WHAT? Did I just read that correctly? Cabaret ISN’T about the SINGING???

How DARE you!

That was my first response. And it took me no less than four rehearsals with my director, the great Lina Koutrakos, repeating this statement to me that I finally accepted it.

As classical singers, we live and die by what those two tiny mucous membranes do. Even at the height of my operatic career, the second I felt something “off” about the tone I was producing, my attention turned completely to my voice. And if there was no saving the sound, I would then over-act like hell in hopes that no one would notice the lack of vocal beauty.

But in cabaret, the voice is just a vehicle for the story-telling. It’s not about the beautiful sound (although bonus if a beautiful sound is created!). The cabaret legend, Marilyn Maye said to me once, “Cabaret is about having a conversation with the audience. You don’t sing AT them. You talk WITH them.”

So what does this mean for us SINGERS?

First of all, you have to be willing to make an ugly sound. Of course that is not the goal. But you have to stop listening to yourself and judging your success on how your voice SOUNDS. You need to completely surrender to the truth of the dramatic moment or the dramatic intent and that may mean that you will create a less than beautiful sound from our “classical” standards of what beauty is.

And what is that “classical” standard? Well, one major thing is a warm shimmering sound rich with vibrato, right? Contrary to popular belief, vibrato is not a dirty word in cabaret. But vibrato is used as a color choice instead of a default.

And then there is diction. We go to school to learn how to communicate in different languages using the language to articulate the meaning and place the voice where it is supposed to go. But that excellent diction which has been drilled into us by our classical coaches is a real distraction in cabaret. It’s a distraction because it’s not how we naturally talk. And when we are “having a conversation” with the audience, the minute we explode a “t” or a “p”, they are taken out of the conversation.

Second of all, you have to really analyze and choose carefully what keys you choose to sing any particular song in. In my opera days, I was a dramatic coloratura soprano. My voice blossomed at my secondo passaggio (I like to throw out those Italian phrases for color) and above. But often times, the higher the key in cabaret, the more it separates you from the audience. Going back to “having a conversation,” the higher you sing, the farther away from your natural speaking pitch, which separates you further from your audience’s ability to understand you and connect to what you are saying. Not to say that we don’t want a climactic high note! Those are great! But if the tessitura of the entire song is too high, that’s when we get into trouble.

Third of all, sometimes you have to throw out your excellent musicianship and not sing it as it is written on the page. If you are “having a conversation,” how often do you hold out a vowel for a long time (unless you are Oprah) or pause in the middle of a sentence (unless you are Obama)? You don’t. In cabaret, the natural communication of the text is paramount and sometimes that means that you completely disregard the rhythm on the page and you just speak the text on pitch. It may feel awkward at first, but you’ll get over it soon enough.

Finally, learn how to use your voice in a different way. Find a teacher who can show you how to belt or mix if that isn’t something you’ve done before. Find a coach who can guide you through the stylistic differences between singing jazz and singing contemporary musical theatre. Don’t do this just to learn how to sound good (because it’s not about the sound, remember?). But do this so you can learn how to communicate your songs in the most natural way with new colors and nuances you may have never experienced before.

Lina told me once that some of the greatest cabaret singers have only a three note range. Impressing the audience with your voice is not the point. Sharing your experience with the audience and allowing them to discover something about themselves IS. And that doesn’t always happen with a kick-ass high C. (although, I won’t hate you if you’ve got that high C!)