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Bellinilover

Michael Crawford, the Singer

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In which I discuss Crawford's talents as a singer and interpreter, with focus on his most famous musical role.


The Voice

The Phantom of the Opera is the name of the character Michael Crawford created in both the London and Broadway productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber's beloved musical. The music the Phantom sings is challenging, but Crawford’s voice could only seem operatic to someone unused to opera singers. In fact, his voice is very much a “Broadway” or “pop” one, though the best term for it is probably “Irish tenor,” a category broad enough to cover both "pop" and “classical” singers. (More than just a tenor from Ireland, an "Irish tenor" is any light tenor who specializes in Irish song.)

Crawford has sung Irish music rarely, yet his is an Irish-tenor sound: light, pure, and high. (There is also a hint of an accent I want to call Irish, though this is probably imagination on my part as Crawford, of Irish descent, was born and raised in England.) “Pure” in this voice's case means both that it has minimal vibrato and that it is “translucent,” even “seraphic.” Crawford's timbre evokes the lightest of colors: pale silver, pale gold, pale rose–or white, like fresh snow. "Snow" also suggests the chilling purity of Crawford's voice; especially in its higher register it has an “icy” or even “eerie” quality that suits the Phantom of the Opera. Yet the voice is not shallow or effeminate: the roundness of its lower register is audible in the Phantom's "Music of the Night" and elsewhere.

The qualities mentioned so far have all been positive ones, but there are reservations, too. An original London review of The Phantom of the Opera mentions “the rich and powerful voice with which he [Crawford] floods the theatre and holds us hypnotised in his presence.” This is reassuring since it can seem as though a voice like Crawford's, which on CD sounds modest in size, would not have much impact in a theater. It is possible, too, that to some ears Crawford’s recorded voice may sound breathy or simply too quiet: “whispery." A third reservation is this: as it ascends the scale, the voice can become nasal and tight; while the high notes are typically fine, the notes just below them are sometimes unpleasant.

But no singer is perfect. Certainly, Crawford has had a uniquely pure, light-tenor voice capable of tonal depth. If listeners must simply endure the "nasality and tightness," then Crawford the interpreter has been able to make the “quietness” a virtue.

The Interpreter

Because Crawford's tenor is a pop one, modest in size, it is at its least impressive when singing music that is too “impressive.” The one unsatisfying track on Crawford’s CD On Eagle’s Wings is Charles Gounod's "Ave Maria." While he is far from terrible, Crawford sounds uneasy with this Romantic piece’s very long lines and high melismas. What this “Ave Maria” needs is an opera singer and what Crawford needs, ideally, is a song he can relax into, perhaps with a smile on his face (more on this later). The Eagle’s Wings tracks “Joseph’s Lullaby” and “Not Too Far From Here” are songs he can “relax into,” and they suit him so perfectly that they might have been written for him.

In these tracks we can hear the quality Crawford has in common with all great singers: legato, which makes true expression possible. Crawford, in fact, gives the impression that while rehearsing he speaks the words of his songs as an actor would, and then manages to maintain his spoken inflections while singing; his voice flows musically, yet each word he sings has the appropriate weight and inflection. His breath control is remarkable, his diction always immaculate, his pitch and rhythm precise. A singer with a bigger voice could perhaps afford to be a bit careless now and then; Crawford is never careless over details.

Moreover, he seems aware that without a smile his timbre might sound too cold. “Joseph’s Lullaby” has the father of Jesus watching his infant son as he sleeps and asking, “What kind of father will I be?” In this song a smile often warms Crawford’s tone, as it does in “The Holy City." Yet the pale-silver timbre does not always sound eerie or Phantom-like; frequently it sounds intimate and tender, as in the touching “Not Too Far from Here.”

