Why Opera Singers Should Take Musical Theatre Classes

Have you ever felt that something is lacking in your performance but cannot figure out what it is? Have you received positive feedback on your voice but still have not been chosen to advance in a competition or selected for a Young Artist Program? There can be many factors at play, but consider one often overlooked possibility as a primary obstacle: your acting.

This past December I sang for feedback and received this invaluable advice: “It looks like Mary Claire acting the role, but not the actual character singing.” Since receiving that note from a trusted mentor, I have taken steps to evaluate my acting with my singing.ave you ever felt that something is lacking in your performance but cannot figure out what it is? Have you received positive feedback on your voice but still have not been chosen to advance in a competition or selected for a Young Artist Program? There can be many factors at play, but consider one often overlooked possibility as a primary obstacle: your acting.

Since moving to New York City in August 2016, I have wanted to sing musical theatre as well as opera. It seems I am not alone. Opera diva Renée Fleming was nominated for a Tony Award for her portrayal of Nettie Fowler in the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. In addition, this past season of the Metropolitan Opera featured Broadway star Kelli O’Hara in her standout performance as Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. It is safe to say that crossover singing is having its moment.

With that in mind, as well as my desire to up my acting game, I enrolled in musical theatre acting classes. I had no idea, however, that these classes would be so beneficial to my opera singing! I hope you can also benefit from what I have learned.

 

What Musical Theatre Classes Can Do for You

Musical theatre classes can bring you a fresh perspective. As opera singers, we overanalyze so much—diction, vowels, breath, etc.—and then we lose our connection to our character. We forget that it is really much simpler.

With musical theatre, you are acutely reminded of the objective and the text. A one-word objective gives freedom for your body to move and to express yourself without feeling stuck in place and overwhelmed. The objective connects your breath with your text, directing the sound from your gut, and making the aria more conversant and real. The objective enhances a forward emotional direction as well as forward air—resulting in a clear sound without worrying if a vowel has fallen “back” or “out of place.”

Director Alan Souza started his Musical Theatre Audition Boot Camp classes on the recommendation of a friend. He had been privately coaching for some time before being encouraged that he could help many struggling singers with their auditions. “There’s something artificial about standing in front of somebody and singing a song,” says Souza. “Unless it’s related to something in a play, it’s artificial, and there are skills to that that have to do with how you attend to the words and the ideas. I think what I am able to do is help singers find their most authentic selves in how they attend to what they are saying.”

Gayle Seay from NYC’s Wojcik Seay Casting agrees. “In my experience, opera singers approach the material more from the vocals infusing the character’s choices rather than the lyrics and emotions dictating the vocals,” she says. “I think exploration of a character from another point of view can help an individual find exactly what works for them—and it can be applied in any genre.”

 

Permission to Make a Mess

In Souza’s weekly sessions I learned about singing fearlessly and addressing the words. And a big part of that happened because of the class setting. “You can hear how you sing. You can always address why you can’t hit that note or why you don’t have enough air, and everyone’s singing differently—but I want to know about you,” Souza says. “And so I thought the advantage of taking a class is that we can all understand together why that’s hard when you are standing up there and why you can understand how other people can do it and what they do—and maybe trust yourself some more when you get up there.”

So much of the time opera singers are called to be perfect in an audition setting—not only in sound but also in their appearance. This high standard has also led to classroom settings with no room for error—but how else can you learn? How else do you improve?

When taking this musical theatre acting class, I could make mistakes and have fun while doing so. I felt my creativity flourish from these classes because I was allowed to be human and not have the most perfect [a] vowel. In a room with five other peers and strangers, including one current Broadway singer and two current undergraduate students, we formed a bond of support to help each other and learn from one another.

“It’s a trial-and-error that we are going through together,” says Souza. “Even when everyone is on a different level struggling with the same thing—but it makes sense when you see somebody else, so you can apply it to your experience.”

 

Stop Singing

No, no—please sing but stop singing. “People sing at me to impress me with the instrument or impress me with the sound, to sound like they are saying something,” Souza explains. “And nuance and style and color and all of that is part of the art of singing, but there are words involved. I think of everything as a play—you need to attend to the words first. The vocal technique, the style, the instrument, what you are able to do, how you are able to shade the sound is like an embellishment on top. I always say it’s like frosting the cake. So if you are singing at me, I am getting all kinds of frosting but I am not hearing what you are saying—I am hearing how you are saying it.

“The overarching commonality I find in opera singers is that first and foremost they care about what they sound like,” Souza continues. “There’s a lot of ‘inactive acting’ happening. Listen to what someone has to say, and then respond to it.”

 

A Contemporary You

Souza would repeatedly say, “The song is a tool to get to know ‘you.’” While I sang my classic Golden Age songs, Souza instructed me to change them into contemporary settings. I found that I could then directly apply that advice to my Mozart aria. The time period changes, but human emotions and conflict do not.

In a recent New York Times interview, O’Hara commented, “I think we’re seeing it in movies, television—and we’ll see it more in the writing on Broadway: that women of a certain age are going to start to have real stories, just like they’re having in real life. As opposed to these kind of clichéd ones.” (“An Opera Diva and a Broadway Star Trade Places, and Advice”; March 7, 2018)

Fortunately, the contemporary character does not have to be restricted to one class or personality type. You can elevate a character who used to be played as ditzy to a sophisticated, flirty, and contemporary woman, like Zerlina, for example. Wouldn’t that be more interesting to watch? The musical theatre classes also encouraged finding the sardonic moments in the texts.

In addition to taking Souza’s weekly Tuesday afternoon classes, I also took part in the Growing Studio’s Casting Director Workshop on Monday and Wednesday evenings featuring a different New York City casting director each night. Casting directors had similar advice: changing the setting or person I am talking to and upping the stakes.

I found making the song contemporary helped focus my sound and direction of my intent. Having a relatable setting also helped me experiment with my movement and a wider range of emotions. It was strange that so many people in charge were telling me to buck the rules and change the setting of a song. But for an audition, it makes it real and interesting.

 

The overwhelming conclusion I came to was that in an audition setting I have been playing it too safe. The musical theatre acting classes helped me realize that I do not need to follow rules but should make strong choices that influence the character. I hope you can find yourself a musical theatre acting class where you can enjoy breaking the rules too.

Mary Claire Curran

Mary Claire Curran is an industrious soprano who believes in making her own opportunities. She is a lyric soprano, Broadway belter, and cabaret singer. Curran is the 2017 winner of the Rohatyn Great Promise Award from the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Eastern Region. She lives in New York City. Read more at www.maryclairecurran.com