I used to dread telling people I was into opera or actually sang it myself because inevitably they’d make a crazy warbling sound and ask “like that??” or ask me if I knew Phantom of the Opera.
I mean, I do know Phantom of the Opera, one of the first pieces I learned was “Think of Me,” which I was working on concurrently with Mozart’s “Alleluia” from his Exultate Jubilate. But despite the title and source material Phantom of the Opera is not an opera but a musical. And there is a pretty crucial technical distinction.
If you look closely at a staged musical and opera, you’ll inevitably and regularly notice a consistent difference between them. Opera singers aren’t miked.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule. If you’re singing in a stadium or outside you really need to be miked because no matter how powerful your lungs and diaphragm are you just can’t produce the volume to be heard in that sort of venue. But usually for opera there is no need for microphones.
Phantom of the Opera really threw me growing up though because I did not understand this distinction. I knew that musical theatre singers sometimes “belted,” but I didn’t really know what that was or how it worked relative to what I was doing. In musical theatre terms all opera is in the “head voice,” and while that’s not really a great description of what’s actually going on I can be heard above an orchestra in my tessitura with very little difficulty.
Part of this is because I’m a soprano and the higher register means I don’t have to work that hard to be heard, but the other part is while the sound will resonate in my head (and this is all with the presumption that I’m doing things correctly) I’m using my entire body to almost literally birth the sound.
In opera when you’re singing everything’s as open as you can get it. And I’m not just talking about your mouth. Your lungs are inflated, your rib cage is expanded, you’re using your abdominals to breath, pushing with your butt and diaphragm, your palette is up and your larynx is down. This last is actually something you can pretty clearly see in opera singers and … I mean I guess I’ll age well but it don’t look good.
You’ll probably note from the above still that it looks like Damrau has a double chin. She does not. I won’t say she’s skinny, but it would be wrong to say she’s fat. She’s a rather beautiful and elegant woman. And what you’re seeing there is not fat. She’s just pressing her larynx down to make more space so she can hit and project those F6s one after another. This may not be the most flattering image of her, but when she does this it creates an incredible sound.
At this point I’m going to start dunking on Love Never Dies, so if you want to see that and don’t want me to spoil it in all of the ways just skip to where you see videos of humans. Fair warning.
I watched Love Never Dies, because Phantom of the Opera was my gateway drug into opera proper and despite the fact that now that I have a bit more refined taste, Phantom is still … well let’s describe this in terms of cake, again. Everything works if you just think about it in terms of pastries. Opera is … opera cake. It has textures, layers, complimenting carefully balanced flavours, a bit of crunch for variety, and it is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Phantom is chocolate birthday cake with buttercream frosting. It’s a light airy sponge cake with a dark flavour and rich, creamy, sugary frosting. They’re both good, but if you want a birthday cake, opera cake won’t suffice and if you want opera cake and you’re given buttercream frosting …
Andrew Lloyd Webber remains a massively talented composer and while I recognize how continually dead classical composers flex on him, I still love a lot of his stuff. And the major issues with Love Never Dies have nothing to do with the score. The score is frankly … pretty awesome. It even includes a vaudeville burlesque sequence that despite not liking either vaudeville or burlesque I actually really enjoyed.
But the best example I can give you of how not to sing in an operatic or peri-operatic style is whatever the hell Anna O’Byrne was doing in “Once Upon Another Time.” There’s a relatively high note in there with a pianissimo dynamic and when she sings it she leaves her larynx up and it sounds all squeezed and forced and just blech. I mean, she looks GORGEOUS. Just absolutely super hot, but she sounds like someone just let the air out of a balloon.
And let me be clear I’m not saying she’s a bad singer. She clearly isn’t. Based on her career she’s a solid to great musical theatre singer. She’s even sung the role of Pamina so clearly she knows about opera technique. But the technique she was trying to use for this song was musical theatre and so when she tried to quietly hit that note, she failed.
So here’s Anna O’Byrne singing “I could have danced all night” from My Fair Lady.
And not to make this Kiwi vs. Aussie, but here’s Kiri Te Kanawa singing the same song. (And yes, TwoSetViolin Ling Ling wannabes, in this case, it is a “song.” I know. Lamentable.)
