Above Us, Only Sky

by Lonny Smith, April Guest Blogger

I have a beautiful voice.

I wish I could communicate the amount of effort it has taken me to type these words and leave them floating on the page. My mind sprints away: “Such egotism! So overblown! Are you implying that others don’t have beautiful voices? Maybe if you weren’t so puffed up with the sound of your own voice….Why not just say that you have a ‘pretty’ voice, and people will love your self-cajoling sense of irony?” And so on.

But I do have a beautiful voice. Some may disagree, but a lot of people have pulled me aside to pay me compliments, ask me to sing, or coax me into recording their outgoing voicemail message. So please forgive me if, in putting aside false modesty and self effacement, I veer dangerously close to complete and total narcissism. Please also allow me to set aside the essentials of interpretation, honesty, musicianship….I want to talk about making sound. Beautiful sound.

In our society, beauty is often treated as a zero sum game-its virtues aced out by a correlated shortcoming. Unlike intelligence or charm or good health, beauty is the gift that comes with a price tag-if you’re pretty, you may also be a little dim. If you speak beautifully, you must be a slick wordsmith. If you sing beautifully, you’re probably vapid and insincere. Remember, beauty is only skin deep! Beauty fades, but dumb is forever! These grim reminders that gifts come with both a tradeoff and an expiration date are not usually offered to those with great intellectual gifts or money-making skills. Perhaps as a result of several millennia of proscribed gender roles and Western philosophy, there is a curious distrust of the sensual, the appealing, and the intuitive. The mind must always be valued above the body.

But somehow, the appealing retains its appeal. This isn’t fair or democratic or reasonable. Maddeningly, nature’s gifts are distributed with little respect paid to logic, justice, or bloodlines. Sometimes the process makes sense, but most of the time the rules remain a mystery. How the mind hates the untidiness! The unfairness! The waste and abuse! Looking at others’ gifts, it’s all too easy to become jealous and leave our own gifts ignored and unopened. We may seethe at God’s mistakes and the lack of equity, just as Salieri applied his passion to undoing Mozart rather than to his own music (at least in Peter Shaffer’s telling of the story).

In the world of performance, this attitude can weigh heavily on singers. A beautifully polished gem of a voice is transformed into a burdensome rock between the singer and the song. Performers, teachers, and directors regularly tell us (often with a hint of glee) that a pretty voice is not enough, and can even be a barrier to success, and I guess I agree. I’ve seen too many singers put aside their interpretative talents to spin lovely, pear-shaped tones, closing their eyes to savor the sound while shutting out their audience. Too many times, I’ve been that singer. Yet, time after time, I’ve heard amazing sounds produced by singers who drop all attention to pretty tones to focus on the meaning of the words. Time after time, by getting specific about what I’m singing, the thorniest technical challenges disappear.

Is it possible to appreciate the voice as a vessel for music but also to recognize the limitations of even the most beautiful voice? The qualities that will show off Bob Dylan’s music are obviously different from those that will illuminate Jerome Kern’s. Still, you will never really know this until a singer actually tests the song and surprises you with the results. Hearing Kiri Te Kanawa sing Nellie Forbush might lead you to conclude that opera singers should stay far away from the American songbook, unless you’ve had your heart broken by Dawn Upshaw’s interpretations of Marc Blitzstein’s music. Hearing Madonna’s riff on “Imagine” may tempt you to leave the song with John Lennon unless you’ve heard Eva Cassidy sing it with beauty, authenticity, and inventiveness.

There is magnificence in the act of honest communication, however beautifully or awkwardly it is expressed. Rather than dreaming of a world where beautiful voices are elevated above all others, I think I’d prefer a simpler world where all singing brings joy, regardless of how well it is done. Admittedly, it would be a loud and cacophonous place, but I bet we would have even more great singers emerge in the absence of fear and shaming. In my own voice’s ugly duckling days, I took comfort in a plaque on a voice teacher’s piano, which read: “If only the birds with the loveliest voices sang, the forest would be a quiet place.” As my voice slowly emerged through patience, hard work, and dumb luck, the words rang truer each day.

