The Singer as Interpretative Artist

Adam performing in Indianapolis 2010

Adam Lambert performing in Indianapolis during his Glam Nation Tour, 2010 – photo kindly supplied by Grrr_girl.

mp3 audio only – full programme 

Radio Script:

Today I’d like to explore the interpretative art of the singer.

Once techniques such as posture, breath and voice control, phonation, resonation, and articulation have been properly mastered and coordinated, further studies in musicianship, phrasing and interpretation follows – and for the classical or opera singer, there are languages, too – before the singer is ready to study performance skills.

And it is necessary for a singer to perform in a relaxed, spontaneous manner, in order to be successful, and therefore movement and acting skills have to be added to their arsenal of tools, as well.

As true as it is for all other artists, singers, too, search for, and strive to find meaning and truth in their work, and in the music and lyrics they sing, and once found, a way to imbue those with emotions that will resonate with their audience and transport them into the world the singer is creating for them, so that they become utterly absorbed and experience that satisfying feeling of having lost time – which usually follow an exciting and sublime performance.

But other, more subtle qualities are required, too – mere techniques are not enough, but without them, the voice cannot obey the singer‘s every command. For example, in order to touch the soul of an audience, the singer has to use the music and the lyrics in unexpected, artistic ways, perhaps by holding a note just a fraction longer than written, or using unanticipated phrasing, or lifting a word out of a phrase, in such a way, that it holds the audience’s attention, and thereby delivers to them an interpretation of the song they may never have thought of themselves.

It is rather a paradox that in order to sing beautifully, expressively, dynamically and naturally, singers continue to have to work on techniques as well as those more elusive elements that transform their voices into the perfect communication tool.

In addition to this, it takes great presence and a true passion for music, to face an audience who can sometimes be critical, and this is where the singer’s personality, magnetism and charisma elevates him or her from being an ordinary artist to the extraordinary.

The opera world, with its drama and mesmerizing melodies, is filled with strong, charismatic personalities, who use their superbly polished vocal instruments to interpret the music and lyrics to such an extent, that their audiences hang on their every word and gesture, and they are propelled into stardom as their audiences crave to hear more from them.

One such artist, who springs readily to mind, is the incomparable Maria Callas. She is the perfect example of an artist who successfully inhabited all the elements I mentioned before. And if you follow along with the score as she sings, you’ll find that she obeys every comma, every crescendo, every diminuendo, every rubato, and every nuance written by the composer. But simultaneously she also managed to infuse the music and lyrics with her own, unique interpretation of the aria. On top of which, she was a consummate actress of great power.

The aria that perhaps best shows off her skills as an interpretative artist, is Bellini’s Casta Diva from the opera, Norma, which was first produced in 1831. The role of Norma is usually considered to be one of the most difficult in the soprano repertoire, as it contains a very wide range of emotions, and calls for tremendous stamina, breath control, and vocal control of range and flexibility. It is also generally regarded as a supreme example of the bel canto tradition of singing.

I will play Maria Callas’s version first, followed immediately afterwards by the lady who has been called the “Maria Callas” of today, Rene Fleming.

The energy with which Maria Callas sings this aria is almost palpable, and that is another element in the tool box of a great singer’s ability to communicate effectively and dynamically with an audience. Her stunning coloratura voice is capable of such power and such tenderness that she effortlessly transports us into the world of the Druid Priestess in this aria. By contrast, Renee Fleming’s ability to float her beautiful voice, together with her unique use of elongated legato lines, carry us along into a meditative prayer to the Moon Goddess, to bring peace to the Earth.

A master of opera as vocal exhibitionism, has to be the composer, Donizetti. Easily, his most enjoyable opera, set to French text, is La Fille du regiment. In the aria, “…Ah mes amis”, the tenor is required to sing a finale with nine consecutive high C’s – not everyone can sing this aria and still deliver on interpretation as well!

Here is the powerful and luminous voice of Pavarotti, followed by the astonishing Juan Diego Flores’s lighter, but equally brilliant tenor voice.

A tour de force indeed!

You can hear how Flores places his voice mostly forward in the mask, whereas Pavarotti’s voice placement is perhaps more centered, but both delicious interpretations of the aria.

But many other genres and styles of music have developed over the years, so it’s important to look at those too, because they bring as much pleasure to some people as opera does to others.