Even if you’re not a massive, incorrigible, opera nerd you can absolutely hear the difference. It’s the same notes, the same key, in this case Kanawa is miked so they’re both contesting with amplification, and in all the ways Kanawa is just better. And the reason for this is in musical theatre there’s multiple different vocal techniques you sort of have to master whereas in opera we’ve just got the one. So even in musical theatre if you specialize in say, Sondheim you can be good and just a joy to listen to, but you’ll never be as solid and mesmerizing as an operatic lyric soprano.
AND THAT’S FINE. Opera and musical theatre do different things. Do you see me starring in Hamilton? No, you don’t. I would make an epic Lafayette, though.
Asking a musical theatre singer to produce a natural vibrato, clean consistent tone, and sing over an orchestra with no amplification is like asking an opera singer to dance. Unless, the opera singer in question is Natalie Dessay, it’s going to end poorly. To sing opera well is to dedicate years and years of practice to JUST SINGING. I’m an amateur and I sing a minimum of thirty minutes every day. Thank God almighty my neighbours are understanding.
But if you go back to those respective performances of “I could have danced all night” and look past the slight pitchiness and forced vibrato, (yeah, I’m never going to have a career in musical theatre so apologies to O’Byrne but I’m gonna go for it), the other “problem,” with O’Byrne is she really is only singing from the neck up. Again, it’s fine. It’s not bad, but it’s nothing special. It’s cotton candy when what you wanted is a soufflé.
Because she’s not engaging her abdominals and glutes the sound she’s producing is unsupported and sounds … thin. Whereas if you listen to Kanawa she’s singing the same notes but they’re bigger and may even sound lower because she is engaging her entire body to produce that more rounded and just scrumptious sound. I know I’m doing things right when I’m up in the A6-F6 range and it sounds, aside from pitch, the same as an octave or two lower.
You may think it’s because Kanawa is standing and can use her position to really engage her entire body whereas O’Byrne is performing slumped in a chair but then we get Renee Fleming just flexing all over everybody in “Dove sono il bei momenti” from Marriage of Figaro.
I want to get back to the titular song of Phantom of the Opera though because that monster really messed me up as a kid. So, I wasn’t aware of this but typically that song is usually pre-recorded and lip-synced in performances because most Christines can’t nightly sustain an E6. I’m really trying not to side-eye here because while the occasional lyric soprano will say she doesn’t have an E6 it’s kind of expected for lyric and especially coloratura sopranos to have at LEAST an E6. And yes you can’t just roll up and bust that out, it takes years of training and then a good warm up, but apparently in musical theatre it’s a badge of honour to be able to sing that nightly.
What scared me about that song and why I genuinely believed it was pre-recorded when I found out, was the first phrase. So, for context and do remember I’m just an amateur, my FULL range on the best of days is a G2 to A6. On a normal day it’s C3 to F6. But when I’m trying to get a part I tell people it’s G3 to F6. This is because while I can hit notes below a G3, I can’t project them and my lower passagio is right about there. (My upper passagio is about G5.)
In the opening vocal line of “Phantom of the Opera,” Christine sings a G3 and is accompanied by a loud electric guitar because shut up we just walked through a mirror. It’s fine.
Now, I can sing that, but I can’t sing it sultry-like without amplification over an electric guitar. The E6? Walk in the park. That darn G3? Don’t make me break out the angry Pomeranian from before.
So if I’m forced to admit that there’s something good about musical theatre singing technique I guess *dramatic sigh* that it’s because you have the leeway to put in more performative aspects to it outside of musical production. I don’t need to be amplified in my tessitura because of the way I’m producing sound, but I can’t produce sound that way and simultaneously keep up a super rigorous dance routine or seriously change the sound to something closer to screaming, speaking, or crying. In musical theatre you can do those things. At least, that’s how I understand it. I really enjoy singing opera and so I have no desire to really learn musical theatre vocal technique.
Honestly, if you want a breakdown on how musical theatre is tEh BeSTeSt!!!1!! I’m not your girl. You’ll have to get someone who doesn’t just memorize a few Sondheim classics and a Hamilton rap and call that a day.
