Orlando Gough from the Guardian wonders if opera singers can sing pop songs, and if pop singers can sing opera. A few years ago, I might have said yes to the first question and no to the second. After all, opera singers have to train their voices and ears for years to be able to do what they do, whereas some pop singers are entirely self-taught, not having had a formal music lesson in their lives.
Then again, who hasn’t had the slightly cringe-inducing experience of hearing a famous opera singer “slumming it” with a pop encore? The stereotypically highly vibrated, highly projecting “opera voice” isn’t going to work for that any more than Sting’s well-intentioned but unlistenable renditions of Dowland lute songs worked. (I feel slightly sorry for the wonderful lutenist, Edin Karamazov, whose name barely featured in the publicity when the recording came out a few years ago.)
Like many classically trained musicians, I used to be slightly sniffy about popular musicians, because they hadn’t had to go to university or suffer through years of apprenticeship to practise their art professionally. I even thought jazz was a lesser art form than classical music. But when I had my first experiences of playing jazz and pop music, I revised these opinions in a big hurry. Things that looked and sounded so easy when other people did them were actually terrifyingly difficult. As my husband so flatteringly put it after hearing me perform in William Walton’s jazzy Façade, “Honey, you swing like a white person.” Just because we’re the ones who get the label “serious music” doesn’t mean popular and jazz musicians take their music one bit less seriously than we do, even if jazzers jokingly call classical music gigs “legit.” It’s terribly hard to be good at popular musics, and I don’t think enough people realize this, from people like me to the first-round candidates on American Idol who are certain they’re the next Beyoncé.
I think it’s a rare musician who can convince in more than one wide genre of music-making. One example of a singer who does it superbly is my old schoolfriend from Wellington, the stunning lyric soprano Aivale Cole, who’s equally at home in opera, art song, cabaret, pop and Polynesian music, but she’s a big exception. Most of us are irremediably outside our comfort zone in genres other than the one we play or sing for a living. Perhaps the best we can do is respect and appreciate our colleagues in different forms of music-making, and learn as much as we can from their artistry.