Adding to the vocal tool kit – musical theatre

Today’s post discusses and demonstrates some of the singing techniques required when including musical theatre pieces, from the golden age until the present day, in a concert.

I am focussing on the singing techniques here. However, to make the transition truly authentic, the singer will need to spend time on accent. The correct accent will add the X factor needed for true authenticity.

To see where I am coming from, here is an example of my classical singing. This demonstrates the classical voice which focusses on efficiency and beauty of sound. The range in this aria is well over two octaves. The top note is a D6. I use chest voice until Eflat 4 and then blend my registers at that point.

Next, I will show you some examples of singing in a different way for musical theatre.

The classical sound

An obvious next step for a classical singer is to gently edge away from operatic singing into the ‘legit’ voice. ‘Legit’ is the word used by the musical theatre world to describe singing with an operatic quality.

‘Legit’ singing is abundant in the Golden Age of Musical Theatre (1940s, 1950s and 1960s). Here is an example from Show Boat by Jerome Kern. If you compare the previous example to this example you will hear I have lightened the resonance but I have maintained the same point (Eflat4) for blending of the registers. In this example, I still focus on a legato line over and above the words.

32 bars from Show Boat

Here is an example of an opera that has been turned into a musical. The song is ‘Dere’s a cafe on the corner’ from Bizet/Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones. In this example, I begin the transition of prioritising the word over the legato line. This is the key to transitioning into musical theatre. Words, words, words.

Dere’s a cafe on the corner from Carmen Jones

To state the obvious, opera doesn’t use a microphone and musical theatre does. Accordingly, including musical theatre in a concert can be tricky. Here are some examples of pieces I would only include in a concert if a microphone was available.

‘Day by Day’ from Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell (rock/pop musical). Techniques: use chest voice, focus on word, use aspiration from time to time and consider adding the odd straight tone opening up into vibrato.

16 bars from Day by Day

‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ from Lloyd-Weber’s Evita (British musical). Techniques: use chest up to Dflat5 at the climax of the song. (This is referred to in musical theatre as ‘belting’).

Short example from Don’t Cry for me Argentina from Evita.

‘The winner takes it all’ from Abba’s Mamma Mia (Jukebox musical). Techniques: use of ‘belt’ and head voice interchangeably over all of the voice range.

24 bars from The winner takes it all from Mamma Mia

‘Mama who bore me’ from Spring Awakening (Rock/folk musical). Techniques: head voice and chest voice used interchangeably. Aspiration and breathinesss throughout the voice is used to achieve a folk quality to the voice. (Operatic sopranos are trained for efficiency. Therefore, allowing breath through the voice should be practiced or the muscle memory will revert back to an efficient use of the breath/ quality which is not suitable for folk).

Mama who bore me from Spring Awakening

Finally, not every voice will suit every song or style. It is obvious, for example, I have a mellow voice that suits classical/legit singing. Also, my personality is classical/legit. However, it is virtually impossible to have a career without crossing over to contemporary at some point.

Furthermore, classical music is incorporating more and more contemporary singing styles. I have just workshopped a new opera that used classical, belt and jazz vocal styles. The composer wasn’t aware of this until I pointed it out and asked for a microphone!

We classical singers need to be flexible and open to contemporary music.

For those interested in reading further, see the contemporary section in my reading and listening page, or go to:

Published by Deborah Wai Kapohe

I am a classical singer and guitarist. I have created a project called 'The Lilli Lehmann Project'. The project, lasting from 2020 until 2023, aims to refresh my voice and prepare me to be a singing teacher. The scope of the project is that I am studying Lilli Lehmann's singing book, bibliography, recordings and her reviews, as well as other historical vocal pedagogy. I have chosen this platform in order to blog about my discoveries, demonstrate techniques and exercises, and perform pieces of music. I have done so because I wish to be transparent. I think that if a student is prepared to learn from me then I should stand up to public scrutiny.

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