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The Open Mic Night Report — April 2008

What would we do without Michael Miyazaki’s reports about our Open Mic nights? As always, a big thanks to Michael! His blog has the scoop on April’s Open Mic Night.

Through a Bass Clef, Darkly

by Lonny Smith, April Guest Blogger

“It’s not gloomy, it’s profound.”

So sayeth Henrik Egerman, the aspiring clergyman of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” which enjoyed a great production (with an especially talented Henrik played by Josh Young) this month at CenterStage in Baltimore. After seeing the show and recently watching 16 Ingmar Bergman films, including the source material for “Night Music,” I have gloominess on my mind.

Cabaret is well known as a showcase for love lost, hopes shattered, and dreams forsaken. Cry me a river in stormy weather while gazing at the stars and the moon. Lead a lush life to forget the man that got away, or just stay at home with the portrait and the rose. Throw in a comic number or a sultry tune to mix things up, and you have an act.

In the case of gloomy and profound, I must plead guilty as charged. The Yenta of DC Cabaret (a.k.a. Michael Miyazaki) once grinned after I sang “Out of Love” by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goodrich – a song about the depressingly endless minutiae of breaking off a romance. He announced: “That’s a perfect opening number. Everyone will know that there’s nowhere to go but up.”

The lure of the dark side is not merely an attempt to appear sophisticated (here, I will plead “no contest”), but also an act of rebellion against forced optimism. As children, we’re told to see the glass as half full after your older brother spills most of your milk – which you are not allowed to cry over. We’re told to clean our plates because children are starving in Africa, as though our refusal to eat our spinach has greater implications for global poverty than our country’s trade policies. As adults, it doesn’t get much better as we’re told to accept deadening work because singing sad songs won’t pay the bills, or to nod as failing CEOs get golden parachutes while outsourced workers get foreclosures and termination of their unemployment benefits. When we are told to smile even as the dice are loaded against us, creative outlets are an opportunity to subvert the rules of the game. Now we get to do the telling.

This only goes so far, though. Singing our frustrations doesn’t always necessarily mean we are telling the truth. You can sing just as falsely about heartbreak as you can about falling in love. I’m reminded of a short story I wrote in college – dark and urban and sexy but well outside of my small-town experience and probably stolen from a review of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The whole thing rang completely false, and I was chided by friends who knew me better. What even they didn’t understand was that I was so deeply closeted and conflicted in my sexuality that that the thought of physical contact with someone in real life was a nonstarter – promising either hell or self betrayal. Though my story little literary merit, the page was a safe place for me to explore feelings I had no courage to act upon.

I think performing allow us to do much the same thing, freeing us to be someone else for three or four minutes. The nice guy expresses his rage without upsetting his slacking coworkers, and the perfect mother turns into Ms. Byrd without cheating on her husband. Singing songs about love that didn’t work out reminds us that there was once love, even if there isn’t now. Yearning for dreams to come true reminds us of hope, when our lives contain only the dream of making it through the day. So maybe we sing depressing songs because it reminds us of our optimism when it is lacking. Maybe we sing them because they allow us to admit that even a mostly happy life carries many moments of sadness that must be honored.

It’s been a Bergman winter for me, but I’m looking forward to spring. Sometimes, it’s good to let go of both gloominess and profundity.  On the Cabaret Yenta’s urging, I’m looking for a song of exuberance. For whatever reason, it’s a part of me I rarely show publicly, unless if you see me on Christmas morning or after an Audrey Tautou comedy….Anyway. I’m working on it, Michael. As always, a work in progress.

Our April Newsletter is Now Available

Please visit our home site to read the latest news, updates and events in our monthly web-only DC Cabaret Network newsletter. The April edition is now available!