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Musical theatre as an opera singer

Phantom of the Opera is a compelling musical, not an opera. But opera fans don't have to hate it just because some people don't know the difference

Phantom of the Opera is a compelling musical, not an opera. But opera fans don’t have to hate it just because some people don’t know the difference

Some opera singers and aficionados feel a sort of intellectual superiority to musical theatre. My opera history classes and online opera communities are the places where I hear people who are generally quite fond of both music and theatre deride shows like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. It’s true that these aren’t anywhere near as musically rich as opera, that neither are they as vocally demanding, that they sometimes shamelessly steal from the opera canon (I’m looking at you, Andrew Lloyd Webber), and that it’s frustrating when people get a mistaken view of the opera genre by considering them operas. But none of that prevents them from being good theatre in their own right. Perhaps I’m biased because I grew up with musical theatre (including two parents who performed in it) long before I was exposed to opera, but I will happily buy a ticket to the nearest production of a classic musical or, better yet, audition to be a part of it.

Musical theatre is a wide category, and some musicals are more suited to classical voices than others. Older musicals (e.g., by Rogers and Hammerstein or Porter or Gershwin) tend to have roles written for “legit” voices, while recently the pop-rock style has become more popular (though there certainly also exists contemporary musical theatre for legit voices). Some roles are very much intended for opera singers: for instance, Emile de Becque in South Pacific is nearly always sung by an operatic baritone and Cosette in Les Miserables was first sung by an operatic soprano. There wouldn’t be much point in my auditioning for Rent, but a I might have a decent shot at earning a role in a show like The Light in the Piazza that demands more lyrical singing.

That said, being a classically trained singer in musical theatre can pose some challenges. After several years of singing almost exclusively opera and Lieder, I had trouble digging up a musical theatre song that fit my voice. In my search, I discovered that I was no longer an alto: although I am plainly a mezzo in the opera world, that same tessitura places me firmly in the soprano pool for most musical theatre. My classical training also made me much more careful about my voice. When I was much younger, I was a “belter”. While I found that I still can carry the full weight of my chest register quite high, I am worried about the potential repercussions, so I do so only very rarely, preferring a pseudo-belt (a mixed register with extra space in the back to sound brassier) that is much easier on my voice (though still not strictly correct and healthy singing).

The biggest issue that comes up is vibrato. I have a relatively wide natural vibrato, and if I sing freely in auditions, I tend to get cast as old ladies. (They seem to be the sopranos with vibrato.) Music directors will often ask me the dreaded question, “Can you sing that without vibrato?” I do have some control, so I can try to channel my Baroque self (coming onto notes straight, but letting held notes gain vibrato near the end), but it’s still a challenge. Singing in the chorus or in ensembles is especially tricky, as most of the other musical theatre singers have no vibrato by default, but I have to constantly remind myself to minimize it. Of course, singing straight tones if you naturally have vibrato is also potentially damaging to the voice (the usual recommendation for achieving straight tones is “send the tone forwards”, which often raises the larynx), so I have to be cautious about not overdoing it.

Danielle de Niese excelling in some of the extensive choreography from the 2005 Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare

Danielle de Niese rocking some of the challenging choreography from the 2005 Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare

A less serious challenge of the musical theatre world is the dance requirement. I’m a trained singer and actress, but my dancing experience is limited to a mixture of ballroom, Latin, swing, and vintage styles—hardly what’s needed for most musical theatre! In one of my current shows, almost every song is fully choreographed, and the styles vary from song to song. We have a jazz dance, some fake ballet, a hoedown, and several styles I don’t know how to name. Remembering and executing complicated choreography while singing the right pitches healthily is a tricky business, and one that until recently was not demanded of opera singers. However, with the popularity of productions like the Glyndebourne 2005 Giulio Cesare, this skill is becoming important for opera as well.

On the whole, there are relatively few opportunities for young opera singers to perform in fully staged operas. Being in musical theatre gives me a chance to hone my acting, vocal expression, dancing, and stage presence. It also allows me to practice singing in front of lots of people. All of these things will be quite valuable in my future operatic endeavors. On top of that, it’s just plain fun. I’m in rehearsal for two very different musicals right now (Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Sondheim’s Into the Woods), and rehearsals are always the highlight of my day. Opera singers should not dismiss musical theatre, which is great both as a performance vehicle and a good evening’s entertainment.