Where It Belongs

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.

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2 thoughts on “Where It Belongs”

  1. I am usually the type of person to read and be fairly receptive about the subject being discussed when it comes to singing…
    However, I must comment on the 2003 research study regarding the differences between classical singers and their interpretation of other musical styles.

    It was a bold move to say that the music style itself was what creates diversion between the classical and the “non-classical” singer.

    The actual issue here is that classical teachers don’t like being told that as a professional, they are NOT adaptable to any other styles of singing other than classical.
    It is quite clear that Andre Boccelli would NOT get up on stage and perform a Rod Stewart or Robbie Williams song, with his beautifully classical bel canto trained voice. This ridiculous notion says perfectly clear that it is not the STYLE of the music that differs, but the classical singer who does not acoustically fit into the style or genre of a ‘NON-CLASSICAL’ song.

    Lets elaborate for a minute here for those who disagree…

    I am a professional dancer trained in classical ballet, and have had no major training in ‘other styles’ of contemporary Dance eg: street-funk and hip-hop.

    Imagine now, a new york city ballet dancer auditioning for a Robbie Williams dance video. Naturally, they would never pass through the first round of auditioning! Not to say that the New York city dancer was not exceptionally talented! It was quite simply because the training was not appropriate or ADAPTABLE into the world of contemporary arts.
    Unless that dancer has had training in contemporary dance forms while undertaking classical dance, the “Cross-Over” eg. ballet into hip hop, is impossible.
    This example is no different from a classically trained singer thinking they can use their voice easily and naturally in contemporary music.

    After all, I am yet to meet a classical singing teacher who is a fan of the female chest voice or the broadway belt…isn’t this what CCM is all about???

  2. Just browsing around the ‘net and blogs and such and came across your WONDERFUL blog. Thanks so much for all the sharing and passion and insight.

    I’m normally a lurker but I was prompted to respond not only because of all the above but specifically because the following statement:

    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.

    Kelli O’Hara was actually in Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway. And had the same vocal coach as Kristin Chenoweth, formerly of Wicked. Ms. O’Hara’s an amazing singer-actor. Both, indeed, are capable of very different vocal qualities than were used in that production.

    An example, I think, of exactly what your blog is all about. Naw, I don’t work for her. 🙂

    Thanks again, so so so very much for your writings. Inspired and Inspiring.

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