The majority of my vocal students consist of hopeful musical theatre enthusiasts. They’re immediate singing goals revolve around preparing for the show in which they’re currently cast, being ready for the next audition, or finding a new show to audition for. It would be easy and logical to spend lesson time building a knowledge of theatre repertoire, but I like to incorporate classical singing, specifically foreign language classical singing into our lesson time with the goal of improving theatrical techniques in addition to vocal techniques.
Foreign Language singing encourages students to broaden their knowledge of vocal repertoire, but also requires them to analyze their expression choices in order to reach an audience that has no idea what they’re singing about. If a student is interested in acting, they should be invested in how they’re facial and vocal expression impacts the viewer. Singing a non-English song to a majority English-speaking audience means that a singer now has to rely on their vocal expression and intonation in addition to their body language and gestures to convey meaning. If the student has done their work, the audience will infer the deeper meaning of the song and, regardless of comprehension, consider the performance a success.
In order to accomplish this, diligent students will spend time translating and studying their lyrics – the more investment the better. I find that when I sit with a student and discuss what a previously-incomprehensible song really means in today’s vernacular, suddenly the boring piece that their voice teacher assigned is actually relevant. The more relatable the message, the more likely a student is to approach it with enthusiasm – contributing to the overall performance.
Classical songs often reference early literature that students will recognize the storylines of in many of the shows they already enjoy: what is Rent but a retelling of La Boehme? Reminding students that studying foreign language songs is just a trip through the foundations of today’s musical theatre helps a student to round out their knowledge and gain a more mature sense of perspective. Miss Saigon probably wouldn’t have been written if Madame Butterfly hadn’t been written first, and Elton John certainly wouldn’t have a version of Aida if Verdi hadn’t done it 120 years earlier. When put into the context of history, opera is just the beginning of music theatre – we wouldn’t have Hamilton if we didn’t start with Orpheus and Eurydice.
Finally, studying classical and foreign language singing is a challenge that makes all other singing more accessible. Today, one of my students wrapped up several weeks’ worth of work on an Italian aria – her first big language piece. She was committed to practice, and made a serious effort to understand her music, even though it was a song that I chose for her. As a reward, I let her choose our next song and something happened that I couldn’t have planned for better: after a quick read through, she commented to me how easy singing a song from a musical was compared to the song we just finished. She said that knowing she could sing a harder song gave her more confidence in attempting this new piece; having to work hard to complete her last assignment gave her a sense of accomplishment that had a positive impact on her attitude when it comes to future song assignments. Isn’t that why students study voice in the first place?