A style of music, which must surely be influential enough to heighten drama and our emotions, is the music that runs through the films we watch. Some of the most powerful and lasting music on film sound tracks, have occupied that space between opera, classical and pop music, and everything in between. And it must therefore provide another important opportunity for the interpretative vocalist.

Let’s listen now to one such iconic piece of music from the film The Godfather, Speak Softly Love, or Parla Piu Piano, sung here by the gorgeous mezzo-soprano, Katherine Jenkins, who recently had enormous success with this song. We’ll follow her version immediately by that of Roberto Alagna’s silky voice, an opera star who is able to sing Neapolitan and classical pop music, such as this song, with such ease, that if you heard him sing this type of music first, it would be difficult to imagine his wonderful full operatic tenor voice in action.

Of course other genres and styles of music provide ample opportunity, too, for the communicative skills of the singer. Musical theatre, for example is an ever popular style, but as I feel it is rather a meaty subject on its own, you’ll forgive me if I save that for another, separate time.

But probably the most creative of all the styles, is rock and pop music, because they allow for more freedom for expression, and these artists, typically, write their own songs, or at least sing original music, thereby creating new art.

But it is rare indeed, to come across a non-operatic voice with the power and the flexibility to bring the necessary excitement, and sometimes, also sensitivity, to such music.

And there does appear to be a vocal link between opera and rock music, in particular – possibly because of the sheer physicality of the singing involved, the drama, and the vocal ranges typical of both genres. And of course, rock music, like opera, is the perfect channel for the gifted singer’s voice, where a supple vocal instrument can bend and elongate notes and thrill with the passion so characteristic of this style of music.

But I have not yet come across a singer in the pop or rock styles with a trained voice and who is also a masterful interpretative singer…until now.

Such a voice belongs to the extraordinary American artist, Adam Lambert, who has recently exploded onto the pop music scene. And I thought it would be great to look at his work, in particular, as an example for our exploration into the interpretative skills of the rock/pop singer of today.

Adam honed his skills in musical theatre from a young age, and continued to work in the theatre until he realized that he was yearning for something more. Eventually, and luckily for us, he auditioned for, and became a contestant on the reality television programme, American Idol.

From the moment he first appeared on stage, it was obvious that Adam Lambert is an artist destined for great things. Not only has his hard work over the years, resulted in a perfect vocal instrument, supporting flawlessly his perceptive and sensitive interpretative skills, which are akin to those that opera singers have to develop, but because of his many years working in musical theatre, he has a mastery of the stage, uncommon to the typical contestants on shows like American Idol, or the X Factor, in the UK.

His legacy on American Idol is a body of work that can indeed be viewed as a master class in modern vocal and stage performance skills. No wonder then, that he recently received a Grammy nomination for a track from his first album.

Bu in order to look at how powerful his communicative skills are, let’s listen, first of all, to the original artists and then to what he did with those same songs he sang in the competition – some of which were surprising choices, for me at least!

So, exploring further the notion that rock music is comparable to opera, Adam’s choice to take on a classic rock song, which apparently had never been performed on the show before, would certainly have been a daunting task, even to operatic vocalists.

The song is called Whole Lotta Love, by Led Zeppelin, a British Rock group formed in 1968. Robert Plant, the lead vocalist of Led Zeppelin, is widely regarded as one of the most significant vocalists in rock music and received a CBE for his services to popular music, so he is by no means an easy act to follow, but as we shall hear, Adam Lambert more than lived up to the task he’d set for himself.

First, this is Led Zeppelin, performing the song live at the Albert Hall in 1970.

Adam makes you forget about his background in musical theatre with that performance, doesn’t he? And those high rock screams remind of the full voiced tenor notes in the opera aria we listened to earlier, and of course, they are not really screams at all, but a technique of singing that merely makes it sound as though he’s screaming, otherwise he would not have had any voice left with which to finish the competition, which, I understand, spanned over several months.

A different kind of rock song, which again, apparently had never been performed on the show before, was chosen for Adam by Simon Cowell. It is a song called One, by the Irish rock band, U2.

This song is pure artistry because even though clearly drawing on his theatre training, this powerful and emotional interpretation of the song is so effortless, that the audience would not necessarily have been aware of the energy that went into delivering it.

