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Sarah Joy Miller at LPR, and the tragedy of popera

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This would be so much easier had she just been plain bad, a vanity act, a latter day Florence Foster Jenkins or Ganna Walska, or a real-life Susan Alexander. But she's not. Sarah Joy Miller by all accounts distinguished herself admirably in the City Opera production of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole, a demanding role by a composer known to place considerable technical, musical, and artistic demands on his performers in a notable career punctuated by such excellent works as Greek and Blood on the Floor. Ms. Miller has the talent for a fine career of her own singing the standard lyric coloratura repertoire in regional and B houses. That's not a slight; such a career is highly admirable, and more than that achieved by most aspiring opera singers. But regional sopranos don't normally get record deals and publicists.

At her CD release event at Le Poisson Rouge, Ms. Miller was joined by a pick-up orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio, baritone Edward Parks, and tenor (and husband) David Miller. LPR's notoriously poor acoustics always necessitate amplification, but in this case, the concert hall reverb was also enlisted to obscure vocal flaws. Ms. Miller has a moderately-sized voice with a warm chest, but it narrows appreciably around the secondo passaggio, leading to a somewhat shrill top. These characteristics can all be used for dramatic effect; indeed, many of the great bel canto prime donne, up to and including Maria Callas, were described similarly, and used those features to express their characters' emotional states. The music was, in fact, written with this in mind - all that virtuosic writing, all the runs and filigree, are not mere decoration, but a semiotics of gesture and register, with implications for tone and timbre, which explore and elucidate a character's state. Vocal flaws and mannerisms are tolerated, even celebrated, so long as the singer has vocal control enough to justify dramatically the sounds they are making, and the musicality and self-awareness to exploit such possibilities.

Ms. Miller failed to do that, however, attempting homogeneity and slick production, a generic and consistent beauty of tone that may or may not suit the scenario. This is especially problematic when the singer lacks that quality to begin with. She perfectly assumed the character of the coquette and debutante, imbuing young characters with a real youth. Yet without real vocal subtlety, and a too great an emphasis on high-lying "money notes" available at only a single volume and color, with no subtlety or nuance to them, Ms. Miller was forced to resort to striking the most obvious and conventional poses, with no sense of independent interpretation.

David Miller was a weak tenor, but he had surprising high notes. Excessive jaw tension cut off his chest voice and left his lower range inadequate, the cost of such flashy end-gaining. Overall, he was a moderately sincere cipher. Baritone Edward Parks had an energetic presence and also the same jaw tension undercutting chest production in exchange for high Gs that last for days. His "Largo al factotum" was charismatic if unoriginal, and featured some appropriate Harlequin postures.

It should be mentioned that all the performers, conductor and orchestra included, were good-looking and fit the part of glamorous, beautiful soap opera stars. They sang comic arias and love arias, leaving tragedy, madness, and despair for another day. This was an evening representative of only the most innocuous and crowd-pleasing notions of opera. Oh, and Sarah Joy met Il Divo alumnus David on the set of Baz Luhrmann's Broadway Bohème, an attempt to adapt Puccini's opera to musical audience tastes with amplification and pretty faces without necessarily notable voices. In short, this was not a performance of opera, but of "popera," opera watered down for a mass audience that lacks the experience or education to appreciate the idiom on its own terms. Reaching an apex with the Three Tenors and Pavarotti and Friends, it plays off operatic tropes of scale and melodrama, broadcast emotions, volume, and high notes, but without much substance beneath those unspecific signifiers. That explains why a competent workaday soprano got herself an album and PR machine: the standards on which she was being judged were not those of other opera singers, but were based on her ability to conform to the image of a cut-rate, all-American Anna Netrebko, vocal prowess optional.

The tragedy of popera is not its existence, as some snarky traditionalists might put it, but its lack of confidence. For as long as there has been opera, there has been light opera and operetta, and their various analogues, forms parallel to and more populist and popular and than their elite cousin. Written in a vernacular accent of the elevated classical language, they were more approachable and accessible for audiences lacking the specialized education to get the most out of opera, or the patience or endurance to sit through a long night of formality and/or tragedy. Light opera referenced and sometimes mocked opera for its overwrought and rarified excesses and provided entertaining, escapist theater. Sometimes they were more ambitious, sometimes less. But they had legitimacy precisely because they knew their niche and made no pretenses to high art; paradoxically, in that humility they often very nearly achieved the sublime, as in the absurdities of Offenbach or the grace of Lehar.

Yet today to fill that same niche, we have popera, an operatic "greatest hits" parade reduced to the broad stereotypes of the form, embedded in the popular imagination, without regard for context, history, or quality. Opera is often associated with status, and so audiences use it to establish their cultural sophistication with some recognizable tunes, melodrama, spectacle, and a generic decontextualized "beauty." Far from democratizing high culture, popera is a privileging of opera and the prestige it symbolizes - having nothing to do with any qualities intrinsic to opera - to the abandonment of other elevated popular forms, with which that audience might have the requisite familiarity and education to appreciate more than a few superficial aspects thereof. Why cheapen opera in the name of status? Why not take pride in one's own musical inclinations and seek fulfillment from those interests one already has, regardless of the prestige value assigned to it? There are any number of pop, rock, and jazz groups that appeal to mature and elite tastes, while the lush neoromantic music theater of an Adam Guettel, among others, is just the synthesis of popular and operatic traditions to qualify as contemporary light opera. It is unfortunate that the artistic potential of relevant and current genres is being overshadowed in favor of reverence to one popera audiences clearly know or care little about.

The relative youth of the performers was sycophantically praised by the aging MC, as if to affirm the audience, that their opera tastes were legitimized by being both fashionable and hot, yet enduring. Yet the tropes and hackneyed comic shtick between numbers were not the stuff of a new generation, but replication of clichés for the gratification of the old, without threatening change or renewal, the inevitable consequences of the inheritors claiming an art as their own. The result was something stale, forced, and inauthentic, made worse for its pretensions to something fresh and special. Had the evening been framed as mindless, unchallenging popera, slyly irreverent and informal, in a venue with excellent cocktails, rather than the presentation of a new opera star ready to conquer the international stage, the evening might have yet been tolerable, if not even fun. It would at least have been honest. There is no shame for a coffee connoisseur to like a Starbucks Frappuccino, provided it is understood not as coffee, but as a "confectionary coffee-based beverage." But as coffee, Frappuccinos fail on every level, as did this evening - almost.

As her encore, Ms. Miller sang "I could have danced all night" from My Fair Lady. The amplification temporarily cut off, and the balance was radically altered, the singer's voice coming through the orchestra's texture and not dominating it. Miller, in a more comfortable register and relaxed, her singing more intimate, human and humanly fallible, offered the most touching moments of the evening, truly beautiful, in contrast to the formalized, forced "beauty" of the arias. One could hear in her a compelling presence in legit music theater, a lyric coloratura version of Kristen Chenoweth or a perkier Audra McDonald without the gravitas. Alternatively she could very successfully continue to star in innovative, topical opera better tailored to her assets as performer. And by that, not so much her sex appeal, to be typecast as Anna Nicoles, but as a singer with range and flexibility and a contemporary sensibility. Turnage was a perfect vehicle for her. Sarah Joy Miller's popera tragedy is that it pushes her away from music in which she could really make a personal mark, and into an industry where that true voice, her individuality and agency, must be sacrificed to impersonal commodification.

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