Proposition: Use rock to describe opera and vice versa
by Charles E.J. Moulton
The famous mezzosoprano vocalises before her performance, meditating, warming up physically, doing her breathing excercises, making sure that the high notes as well as the low notes are there. She has to reach a range of well over two octaves tonight. The audience is waiting for her to sing. The woman is nervous, no doubt. Without her vocal technique, it wouldn’t work. However, being in the spotlight is a part of her life. This is routine.
Is this the account of the normal workday of an established primadonna at the Metropolitan Opera in New York? No, the artist in question is pop star Annie Lennox. She is on tour and warms up with the exercises given to her by star vocal coach Katie Agresta, who teaches hundreds of other established pop stars classical vocal technique. Bon Jovi, Cindy Lauper and Steven Tyler are among those who study vocal technique with her in her Manhattan studio.
The grey zones between the styles are getting bigger. Back in the old days, when rock ‘n roll was new and youth culture meant bubble gum and pelvic gyrations, classical musicians received their gold stars in society’s pretty book. Pop stars sometimes got more attention, but the operatic performers received all the credit.
But was it ever like that?
No. Classically trained artists have always existed in every genre. In fact, more pop stars have a classical training today than is believed to be true. That’s why artistic quality can be viewed completely independant of genre. Qualified artists exist in every style. Not only do I believe in this hypothesis, but more importantly: it is easily proven. First of all: competition breeds excellence, a financial crisis breeds diversity and invention. That is why, during these hard times when creative work is a rare commodity, there is an increasing need to branch out. Artists need to be versatile in order to survive.
Not getting a job as an actor? Do you write? Teach? Do voice-over-work? Dance? Well, have you studied voice? If you have, what genres do you sing? Opera? Classical? Musical? Swing? Pop? Rock? Heavy Metal? This is no joke. Evidently, the singer that masters all of these genres will get more jobs.
The more, the merrier. With a solid classical training, a voice is able to master anything. Not only do the artists themselves feel this way, the theatrical directors are casting musicals like The Phantom of the Opera, Oklahoma or Into the Woods with classical voices. If you work in a repertory company, you have to be able to sing everything. And I really do mean everything. An opera singer will always have several musicals in his theatrical assignment list. There might even be a run of Tommy or The Rocky Horror Show among them. He will probably even be asked to sing a pop concert for the theatre in addition to his Verdi, his Mozart and the occasional atonal opera.
On top of that, opera singers are today promoted like pop stars. There is no big difference in the PR done for Cecilia Bartoli and the promotion for Annie Lennox. Think about it. Okay, we have established the need for versatility and the rock singers who study for Katie Agresta. But does this also account for instrumentalists? Of course, the list of pianists with a solid classical training, for instance, is long. Among them are Elton John, Joshua Kadison and Billy Joel. The latter named comes from an old family filled with musicians. His father was a classical pianist, his brother is a famous conductor and Billy himself is credited for warming up with Chopin and Mozart before shows. Rock guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen has written symphonies for the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, copies Bach and has recorded workshops for YouTube about the art of studying phrygian scales. Paul MacCartney has written oratorios. He even paints, but that, of course, is another story.
But classical training among popular musicians goes back a longer way. Scott Joplin was a classically trained pianist. Here, we enter a grey zone. Joplin’s Treemonisha and Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, for the most part, have to be cast with opera singers. The demands are simply too high for non-trained voices. Stylistically, however, we are talking about African-American music–jazz and the like.
Other artists have entered this grey zone: Leonard Bernstein and Barbra Streisand, with her classical album, are among them.
Furthermore: don’t forget that Steven Tyler starts out with a high C in his Aerosmith song “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”. The high C is naturally not of the same calibre as Pavarotti’s, but Tyler has to sing it two-hundred times a year. Of course, he needs Katie Agresta to survive.
Okay. So, rock goes opera, but does opera go rock?
Yes, of course.
Wagnerian tenor Peter Hofmann became Germany’s top Musical Star during the 90’s. From there on, he started singing rock ‘n roll. He still never forgot his classical training. Freddie Mercury wrote numerous songs for Monserrat Cabellé during the last century and I am sure she learned how to groove from Freddie. And don’t forget the “Pavarotti & Friends” concerts. Naturally, again, many of the pop singers that sing with Luciano here lack a classical training and when the tenor sang a pop song he lacked the certain bounce of a rock song. The point, however, is that the grey zones are widening. Where does one genre begin? Where does the other end? German opera singer Lars Rühl, leading Tamino at the opera in Gelsenkirchen, started out as a rock singer.
That leads us to a third category. The musicians who are famous for mixing up the two. Norwegian Soprano Dollie de Luxe released a series of recordings in 1984, where she morphed Mozart with the Rolling Stones. The most exotic combination is her intermingling of Verdi’s Rigoletto with the rock song “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll”. Finnish vocalist Tarja Turunen follows in her footsteps in our age.
Much of the preconceived conceptions of music has to do with how old a music style is. A contemporary of Mozart was credited in complaining about how awful “this modern music was and thank God for Bach”. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a disaster because of its atonality, Carmen flopped because of its theme.
Of course, it is natural for people to accept the artform that has a few years of history behind it. Remembering that, however, we have to look at how old popular music is. It came to us, in reality, with the Afro-American tradition of the slaves singing Negro Sprituals on the fields. That became Ragtime, Jazz, Swing, R & B, Rock ‘n Roll, Hip-Hop and Disco. In that respect, Lenny Kravitz is playing music that is four hundred years old.
Classically trained opera conductor Askan Geisler told me, full of admiration, about the instrumental jazz improvisations in a club. “That’s a whole different thing,” he told me. “They make up this stuff as they long and they never forget their classical training.” We have to remember that music works both ways: Verdi’s tunes were whistled by Italian janitors on the streets of Milano, Mozart’s biggest successes as an adult were performed for a lower middle class crowd.
In conclusion, we see that nothing is what it seems. The borders of music are like the borders in life: there are endless grey zones and no one can say where the one style ends and the other begins. The most professional fun I ever had in my thirty years on stage was during my time as 1st cast Big Bopper in the Hamburg production of Buddy. Between two shows, I flew to Vienna to sing Haydn’s The Creation.
Next time you see a rock star sing his song, remember that he probably is studying classical voice with Miss Agresta. Instead of discarding him as an autodidactic nitwit, use these words to present him instead: Ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s performance of rock music is presented for your pleasure by our lead tenorial vocalist with a four-gentlemen orchestra and a chorus of three sopranos.
Change the world of music, use the idiom from one style to describe the other genre.