For my birthday a few weeks ago, I went to see Singin' in the Rain on the big screen in Times Square. The picture (a term we don't use any more unfortunately) was presented by TMC as part of the film's sixtieth anniversary. What a revelation! I saw things that you can't possibly see on a little screen, facial expressions for one thing. Their subtlety really stood out, Gene Kelly's being memorable. The man could really act with his face as well as his legs. Speaking of which, the power and beauty of the dancing is altogether different when writ large. Its stunning right-in-your-face-ness, especially when Donald O'Conner and Kelly kick their legs towards an old world diction coach in Moses Supposes, knocks you back in your seat. You are witnessing the greatest dance sequences captured on film.
Filmed in 1952, during the golden age of the Hollywood musical, Singin' in the Rain is notable for looking back towards the beginning of Talkies, which included many a voice teacher's flight to the west coast to ride the sound wave. The Mid-Atlantic speech heard in the film by the character of Phoebe Dinsmore? It's hysterical (her name is too) when juxtaposed with the crass dialect of Jean Hagen's character, but accurately expresses the influence of the Old Italian School with its rounded vowels in film history.
This is seen in one sequence as Kelly sings a vaudeville number with chorines, progressing through various venues, singing the same tune, finally arriving in a classy Ziegfield number in white tie and tails, rounded tone with vaulted headdresses, visually expressing how elevated diction was synonymous with high style, having its roots in the art of bel canto. The distinction between classical and popular style is still with us, growing every more nuanced as evidenced in the new term: Commercial Contemporary Music (CCM). I think this is a good thing, as it defines as well as illustrates the range of expression possible. As it is, experience has shown that we really do learn by being able to contrast tonal values.
Cahn't or ceeeen't?
You haven't lived as a voice teacher until you find yourself having a similar moment in the studio. It happened to me when a young woman arrived dripping with diamonds, sheathed in a stunning black dress, and proceeded to howl through Happy Birthday. Having seen a leading soprano - and her first opera- the week before, she was determined to become an opera singer. Ok, I said. May I tell you what is involved in getting where you want to go? Scales, languages, learning to read music, the fine art of politics- and that's just for starters. Really? She said. I have to learn to read music?