Singing with volume! Why opera singers sound ‘that way’. Ronnie James Dio is not loud enough? Vibrato. Loudness. Spike Jones does Pagliacci. Jubilee Singers. Opera vs. Pop.
This is by far the longest post JCH and I have ever done together. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I edit these conversations to keep the word count to around 800. Many times I will break a talk into two or more separate posts because the last thing I want is to have these go from being digestible to a boring New Yorker novella. But in this case, the conversation was too broad (you’ll get the pun as you read) to easily break apart. Although it seems like yet another of JC’s diversions into classical music (and worst of all opera, ughhh) there are important points to be made about our beloved progressive rock as well as Detroit so please hang in there. I think you’ll find it interesting.
Roger CortonA couple of weeks ago I came across this Spike Jones routine about the opera Pagliacci. And you got really excited and said we should talk about it ‘asap’! So here we are:
JCHWell any chance to mention Spike Jones is worth taking. Here’s a short tangent: Did you know that he had those cowbells custom made? That was his idea–to make a tuned set. I heard a story, and it may just be a story, but it’s so good I have to re-tell it. Apparently others later on tried making their own sets and he sued them. He considered it part of his unique ‘branding’.
The microphone changes the way one sings almost (not quite but almost) as much as the amp changes a guitar. No mic, no Sinatra. No Dio.
RCSounds like urban legend, but legally I can see that. They’re so distinctive it immediately evokes Spike Jones.
JCHThanks for indulging me. Couldn’t resist! I just love that stuff so much. In a funny way, Spike was the essence of ‘prog’. OK, self-control. Back on topic! As I was working on Detroit several years ago, I vented a lot of spleen on the concept of the operatic voice. The singers were just so frustrating for me as to what they could/could and would/would not want to do. I got an ass whuppin’ and a schooling. And I wanted to revisit that now as we’re rehearsing the high school version because I was wrong, wrong, wrong about so much.
JCHYou sound just like that guy in ‘Oliver’. MORE! OK, you know that expression where the guy says, “I’m gonna hit you with some hard truth”?
RCYeah, I’ve heard that. “I’m gonna beat you with a baseball bat and leave you for dead by the side of the road with some hard truth.” So what’s the truth?
JCHWho’s the loudest rock singer you ever heard?
RCYou already know the answer to that. [Ronnie James] Dio. Blessings of fire be upon his infernal name.
JCHOf course. Hands down. A force of heavy metal nature.
RCNow that’s a man whose voice could beat you with a baseball bat and leave you for dead by the side of the road with some hard truth.
JCHSo here’s the truth: Next to any professional opera singer? His voice is nothing. NOTHING. I’m talking just in terms of pure decibels. SPLs. Loudness.
JCHTruth. So you watch opera singers screaming like Pagliacci but unless yer clued in you’ll likely miss the real trick. Let’s start with this: the singers move around. They’re acting, right. Sometimes the singers are at the back of the stage. And an opera stage is a deep stage; at least fifty feet. An opera stage is often actually deeper than it is wide in order to accommodate all the special effects. And then? There are ninety guys on the FRONT of the stage sawing away directly in front of the audience. And yet?
JCHAnd yet you can hear the singers clearly. How is that even possible?
RCI never thought about it. But if I had to think about it, I’d guess it was the great acoustics. Obviously you’re saying there’s more to it?
JCHMUCH more. It’s like the gymnasts we were talking about last week. Opera singers are athletes; the absolute epitome of one aspect of training the human body.
RCThe vocal chords.
JCHLook, you or I go to the back of a concert stage and try to talk to someone in the audience. They can hear you. As you say: great acoustics. But the moment the band starts playing? Fawgeddaboudit. Even if I scream AT THE TOP O’ MY FUCKIN’ LUNGS!!!!
RCAnd you are a screamer…
JCHI can’t be heard above an orchestra playing forté. You could not be heard. Dio could not be heard.
