I come from the opera world. In opera, BIGGER is BETTER! It’s grand and dramatic – larger than life escapism. And that’s what we love about it, right?
But in cabaret, bigger is not necessarily better. As a matter of fact, bigger can sometimes seem like assault!
The reasons may seem obvious. First of all, think about the venue. In an opera house, we are singing on a proscenium stage separated from the audience by a huge orchestra pit with anywhere from 500 to 4000 seats. In a cabaret club, there are maybe 40-100 seats, the ceiling is only 3-5 feet above your head and you have a table of people only 1 foot away from you.
Second of all, in an opera house, we have been trained to project our voice to the back row of the balcony which could be a thousand feet away from the lip of the stage. In a cabaret club, the microphone, which is sometimes less than one inch away from you mouth is now considered the back of the house. You don’t need to project because the mic does that for you.
I went to a marvelous show just last week performed by two cabaret greats, KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar. It was a show crafted around the works of Sheldon Harnick and Charles Strouse. The performers (including their amazing MD Jon Weber) were great and the show was incredibly directed by legend, Sondra Lee. But one thing that I was blown away by was KT Sullivan’s performance. KT is a soprano although the voice is not big. She is an excellent comic and dramatic actress but yet she is not over-the-top. In fact, the subtlety of her performance was mind-blowing because while she did very little most of the time, her presence was HUGE. Anytime she was performing, it was hard to look at anyone else on the stage. Her commitment to every nuance of the text or the melody was undeniable. I was in the front row and I was always leaning forward completely mesmerized by her performance.
KT didn’t have to belt loud, wave her arms, do high kicks, even move from one spot. I believed everything that she said because every small subtle gesture, eyebrow raise and half-smile had meaning and spoke paragraphs.
In opera, we may turn our entire body as a change of thought happens. In cabaret, we might only turn our eyes.
In opera, we may throw our arms out to the side on the big climatic high note. In cabaret, we might only lift our head slightly at the cut off.
In opera, we may crescendo on the last note to make the cut off dramatic. In cabaret, we internalize the emotion of the last note and it cuts off on its own within the intent of the thought.
If you’ve read my other post, “Cabaret is not about singing,” you understand that creating the biggest most dramatic sound that you can is not only NOT necessary but also very often too overwhelming for the intimacy of the space and the genre. You are having a conversation with the audience. Don’t yell at them!
That is not to say that big voices do not exist in the cabaret world. Marta Sanders has a HUGE belter of a voice that is dark and husky. Marilyn Maye has a sizeable voice and she can belt out a kick-ass high note at 91 years old! But what these pros know how to do is measure and build their performance so that those big guns come out at the perfect moment – and then that moment is surprising and thrilling! But you have to earn the right to have that moment. Marilyn told me once, “Don’t start at a 10. Start at a 4, build to a 6, maybe touch an 8 or 9 once in a while. But only give the 10 a few times and the audience will be right there with you.”
There is a huge difference between “presentation” and “communication.” In opera and classical singing we are used to presenting heightened emotion – yes, hopefully we successfully achieve that within creating a believable character – but we present those emotions through that character. In cabaret, we are not playing a character. We are finding truth within the lyric that reveals something about ourselves. That is the most intimate form of communication. So don’t over-do it. Just tell the truth in an honest way. And most often, that happens most effectively in the most subtle ways.