No, there is no such thing as “art” that everyone agrees upon. But if there is no respect for great works, be they fine art or performance art, then there are no traditions and nothing to pass on. Everything is just a narcissistic personal expression of whatever is happening in his or her psyche at the moment and the rest of the world can just “get over it”. No.

Theater works when it is grounded in tradition. Sometimes because it is grounded in tradition you can do things that are very very non-traditional with great success. You can go far afield and illuminate a work because you have delved into it and its power has touched you deeply. If, on the other hand, you regard the work only from the surface, and you think you can have your way with it, because you are famous, and no one will stop you, SHAME ON YOU!!!

Ms. Voigt, I was embarrassed for you. I was embarrassed for Mr. Gilfry and for Maestra Zambello as well. I would have thought that you would all know better. If you have no one around you who dares speak to you directly and stop you from making such a frightful mess of yourselves in public, then you need new friends and professional colleagues. Ms. Voigt, if you think that Wagner, Strauss and Verdi should be respected and that a dramatic voice is required for the roles you do in the works these composers have written, why would you not accord Irving Berlin the same respect? Does he not deserve to have his works sung with the kind of voices he had in mind? Would you put a lyric coloratura in Brünnhilde, say Diana Damrau, because she is excellent singer and has a solid reputation? Would that make it OK? Of course not. You would take into consideration the whole role and the tradition of that role and of the composer’s intentions.

American musical theater, written by Americans, deserves the exact same respect. It deserves to be taken for what it is without apology, without distortion, without cheapening, without “adapting”, without “adjustment” and without condescension. If you can’t sing it the way it was intended to be sung, STAY AWAY.

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2 thoughts on “Gun-Tottin’ Brünnhilde”

  1. Gee, what did you really think? LOL.

    Well, I saw it and loved it. I suppose I’m not educated enough about musical theater so I allowed the fun and joyous spirit of the show to infect me. Go figure. 😉

    I’ll grant you the accent issues for Voigt, definitely, but I went in to this knowing it was an unamplified musical using opera singers at a largely opera festival. It was clearly an experiment. I actually enjoyed Voigt’s characterization quite a lot as well as the simple staging seemingly designed to highlight pure singing. No, it wasn’t Broadway, but it never pretended (at least to me) to be anything more than a fun, joyous, summer musical.

    I think the experiment worked. Judging by the fact that there was a waitlist for most shows (I was lucky to get in), I don’t think I’m alone. Again, go figure….

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