JCHNo, just that hard truth. It’s impossible with a ‘normal’ voice. But it’s so ‘normal’ for opera singers to do this night in and night out that we don’t even notice that IT’S A BLOODY MIRACLE. It’s as remarkable as those nature documentaries where tiny little birds migrate 8,000 miles every year from Alaska down to Tierra Del Fuego. It’s the unbelievable that seems routine in every day life. One more time just to make sure I’m clear. The singer may be fifty feet deep in a stage which has a cavernous 4.5 second reverb.
RCEcho. echo. echo. echo. Sorry. That’s me doing ‘sound design’.
JCHNext, at the front of the stage is a wall of sound created by ninety guys all fully intent on drowning her out. And then another twenty feet away are the first ears of the audience. So she may have to project ninety feet just to get to the fancy seats while blasting through a sonic force field called the modern orchestra.
RCI like the Star Trek vibe. Phasers penetrating the Galactic Barrier and so on. But seriously, I had no idea. Honestly. I have to take your word for this but as I think about it, it does seem improbable.
JCHNow here’s the thing: every and I mean every opera singer and voice teacher I’ve ever met says that the mile-wide vibrato we all make fun of is actually natural. It is simply the result of generating that decibel level. In other words, it’s not a stylistic affectation at all! It’s simply the inevitable outcome of the most efficient (ie. -loud-) way to sing. And it’s all because singers had to learn to compete with the SPLs of a full orchestra.
RCWow. You’re saying that just by singing that loud, the vibrato ‘just happens’?
JCHYes. You can prove it yerself by singing at the bottom of yer range. You’ll be louder if you do it in yer best faux Paul Robeson impression. Oh and by the way, you should link to a Dio video. Pick one. You know I have no idea about any of that shit. But I think you’ll notice, his vibrato is wide enough to drive through the wastelands of h. e. double hockey sticks. That’s not a coincidence. I’m sure he had at least a little training to get as loud as he did without destroying himself.
JCHBut wait! Here’s the really funny part: Did you know that we are living in the era of ‘straight tone’? Opera singers will tell you that they are singing absolutely as straight as they can. Apparently, a hundred years ago, singers used way more vibrato than they do now.
If you want to get an idea of that, listen to Black Gospel choirs–especially the ones that do ‘Jubilee’ singing. You know from the Civil War. A lot of singers (albeit usually white) just cringe at that style of vibrato.
RCIn private of course.
JCHYeah, but that gets political so let’s not go there. But voice teachers will tell you that’s it’s not only antiquated but somewhat injurious to the voice. That type of vibrato is an add-on; a stylistic affectation. The point is that there is a basic ‘operatic vibrato’ that is just what the human voice does naturally when it is trained to sing hella loud. And voice teachers will insist they are actually trying to dial back the amount of vibrato. But that vibrato is, as you said, just what happens when your muscles strengthen and relax enough so you can be heard over a Wagnerian orchestra.
RCThat’s so interesting. It’s the exact opposite of what most people would think.
JCHDig that! People like -me-! And as with so many things, I just dove into Detroit with no real understanding of this. I kept pushing singers to sing like a Broadway show. Which as is impossible. So what’s the real difference between Broadway and Opera?
RCThe hard truth.
JCHFirst? Microphones. There is simply no way to get opera singers to sound like ‘Oklahoma’ with a full orchestra because they don’t use microphones.
RCYou mean more ‘naturalistic’ if that’s the right term…
JCHRight. There’s no way to get singers to sing more like pop or Broadway without either drastically reducing the size of the band OR…
JCHOr using headset mics. Which is anathema to the whole operatic ethos.
JCHOh yeah. No opera lover is ready to make that jump. It’s like accepting steroids in baseball. Worse. Artificial legs on runners. It’s just unthinkable. I couldn’t stomach the idea. The moment you inject any technology into the production of the human voice? It’s game over, dude.
RCSo what you’re saying is that you wish Detroit could be sung like a Broadway show, but that it’s impossible.
JCHFor opera purists, yes. But now that the high schoolers are working on it, they are using headset mics and they do sound more naturalistic.
RCHigh school kids have headset mics?
JCHDude, where have you been? A well-funded high school theater department has a bigger stage budget that most Broadway shows during the sixties. They’ve got scaffolding, light mixing boards, the whole nine yards.
