The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me
is a children's opera based on the book written by Jeanette Winterson. It was commissioned by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello who also directed the production. She chose Jeanine Tesori and J.D. "Sandy" McClatchy (a male!) as composer and librettist respectively. Kimberly Grigsby conducts a small but energetic 16 piece orchestra. The world premier was performed in the Terrace Theater, which is the smallest of the 4 theaters at the Kennedy Center. I actually like the sight line here the best as the seats here sit on the steepest slope. No seat is really bad. It's been a while since I was last in this theater and I found the acoustics in the theater to be rather live. At some points the 16 piece orchestra from a pit (unintentionally) dominated the singing.
The opera itself is a decent composition that has its moments. My 11 year loved it and I found it likable. But I wasn't wholey engaged in the performance and found myself wondering about other things. It's the other things I want to talk about here. There were "arias" in the opera that were sung in an "operatic" manner where singers butcher diction. I found myself wishing there was a surtitles running above the stage. This is can't be good since it was written in English. Right? The composer/librettist/conductor team comes with Broadway credentials. You rarely find diction issues in a Broadway musical. What gives?
Recently Rene Fleming (a renowned operatic Soprano) hosted an American Voices festival, the culmination of which was a concert. It was a fabulous occasion where the audience got to listen to selections from rock, country, pop, jazz, gospel, Broadway and opera. There were Allison Kraus singing country; Sutton Foster, Broadway; Diana Reeves, Jazz; Kim Burrell, gospel; Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles, Rock and Pop and Fleming and Eric Owens singing opera. Only on two occasions did I notice loss of dictional clarity -- opera and gospel. In both cases, the dictional integrity suffered when vowels were extended for long notes. The classically trained opera singing often results in unclear diction. I think maintaining steady and large output while changing between different registers and holding long notes just make it impossible. Nobody talks with vowels so elongated. Even a southern drawl,"shi-yet," isn't that long. It was more of a belting situation for the Gospel but it was still long notes that did it.
So, why do we elongate our vowels at the cost of losing clarity in diction?
Because those long notes invoke emotional responses. I can listen to operas without understanding foreign words and still get emotionally involved. Knowing the words help but the tones carry tons of emotions. When you get emotional and teary, your voice chokes and get husky. You can recognize certain state of mind from just the tones and you empathize. It almost seems that all dire emotional states need belting of some sort to convey the emotions. Take Janis Joplin for example. She wasn't a great technical singer but everyone could feel her state of mind. I doubt she could have sung much longer even if she didn't OD. Her vocal cord wouldn't have lasted. The gospel singer, Kim Burrell, "belted" too but she was more technically savvy. She knew to resonate mainly in the chest region for emotional effect but mixed in some head region to "save" her voice. When we sob we sob in our chest register -- not in our head register.
I think this is why I love opera. The operatic singing techniques developed over the centuries have found a way to fool our hearing so that everything they sing whether high or low invokes emotions like it's all in the chest register. Operatic singing keeps everything in the primal, visceral register. I feel the notes deep inside.
P.S. The children's opera did not have any deep emotional moment. I felt like the narrative actually would have worked better as a Broadway musical.