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Kim Witman Headshot

The Voice and La Voce

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It's just 3 weeks until I sit in a chair and wait for a different person to sing to me every 10 minutes. All day. For the better part of a month. In 8 different states. And although my chair will be facing forward the whole time, I'm spending this week drawing inspiration from the coaches on NBC's The Voice.

When I surfed across the first night of The Voice's blind auditions, I decided to treat it as if I was already sitting across the audition table. On the face of it, you might not think that listening to opera singers has much in common with what Cee Lo, Christina, Adam and Blake say to their aspiring pop stars. But you'd probably be wrong.

On Monday night, Terry McDermott led off with "Teenage Wasteland." I was struck by the clarity in his sound (the coaches called it pristine), but wasn't thrilled with the way the top notes didn't pay off. Until one moment near the end when he nailed it. And damn it, if the coaches' chairs didn't turn around at that exact moment. It seems that "money notes" are the same in the opera house and the rock arena.

Gracia Harrison delivered "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" in a performance that led the coaches to declare that she transcended the country genre. She really got me when she started to yodel. Not that I'm a fan of yodeling per se, but what it did was kick off a sense of sheer exuberance and athletic enjoyment that is rare and powerful. Same thing happens in opera when singers nail the acrobatic coloratura in a Rossini aria. Accuracy and clarity are prerequisites, but what really gets us is the sheer joy.

Garrett Gardner sang "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" (I was momentarily struck dumb by being thrust back into high school with a soundtrack by the CCR, but I rallied.) Something wasn't right; the pitch suffered every time he backed off from his loudest dynamic, and he wasn't supporting the sound and using the breath to give it loft and shape. Blake said that he was concerned about the lack of control when the singer traveled from one note to another and that the closing of the phrases fell off a little. No matter if it's Mozart or Fogerty; the basic tools of phrasing are the same.

The next singer - Daniel Rosa - was a returnee from last season. When the chairs turned around, the recognition was immediate, and the coaches' feedback was enthusiastic. Turns out that Daniel is a great example of how not to give up on a dream; he admitted that getting turned down last season was the best thing that could've happened at that time. I'm sure it's not as tidy and warm and fuzzy as all that, but point taken. Life is full of rejection, and in any industry where supply exponentially exceeds demand, it has the potential to be crushing. And when you refuse to let it crush you, it's cause for celebration.

Anita Antoinette's "No Woman, No Cry" was a study in the force of individuality. I appreciated the distinctive resonant color of her voice, but was a little frustrated by the way in which her interpretation didn't deliver on its promise. It was careful and flat (occasionally in pitch, more often in affect). The coaches said that she wasn't delivering the spirit of the words; Cee Lo said that this sound shouldn't be performed, that it should be "thought out loud." (Damn, I love that.) She asked for an a cappella do-over, they granted it, and she nailed it. Clearly when she wasn't hemmed in by an audio track, the force of her artistry shone through. Well, fine, but that's not the real world. We have to do what we do, to sing what we sing, in spite of external parameters. Rigid accompaniment, constricting costumes, glaring lights, bored audiences... None of them dare mute the force of individuality.

And Jessica Sharpe channeled Dusty Springfield in "Son of a Preacher Man." The beginning was promising; a smart use of different vocal colors in a strong and healthy voice. But her move into head voice for the middle section let the energy sag, and she didn't have complete control over the high notes after the modulations in the last verse. The coaches didn't bite but were unfailingly encouraging. Christina said that even though Jessica sang her heart out, they listen to so many amazing singers and have to identify and choose a small fraction.

And that's where I nodded my silly operatic head and went back to my work at hand: screening audition applications. You see, even before we can head out on the road and start listening to the amazing performers who will treat me to seemingly endless Mozart and Rossini, we have to cut their numbers by half. And after a month of listening to them, we have to identify our own small fraction. Typically about 2%.

I won't spend the first part of our auditions with my chair facing the other way, but I will be guilty of closing my eyes. Ours is increasingly a visual art form (don't get me started on that), and there's no doubt that a singer's physical presentation is critical to success. But if when I close my eyes and focus my whole being on the voice itself, I can be transported and inspired, then I know it's right.