Singular Voices: Barbra Streisand

Friday, August 12, 2016 - 04:22 PM

WQXR
Barbra Streisand, from the DVD 'Streisand: The Concerts.' Barbra Streisand, from the DVD "Streisand: The Concerts." (Streisand: The Concerts)

For the next few months, one of the themes I intend to address in this space is the voice. More precisely, I will consider singular voices. By this I mean, first and foremost, voices that indelibly enter the ears and memory of all who hear them. There are so many kinds of voices that can qualify for this distinction, but I am going to focus on singers and the occasional actor rather than the bellowing and braying of some politicians. You can hear those on your own time, if you think you must.

The voice, being innate, is a unique expression of the person who possesses it. Leontyne Price, who has a singular voice if ever there was one, refers to hers as “the voice,” not in a grandiose way but rather as a gift that she feels responsible for using as God would want her to. Such a voice, in a singer, actor or orator, is not just a thing of beauty but a vehicle with which its owner can add words, sounds, poetry and emotions that make a song or text more powerful and moving — or just different — than when the same music or words are borne on other voices. 

As with singular voices, and all that goes with them, no two are alike or have the same progression through a career. Mirella Freni lost very little over a 50-year career and could have kept singing opera splendidly (and without a microphone) into her 70s. Beverly Sills’s voice was frayed by her late 40s, and she stopped singing at the age of 51. There are many reasons for this, including biology, technique and intelligence about what to sing and how to sing it. Singers of popular music, most of whom use a microphone, can also have long and artistically singular careers or also see them end early. Tony Bennett, who just turned 90 and is still singing, is exemplary.

So too is Barbra Streisand, born in Brooklyn on Apr. 24, 1942. Her career, for its longevity and impact, has few equals. She is famous not only for her rare gifts but also her drive, perfectionism and strong opinions on art, politics and how to make this a better world. She is now writing an autobiography, and I imagine she is being as exigent as usual, not only with others involved in the book but with herself. She has a superb editor who worked with Renée Fleming on The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer, Brian Kellow and his biographies of Eileen Farrell and Ethel Merman and, years ago, on my Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera

On the evening of Aug. 11, I had the choice of seeing Barbra Streisand or a meteor shower. As a friend of mine observed, both are forces of nature. I picked the event that happens less often. Streisand’s public performances have always been infrequent. The concert was held at the Barclays Center, primarily a large sports arena in Brooklyn. She will perform again on Aug. 13. I suspect that Streisand’s perfectionism touched many elements of the event, making it unlike any stadium or arena concert I have been to, including her own previous appearance at the same venue in 2009.

A most extraordinary element was the so-called “sound design,” a term I have never liked because part of what that entails is sound mixing and the imposition of technology that renders a performance false. And inevitably too loud. I have been to many terrific concerts in small theaters and huge arenas as well as Broadway musicals in which even the greatest singers are undone by sound design and extra loud volume. I carry a decibel meter with me and can report that the volume at the Streisand concert almost never exceeded 70 decibels, the level at which it is safe to listen and music sounds balanced rather than distorted by volume. The result was that the 18,000 audience members really listened to the singing in ways one almost never witnesses in performances of popular music. 

In her 2009 Brooklyn concert, there was a large orchestra that played thrillingly. This time there was a smaller ensemble of excellent musicians whose contributions were suited for the musical and theatrical intentions of this show. The set was minimal with a chair, a table with a rose and a pot of tea, and a microphone. On the sides of the stage were a couple of divans and a music stand. In a space that can accommodate some 18,000 attendees for concerts, this performance felt like an intimate cabaret.  

I first heard Streisand in 1964, when I was lucky enough to be taken to three performances (“pinky swear,” as they say in Brooklyn) of her extraordinary turn as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, a musical perfectly suited to Streisand’s talents. Although I was a small boy, the show made a huge impression on me, especially its star. Her performance is so legendary, and its shadow so large, that Funny Girl is the only great musical to never be revived on Broadway. There is a disappointing production now at the Savoy Theatre in London starring Sheridan Smith. For audiences who never saw the original this is a special occasion, but I was inconsolable. 

For millions of people, the image of the prodigiously talented and defiantly headstrong Streisand is rooted in her performance of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from the film version of Funny Girl.

   

A precious few of the most legendary singers change their interpretations of their most iconic songs as their lives and careers progress, and their voices inevitably change. In this regard, singers of popular music have an advantage over their classical confreres in that they are freer to make these stylistic changes than an opera singer would be. This is because a diva singing a role such as Norma or Tosca is part of a larger work, and she cannot step away from castmates and the production to do her own thing. What a soprano might do is have a personal interpretation of a role and then bring shadings and insights to it the more she plays it. Some of the early vocal assurance might fall away, but with the best singers, it is replaced by exquisite refinement.

Streisand has understood this throughout her career. Take “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Most people know her interpretation from the film version, while I first heard it at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in 1964. The effect was so visceral that it was imprinted in my mind with every accent and emphasis Streisand imparted. If you listen to the Broadway version and listen to the movie version again, you will discover all kinds of differences. My preference is for the Broadway version, where the words sound more naturally uttered. 

What is great about Streisand’s relationship to this song through the decades is that she does not attempt to reproduce what we have already heard but allows us to experience the music and lyrics as she does (and as her vocal resources permit) in any given moment. This is a remarkable accomplishment, and she is one of the few singers of her stature in any genre to achieve this.

Let me explain: Luciano Pavarotti once said to me that the hardest thing about being a singer, for him, was that he had a huge catalogue of recordings that enshrined his performances of countless arias in the mind’s ear of his millions of fans. They could listen to “Nessun Dorma” or “La Donna è Mobile” hundreds of times, and they would always sound the same. When Pavarotti went onstage in the later phases of his career in Turandot or Rigoletto, he fretted that fans would think that his live singing was not as good as what they heard at home. Never mind that his voice sounded so much more glorious live than on a home stereo system.

