Just came back from a truly glorious quasi-staged version of “My Fair Lady” at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. Stars were Kelsey Grammer, Brian Dennehy, Kelli O’Hara, Marni Nixon, Meg Bussart and Philippe Castgner. There were minimal sets, but nice costumes, great choreography, a great chorus, and, of course, the Philharmonic was the Philharmonic. Everything was wonderful and they got a well deserved standing ovation.
I kept thinking, “This is where the classical training belongs. This is the music that was written for operatically trained voices and it works when the singers are good, when they sing with clear diction and natural vowels.” Yes, it was amplified, but not too much, and it was just fine that way — the system is similar to the amplification that has been put in place at NY City Opera. It’s not intrusive at all.
I don’t think for a minute, however, that any of the principles, or even the members of the ensemble could jump in and sing “Jekyl and Hyde” or “Wicked”. There wasn’t one voice that would have been right in that music, unless the singers can sing in very different vocal qualities than were used in tonight’s production.
Classical singing teachers responded in our 2003 research that the biggest difference between classical and “non-classical” singing is the style of the music itself. No, I don’t think so. If you take opera singers and have them sing “in the style of” rock, gospel, or jazz, and they take their operatic vocal production with them when they do, they will sound silly in the music, no matter how well they understand the style, or how good the arrangement may be. It may be true that the vocal differences are slightly less obvious for males than females, in that men generally sing more in chest register, but you can’t generalize. Many females sing in a chest dominant quality and there are certainly men who have light, heady voices, and counter tenors who sing in head dominant falsetto. If you took David Daniels (one of our most well known counter tenors who is having a major classical career) and asked him to sing Val Jean (as a counter tenor) in Les Miserables, would that work? That’s a contemporary show that is mostly “legit”. He would be singing “in the style of” with the wrong vocal production and it wouldn’t work. He wouldn’t keep his job. Why is this hard to understand?
Yes, we still need good classical voices for all kinds of music, and we need people who can act and dance and we need singers to have good solid technical resources in all of those art forms if they are going to have viable careers. We do not, however, want to continue the notion that classical vocal training will prepare the voice to sing any kind of music, UNLESS the training is geared more to varied vocal production and vocal health than to one kind of music or one “resonance strategy”.
It is painful to hear someone struggling to sing music in a way that isn’t suitable, but it’s wonderful to enjoy beautiful voices and music that are matched up perfectly, as that’s the best situation one could ask for — having the sound live where it belongs.