It’s no secret that I come from a classical voice background. Growing up, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline and Carmen McRae were my first singers, but I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska (cue the obligatory Sarah Palin questions. For the record, I didn’t/don’t know her and don’t care to). To say there wasn’t exactly a flourishing jazz community in Wasilla is akin to saying it got a little chilly come December.
So classical study it was. I logged countless hours in children’s choir, private voice lessons and competitions, and was even a soloist with the Anchorage Opera. I went to college to study classical voice and was completely miserable. One day my voice teacher said to me, “You can make it to any jazz show that comes to town; why won’t you get yourself to the opera once in a while?!” The light came on, and I moved away from classical and toward jazz for the better part of ten years.
I resumed serious classical study when I moved to New York City, mostly because I had suffered a vocal injury and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. I also resumed classical singing because I wanted to finish my college degree, which had been hanging over my head for a long time. I did finish the voice degree and had the chance to sing the lead in a Monteverdi opera and the soprano solo in a Vaughan Williams piece (backed by 80-voice choir and full orchestra).
By the time I muscled my way through my senior recital, it was abundantly clear to me that a career in opera just wasn’t for me.
My reasons for not pursuing a classical voice career are myriad and will probably show up in a future posting, so the question arises: if I knew at 18 years old that I didn’t want to be an opera singer, why did I keep circling back again and again to study classical voice?
Simple: I’m a technique junkie. I love the mechanics of how the voice works. I love the way that a simple adjustment to the breath or vowel can transform a phrase. I am endlessly fascinated by all the vocal colors and textures available to a singer when she really knows her instrument and how to use it. It drives me crazy that, outside of classical music, talking about vocal technique on its own terms almost never happens.
Disclaimer: this is where my wee rant begins. Contemporary singers these days tend to fall into one of two categories: melismatic, chest-voice-pulled-up-over-the-rafters belting, or a wispy, precious, overly aerated sound that is often characterized as “ethereal” but can more accurately be described as “unsupported.” I’ll leave the melismatic belters alone for now because, frankly, I don’t really care about the American Idol contenders.
But I’m really sick of listening to this never-ending succession of female singers who sound like little girls, whispering breathy intimations into the mic with absolutely no core, nothing to anchor their sound. It’s lazy, it’s disingenuous, and–forgive me–it’s really fucking boring. Feather-light, head voice-dominated cooing is a fabulous color to have on your vocal palette, but if it’s the foundation of your sound, there’s nowhere to go!
Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that everyone needs to go study opera (shudder). But how about singing with some backbone, ladies? (Caveat: there are singers who actually have ethereal, airy voices, and they inhabit their voices beautifully, with presence and resonance. Those aren’t the singers I’m referring to, here.)
Anyway, with all that in mind, here’s my glowing endorsement: Lizz Wright, you are doing some serious 360-degree singing.Your rich, velvety contralto is never forced or pushed, but your singing is full-bodied, supported and opulent. In addition to your impeccable musicianship (time concept, songwriting, song selection) you clearly care about juicy, inhabited, connected singing. So thank you. A thousand times, thank you.