It takes years of training for opera singers to master their art. But would those skills help or hinder in singing pop songs? And what about the other way round?
I remember hearing the great Malian singer Salif Keita for the first time in 1980. Joy Division and Blondie were in the charts. I was bowled over, and felt my horizons widening in an instant. It wasn't just that the sound of his voice roared into my soul, it was also that I became aware of another way of singing, and behind it another culture. Why does he sing as he does? What is the story of that voice?
Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out a conundrum. I would like to write an opera, but I feel an opera singer's voice would not suit the music I write, which is very influenced by various kinds of pop and folk music. But I need performers who are technically proficient and can act. Where shall I look?
I ask myself why it is that opera singers sing in the way that they do. Are they in fact perfectly capable of singing in other ways, but have never been asked to? It seems that the process of learning to be an opera singer is to find a technique to control the power of the voice in a very particular way. It's partly about physical power – needing to sing in large rooms and be heard over an orchestra, and partly about emotional power. This involves the creative use of vibrato, the bending of vowel sounds, the disguising of the break between chest voice and head voice, the ability to sing right through to the end of a note; in fact, one learns to use the voice as a musical instrument, while still trying to bear in mind the need for characterisation and meaning – not an easy task. The training required to cope with a solo role in a Wagner opera is usually long and complex, and can easily end in failure. And it involves immersing oneself in music written by other people, most of them long dead, so one's ego needs to be held in balance with the more humble demands of understanding someone else's work – not unlike being an actor, except that what is written on the operatic page has such extreme technical demands.
After learning this sophisticated technique, is it possible to sing other kinds of music well? Can Kiri Te Kanawa sing Motörhead? It's tricky. The exaggerated vibrato is tricky, but not as tricky as the inability to throw notes away, which is a key element of pop and jazz – singing through all the notes kills the swing. It's more than that, though. Part of becoming an opera singer is about making one's voice cast iron, invulnerable. Of course one learns to do vulnerability on stage, but it's a guise. Underneath, there must be no chink. Folk or pop or jazz is different – the balance between vulnerability and control is always evident in the voice, and the tension is palpable. It's not to do with lack of technique; it's about allowing the vulnerability to show. This is particularly true of a singer such as Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons. He has a spectacularly beautiful voice; you feel it's going to fall apart at any moment, and that's a very emotive combination. (To what extent the vulnerability is itself an act is worth considering – the ability to dissemble is important in many kinds of music, pop in particular.) But it's true of Billie Holiday, it's true of Miriam Makeba, it's true of Björk … We can hear the tension between chaos and control in the blues holler, in the yodel, in Portugese fado, in Mongolian throat singing.
And yet, it's not impossible for an opera singer to branch out. There's a generation of singers learning operatic technique while listening attentively to pop, jazz and world music, and discovering the joys of playing with the voice, of lightening it, of inflecting it, of exposing the quirks. It's part of a general, very welcome, tendency for musicians to look beyond their own backyard.
We must ask the question the other way round as well. Is it possible to find someone who sings like Salif Keita, who is also prepared and able to learn music written by someone else, and who can act? (Can Motörhead sing Kiri Te Kanawa?) This isn't a question about size of voice. Salif Keita has an immensely powerful voice, and anyway, it's perfectly possible to amplify the voice if necessary. In fact, power is a common feature of many different vocal traditions: the blues, Bulgarian folk singing, Sufi chanting, Russian choral singing. No, it's more a question of musical practice. It's partly about acting – can the singer inhabit someone else's persona? – but it's mainly about whether the singer is able to give up the autonomy of self-expression that he or she is normally used to. It's interesting that in Damon Albarn's recent opera Dr Dee, the great man himself was in it – and he was playing himself. It comes down to the question of why one is making music. To what extent is it a means of self-expression, to what extent a way of interpreting other people's music, to what extent a social act?
And, of course, it's a matter of cultural background. Salif Keita sings as he does partly because he comes from Mali. Mali is a very poor country, so music is generally social – there's little opportunity for doing performances that people pay for (I noticed the same thing on a recent trip to India). It's a Muslim country, so his vocal quality emerges from a declamatory tradition of Quran recitation (like the great qawwali singer Nusrat Fati Ali Khan – their voices are curiously similar). It's also mostly desert, so there's more than a trace of the desert blues in his singing. It's a West African country, where singing is about giving praise, and about storytelling. The main Malian musical tradition is that of the griot, an itinerant poet/storyteller/praise singer. (In fact, Salif Keita is of royal descent, which precludes him, according to the Malian caste system, from being a griot. It's an anomaly that he became a singer.)
Most people, like Salif Keita, sing songs that are immediately connected with their own personal experience. It's actually quite unusual to sing music which is not, as opera singers and other classical singers do. I think it's a big step to move from one to the other, and it calls into question the very reasons for the impulse to sing.
With this in mind I have invited a group of my favourite singers, from many different backgrounds, to sing at the Royal Opera House on Sunday; not because I think they'll all end up being opera singers (I imagine most would be horrified by the idea of acting), but because I'd like the chance to think about how they sing, about how that relates to what they sing, and about why they sing like that. And oh yes, it's high time yodelling was introduced into opera houses.
Orlando Gough is an ROH Associate Artist and Curator of Voices Across the World festival at the Royal Opera House on 31 July. Details: roh.org.uk
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