Rembering How to Sing

The difference between a tourist and a traveler is in what they are willing to bring home. Tourists may buy souvenirs, but except to return to an unchanged home. Travelers return with stories that can forever change how they see their home. When I joined the Anchorage Opera Chorus for the Barber of Seville, I expected to be a tourist for a show. It turns out I was a traveler.

When preparing for Barber, the chorus worked to get away from the musical theater sound, and into that of opera. Music theater developed around microphones, radio, records, and television. These mediums allow artists to reinforce certain parts. They allow, and their audiences demand, a tighter and more intimate sound out of the performers. Even with my past in choirs, this is the musical tradition I grew up in.

Opera demands an open and free sound that can be heard over the orchestra without amplification. By the time Oprea had me for a month, I was using more of my body to sing than ever before. I was tuning my consonants to cut through the background, not to sound good on a microphone. I was louder and straining my voice less.

At my best, when I was regularly performing in oratorios, I did not have the stamina that would be needed by the principals of Barber for just a few runs. Between rehearsals and show, I watched our cast perform the show eight times in a week, and still give it all to the final audience on Sunday. In particular, there is a point in the show where Blake, for comedic effect, stripped his voice its resonance and still filled the hall above the accompaniment. He did this and continued singing for another hour. This was when I stopped being a tourist.

I have loved work-songs for as long as I can remember. Through the nomadic part of my life, I still carried a large and prized CD collection made mainly of working songs wherever I went. I learned an extensive repertoire, mostly from music recorded in studios under the most optimum of audio conditions. The artists were contemporaries of music theater, radio, and television. Their audience, which included me, demanded the intimacy that comes from close mic work, but that’s not what my beloved work-songs were made for.

In my month at the opera, I learned to more fully appreciate what acoustic singing was, and what it could be. A song that keeps 20 sailors in time as they turn a capstan, that keeps a dozen farm-hands reaping, or keeps a milling frolic working does not have the pretty mic work I’ve learned. A song sung on the picket-line can’t rely on electricity. These are songs that rise above the wind and work to unify the workers. It’s the open and free sound of opera that makes this possible, not the tight and intimate sounds recorded on my CDs.

And, I now have the tools to learn these songs anew. I have the means to retrain my voice to cut through the wind and haul up the sails. This was a fantastic trip to the opera.

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