Where is the vocal training for ageing female musical theatre performers?

During my observation of the rehearsals of a new country-music MT (musical theatre) production in May 2019, I was fortunate to witness the two female leads (a performer in her late 50s and a performer in her early 20s) working on their singing parts. The younger lead appeared to approach her character’s songs with ease whereas the older lead had to try different vocal placements multiple times without apparent success. Since the two leads shared many duets together on stage, the reviews of the performances, perhaps unavoidably, reflected this discrepancy: ‘Although [younger lead] tries her best to rescue the harmonies this has very little effect […] [and] vocally the experience is at points unpleasant. [Older performer] playing the lead breathes a neurotic and very believable air into Sandra and this is to be commended, but vocally within a musical a lot hangs on the lead’s vocal ability, and this just isn’t up to scratch’ (Wilding, 2019).

While I was reflecting on the making of this particular musical, and taking under consideration musical theatre’s preference for young(er) over old(er) performers, a crucial question arose: what happens to the ageing female voice when that voice no longer fulfils the expectations of this musical theatre?1

The notable shift of musical theatre to CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music) styles during the last two decades resulted in an important remoulding of the industry’s vocal casting needs, with the largest percentage of postings requiring female performers to sound like rock/pop singers. Phrases such as ‘must belt to C’ or ‘must mix to D’ or descriptions such as ‘must be power rocker’ appear in the majority of professional casting notices for Broadway and West End musical theatre productions (Lovetri, 2013). This increase of CCM writing in musicals has proved to be ‘a highly sophisticated and technically demanding art form which has […] created a need for its own pedagogy’ (Edwin 2007, p. 215). Musical theatre programmes offered by theatre academies nowadays aim to meet the needs of this new vocal pedagogy recruiting, among other techniques, spectrographic software for formant tuning and visual support for the understanding of different singing techniques.

Nevertheless, previous generations of female performers in musical theatre come from different vocal training(s) and/or no formal singing training at all. The performers then were, usually, cross-over actors, singers and dancers working in musicals. David Craig, a master teacher and creator of performing techniques for singing in musical theatre, remarked: ‘After World War II, I was teaching [in musical theatre] […] actors and dancers; some of them rather well known on Broadway but not one of them was a singer’ (On Singing Onstage). Rebecca Caine, the originator of the role of Cosette in Les Misérables highlights in her interview for The Stage (2019): ‘A lot of people in my generation weren’t technically as well-founded as the kids coming out of training today’.

Despite the lack of technical training in musical theatre singing, these performers were ‘the raison d’être for the original productions. […]: [a] virtual pantheon of composers and lyricists willingly wrote for them […] [and] their singing [was not] considered second-class’ (Craig 2014, p.94). ‘Old school’ performers now have difficulties shifting to the ‘fashionable’ belting rock and pop styles, and as they are not considered anymore, due to their older age, for roles of ingénues or young soubrettes, they turn to cabaret or concerts ‘where you can still sing the “I’m gonna” songs’ (DeMaio 2013, p.69).

So, where is the training that will help older performers remain in, or return to, the MT business?

One might argue that the biological ageing of the voice, which affects women due to menopause (approximately at the age of fifty, but can begin earlier, whereas men’s voices are affected by biological ageing around sixty), might render an ageing female performer vocally ‘inadequate’ for industry standards and audience expectations. Dryness of the throat, a loss of brilliance in the voice, a decreased ability to reach high notes and, in some occasions, difficulty to maintain pitch and unclear diction may be some of the effects related to menopause.

However, when Ann Emery performed between the age of 75 and the age of 84 the role of Grandma in Billie Elliot the Musical (Elton John and Lee Hall, 2005), a CCM rock/pop musical, she used all the above ‘symptoms of age’ to deliver her song in a contemporary belt with breathy, raspy and growly vocal distortions – characteristics of a technique that defines rock and pop power singing. Was this very successful delivery the distillation of her invaluable experience of singing onstage?

DeMaio (2013), in her PhD research on strategies used by postmenopausal elite singers in order to maintain vocal quality and range, concluded that ageing female professionals on Broadway usually follow the same steps as ageing opera singers: hormonal replacement, continuous daily singing as part of the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy, exercises that help to keep head-mix voice, general SOVT (semi-occluded vocal tract) exercises which mainly help the vocal folds to vibrate with less effort (such as Titze’s straw exercise), and general VFE (vocal function exercises), such as Stemple’s exercises, which aim to strengthen laryngeal musculature. However, opera singers train towards vocal requirements almost opposite to those for contemporary MT performers: classical voice training and operatic delivery with consistent vibrato is associated with the ‘golden age’ musicals and the ‘old fashioned’ legit singing.

Yet, if the perceived ‘fault’ of physiovocal ageing is exploited by the musical theatre industry as a justification for the fact that there is, indeed, a lack of further training for ageing female performers, then how will these performers be able to meet present-time expectations and, consequently, be given equal opportunities for roles? Is this ‘fault’ treated, perhaps, as an indistinguishable ‘disturbance’2 across all values in performers’ individual variances? In other words, is the lack of training justified on the basis of a ‘what-this-voice-can-do-because-of-the-performer’s-gender-and-age’ presupposition and thus uncritically and sweepingly imposed on all ageing female performers, no matter their individual potential, expertise and skills?

Where do we go from here? How do we develop appropriate trainings, exercises or pedagogies suited both to the aesthetic demands of contemporary musical theatre repertoire and the needs of ageing female vocalists?

Brief Bio:

Faye Rigopoulou is a PhD candidate in Drama at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on ageing female vocality in musical theatre. Faye has a long service in musical theatre as a director, music director and performer and has taught musical theatre courses since 2004. She has trained at the National Conservatoire of Athens (voice, composition, and piano virtuosity), the Academy of Russian Ballet in Greece (dance), and has received training in Stanislavski’s system.

Notes:

  1. Drawing from Gough and Nakajima (2019) ‘When the dancer and the dance are inseparable, where does the dance go when that ageing body no longer does that dance?’ (p.1)
  2. In statistics, ‘disturbance’ or ‘error term’ reflects all variables that separate a model from the actual observed reality; the term is used here metaphorically.

References:

Craig, D., (2014). ‘On Performing Sondheim. A Little Night Music Revisited’ in: J. Gordon (ed) Stephen Sondheim, A Casebook Routledge. pp.93-106.

DeMaio Fox, B., (2013). ‘The Effect of Menopause on the Elite Singing Voice: Singing Through the Storm’. PhD. Shenandoah Conservatory.

Edwin, R., (2007). ‘Popular Song and Music Theater: Belt Is Legit’. Journal of Singing. 64(2), p.215.

Gough, R., and Nakajima, N., (2019). ‘On Ageing (&Beyond)’. Performance Research, 24(3), pp.1-8.

Hemley, M., (2019). ‘Rebecca Caine: Trend for belting in musical theatre has created a more generic sound’. The Stage [online]. Available at: https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2019/rebecca-caine-trend-for-belting-in-musical-theatre-has-created-a-more-generic-sound/ [Accessed: 20.11.2019]

LoVetri, J., & Weekly – Means, E., (2003). ‘Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) Survey: Who’s Teaching What in Nonclassical Music,’ Journal of Voice. 17(2), pp.207-215.

Wilding, G., (2019). ‘Review: Hot Flushes Camden People’s Theatre’. A Younger Theatre [online]. Available at: https://www.ayoungertheatre.com/review-hot-flushes-camden-peoples-theatre/ [Accessed: 19.06.2019].

 

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