'If You Sing Classical, You Can Sing Anything'—Not
In many music programs, there exists the ideal of training a singer in the classical repertoire, even if the student does not wish a classical career. Lissemore believes this is a problem of perception. "It's based on a concept that musical theater and other contemporary commercial forms of singing are somehow less than classical music, instead of just different. Until we get rid of that, the discussion will never move further," he says.
"Schools I've taught at are particularly proud of their classical voice departments," Lissemore adds. "The people who argue for that will say, 'It's so good for them to learn pure vowels.' To which I always retort, 'Why? I just have to unteach them.' "
Why Am I Not Working?
The real-world issue for the singer becomes the ability to book jobs. This is where Lissemore believes the classical singer to be at a distinct disadvantage, especially in light of the current style of Broadway musicals.
"We do have some examples of people who have gone the conservative route who are having great success," he says. "We have Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Brian Stokes Mitchell. But I would argue they are in the minority. If you say, 'I'm going to go the classical route because I want a career on Broadway,' there are a limited number of opportunities for people with that background…. It's a bit of a risk. We do have a small number of roles where that classical voice is really necessary, such as 'Candide' or 'West Side Story,' but that's certainly not the new trend."
Lissemore has branded some of the typical mechanisms of the classical singer as "classical voice technique syndrome" or CVTS. "It can come in many forms: overly shaped mouths, tight jaws, retracted tongues. It could be lifted eyebrows or funny faces," he says. While Lissemore believes that voice teachers mean well, he sees persistent problems: "Students take this with them forever, and then they put it on stage or in audition rooms and wonder why they're not getting work."
Lissemore believes that musical theater is a distinct art form that requires its own techniques. These techniques can differ for the male and female voice.
"The mechanism is heavier for women," he says. "There's a more obvious hookup to the chest voice. It is played with more aggressively up through the middle voice. The top of the woman's musical theater voice—high F and above—is actually pretty similar to classical singing. Once you're getting up there, you either can sing or you can't sing. It's that whole middle area and the use of the chest voice that's the main difference."
Lissemore says the opposite is often true for male singers: "It usually needs to be a lighter mechanism. It can depend on the voice type. Some leggiero tenors have a nice light top, but most of the operatic baritones don't sing that way; they have a oneness or heaviness in the voice."
Overdefined vowels and consonants are another big difference between the two styles of singing. "The classical vowels are much fatter, much rounder," Lissemore says. "In the classical world, we refer to 'pear-shaped tones.' That's something as a rule we are not particularly interested in for the musical theater voice."
He argues that this formal approach is what makes the classical singer sound unnatural in a musical theater setting: "The singing needs to be very conversational in a lyrical context, with a colloquial use of the language." Or as he more simply puts it, "You really have to sing it the way you say it."
The classical focus on diction becomes unnatural as well, he adds: "There's a lot of diction for diction's sake going on. People understand what I am singing because of the phrase, because my concepts are clear. It's not because I'm focusing where my tongue is placed on the T's."
Making the Change
Lissemore has found that the performer's openness to change is the single most important part of the process. "If there's resistance, it will quadruple the amount of time it will take," he says. "If they're really curious and really open, it can happen quickly."
With some students, all he has to do is make simple suggestions: "Sometimes I can just say to people, 'Can you not sing that so much? Could you do less vibrato? Could you do more storytelling and less pumping out sound?' "
A simpler vocal production is Lissemore's ultimate goal. "We don't make a big deal out of singing," he notes. "We make a big deal out of the storytelling and the text." And technique cannot overshadow communication, he says: "We really can only do one thing well at a time. On stage or at an audition, you've got to really focus on that story."