Musings on m
y life as a busy opera singer, voice teacher, photographer and mom - not necessarily in that order! I consider myself immensely fortunate to have carved out a way of doing all of these things which mean so much to me - it may sometimes get a little crazy, but it's always worth it. Welcome to the madhouse!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tables Turned

(Disclaimer: Mom, I adore you, and am grateful to you for everything you've ever done to educate me to this point, and for allowing me to continue to challenge things, to learn and to grow .... even when you vigorously disagree with my opinion!)

It's been typically busy (seems like it's seldom anything else these days, with both the pros and cons which come with it!), but my parents somehow managed to find a date when we could all go and see a splendid production of Sondheim's Into the Woods together.  We all enjoyed it immensely - my husband and I have long been fans of Sondheim's work in general, and particularly this show - it was a treat to take our daughter to a top-notch performance of a work she hadn't seen before,  and even my Sondheim-resistant parents agreed that perhaps they had been hasty in describing him as "tuneless" and "not their thing" as they loved absolutely every minute of the performance as much as we did (kudos to the piece and the production!).

Inevitably, our after-show discussion wound up comparing "new musicals" to "the old days" of Golden Age Broadway musicals, G&S and other styles with which they had grown up. Absolutely valid styles, but  now separate enough to have created their own niche under the "music theater" banner,  distinguishing them from the musical and vocal directions taken by more recent shows.

Curiously, what struck me most was that my opera-afficianado mother's main objection was, almost verbatim, exactly the kind of thing that non-classical-musicians think they won't like about opera.  She said, "Sondheim is very wordy - I only enjoyed it because I'd taken the time to read the script and listen to the music first".   Interesting, huh?   Pretty much exactly what any opera newbie is advised to do.  If you know the plot and are at least passingly familiar with the music before you go, your enjoyment will be great enhanced.  Why not apply that same logic to a show, particularly one by a composer known for complex word-play and emotionally-challenging themes?

The topic of mics also came up.  She is vigorously opposed to vocal amplification, but admitted that the cast's diction and vocal presence had been exemplary. She was still put off by the mics however and (once again comparing it to those iconic mid-20th-century musicals of her youth) argued that they could "only" achieve what they did with an electronic "cheat", that it was a "copout", that "opera singers don't need it, why should any properly trained voice?"

Applied to opera, it's a fair comment - the point of opera is to sing UNamplified.  For that matter, "light opera" and Gilbert & Sullivan, too, since the sound expected is far closer to Verdi than Hammerstein.  There's no doubt that the Golden Age musicals - having grown out of the "light opera" style - were still relying on acoustic "legit" vocal production for the most part.  BUT (and I don't know the exact date - anybody who does, please comment with that info!), you can be sure that musicals written after 1980 assumed that the performers would be amplified.   It is expected within that later style.  As soon as you accept that this is merely "different" rather than "bad", it's suddenly another matter completely. It's not "wrong", just.... different.

I grew up in a very "classical music" household. Where other kids were drooling over Donny Osmond, I was being introduced to Miguel Fleta and Jussi Bjoeling; I liked the singers and the music well enough so it was no hardship (and certainly gave me a wonderful foundation for a future career!), but it does mean that my musical perspective at home was always rather one-sided! My husband, on the other hand, is the most "pan-genre" musician imaginable (he is also entirely brilliant and has probably forgotten more about music than most of us will ever know); after 20 years of broadening my horizons he's still amazed at how much outside the classical canon I don't know (it's a bit of a running joke, in fact) but, as I heard myself defending microphones and alternate musical styles, I realised just how much I really have grown. 

Listening to my mom's arguments I was forced to admit to myself that some of those biases used to be my own, too.  But with that came a flash of understanding:  none of it actually matters.  We need to see music as just... MUSIC.   There are indeed differences between genres - significant ones - but even with that, the similarities of intention are, in fact, greater than the differences of execution.  Whether it's Purcell or the Beatles, Sondheim or Stockhausen, Verdi or Lady GaGA, the point of song - be it in an opera, a musical, or on the radio - is emotional communication through the power of the human voice. It can be done in myriad ways (and we may not actually like all of them, which is ok too) but the goals are the same, really: 

Share the emotion.  Tell the story.

The rest is details.


Bradford Benn said...

Okay you got me to post, as an audio professional my personal opinion is that if the instruments aren't amplified than the voice should not be either. But then again I went to school with talented performers. However my opinion stands.

Also e Blues Brothers are a great example of voices matching the instruments.

MG said...

A valid POV, BB. Of course, the acoustic differences between the power of instruments vs voices, text vs not etc would play into those choices too.

Btw, I am NO fan of amplified classical singing, and fairly appalled by the way the "popera" movement has watered down the importance of singing classically without amplification to the casual, uninformed listener. There are expectations attached to each style, for sure, and many of those probably do need to be preserved. My sense that music is a bigger soup than I used to believe doesn't negate the distinctions between genres entirely!

But the point I was making was not really about classical performances as musicals, and not so much whether they "should" be amplified, as whether they *are*;for the most part, it's assumed that musicals (and certainly those in the more modern, post-Golden-Age styles) will be amplified.

(Btw, I should also give a shout out to the EXCELLENT sound system and soundboard guy at the performance we saw on Sunday - for the most part, it was completely transparent technology; you didn't even think about it. There was only one mis-step I heard, and that was when the Witch went into full belt and he was a little late adjusting her so it was crazy loud for a couple of bars!!)

Thanks for your (very welcome!) input! :)