Confessions of a Belting Coloratura
Coloratura, noun: elaborate ornamentation of a vocal melody, especially in operatic singing by a soprano. Think Eden Casteel!
Belter, noun (informal): a loud forceful singer or song. Think Ethel Merman.
Me? I'm a coloratura who's suddenly found herself in Belter-Land. Eden Merman! I'm playing the alto rhapsodic Mrs. Lovett in a local production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. Much of Mrs. Lovett's music is in the basement of my vocal range. That's actually not too difficult. But in addition to singing low pitches with as much ease as possible, I must also navigate music that sits at the top of her range (also known as the lower middle of my range). To make it audible and stylistically correct, I'll frequently use a light belt voice.
What's a lyric coloratura like me doing belting in a show like this? I went out for the Beggar Woman, the crazy hag who sings mostly high lyrical lines with some guttural moans and yelps thrown in. That role would have been a walk in the park. But when I went to callbacks, I sang some of Mrs. Lovett's music at the director's request (using some belting in a few places) and a week later, I got the part. Surprise!
I've been working on it steadily ever since, trying to increase my chest voice stamina without over-singing. My Sweeney is a powerful baritone and it's so tempting to try to match him, but if I do I won't have any voice left. I won't lie; I've been thinking about this quite a lot and trying to take all the advice I give to students. I arrive at rehearsals already warmed up after a full day of teaching. I'm being careful not to demonstrate too much singing during voice lessons. But, I'll sing and demonstrate anything in head voice because I know it will help balance out the chest-range work I'll be doing later on! (What do I tell ya, students? Balance your registers.) I'm staying hydrated. I do lip trills and straw exercises to cool down after rehearsals, and I limit my speaking and singing on non-teaching and non-rehearsing days. When we start running the show, I'll keep careful track of how it feels to sing each of Lovett's songs in order so I can decide if I need to advocate for myself and modify my vocal approach, to avoid fatigue. So far, it's all working.
Thanks to my Somatic VoiceWork training with Jeanie LoVetri, I feel confident that I can perform Mrs. Lovett in a healthy way. I have proven it to myself before -- once I filled in for an ailing student and belted five shows over a weekend. Coloraturas can make good belters, actually -- we already know how to handle an extreme range, so switching to another extreme is not that extreme for us. The Contemporary Theater Company's space is intimate and acoustically vibrant, and the orchestra is very small. But that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. Preparing to sing this low (while belting this frequently) for four consecutive weekends is something new to me. It will require careful thinking and preparation and for me, some planned Great Silences.
I would love to have the sheer power of Patti LuPone's Lovett, or the plummy ease of Angela Lansbury's original interpretation. I'd rather not go to Emma Thompson's extreme, continually exploiting the break between chest and head voice (but I'll happily steal her stage business). The good news is, Sondheim's glorious music allows me to create a Lovett that is all mine. Her belt will be bright and light. She may lapse into speaking to make a point. By turns she will sound deceptively pretty, shrill, tender, and terrified. It is such fun to play her!
It's funny. At the beginning of 2015, I thought I was going to spend my autumn training for the New York Marathon. Turns out, I'm just training for a different kind of marathon!
Want to come see me? Shows begin October 16 and end Nov. 14. Click here.