RCGotta love those PTAs!
JCHNo doubt. Hell, the fact that they work on stuff over the summer means they are ser-i-ous! It’s as intense as football for a lot of these schools now. But that’s a rant for another day. Anyhoo, kids at that age just can’t do it without mics–even though the score for Detroit uses a small band. It’s a funny thing. Instrumentalists mature way before singers do. So the fiddlers can do all sorts of amazing technical junk, but the singers scuffle because their vocal chords just ain’t quite there yet. But the irony is that, because they’re singing in a Broadway fashion it sounds intrinsically more pleasing to me. It’s closer to what I imagined.
RCJust a little squeakier (laughs).
JCHWell, yeah, it is weird hearing a sixteen year old white kid playing an eighty year old black man.
RCBut less weird than a grown man singing the part like Pavarotti?
JCHTouché. Touché. But then there is the other problem with trying to get operatic singers to sound more ‘pop’. The technique opera singers have developed to sing as they do is very fragile. I always thought they were just prima donnas but going back to the Olympic Athlete analogy, the line between them pulling off the performance every night is razor thin. I mean they’re literally in danger of blowing it every time out. It’s not exaggerated like a magician. They need every advantage they can get.
RCLike how runners have special diets and see therapists and so on to get even one hundredth of a second.
JCHExactly. The difference between hitting those high C’s and not may come down to the smallest detail.
RCI’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m trying hard to understand how a seriously fat guy like Pavarotti was some ‘trained athlete’.
JCHYeah, I don’t want to stretch this too far. But as far as ear/nose/throat and definitely in terms of attitude, it’s just like Usain Bolt. You gotta be very careful. So they have this whole technique based on that discipline and once learned, it’s almost like one’s speaking accent; very difficult to alter.
RCSo what you’re saying is that a kid starts out singing like The Temptations, goes to opera school and then can’t go back to singing Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch?
RCWe’ve talked before about how Johnny Carson used to have all those opera people on to sing like The Carpenters or a Beatles song. I mean we laughed at that!
JCHExactamundo! It’s this chicken and egg thing… as with Jubilee Singing. People started singing a certain way for a practical reason and then it becomes normative and then they can’t switch back! I mean, the opera community have gotten so used to that ‘operatic voice’, ie. the way that singers learn diction in order to be e-nun-ci-ate each syl-la-ble that even when they dial it back, it still sounds inhuman for, say a Beatles tune. It’s hard to play ‘wrong’ after ten years of learning to play ‘right’. Like with that 2001 Trumpets deal. I’ll give you one easy visual that I always find striking. Next time you see an opera singer, look at their lower jaw as they sing. It has this very unhinged quality. It just seems to float.
RCUnhinged, you say? (laughs).
JCHI mean that literally; I know how this will sound, but it’s like a frog. The entire neck and jaw just relaxes. You can spot it a mile away. They spend years learning to do that. Now look at Frank Sinatra or Cher? Pop singers don’t do that. All the hundred habits that make for a ‘classical’ technique
RCThat probably applies to all instruments.
JCHRight. And once you learn that, it can be very difficult to even remember what it was like to just scream like John Lennon or Bruce Springsteen. You become someone else. That’s why there are so many categories of classical singers. Not just ‘range’ but also repertoire; like swimmers all have their specific ‘events’. You just specialize and specialize and then you can’t even remember how to just ‘swim’ like a nutty kid. Or you worry that if you do, you’ll break something.
JCHThat’s actually right. One example of how much I didn’t know. Originally, there were going to be some spoken bits in Detroit. And the singers I first wanted to use were not happy with that. They much preferred to not have any spoken dialog during the show and in fact, told me “you really should be looking for operetta singers”, which is a whole other micro-genre of trained singers I won’t get into. The point is that a lot of singers simply do not do operas with any spoken dialog. Apparently, switching back and forth between ‘talking’ and ‘singing’ can be very hard on the voice. Just that little thing is enough to throw them off. So there are specialists for just that type of show. Singers get so specialized it ends up being a huge chore just finding people who can work within a particular set of parameters. Is it any wonder they might have trouble shifting into a more ‘pop’ paradigm?
