- Vox Clamans, Vox Humana, Vox Hominibus
I often tell the story about a “meet the artist” session at the American Music Theater Festival after the premiere of Philip Glass and Allen Ginsburg’s Hydrogen Jukebox, when the public insisted on referring to the work as an opera. Why, I asked, is a nontraditional, nonlinear, nonnarrative work, played in, on, and around projections, more choreographed than directed, an opera?
“Because,” came the immediate answer, “it is being sung by opera singers.”
Here, at last, is a reasonable definition of the differences among opera, musical, and music-theater. Hydrogen Jukebox is an opera because it is performed by opera singers, Les misérables is a musical because it is sung by musical-theater singers, and The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz is music-theater because Theo Bleckmann is a jazz/improvisational/extended-voice singer.
The point is not trivial. New music-theater has developed along with (and perhaps as a result of) postmodern musical styles, performance in nontraditional spaces, the use of electronic and digital media, and, not least, the evolution of singing styles.
A common cliché of the classical/operatic singing business is “there is only one correct way to sing.” For many years, this claim was undisputed. The first serious challenge to the prevailing operatic vocalism came not from new music or music-theater, but from the early-music movement and its revival of baroque opera.
We think of the modern, vibrato-based technique of opera singing as Italian, dating back to the early days of bel canto opera, but it actually developed in nineteenth-century Paris. The big supported and projected vocal sound with built-in vibrato that we associate with opera singing was unknown to Monteverdi and Mozart. It became the norm partly because of the romantic taste for the grandiose but also as a matter of economic necessity. Before 1800, [End Page 12] European opera houses numbered their seats in the hundreds; a handful of aristocratic subscribers ran the show and vocal technique was simpler, more emotive in production, more ornate and varied in execution. The post-Napoleonic democratization of culture produced specialized, freelance labor in the artistic market and venture-capital impresarios set out to tap the wealth and expansive/expensive taste of the new bourgeoisie. That meant larger and more colorful orchestras, higher salaries for artists, bigger audiences, and, to pay for it all, much bigger opera houses. This, in turn, produced a new kind of singer whose job was to overtop the symphonic-size orchestra and fill vast, ornate spaces with thrilling sound.
The key to this kind of singing was vibrato. Before the 1830s vibrato was an ornamental device, not a technical foundation for tone production and projection. Even in Meyerbeer’s early scores, the singer is directed to use vibrato as a specific expressive device; it was not yet automatically used everywhere. But shortly thereafter, loud, vibrato-based singing became the normal, nonstop technical basis of opera singing and remained unchallenged until very recently. Although we do not have any recordings to document this changeover, there is little doubt it took place. The new style of singing and the new breed of singer it engendered drove Rossini to quit the field at the height of his career; his highly florid vocal lines can only be, at best, approximated by big, vibrato-based voices.
Wagner hated Meyerbeer but Wagner’s music would have been impossible to perform without Meyerbeerian singing. The method conquered Europe, Italy included, in only a few decades and the physical and economic requirements of romantic opera became dependent on the development of a singing technique that has been described as a fabulous kind of glorified shouting necessary, before amplification, to ride over the orchestra and fill the upper reaches of two- and three-thousand-seat houses. It is the vocal equivalent of dancing en pointe or the old-fashioned style of high-voiced Victorian declamation that dominated stage acting well into the twentieth century [End Page 13] (you can see this, oddly detached from any acoustic environment, in silent movies). This theatrical/vocal style is now totally gone except in the opera house, where the...