Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Another Nail in Operetta's Moldy Coffin

The boundaries between opera and operetta, like the boundaries between operetta and musical comedy, have never been securely defined, and not very respectable entrants often slip over or under either of these borders. Monday, at New York’s Town Hall, Scott Siegel (who should know better), hosting an evening of (mostly too familiar) songs from Broadway hit operettas of the first five decades of the 20th century, said the difference was that operettas have spoken dialogue. (So that means Magic Flute, Seraglio, Fidelio, Freischutz, Merry Wives of Windsor, Hoffman and Carmen aren’t operas, huh? and The Golden Apple IS an opera? and what is Grendel anyway?) Obviously he’s wrong about this. But even he couldn’t find a rational division between operetta and musical – he said Song of Norway was the last hit operetta on Broadway, which omits Kismet, Candide and Camelot (okay, Candide was hardly a hit, though it has become a classic) – all of them, to my way of thinking, operettas, though Candide generally gets an opera green card, and Kismet deserves one. Possibly The King and I and Little Night Music shimmy the razor wire atop the fence as well.

Monday night the focus was on Herbert, Friml and Romberg (which is to say, they ignored two of the finest: Kern’s Show Boat and Gershwin’s Porgy). The frequent New York runs of shows by Strauss, Lehar, Kalman and Oscar Straus were also ignored, aside from one dash of Merry Widow. The songs included Song of the Vagabonds, Desert Song, Italian Street Song, In Old New York (they altered the lyric where the meaning of "queen" has changed), I’m Falling in Love with Someone, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, Donkey Serenade, and (no! but yes!) Indian Love Call. There were only about four songs that I (and I presume most lovers of American theater music) did not know. Which I thought a missed chance to start with.

The performers, as is usual at Siegel’s much admired (by, among others, and very much so, me) series of Broadway By The Year song-fests, are current stars and not-quite-stars of Broadway. And the clearest lesson of the evening was: No one on Broadway knows how to sing any more. Without microphones, most of the singers were inaudible (in Town Hall!). With microphones, they were excruciating. It’s been a while since I’ve heard so many agonizingly shrill sopranos, so many dull baritones, so many pitiful tenors, all with names and reputations, murdering really good songs. (Why didn’t they get that Daugherty kid? He’s got an old- fashioned Irish tenor, has no problem filling Town Hall, would have been ideal. Christine Ebersole, of course, is busy these days.)

This underlined for me my reaction to the terrific festival of B movie musicals at Film Forum a month or two back: Everyone used to be able to sing. They all had operatic training, and even if they used it for comic purposes (like Diana Canova and Pert Kelton and Jane Russell and Josephine Baker), well, still, they had it to fall back on. Irene Dunne is not famous as a singer, but she could hold down an operetta-styled score like Roberta with no apologies to anyone from Mary Martin to Dorothy Kirsten. People used to study technique before they sang, and then they could sing anything appropriate. Alfred Drake could sing operetta because he had opera chops; Ezio Pinza could tone himself down a notch or two; John Reardon could hold any theater from Broadway to the Met and no microphones. But today – I won’t mention names, but the Tony-nominee who growled Maxim’s into a mic was excruciating, the kid who howled Desert Song was crashing, the lady who sang Italian Street Song would have had tomatoes flung in her face in 1920, and the one who chose I Want To Be A Prima Donna (to salute the passing of Beverly Sills, perhaps, who brought it back from grave) should have been reminded that Sills learned how to sing before she began to mug.

Siegel mentioned that when The Student Prince was running on Broadway for an unprecedented 600 performances (the Shuberts couldn't understand it: the chorus was all boys, not scantily clad girls), there were nine touring companies spreading the score throughout the land. (That explains why the silent film with Norma Shearer was such a success: everyone in the audience already knew the tunes and could hum along.) But this was only possible because singers capable of playing the leads existed in profusion in the '20s and could put the thing over.

Operetta is full of great music, but it takes opera training to do it justice and make it new friends. There are so many young kids studying, and desperate for work, I can’t see why Broadway should even be approached on an evening like this. They haven’t got the right fach for today’s demi-rock performers. It just doesn’t sound good. Like the Rolling Stones in an elevator – it’s not the appropriate match of music and style. Granted opera singers mostly should not sing Broadway (except for one encore per recital) (there have been exceptions, but they’re mostly dead now, or semi-retired like Kiri, who did a lovely Cole Porter album, or Dawn Upshaw, who did a lovely Rodgers&Hart album), but they should sing operetta, as in Europe they do. And Broadway kids who grew up in rock bands really should not.

– curmudgeon critic Hans Lick


Sunflowers said...

I feel the same. I've sung both opera and operetta (only on an amateur basis in local musical societies) and I squirm at some of the professional performers I hear on the radio. We had (still have, I think) a programme on BBC Radio 2 entitled "Friday Night is Music Night" which featured a concert recorded live in a different venue around the country each week. The programme was mostly light opera and operetta and some numbers from musicals. Great stuff one would think. I had to stop listening to it in the end because the performers - especially the females - were so bad. They were breathy and they couldn't get the high notes without screeching or yelling - and then they were flat. Most of the men had fairly pleasant voices but, as we say over here in the UK, they were "nothing to write home about". It was truly horrible.

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