RCMaybe opera singers have gotten so used to the sound of their ‘trained’ voice, they don’t realize how much it sticks out? If you want to stick with the ‘accent’ analogy, movie actors now routinely switch between accents. Convincingly. Assuming the singer won’t ‘break something’, it must be possible.
JCHThat’s a great point. A convincing foreign accent used to be considered almost impossible, but now actors like Tom Hardy, Meryl Streep and so on do it routinely. So maybe it’s just that the operatic community has to get to that same point as actors. That’s the only thing that gives me hope. Remember that people in the opera world like that voice. A lot of classically trained singers and opera lovers simply wish the rest of the world would get on board with their craft. I mean there are still lots of people who like nothing better than to hear The Three Tenors sing ‘Hey Jude’.
RCNow there’s an image.
JCHIndeed. But I am not sure opera can survive unless a way is found to make it more naturalistic. They will never get more butts in seats without folding the genre into ‘musicals’ as with Les Miz. The audience at yer average opera is already old enough to warrant CPR machines at every exit. And replacements just can’t be found. I don’t know if that means smaller bands or headsets…
JCH…or what but I’ve concluded that they will never get a broader audience
RCCan’t get much broader than you’re average opera singer! Sorry, but I also think you’re leaving out the whole ‘fat lady’ business. That’s also as big a hurdle for the average guy as that ‘operatic voice’.
JCHOh I haven’t forgotten that! But it’s actually just another side to the same coin. Composers have complained since day one that they can’t stand seeing a 300 pound woman singing the role of Cinderella. And they also would complain constantly about the whole vibrato thing which singers would do just because it made women swoon.
RCSwoon you say? Are you sure you don’t mean swear?
JCHNope. Swoon. It droves the ladies nuts. Like Elvis and the pelvis. The whole deal of larger orchestras and larger voices and larger singers seems to me like this nuclear arms race. It just happened and now the whole art is defined by it. But if you go back to the original operas, like Monteverdi’s Orfeo, even today when it’s performed, the singers are all thin and beautiful and the vocal quality is very close to what we would call ‘Pop’. I don’t think Kate Bush or Joan Baez or even Linda Thompson would be at all out of place in that world.
RCThat’s why you’re always recommending that noobs like me start there for opera; which I always thought was weird because it’s all that Greek Myth stuff.
JCHIf you want to get into real opera, you have a choice. You either start with voices and people who look more like us; which is Orfeo. Then your challenge is the high-falootin’ ‘classics’; as you say ‘Greek Myths’.
RCLike in Amadeus where Mozart says, “Characters so lofty they shit marble.”
JCHYeah, I love that line. Or you can start with something like Pagliacci or Tosca, a plot exactly like a modern Soap Opera. But then you have to jump over the ‘fat people screaming at the top of their lungs’ issues.
RCThere’s no Door Number Three?
JCHNot really. Unless you want to stay within that kiddie table world of shows like Le Miz and West Side Story. What the snobs would technically call ‘Operetta’. Which is fine. Don’t get me wrong; those are both very close to some of Mozart’s best–Singspiel they called it. It just isn’t the full marriage; where the music and the words and the drama are all together.
RCOK, coach. I’m tired. Bring it on home. And by the way, is there any relevance to ‘prog’ you can slap on the end just to say that we tried?
JCHWell as far as my work, I don’t how to square the circle other than to write stuff like Detroit. Even though it’s almost pointless for all the reasons I just went on about (and a hundred others). There’s no system in place to do a show like Detroit as I intended. My hope is that other people will do similar things and a new hybrid will become accepted. But of one thing I am sure, opera won’t regain a foothold if people write music within the current ‘forms’. It’s gotta be a new form.
RCMaybe one that uses headsets.
JCHMaybe. Since yer all about ‘examples’ these days, I’ll give you a snippet to post which describes what I mean. The finale of Detroit is a number called ‘Evergreen’. Here is a snippet from the intro. The character is an eighty year old man remembering how the city used to be in its heyday.
JCHI hate using my own stuff as ‘examples’, but what the fuck. There are a couple of things here that are pure ‘rawk’; that an opera wouldn’t do.
