From Classical to Cabaret
An Interview with Roberta Feldhusen and Regina Zona
by Michael Rider

There is a lot of work and study being done in voice pedagogy about the crossover voice, particularly the classically trained voice working with Music Theater (MT) and Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) styles. This work focuses on the technical and mechanical differences between the traditional bel canto style of singing and the vocal requirements of today’s MT and CCM singer. For many years, the two worlds remained separate; very rarely did artists cross from one to the other. Today, however, we see more and more singers working in an ever wider range of styles. Where does cabaret fit into this new world?

The cabaret art form is unique, encompassing any style of music that the singers want to sing. Great cabaret artists are able to take any style of music, bring it into the intimacy of the cabaret room and tell their story. Many cabaret singers have musical backgrounds in MT, the American Songbook and pop styles, so their transition to an intimate setting tends to be natural. But what about the classical singer? Or the opera singer? They are used to using their voices, unamplified, to fill large recital and concert halls. What challenges do they face when preparing their first cabaret? To find out, I spoke with two singers, both with careers in opera and classical singing, who have presented their debut cabarets this fall in NYC.

Regina Zona is an internationally recognized singer who has sung operas and concerts around the world, singing repertoire ranging from Mozart to Strauss. She is also an avid recitalist, specializing in the works of 20th century American composers. She received her Bachelors of Music from North Western and her DMA from Manhattan School of Music. She has been teaching voice for the past 30 years, both at universities through the US and in her private voice studio.

Roberta Feldhusen began her singing career in Munich in the 1960s singing leading roles in I Puritani, Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Cosi fan Tutte, Don Giovani and Der Fledermaus. She studied with prominent NY teachers such as Oren Brown, Claire Alexander and Beverly Johnson. She married and was raising her family as she went to school and received her BS and MM in Music Performance and Education and began teaching. She taught Music in both private schools and the NYC public school system for 18 years until she retired. She also taught for NYU Steinhardt school as a mentor to student teachers in the music education department.

I spoke with these two singers to ask them about their journey from classical to cabaret.

What made you decide to perform cabaret?

Regina Zona: 1 ½ years ago I wrote a 1 woman show. It was a personal show about growing up and parental relationships. It also covered the music in my life and my obsession with self-help books. It was an amazing artistic experience so I thought I might like to do something like that to celebrate my 50th birthday. It was around that time that I agreed to help David (Sabella) build the website for CabaretHotSpot.com

Roberta Feldhusen: I had been teaching and performing recitals and concerts. I always included some American Songbook and Music Theater repertoire in those shows. I was also singing in large choruses and doing church solo work. About 6 years ago, I decided that I wanted to do something new for myself. I began to take Lenny Watts’ cabaret arrangement classes. Through a MAC workshop I met David (Sabella) and I began taking voice lessons with him. After working with both of them for a while, I started to think that I would like to develop my own show.

How Did you prepare for your first cabaret?

RZ: Sue (Matzuki) and David were extremely helpful. Sue helped me to put together my show (Queen 2.0) as well as promote it. While I was working on the show, I began to realize that there was something more beyond just this one show and done. With David and Sue’s support, I became of part of the cabaret community.

RF: I continued taking lessons with David as well as the arrangement classes with Lenny. I hired Lenny as my director and Tracy Stark as my musical director. It was important to me to work with a woman as a musical director. The show developed and started to take shape.

It sounds like you approach your cabaret through a wide variety of repertoire.

RZ: I do. I think the most important part of building my cabaret was learning what I do well, learning what I can get away with and what I shouldn’t do. Ultimately I found I belong in jazz. I have a natural love of and feel for it. I just feel at home when I sing jazz.

What do you find to be the biggest challenges of cabaret from a classical singer’s point of view?

RZ: No fourth wall. I have always been presentational. I had to strip that all away. Cabaret is not about singing. You have to really know what the lyrics mean and then look somebody in the eye.

RF: The personal, psychological aspect of not wanting to sound like a classical singer just trying to do cabaret. The intimacy and the subtext is so immediate. Recitals have storylines, but they aren’t as intimate. OMG…fear of the Mic! I said, Who needs it!’ How do I use it? How do I hold it? How far away should I hold it when I sing a high note? How softly can I sing and will it pick up the sound? We are still in the process of becoming friends – the MIC and I. I actually liked strutting across the stage with it and singing ‘Man I Feel Like a Woman’!

What would you say are the biggest differences in the approach to classical versus cabaret repertoire.

RZ: The biggest thing for me to overcome was being willing to make an ugly sound. I had to seriously make an effort not to listen to myself and not judge what it sounded like. I had to trust my director and music director as I learned to understand the techniques.

RF: It was hard to get past the ’Voice’. In classical music, it’s always a balance between the text and the beauty of the voice. It is largely a difference in the lofty sound of the bel canto and the natural speech sound. I also found it hard keeping the intention of the story and not worrying about the voice. Often in classical singing, the text was secondary to the ‘Voice’.

Are there musical styles or particular rep that your feel are easier for you? Harder?

RZ: For me, I found the jazz was the golden spot. I’m just not a big belter

RF: Surprisingly, I find it easier to sing the big belt songs. That talky sound came quite easily. I find it harder to sing the ballads.

How do you work the lyrics in a classical piece versus cabaret rep?

RZ: I started out as a pianist, so I always gravitate to the music first. I would listen to the composer’s story. Then I would look at the lyric and see how it fit in to the music. With cabaret, you need to first start by looking at the text. I said to myself “This should be easy!” but is not easy. I also had to be willing to make a complete fool of myself during the process of finding my story in each song.

RF: In school, my classical teachers didn’t really talk or focus on the text as much. Learning how to sing the music was first and foremost, and then the text was worked into that. In cabaret, I find that the style of the song develops as I work on the text.

What repertoire are you performing in your cabaret?

RZ: My show has everything. The show was really about exploring all sorts of repertoire and my journey from classical to cabaret. I am doing everything from Vissi D’arte, to Don’t rain on my Parade, the road you didn’t take to Here’s that Rainy Day. Songs that really help to tell my story.

RF: The show developed from the songs I was singing and wanted to sing. We created an arc to tell my story through those songs. The show is made up of songs from the American Songbook and MT repertoire ranging from Jerome Kern to Alex Rybeck and Sara Bareilles.

It was wonderful to get the chance to speak with both of these generous and dynamic artists and singers and hear more about their personal journey from classical to cabaret. It is very interesting to hear from them what was similar in their experiences in developing their first cabaret and what was different. I took two main ideas away from my time with Regna and Roberta. First, is that it can be a very scary process working in the intimate word of cabaret, setting the voice aside and finding your personal story in the song, and then conveying that to the audition. And second, it’s worth the challenge! Both singers said how they expected to just do a cabaret and that would be it, but fell in love with the world of cabaret, as a community and as industry, and are working to become bright members of that world.  I look forward to hearing them in their debut cabarets and beyond.

Photo credit: unknown