Classical singers are taught to emphasize the vowels of the words they sing, for legato's sake. What Crawford often does–probably to make his voice more impactful -- is to emphasize the consonants, and somehow he does this without breaking the line. Though his voice would not seem a natural for “belting” numbers, he makes a wonderful effect with “Being Alive,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, in a 1998 concert (preserved on the CD Michael Crawford in Concert), because he stresses most of the song’s consonants as well as the first syllables of each initial word in its opening phrases (“Somebody hold me too close, somebody hurt me too deep...”). Wrong as his timbre seems for Raoul's “All I Ask of You” from Phantom (Crawford sounds like the Phantom singing Raoul!), his version with the opera soprano Barbara Bonney on his Andrew Lloyd Webber album is extremely solicitous and gentle, his slight emphasis of the consonants helping, somehow, to achieve this effect. This emphasis also gives Crawford’s voice extra solidity to match the operatic depth of Bonney’s tone.

It seems only natural that Crawford, a soft-spoken and emotional man, should have a voice that can weep. In his affecting recording of Christine’s “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from Phantom (transposed down, of course) on the Lloyd Webber album, his voice “sobs” whenever the melody does. Here he is helped by the technique of portamento (the carrying of one note to another, with no break), effective also in “Gethsemene” from Jesus Christ Superstar; with Crawford this musical monologue is a true prayer, a private outpouring from the heart. He makes it clear that phrases like “But if I die” are musical sobs, yet there is defiance in his rendition, and anger barely contained: hearing his repetitions of “Before I change my mind,” one suddenly remembers that Jesus once whipped money-changers out of the temple. A song Crawford actually had trouble finishing without crying is James Horner’s “Please Wake Up” from the animated film Once Upon a Forest. One can hear his voice beginning to break “for real” in the middle of the song, but Crawford does finish it–on a lovely, soft high note–and along the way there are subtle, musical sobs and the signature sound, as appropriate for this number as for anything the Phantom sings.

Which brings us, finally, to Crawford’s most famous song, “The Music of the Night." In addition to the 1986 original cast rendition there are two other recorded versions by him: the one on the Lloyd Webber album (1992) and the live one on Michael Crawford in Concert (1998). All three versions are mesmerizing, from the hushed opening to the ethereal tone on “soar,” to the final note which seems to dissipate into thin air. The 1986 recording has Crawford’s Phantom dark-toned at the start, with closed vowels. This would suggest a conventional villain rather than the “wronged gentleman” that tends now to be most people’s idea of the Phantom. But as the song proceeds it becomes fairly clear that this was always Crawford’s idea of the Phantom, too. Here is a disfigured composer who can smile (“Open up your mind/Let your fantasies unwind”), whose voice trembles at the thought not only of possessing a diva but of “the power of the music that I write,” and who quietly and imploringly bids Christine, “Turn your face away/From the garish light of day":



The 1992 rendition is even more refined: here Crawford is unquestionably a tenor, his Phantom a genteel visionary seduced by the thought of his own music which Christine will make “take flight"; his final line ("Help me make the music of the night") invites Christine to join him in Art. The 1998 recording is less specific than this but all the more riveting for being “live”; Crawford clearly holds the audience spellbound, and with nothing but his voice (no scenery, no makeup). The top note on “be” is more secure than it was in 1992 or in 1986, the word “fantasies” more chillingly pronounced, and the tenor tone just as eerily pure though not as youthful or full. No matter the recording, the most impressive feature of Crawford’s “Music of the Night” is probably the loud, top note (“Let your soul take you where you want to be!”) followed immediately by the phrase “Only then can you belong to me,” sung mezza voce (and most hypnotically in 1992) and with control such as an opera singer would strive for.

In fact, Crawford in the most famous song of his most famous role was, if not an opera singer then a Lieder singer, with a Lieder singer’s attention to expressive detail, to tonal colors (light and dark), and to the “painting of a picture” for the audience, the creation of a mood. Most Broadway, much less pop, singers never reach quite this artistic level; most never have the chance. That Crawford not only had the chance, in this exquisite song, but took the chance and succeeded says much for him both as a “voice” and as an interpreter. While he may always be best known as a physical comedian, Michael Crawford deserves also to be classed with the finest West End, Broadway, and pop singers of his or any generation.
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Updated Jan-14-2018 at 06:14 by Bellinilover

Tags: broadway, pop, tenors
Categories
Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Singers , Recorded Music

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