RCYou mean an opera singer wouldn’t do.
JCHNo, I mean a traditional opera wouldn’t do. And by that I mean not only sing in such a straight tone, but also in such an instrumental way.
RCNot sure I get what you mean.
JCHSee the point is that his voice is supposed to be weak. He’s eighty years old. He’s emotional and he’s trying to be heard but his voice is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the orchestra. In fact, he fades into the orchestra colors at the end of phrases like a drowning guy where the waves sweep over him. And then he pops back up for the next stanza. The orchestra is always threatening to take over. And in fact, when he sings ‘driving fast down Evergreen’ his vibrato comes under the control of the orchestra.
RCWhat you’re describing doesn’t sound ‘revolutionary’ to me at all.
JCHThat’s because you’re used to Dio and Journey and Roger Daltrey and Foreigner and John Lennon and on and on and on. One of the hallmarks of ‘rawk’ is where the singer is fighting heroically to be heard over the roar of the Marshall Stacks. Robert Plant soaring over Led Zeppelin and then the singer’s long notes melding into the guitar’s vibrato for that epic solo. That’s just classic rock, buddy. It’s so normal for any rock listener you can’t think of music being any other way. But that approach is actually pretty novel in the opera world where the singers’ goal is to be clear and distinct apart from the band. I mean, if the singer is overwhelmed by the orchestra that’s considered a failure. If the singer loses control of their vibrato, that’s a failure. Hell, even if the character is dying, they’re supposed to sound fresh as a daisy. In fact, that’s a feature of a lot of the most popular operas: the dying heroine aria. Drives me nuts. Like in La Traviata, she’s dying of fuckin’ tuberculosis and she’s screaming at the top of her lungs!
RCI’ll pass. So it’s a different ethos.
JCHYes, but it’s more than that. It’s tech-driven. Because what makes that whole soaring thing possible [for rock singers]? The mic. For the rock singer the mic isn’t just an ‘amplifier’.
RCOr rather, it is an amplifier. You’re saying that the microphone changes the whole approach to singing the way a guitar amplifier doesn’t just ‘make it louder’.
JCHThat’s a great way to look at it. The microphone changes the way one sings almost (not quite but almost) as much as the amp changes a guitar. No mic, no Sinatra. No Dio. It not only allows the pop singer to be heard, it allows them to be the pop singer and not have to be the operatic voice. It not only liberates, it opens up a new way of being. And that’s where we can get back to ‘prog’.
JCHIt occurs to me that people bitched about the downfall of ‘prog’ the way they have always bitched about opera. I mean like since 1600. Opera started out on the right track but then it very quickly jumped the shark in so many ways. It very quickly became like a Las Vegas show: a joke, but a popular joke. There have been attempts at ‘reform’ over the years but none ever really caught on. And now the caricature is the only image people have, just like with progressive rock. In other words, many people who say they love opera have never seen a proper production. I mean a production that the composer would’ve thought nailed it.
JCHI’ve seen maybe fifty live performances now and I’d say only three or four were what I’d call successful; ie. where the performance was this magical combination of beautiful acting, singing, costumes, etc. Frankly? It usually still is fat people screaming and acting badly. And that’s just too much for me to suspend disbelief. Historically, a lot of opera critics say the same thing over and over. They talk about opera as this noble quest; a Grail that one is constantly searching for but rarely finds. That’s how I feel about pretty much all the music I do; Detroit, ‘prog’, whatever.
RCAnd yet you keep going.
JCHYeah. Opera is a lot like prog. Ninety nine percent of it? Suuuuuuuucks. Did back in the day and (sadly) even more so now.
RCOpera or progressive rock?
JCHBoth. As I said, it’s been that way with opera since 1600. Failure after failure. The list of operas that are considered decent, let alone still performed regularly is maybe a hundred. One hundred after four hundred years. About the same ratio for prog I expect.
RCBut when it works?
JCHWhen it works? It’s just this beautiful thing. And you forget, for a moment, why it’s so damned hard to do it right.
RCAmen, brother. Nice close.