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Can You Hear the People Sing?

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Watching the Academy Awards while following a Twitter stream of professional singers is to witness a curious and unique combination of empathy and turf war. So it will come as no surprise that my colleagues served up a crazy entertaining commentary on Sunday night's musical excerpt from Les Mis.

We in the opera camp can get a little testy when music with real guts and potential is under-served. And yes, even though Les Mis is not traditional operatic territory, it begs for an instrument up to the challenge. (We were praying for Colm Wilkinson to bust through that upstage door...) I am in awe of the guts that it takes for a typically non-singing actor to engage with a musical score like this, and I appreciate and admire the courage (chutzpah?) of those who do. But when the cast tackled the score in concert format during the Academy Awards, it made those of us who appreciate the power of really good singing just a little nuts.

At one end of the spectrum of this discussion is the actor who does not sing; and on the other end, the singer who does not act. In the middle, we find the quintessential performer -- one who communicates as clearly and fluidly in song as without. At every other place alone that continuum, there are ongoing skirmishes. Healthy, impassioned, blood-letting battles about who is invading whose turf.

In the timeless disagreement about opera-vs.-musical theatre, I find that whenever more expressive content can be achieved through music (pitch, dynamic, timbre, rhythm, form) than through words, we are veering toward the operatic side of the equation. Conversely, whenever the words carry the day and the abstract musical elements are icing on the cake, we're inching closer and closer to the world of theatre. (And hold the flames, people: I know that text is important everywhere. It's just a matter of prominence and proportion.)

Singers (the word used here as shorthand for those performers who have nailed the skill of expressing themselves through finely-tuned vocal techniques) excel in the traditional world of opera, where everything is designed to allow maximum expression through sound. And whenever artists whose techniques aren't tooled to plumb the depths of all that is possible in the opera (or, in this case, the highly operatic musical), people who love singing get testy.

Actors (shorthand for those performers who excel in all forms of expression centered on the spoken word) are familiar with non-musical communication in a way that most singers will never touch -- some for lack of affinity, and some for lack of time to refine those skills. And whenever singers think that their golden throats alone qualify them to tackle musical theatre assignments, people who love theatre get cranky.

In the best of all possible worlds (ah, Candide... where do you belong?...), we wouldn't have to choose. No singing actor would fail to flesh out a powerful song, and no acting singer would deliver a weak character. But our world plays out all across this spectrum, and the process of figuring out what matters moment-to-moment is probably the best navigation tool.

After all this bloviating, you might be surprised to learn that the Les Mis movie casting made sense to me. I didn't enjoy it, but in context, I understood it. But when the award show producers thought it was a good idea to serve up the music without the benefit of the enveloping scene and production values, they lost me. I actually adore this music, and I yearned for beautiful and powerful voices to lift it up where it belonged.