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THE CROSSOVER ARTISTS
By Fred Plotkin

One of the most frequently asked questions in the opera world is whether opera singers can or should sing music from the Broadway theater. It is a valid question. After all, the reverse question is almost never raised: Should Broadway singers venture into the opera repertory? The reason, quite simply, is that they cannot even if they want to.

Some Broadway stars have operatic training and can "extend" their voices to effectively perform certain few arias and most of the easier works of operetta. But true opera singing is done without a microphone, and this is the real barrier that separates the "belters" from the divas.

Many opera singers have attempted "crossover," that unkind term that suggests a musical busman's holiday, in which the singer makes a grand appearance doing seemingly easier stuff. Anyone who has ever heard Birgit Nilsson sing "I Could Have Danced All Night" from "My Fair Lady" was dazzled by the sheer power of her voice, but it was so overwhelming -- this Eliza would scare any Henry Higgins away. The reason we respond to the unbeatable Julie Andrews version of this song is that she sang it as the character of Eliza, giving each word and note the color and emphasis that tell us what this young girl was feeling.

Some opera singers of another era were more successful in their Broadway ventures. Ezio Pinza lent his handsome face and beautiful bass voice to "Some Enchanted Evening" in "South Pacific," and though the interpretation had some operatic heft, it was appropriate to the music. A more remarkable example was Eileen Farrell, who had the skills and power for big Wagner and Verdi roles, yet was able to scale her voice to Broadway music, jazz, and blues, and also do deliciously sexy things with the lyrics. Her recordings are vivid examples of how exciting it can be to hear a big, dramatic voice sing a song such as "Blues in the Night."

Unlike their predecessors, who emphasized the grand and forbidding aspects of the opera singer persona, modern divas and divos are much more versatile and flexible. The best among these, such as soprano Renée Fleming and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, can sing almost anything in the style in which it is meant to be performed, rather than imposing operatic bigness on it. Why is this so? First of all, both artists were raised in a tradition in which good singing was good singing, no matter what the repertory. Fleming was raised in Pennsylvania and New York, and sang a wide range of music, including Broadway, jazz, sacred, art songs, and opera. Early in her career one of her specialties was the music of Duke Ellington. By contrast, Terfel was raised in rural Wales, a nation with a profound singing tradition in which everyone gathers on Saturday nights to sing choral and solo music of many styles.



Top banner photos: Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel.

French horn players

Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel are accompanied by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera.

Violinists

Paul Gemignani is the guest conductor of the orchestra, which was founded in 1970.

Composer Stephen Sondheim made his TV acting debut in GP's 1974 broadcast of JUNE MOON.
 
 
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