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Happy Anniversary, Phantom!

EXACTLY THIRTY YEARS AGO this month of May, a piece titled "Phantom Pedagogy" appeared in "The Bach to Rock Connection" column of The NATS Journal. A Broadway musical, The Phantom of the Opera, had opened in January of 1988 and my aforementioned piece analyzed the musical and explored its pedagogic possibilities. The musical went on to win seven Tony Awards, including the coveted Best Musical. It became the longest-running show in Broadway history on January 6, 2006, overtaking the record set by yet another Andrew Lloyd Webber show, Cats. In honor of its thirtieth anniversary on Broadway, its creators, casts, and crews, the millions of people who have seen it, its economic impact now measured in billions, and its still relevant artistic value, we reprise the "Phantom Pedagogy" column (lightly edited) and celebrate the fact that sopranos continue to be employed in music theater!


By now, most of the dust should have settled from the meteor-like impact of Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash musical, The Phantom of the Opera, which opened on Broadway January 26, 1988. The numbers were staggering: one and one-half million dollars to adapt the Majestic Theater for the production, an eight million dollar budget, over seventeen million dollars in advance ticket sales, and a first-day Broadway box office record of $689,579.

Staggering, too, were the reams of copy written about this latest treatment of the 1910 Gaston Leroux book, Le Fant[delta]me de l'Opera. Criticism ran from the acerbic John Simon ("The only areas in which The Phantom of the Opera is deficient are book, music, and lyrics") to that of the more generous New York Times critic, Frank Rich ("Only a terminal prig would let the avalanche of the pre-opening publicity poison his enjoyment of this show, which usually wants nothing more than to shower the audience with fantasy and fun and which often succeeds at any price").

In truth, there seems to be something for everyone in this essentially critic-proof and incredibly popular musical. Set in the Paris Opera House of the 1880s, the show explores many of the excesses that characterized late nineteenth century theater and music. The dizzying array of sights and sounds--three grand opera scenes created by Lloyd Webber, great balls of fire and lightning, a crashing chandelier, masked balls reminiscent of La Belle Epoque--all swirl around the core of a larger-than-life romantic love story.

The music is also larger than life and broadly stroked. It is immediately hummable through the use of strong motifs ("hooks" in popular terminology) that, for the benefit of the ruling majority of nonclassical [Associate Editor's note: the term "contemporary commercial music" or CCM had yet to make an appearance in 1988] theater goers, are repeated and modulated endlessly. Some of it is opera-like in sound and performance, but much of it is pop-based and powerfully simplistic. The lyrics follow suit but are often less successful than the music.

How then might all of this involve NATS? Since The Phantom... is set in an opera environment and because some of the score is opera-like, it puts operatic demands on what are essentially pop and music theater singers. For the teacher of singing, this pop-to-classical bridge presents some rich pedagogic possibilities. Take, for example, the contrast in voice and character between the female leads, Carlotta and Christine. Side by side, especially in the song, "Think of Me," these two voices show the wide chasm between classical and pop singing.

Carlotta's persona is in the tradition of the Italian opera diva. Played broadly by Judy Kaye, her singing would be acceptable at any NATS Student Audition. Her exaggerated prima donna attitude might ruffle some feathers, but at least she would find empathy among our membership.

On the other hand, Christine, as played by the composer's wife, Sarah Brightman, reflects a waifish nature consistent with a voice that, although rangy enough, is certainly not of the size and weight associated with traditional operatic sopranos. She is strong at the extremes of her vocal compass but suffers from constriction in the majority of her upper register. She also has the habit of sneaking into her tones, resulting in an uneven vibrato pulse and a handcuffed legato line. Yet, in spite of all this, Brightman's Christine is the one that pop and music theater singers hear and like and therefore, want to emulate.

In this teacher's studio, for example, there are singers who, until The Phantom... arrived, expressed little or no interest in performing in their soprano voice. Now, suddenly and wonderfully, they are highly motivated to take their head voice beyond the discipline of exercises and vocalises. They want to sing Christine's songs and, through their attempts to do so, realize the physical and artistic impossibilities of belting the almost three octaves of [G.sub.3] to [E.sub.6].

Now also, these singers more fully understand the benefits of making Carlotta-like sounds in the studio, so they sing Carlotta's songs as well. As imitation opera singers, they strengthen and develop faster and more efficiently, and they do it willingly rather than grudgingly because it moves them closer to realizing Christine.

Christine is, of course, the object of the Phantom's affection/obsession as well as his vocal protege. Does the Phantom (Michael Crawford) qualify as a candidate for NATS membership? Perhaps, if the show runs long enough, but frankly, all we know about his pedagogic techniques is the hypnotic trance he puts Christine in to help her with her vocalises to E above high C. We do know, however, that Christine, the Phantom, and Christine's other suitor, Raoul, are good vocal matches. A true operatic voice is rarely juxtaposed with a pop or music theater singer, so stylistic mismatches like the ill-advised Placido Domingo-John Denver pairing of a few years back, do not occur.

Does The Phantom of the Opera deserve a place in the voice teacher's studio? NATS members who have no contact with nonclassical singers and who, consequently, are unfamiliar with both their stylistic and vocal needs, might argue that students should sing the "true" classics, not this pseudo-classical populist creation. Such an intransigent position does not allow for the fact that, right or wrong, many nonclassical singers have a negative association with traditional classical singing and repertoire. Whether the reason is reverse snobbery, ignorance, fear, or just a plain "I don't like it" attitude, the fact remains that little or no progress will be made if such repertoire is rammed down singers' throats. A case in point: A heretofore hard-core belter in my studio who wanted nothing to do with Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias or A Reliquary of English Song, grew more as a soprano in one week of "Phantom singing" than she had in the previous six months of vocal exercises.

Results are what count, and for nonclassical singers, traditional repertoire is but one means to an end, the end being vocal efficiency and stylistic accuracy. Also, it could be argued that Lloyd Webber's redundant motifs, frequent modulations, and his partners' simplistic lyrics have their roots in the works of the masters. Handel's "I know that my redeemer liveth" from Messiah is but one of many examples.

The Phantom of the Opera is a hot property, and singers, especially singers of popular music, want to take a crack at the latest offerings. This is, indeed, a good offering to take a crack at, and NATS teachers should encourage their students to try. Plus, The Phantom... will provide classical singers with yet another Broadway-originated vehicle in which they can make a living, for it will surely join such musicals as Porgy and Bess, Sweeney Todd, and West Side Story in the repertoire of opera companies around the world.

Robert Edwin, Associate Editor
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Title Annotation:POPULAR SONG AND MUSIC THEATER; The Phantom of the Opera
Author:Edwin, Robert
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2018
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