An Evening with Christine Ebersole

Two weeks ago, I noticed a notice on social media about Christine Ebersole singing at Alice Tully Hall. 

Go, said a little voice. Go. How often do you hear a great singer?

So I did, and she is.

The voice and woman behind it can do just about anything: chest voice, soft high head voice, mix, character voice—you name it—it’s all there.

Jazz standards, Harold Arlen songs, Show Tunes and the Methodist hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing" are sung with equal integrity, each song a deep dive into authentic, straight from the heart music-making.

I performed with Ebersole in Lady in the Dark with City Center Encores! in the mid-90’s; and if anything, her voice has become warmer with no loss of an innate ability to mine old-time vocalism, which includes a melting portamento—so rarely heard today. 

The youthful quality of Ebersole’s voice (we’re talking head voice—the cinderella of vocalism) is undeniable and accompanied by a sense of poignancy. From the aching beauty of "How Are Things Glocca Morra" to "My Shining Hour," Ebsersole touches the listener deeply while exploiting what seems forbidden on the Broadway stage these days: clear, resonant, glorious tone.

How does the 65 year old soprano—who will be 66 February 21—keep her voice intact? The program contained an interview with a clue: Ebersole talks to the animals—especially her bird.

On the face of it, the reader might think, what?

But I get it. Ebersole uses her ear, mimicking and assimilating tonally rich sound that stretches her vocal folds. She’s not nuts. Rather, she’s intuitively prescient in keeping her ear intact, which really is the voice.

Interestingly, Ebersole was a violinist before realizing (while sitting in the orchestra pit as a teenager) that she wanted to be up onstage singing. This explains a lot, since one hears a unique connection between notes that goes beyond the usual legato. Whether real or imagined on the part of this writer, it is a fact that 18th century Italian singers learned their art through use of the violin as an example of perfect tone. Why not Ebersole?

(The theme here is that great singers have great listening ability.)

Yes, she can belt with the best of them (belting itself not being exactly beautiful in anyone’s voice) as evidenced in "On the Aitchison, Topeka and Santa Fe." But Ebersole knows where to leave off and go into head. Knowing her limits, and having fuel to burn, she knows how to sing full throttle without stripping her gears. It’s no surprise then when guest pianist Marc Shaiman refers to Ebersole as a Maserati—the descriptors associated with the iconic automaker fitting perfectly.

Elegance, style, passion and performance.

Does the average listener know just how vocally smart Ebersole is? I wonder. She may not give it much thought, but her skill is evident everywhere.

Ok. There was one moment in "Will You" from Grey Gardens when I thought—oops—what’s up with that—coming as it did at the end of the song when two repeated high notes weren’t in the center of the pitch. But then, having taught the song, I know that the word “dreams” on the high note coming immediately after the lower note “fade” is damn hard to keep in perfect tune—the [i] vowel wanting to go towards the middle register when it really needs to go towards head. As a consequence, the second high note on the word “you” is hard because Larry isn’t resting in his hammock anymore. Sum total: While Will You is a great song, the composer’s vowel placement doesn’t make it easy for the singer.

Too technical? Perhaps, but you’re reading the blog of a voice teacher, not a plumber. Be that as it may, Ebersole made me want to cry more than once with the sheer sumptuousness of her singing.

She’s at the top of her game, singing at 65 like you wish you could at 30. It really doesn’t get any better. Find Erbersole wherever and whenever you can and treasure her voice and artistry.

—An Evening with Christine Ebersole, Alice Tully Hall, February 20, 2019: Lawrence Yurnam, Music director and Piano; Aaron Heick, Reeds; Paul Woodiel, Violin and Viola; Davic Fink, Bass; Jared Schonig, Drums.