But the fact that he was also able to change the song completely to become a unique, new piece of art, whilst still staying true to the original lyrics and musical lines, showcases perfectly also his superior musicianship in today’s modern music world. But, it is with his voice, that he lifts the song into a clearer, more immediate meaning than the original.

The song that really blew me away when I first heard it, not only because of the genius re-working musically, but also because of the near-operatic perfection of his voice placement, is a song from country music, Ring of Fire. You can hear very clearly the ‘ping’ in his voice that is such a sought-after element in good operatic singing, but which is actually that subtle aspect of all good singing.

Adam did not use Johnny Cash’s original version of this song, but rather a version by another singer, Dilana. I am going to play her version first, which contains wonderful Eastern/Egyptian type sounds, but unlike her, Adam actually uses those sounds in his voice, as well, when he sings this song, and I assure you, that is not an easy thing to do!

What a versatile performer, I’m sure you’ll agree.

They may be out there, but I have not yet come across any other artist able to inhabit so many different styles and genres of music, with such accuracy and authenticity as Mr Adam Lambert.

The music for the intro and outtro of this programme has been composed and performed by Elizabeth Dockrell-Tyler.
We do not own the copyright to any of the pictures, music or videos presented in this programme, only copyright on all scripts presented within the programme, and no copyright infringement is intended.                                                                                     This blog is offered to invite comments and discussion on the work presented by The Soundbath.


About soundbath

I loved singing from a very young age and first performed in public when just seven years old. As a child, living as we did, on a farm in the middle of the Kalahari Desert - the place of my birth - we had no television and my mother played records by Mario Lanza, Guiseppe Di Stephano, Beniamino Gigli, Franco Corelli, Jussi Bjorling, Enrico Caruso and other well-known Italian opera tenors, day in and day out. I adored this music and their beautiful voices, and was convinced I would be a tenor when I grew up. But the small matter of being born a girl, shattered that dream! I trained as a soprano instead, and have been fortunate enough to sing all over the world, enjoying some wonderful moments along the way, including being invited to Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of my contribution to the music, economy and culture of the UK.
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4 Responses to The Singer as Interpretative Artist

  1. mickilyn says:

    I love the detail with which you get into analyzing Adam Lambert’s voice. (btw, I’m Micsnutty on YT, the hearing impaired woman who can hear lyrics for the first time in Adam, but unfortunately others are too mumbly for me.)

    I hope you don’t mind me asking you a question – you mentioned a ping in Adam’s voice. I don’t know if I’m missing it because I’m hearing impaired or because I don’t know what I’m listening for if it’s something subtle. (I was never allowed to take music in school because I was completely deaf as a child, even though I could feel and loved music.) I’m wondering if you could tell me where I might find more info about that ping? Perhaps if I learn what I’m listening for, I might pick it out? Adam’s voice has made such an impact in my life, hearing lyrics for the first time instead of mumble-mumble-word-mumble-mumble, that I want to understand his voice better.

    Also, as a side note, In school when my friends joined choir I wasn’t allowed to, so I always thought I had a horrible voice. I wouldn’t even sing along with the radio in the bathroom if anyone else was home, even this many yrs later. But Adam’s inspired me to try. Just want to be good enough I don’t have to feel self conscious if my hub or our roommate happen to overhear me. So I’m practicing, but I discovered you enunciate differently with singing than speaking, and I’ve had to specifically work on that! Adam has inspired me in so many ways, his impact on my life has truly been profound.

    Hugs from Micki in Canada.

  2. soundbath says:

    Hi Micki,

    How lovely to hear from you here! Thank you for popping by and for your comments. It’s so wonderful that you’re able to enjoy Adam’s voice and music too – I’m really thrilled for you!

    Of course I don’t mind your question – I’ve thought about how to answer so that you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about and I think this might do it: The ‘ping’ in a singer’s voice is that clear, open, easy, ringing sound you can hear – it’s like a bell and has to do with physiology of course, but also with voice placement. On some consonants it’s sometimes clearer than on others, for example, “n” or “ng” type sounds. And sometimes it’s easier to hear on higher notes, but what’s so astonishing about Adam’s voice is that you can hear it on every note and on every word and I’ve been wondering if that’s why you find you can hear him so well. It is the ‘holy grail’ for singers, because it helps with production, projection, ease and beauty of sound and is the proof of perfect voice placement inside the ‘mask’, which can best be described as a triangle over your face with its widest points resting on your top lip and the highest point between your eyebrows but a little bit higher. I hope that helps.