Streisand, who has been recording with Columbia Records since 1962 and has sold more than 72 million records, has mostly avoided being limited by her fans’s intimate relationship with her recordings. One reason is that she looks forward rather than resting on past laurels. She is realistic about her voice as it is now (and, at the age of 74, it is in fantastic shape, and her breath control is stunning). She also has the advantage, in a curious way, of not having often sung in public through the decades so each appearance felt like a passing comet not to be missed. Pavarotti sang all over the world on a regular basis for more than 30 years. We can be grateful to him for that and understand why he felt such pressure.

She even recorded an album of lieder and arias in 1976 called Classical Barbra. I will let you come to your own conclusions in this performance of “Lascia ch’io pianga” by Handel. 

At her Brooklyn concert, Streisand sang for more than two hours, not including an intermission. Most of the songs were familiar but sounded new, fresh and deeply felt. She used music and language as powerful means of communication.

One real highlight was “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” which she recorded as a solo in 1978. Around the same time, Neil Diamond recorded the song. A disk jockey in Kentucky decided to splice the two versions together and the result became very popular, leading the two singers to record it as a duet

In the duet, the lyrics became a dialogue. Until I heard Streisand’s performance in Brooklyn, I had forgotten how much more meaningful they are as a monologue. Streisand’s interpretation of the song was musically impeccable, and she treated the lyrics like a Schubert lied, with every word and syllable perfectly weighted and sung as if a declaration from the heart. This song never particularly affected me before but now has gone to my heart. 

Despite the received image of Streisand as a domineering perfectionist, I have come to appreciate her collaborative spirit and non-competitive musicianship in duets. She has recorded many of them and, on Aug. 26, will release a new album with more. Her partners on this new recording include Alec Baldwin, Antonio Banderas, Jamie Foxx, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy and Patrick Wilson.

Until the 1990s, I had not seen the now-legendary 1963 duet the 21-year-old Streisand performed on television with Judy Garland. My first exposure to a Streisand duet was with Louis Armstrong in the 1969 film version of Hello, Dolly! Armstrong, whose duet albums with Ella Fitzgerald are pure genius, created magic in his cameo with Streisand, who wisely let him shine while she riffed on his melody. 

Before Thursday's performance, the only time I had heard Streisand sing a duet live was in the Broadway production of Funny Girl 52 years ago. Toward the end of her Brooklyn concert, Jamie Foxx came onstage and joined her for a spectacular performance of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” While I am sure it will be impressive on the new album, it cannot compare with this live performance of Foxx (an excellent singer) and Streisand bringing spontaneity, rhythm, sensitivity to lyrics and scrupulous musicianship. Each made the other better. 

I paraphrase Streisand, whose support of Hillary Clinton and other political causes are unequivocal: “We know from studying DNA that people from every corner of the world are 99.9 percent identical. The other 0.01 percent is Donald Trump.” 

When it comes to being a singular voice, Barbra Streisand is part of the 0.01 percent of people. Speaking of “People,” compare two performances of her signature song, separated by more than 40 years and each one extraordinary.  

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Comments [4]

Fred Plotkin from New York

To Susan Yates: Thanks for your comment. While I primarily focus on on things operatic or the classical vocal repertory, I do occasionally depart (and will continue to do so) to discuss the art of singing in general because sometimes what singers in other repertory do can help us better understand what opera singers do. In this article I discuss how popular singers such as Streisand have the freedom to change their interpretations to best suit their evolving voices while opera singers have less latitude in that regard. For many of them, it just becomes a matter of either performing a role they can no longer fully do or dropping it from their repertory. So, while I do address Streisand in this article, it also is an exploration of the challenges that opera singers face.

Aug. 16 2016 03:16 AM
Susan Yates from Croton-on-Hudson N.Y.

I'm sure Fred Plotkin is worthy of his reputation as one of America's "foremost experts on opera, and I don't totally disagree with his opinions on Streisand, but I wonder if those comments are appropriate on a site called "Operavore."

Aug. 14 2016 10:56 PM
DianaVictoria Aljadeff from SÃO Paulo

There were always singers who finished their careers early because they didnt know how to use their voices and sang things that werent right for them.In the opera songers likeCallas,Elena Sulliotis and many others,in musical singers like Julie Andrews lost their voices very soon.Bu happily there were and are singer who sang very well until old ages like Mirella Freni,Plácido Domingo and also Magda Olivero who sang unti her 100 years well.Also there is a tenor named \Angelo La Forese still singing high notes at 96.The same happens with popular music,singers like Tony Bennett and the french Charles Asnavour sing very well in their nineties and among thr women Marilyn Maye and Barbara Cook to name only two. Streisand is 74 now and Cook was 73 years when she still sang her high D in Vanilla Icecream .Streisand still sings very well,so we have to wait if she still will sing like Cook at 88.I loved thr article excelent

Aug. 13 2016 05:43 PM
Donna from SoFL

Outstanding article, thank you.

I would like to note one small thing however, the two recordings of "People" presented are only 22 years apart not more than 40, the second was the One Voice concert she performed in 1986 at her Malibu estate. But more to your excellent point, her 2006 live version of "People" and 2012 and 2016, are also good testimonies to it.

It's hard to imagine someone who sings a song thousands of times can do so each time as it's the first. Streisand sings 'in the moment' and always stays connected in that moment to the lyrics of a song. That's special and unique.

Aug. 13 2016 12:07 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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