I understand that the biggest objection people come up against re. Detroit is the ‘opera’ voice. We’ve all done it in the shower.
…and so on. I mocked that whole deal in my song ‘Time’ from Compartments—my take on the apocryphal Elvis foundational myth.
But this does bring up a valid point: how should the singers sound? Should they sound like Pagliacci?
I just watched finished watching a Met version of John Adams’ Nixon In China the other night. And it just seemed so odd. I forced myself because it is considered by ‘the critics’ to be the great opera of the past few decades–indicating some path forward for the art form. It left me cold. The clichés were everywhere. It was just loaded with irony and symbolism. So that even if you found the minimalist score repetitive and dull and the portrayal of Henry Kissinger and Pat Nixon laughable you had to scold yourself because… hey… it’s THE MET! So if I don’t get it? There’s something wrong with me boyo!
And then at the curtain call I saw the director. I dunno who the guy is, but he looks like the stereotypical ‘artiste’. A combination of Eraserhead and Erewhon. And I got it. They were doing ‘art’.
Now back in Verdi’s day, opera was something of that still resonated with average people. Common people sang the tunes and went to the shows. But then along came more digestible forms of entertainment like movies. And the stratification began. And since then, when trying to get ‘ordinary’ people to like opera, critics stress an ‘operatic’ quality (larger than life) to explain why everything (including all the fat people) are literally ‘larger than life’. But frankly, I think they’ve meta-d their own meta.
I guess ‘operatic’ was supposed to mean ‘mythic’; indicative of a ‘depth’ not achievable in a mere ‘movie’ or ‘musical’. But what people forget (or what they are selling as the Emperor’s Clothes) is that there’s a difference between ‘mythic’ and ‘caricature’. Just as sometimes a toilet isn’t high art; it’s just a toilet. So for the average guy now? ‘Operatic’ equates as ‘overblown’.
My favourite musical of all time may well be ‘The Music Man’. The songs are great, the story profound, and it’s a real crowd pleaser. But it’s instructive to watch the movie and see Shirley Jones’ performance as Marian The Librarian. Her ‘trained’ voice sticks out like a sore thumb compared with the other performers.
I’ve begun to believe that the traditional, classically trained, ‘chest voice’ is somewhat passé—or at least somewhat of a museum piece. It is as ridiculous to me having John Denver sing Nessun Dorma as it was to have Placido Domingo trying to sing ‘Country Roads’ (remember that duet? Now there’s an experiment in multi-media terror.)
That ‘classical’ voice evolved for some very practical reasons (projection mostly) that no longer matter. Opera lovers tend to forget that, for hundreds of years, composers wished to have their performers look and act more real. (Wagner famously complained that his fat sopranos looked nothing like the young Goddesses they were portraying. Indelicate, but…) But traditional opera lovers just love the sound of that ‘Figaro’ voice and so justify it’s use—even in situations where it no longer makes dramatic sense.
I think the main thing that makes opera ‘opera’ (versus ‘broadway’) is not over the top ‘projection’ or ‘mythic’ subject matter, but simply the idea that it’s the music that tells the story—. And what makes a musical a ‘musical’ (and not an opera) is that a musical is, at bottom, basically a play interrupted by a series of songs describing the characters emotions at various points. The songs aren’t there for exposition and the songs are replaceable and movable.
At this point in history, a real opera must be considered an integrated thing where one can’t separate ‘the book’ from ‘songs’ from ‘libretto’. In his typically low key way, Wagner called this ‘gesamtkunstwerke’ but he wasnt’ wrong; just overblown as per usual. We no longer need the ‘Figaro’ voice to tell us if something is ‘opera’. And we can darned well leave all the other trappings of ‘high art’ at the door as well. We need to have the courage to incorporate the realism of the musical, both in terms of singing style and dialogue as the way forward to an opera that makes sense for the modern world.
In short, do we have the courage to save opera by making it, um, well, you know.. a bit less operatic?