Summary for the Busy Executive: Just visiting.
The crossover of the opera singer to pop is nothing new. Who could forget the Wagnerian Helen Traubel belting out "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues" or Lauritz Melchior crooning "Please Don't Say No, Say Maybe?" The problem is that so few are any good at it. Traubel and Melchior in pop remind me a bit of watching a particularly painful stunt in Jackass – fascination, horror, and uncontrollable giggling. The main problem comes down to the attitude that since one has mastered the high hurdles of opera, the more modest requirements of pop pose no problem. "I sing Verdi. Therefore I know how to sing." What I really know is a limited set of conventions and how to produce a certain kind of sound.
Most pop singers don't have the technique to sing opera, and most opera singers don't have the technique to sing pop. For pop does require technique, as anyone knows who really listens to Sinatra, Bennett, Tormé, Mercer, Whiting, Fitzgerald, Stafford, Holiday, Eckstine, Green, or Franklin. Good pop singing gives the illusion of conversation. If opera singing is like French classical stage acting and Lieder singing like reciting lyric poetry, then pop singing is the movies. The classical singer strives for things like power and seamlessness of musical line. The vernacular singer pursues "naturalness" and dramatic pointing of lyrics. The vocal qualities also differ. The pop singer's voice sounds lighter, "easier," less pressing except at emotional climaxes.
Then there are intangibles like style. Sinatra, for all his love for and knowledge of Italian opera, would have probably botched something like "Infelice! e tuo credevi." Certainly some fortunate few opera singers have sung pop credibly: Sherrill Milnes, Eileen Farrell, John Reardon, Joan Morris, Beverly Sills. However, all of those artists actually made a living at it. Those who specialize in Lieder and especially in French repertoire seem to stand a better chance than the stalwarts of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Strauss.
Rodgers belongs in the front rank of American songwriters, with Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter, and Arlen. What distinguishes him, other than he never wrote anything associated with Fred Astaire? He innovated, but so did all the others. Berlin listened to the sounds in American, as opposed to English or Viennese, streets. Kern came up with an American equivalent to Schubertian melody. Gershwin, Porter, and Arlen all made structural innovations to the standard 32-bar song. First, Rodgers concentrated almost exclusively on the theater (or movie) song. There is little, if anything, of Tin Pan Alley song-plugging hard sell in his work (think Gershwin's "Swanee" or Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band"). Second, Rodgers, like Porter, shows affinities for classical harmonies and harmonic innovation as well as classical methods of constructing broad melodies out of tiny cells and of consciously building to a phrase's arrival point, often with disguised or decorated scales. We see this latter point especially well in "Blue Moon." The first period (from "Blue moon" to "without a love of my own") is a descending scale from (in C major) G to C, arrived at via a cell – the notes on "You saw me standing alone" – twice repeated, each time on a lower pitch of the scale. The B section (beginning "And then there suddenly appeared before me") largely consists of another version of that cell.
Furthermore, in writing for the theater, Rodgers's songs are more consistently dramatic, and Rodgers seems to want to somehow reach for operatic dimensions. One can hear this in his score to the film Mississippi as well as in songs like "Ten Cents a Dance," "Little Girl Blue," and "Falling in Love with Love," even before his collaborations with Hammerstein where he consciously tries to create American operetta, like Kern in Showboat and Gershwin in Of Thee I Sing. Rodgers songs need, above all, a singer with a dramatic sensibility.
Yet he seldom paints with the broad brush of an opera composer, who tends to work in scenes, but instead with the fine point of the Liedermeister. The dramas of Rodgers and Hart confine themselves to the individual song. Of the Big Six's output, Rodgers songs are probably the hardest to sing, because they need a Lieder singer with a highly developed, sophisticated sense of drama. There's not really a song that "sings itself" among them.
The late John McGlinn championed revival of the musicals of the first half of the last century from both Broadway and Hollywood in their original orchestrations – a big deal. After all, one definition of pop is that it can be arranged. "Blue Moon," whether worked by Nelson Riddle for Ella Fitzgerald or by Lennie Hayton for the Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music, remains "Blue Moon" – not note for note, of course, but in something like a Platonic form of melody and basic harmony. A really good arrangement, like a really good singer, tends to provide new insights into the song. However, we lose something valuable. All those arrangements tend to swamp the song as the composer conceived of it. McGlinn approached the theater song as scholars did the Bruckner symphonies. He tried to establish a true text and thus to fix, or "classicize," the messy whirl of pop. Think of it as Broadway HIP. In this collection, we get mainly the orchestrations of Hans Spialek for the original Broadway runs. Spialek with Robert Russell Bennett (they shared an office at the publisher Chappell) created the orchestral sound of Richard Rodgers.
I admire the singing of Frederica von Stade both in opera and in French chanson. She's got brains as well as vocal beauty. She has also shown a great love for the golden age of American popular song, particularly theater song, roughly from the Teens through the Forties. She has paired up with McGlinn before in recordings of Show Boat and Anything Goes, with mixed results. She really can't do the up-tempo "jazz" number (as in "Atlantic Blues" – too stiff) and succeeds best in ballads or in Rodgers's "classical" style (eg, "To Keep My Love Alive" or "Falling in Love with Love"). Her main problem comes down to the lack of a convincing pop style, often marked by sacrifice of a lyric to the musical line. For example, in the line "I fell in love with love, with love everlasting," from the very Tchaikovskian "Falling in Love with Love," she neglects the comma and thus fails to phrase intelligibly because she wants the sweep of the musical line. It's a great sweep, but a superior pop singer would get both the musical sweep and the lyrical phrase. Vocally, von Stade is a bit too eager. She tends to press her tone so that the music sounds extruded rather than really sung and so that the line is all foreground, rather than shaded and sculpted. Occasionally she even destroys the line by "wowing" her notes – a crescendo, diminuendo, and complete stop on each pitch – rather than weaving a seamless ribbon of music. Some of this may arise from the use of the London Symphony Orchestra, rather than a theater-sized pit band, forcing her to overcompensate. The orchestra often covers the singer, and Spialek was known for allowing the singer to come through. One reason why he got work.
Nevertheless, she does very well indeed in some of the ballads. "A Ship Without a Sail," "Everybody Loves You," and the aforementioned "Falling in Love with Love" stand out, despite the lyrical gaffe – none of them easy. In the better-known Rodgers and Hart ballads like "Where or When" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," she competes against the master singers of American popular music. She doesn't better them, but she's no slouch. One surprising miss for me was "To Keep My Love Alive," a madrigalian pastiche and thus something that connects to what she normally does. However, it's really a "personality" comic number, and von Stade unfortunately sings it generically and anonymously. It just won't do.
In any case, this is a fine collection of songs – not all of them well known, by any means – presented with respect and affection. However, truth to tell, it's not a patch on Ella Fitzgerald's Rodgers and Hart Songbook, essential to any Rodgers collection. Nevertheless, I will probably wind up listening to individual tracks every once in a while.
For those who want to hear a classically-trained singer perform this music, I enthusiastically recommend Joan Morris accompanied by William Bolcom and their Rodgers and Hart CD, no longer generally available. In fact, it's very hard to find and expensive new, but last I looked, Amazon had used copies at reasonable prices.
Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.