But I can tell you why opera is tEh BeSTeSt!!!1!!
Another thing musical theatre and opera have in common is that if you want to truly experience it, you need to get thee to a theatre.
The best is actually singing it yourself because it is this primal, religious, meditative, deeply moving experience even when you’re just practicing. But barring that, if you can see an opera in person because of the way the sound is produced you’ll have a similar experience. I have enjoyed the musicals I’ve seen in person but they just do not compare to opera even when they have high production values and are really going out of their way to impress me.
Musical theatre will tell you a darn good story, but you more or less have to understand the dialogue. With opera the story is rather helpful, and it certainly adds a valuable element, but what’s going to make you cry — and it will make you cry — is the singing, even if you have no idea what’s being sung.
For example, at the first Christmas I spent with my partner’s family they asked me to sing them a song. So I did. I sang Adele’s laughing song from Die Fledermaus because I have sung that thing since I was a wee tot. I’m kidding. I started on it when I was about sixteen or so. Anyways, as you may have noticed, I’m a bit of a cut up, and the song is a maid making fun of her employer at a balle masque. It’s funny. Anyways, it made my partner’s aunt so happy she started crying. And I’m a.) not that good and b.) relatively used to people being driven to tears — in a good way — by my singing. Imagine what a pro can do to you.
The other thing is opera, like all classical music western or not, is classical because it’s been around for ages. And yes, it being old is a good thing. Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a number of really great musicals that are likely to stick around probably even after he’s passed away. Phantom of the Opera depending on what metric you use is one of the longest running musicals out there. But, my man’s also written a few stinkers. I think everyone including Webber is hoping Love Never Dies is titularly incorrect. But before I started blasting it to hell did you even know what it was? Can you name another Webber flop?
At least in music we tend to remember the really amazing works and just let the mediocre and bad ones fade into obscurity. I won’t go so far as to say that Mozart or Liszt for example ever wrote a flop although for the former it was because he was a lusty genius and for the latter it was because he was a lusted after genius. Not sure that their success with the ladies has much to do with it though … got a bit off topic there.
But listen to the classical music station long enough and at some point they’ll say in dulcet tones, “and now we turn to the [major city]Philharmonic orchestra who are performing [piece] which has never before been recorded and was seemingly lost to time.” And then they’ll play the god-awful thing and you’ll be left thinking that there was a good reason it was stuffed into the back of someone’s bureau all these years.
Most opera has spent a century or more being vetted. Regardless of what you may think about the snobbery that can be present in classical music people do not dedicate the entirety of their lives and incredible sums of money they don’t really have towards something they don’t really love. This stuff is good. It’s so good that it’s performed over and over and over again for hundreds of years.
But what’s truly amazing to me is just how vast the repertoire is. I’m a Mozart girl. So given the choice I will sing Mozart. The big reason behind that is Mozart really understood and genuinely loved both women and the female voice so his composition for soprano are fun and simultaneously relaxing and mind blowing.
For some time I said that Puccini is my guilty pleasure and while that remains true I recently sort of “discovered” Bellini. I like Puccini because he is a massive drama llama and I like Bellini because I was really looking for a manic depressive aria that is performed while sleepwalking over a flour mill and lamenting the evanescent nature of love. Relatable.
I thought I didn’t like Handel or baroque music all that much. I was working on the soprano solo pieces from the Messiah, and I like every other human on this planet have performed the choral part of it. So while I was aware of Handel I wasn’t a fan. Until I came across “Tornami a vagheggiar,” and realized I could play an emotionally vulnerable witch of historical consequence. Also relatable.
I have had a serious love affair with opera since I was a child and I’m still discovering new truly amazing pieces. I’ve shared a few here, but I’ve not even scratched the surface. Not all eras are represented and I’ve only shown you soprano solos. I’ve not even shown you the full range of moods. Sopranos are usually singing about lost love and all that puffery, but there’s more than a few “here’s a knife, go stab people,” songs.
And you know who I didn’t mention until just now? Mendelsohn. Not just for violins my dudes! You know who I didn’t mention? His rival who was awful to him just because Mendelsohn was Jewish.
Opera’s the best.