    But I have a question for you – can you also hear him clearly when he speaks?

    I’m enormously excited for you that you’re singing yourself – how fantastic, because of course, I feel singing is one of the best ways to free your spirit! Yes, Adam has a lot to answer for – he’s inspired so many of us to do fab things and to go for our own truths, hasn’t he?

    Angelina xx

  3. mickilyn says:

    Hi Angelina.

    Thank-you for the information. I’ll have to go and listen to Adam’s singing some more (like I really need an excuse!), to see if I can identify the ping.

    Would it be something that you hear either a little more often or a little more clearly when a person is singing in Gaelic or with one of the Gaelic accents? Because I don’t speak Gaelic at all, I don’t actually know if I’m hearing singers any clearer or not, but when I hear some of them, I’m always think of a pure bell. I can’t think of any examples at the moment except a singing family from one of Canada’s maritime provinces, so a sort-of Gaelic accent. The Rankin Family. Whenever one of their songs is played I always think the women especially have what I had come to think as a “Gaelic bell voice” because it makes me think of a pure bell.

    With me I generally have a harder time hearing higher voices, so as a general rule I hear male voices easier, spoken or sung. But I also do seem to hear Adam clearly when he’s speaking, but I can’t rule out the possibility that I could be partially lipreading. I’m not consciously aware of doing so, but i know it is so ingrained into me, that I still watch people faces more closely than the average person does when speaking to each other, and occasionally have needed to explain that as I’ve had people think I was staring. (My speech is good enough that unless I tell people I’m hearing impaired, no one would suspect, thanks to my mom doing intense speech therapy with me when I was a completely deaf preschooler.)

    I also find hearing-without-lipreading a person gets easier the more familiarity I have with their voice. And by now I have listened to Adam so much that this is certainly a factor. But I am trying to recall when I first learned of him – I think I could hear him clearly when he spoke even then, but that may well have been because when he speaks, he enunciates more clearly than most people do, which may well be part of his theatre background.

    Thank-you again, Angelina, for your wonderful information. I so badly want to understand what makes Adam’s voice so special for me to hear him, and you have been such a great help. And taking the time to answer me – I appreciate it so very much.

    Hugs from Canada!

  4. soundbath says:

    Hi Micki,

    Thank you for your very interesting comments and observations – it is indeed fascinating to hear that you find Gaelic type voices and accents easier to hear. Personally, I have not had that same experience, but I’m very happy for you that you do.

    It’s also very interesting what you’re saying about having a harder time hearing higher voices – during my most recent radio show, my guest was a lady who specializes in sign language and who has worked with deaf people for many years – she also confirmed that hearing impaired people find it easier to hear lower tones.

    Thank you so much for answering my question about whether you can also hear Adam clearly when he’s speaking – the reason I asked is because I suspected his clarity of diction might have something to do with it. And you’re absolutely right: it is one of the techniques he would have learned during his years of working on stage. And I further suspect that it has to do also with the fact that when he speaks, he again seems to place his voice in his mask on every word, and that is rather more rare. The placement of the voice in the mask is what projects the sound so perfectly.

    So now I feel I can speak about enunciation for singing you mentioned before. When you are able to relax your jaw, lips and tongue completely, you will find that your diction will almost automatically improve. And yes, to an extend, it is true that we exaggerate our consonants slightly by ‘jumping off them’, and open the vowel sounds more, but it’s not much more so than when learning a new language and should never sound ‘over-exaggerated’ or ‘put-on’ – it should sound natural. And as we’re using Adam as an example, you’ll probably have noticed that there isn’t a vast difference between his elocution as a singer as opposed to him speaking, right? That’s what to aim for, and I know I bang on about this all the time, but it is a classical singing technique. I do not know what genre of music you’re studying, but if I were you, I’d find myself a classical voice teacher – even if all you learn from him/her is how to enunciate well for singing, but still keep it natural-sounding. As you get used to it for singing, it will also appear in your speaking voice.

    Hope that helps! 🙂

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