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2014.06 Opera Now: On with the Show

June Issue of Opera Now

“On with the Show”

Just as they influenced its origins, opera singers have much to offer to the future of musical theatre. Simon Keenlyside has embarked on a journey that explores the classics of the American musical.

As early as 1927, Jerome Kern’s Show Boat put a marker down in the development of musical theatre. With its all-American Mississippi River setting, and its serious storytelling about ordinary American lives, this was the moment that America began, consciously, to cut the apron-strings from its Old World operetta traditions, built up over centuries of migration from Europe.

The Great Depression of the 1930s must have rendered the splendour and frivolity of operetta just a little distasteful. This hastened the birth of the American musical, with its more gritty, vernacular style and its everyday themes. In spite of these developments, operettas and Broadway ‘reviews’ of course remained the most popular musical entertainment in America until the Second World War, sung in English, but still full of opulence, flamboyance and escapism during hard times.

After the War, great works such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, Kiss Me, Kate and Guys and Dolls created a sensation on Broadway and around the world. Though these shows took a more naturalistic, earthy approach to musical theatre, the vocal demands were nevertheless heavy. Singers’ voices had to fill huge halls without what is today euphemistically called ‘acoustic assistance’. Musicals had large orchestras and singers had to soar over them with all the requisite colour and nuance. This required a robust voice and a sold technique, capable of performing night after night over many weeks. It’s hardly surprising then that most of the great Broadway singers at the time had properly trained voices.

Today, amplification in the theatre (and indeed in opera houses) has helped to relieve the pressure on singers’ voices, but perhaps to the detriment of the natural vocal lustre and resonance that audiences would have experienced when these musicals were first performed. John Raitt, the first Billy Bigelow in the original Broadway show of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, auditioned for his part with Rossini’s ‘Largo al Factotum’ from The Barber of Seville. Carousel itself opened in 1945 at the Majestic Theatre in New York , a 1,645 seat house, and played almost 900 performances. It was next housed in the 2,750-seater New York City Center. In the 1950s revival (again with Raitt as Billy) it played in the 2,500 seater David Koch Theatre at the Lincoln Center. The considerable physical demands on these singers, performing without amplification in large venues, would be utterly familiar to any opera singer today.

The vocal template for most of these early Broadway stars was similar: Howard Keel, Gordon MacRae, Vic Damone and Dick Haynes, great film and recording stars, all possessed fine trained voices. In addition, there were also the fully fledged opera stars of the 1930s and ‘40s who lived cheek-by-musical-jowl with the composers of this new music. A cursory glance at their contribution reveals that they too had no small hand in the history of the American musical.

My own research has looked at the basses and baritones in this field: we have Ezio Pinza, one of the greatest operatic basses of the 20th century. He sang the role of Emil de Becque (with the hit number ‘Some Enchanted Evening’) in the original 1949 production of South Pacific. (The masterful bass Giorgio Tozzi sang the sound track for the film.)

The great Verdian baritone Robert Merrill, a star of the Met in the 1960s and early ‘70s, toured and sang with Louis Armstrong for years, as well as appearing alongside Frank Sinatra in concert. He also sang operetta and musicals: his recording of Fiddler on the Roof is quite wonderful.

Some of the modern cadre of American operatic baritones also make a point of singing music from their heritage. Thomas Hampson, Rodney Gilfrey and David Pitzinger, to name just three, sing the classic American musicals repertoire as well as anybody, and in doing so they are preserving a national musical legacy that stretches back over almost a century. There’s no overblown vibrato, nor any overemphatic declamation. They sing compellingly and, it goes without saying, deliver the spoken dialogue with all the subtleties one would expect of someone communicating in their mother tongue.

There have, of course, always been voice-types other than ‘operatic’, with gentler, less trained sounds throughout the history of the American musical, and their contribution has been profound. The gloriously light baritone of Fred Astaire is foremost among these. However, it was the classically trained male singers (baritones in particular) who represented the lion’s share of American musicals and song. They were the biggest draw on Broadway and beyond.

Where, then, did we all lose our taste for these types of voices in musical theatre? These operatic figures were, after all, the ones who started it all – the singers for whom composers such as Kern, Porter and Rodgers wrote. Hollywood films of the 1940s and ‘50s remain a proud testament to this: it cannot be any surprise to us when we hear a voice like that of Howard Keel singing as any classical singer might alongside Doris Day or Betty Hutton.

I think I see at least three reasons for the polarisation of singing styles in today’s music theatre world, and also for the paucity of good work from the current generation of classically orientated singers.

Firstly, there is the time factor: in opera it can take a lifetime to persuade one’s employers and audiences to accept that a singer might break out of their known range and try something new. For some reason, the public prefers artists to stay in their box. Historically, this was not the case. These days, though, perception is king and it’s hard to stray too far from the image of you that audiences have created in their minds. It’s just one of those frustrations that all performers must put up with.

In my own case, to grow into and embrace the music of Verdi after so many years of Mozart, Puccini and Rossini, will continue to take the rest of my working life. Once I have been accepted as a Verdi singer, the move into musicals becomes all the more perplexing in the eyes of the audience, as well as time-consuming for me in terms of absorbing and mastering a new repertoire.

So we come to my second point: commitment and experience count for everything in this business. Unless a classical singer is really going to study the style of American song and musicals, there’s no point in making the move into this other world. You need to work on vibrato, colour, elasticity and language. You need to take some of the heft out of the voice and work hard on the stylistic differences between opera and musicals, especially in terms of stagecraft, including tackling longer spoken narratives than you’ll find in most opera.

The third and most important factor in the divide between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is the microphone. The microphone has changed everything. In our quest for self-expression, the microphone has influenced the act of communication and the development of the human voice so much further and faster than we might have imagined. Whether in great political rallies or in the subtlest nuance of a song, we can now be heard by audiences of tens of thousands in the world’s arenas, and tens of millions over the airwaves.

Amplification is here to stay – a fact of modern life in the theatre (and in many opera houses, though few would care to admit it). There’s no point in fighting against it, but I hope that there might still be room for other, more natural and dare I say more ‘authentic ‘ voices to join the party and sit alongside today’s pop singers and musicals stars. Opera singers just put a different accent on the Great American Musical – nothing more.

This wonderful music could be embraced more imaginatively too, presented in formats that open it up to bigger audiences. Many of the finest American song standards were orchestrated by the likes of Nelson Riddle or Artie Shaw and his arrangers; originally, though, they were composed with piano accompaniment. Artists such as Hutch Hutchinson in the 1920s, Fats Waller in the ‘30s and others, performed so much great Americana on the piano. Some of their beautiful arrangements were either never written down or have been subsequently lost.

I would like to see these songs presented in a variety of venues, including our ‘traditional’ concert halls, either with the recreated original piano accompaniments, or else with newly made ones. Alternatively, we might commission new small-band arrangements, making these shows both portable and financially viable. My own tentative investigations show that there is a great deal of interest from promoters and festivals of all sorts all around the world for these songs. This is great music after all, and it should be heard.

Simon Keenlyside’s recording of songs from American musicals will be released in November by Chandos. www.chandos.net



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lee Kefauver July 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Lovely article which brought back great memories, as I was able to see so many of these American operas in the 1940’s and 50’s. You did leave out one of the greatest singers of the time: Alfred Drake. He possessed a beautiful well-trained voice and was also a fine actor. He was the original Curley in Oklahoma, and John Gielgud cast him as Claudius in his production of Hamlet which starred Richard Burton. I thought him to be the best Claudius I had ever seen, equaled only by Alan Bates in the Zefferelli film.

I’m looking forward to the CD!

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