Transforming the Operatic Voice

Transforming the Operatic Voice | Toby Young

Opera is generally perceived as an especially elitist art form. Despite the combined efforts of organisations from the Royal Opera House to Opera for Everyone, the idea that opera is ‘posh’ persists. Even amongst Classic FM listeners, 60% said that they felt that opera was either too posh, long, or expensive to attend, and 50% couldn’t name a single opera singer. But how different are operatic and popular music singing styles?

This question underpinned Toby Young’s KE Fellowship ‘Transforming the Operatic Voice’, which looked at the relationship between singing styles in popular music and opera in collaboration with the opera company McCaldin Arts. ‘This project was my way of trying to tackle this old-fashioned stereotype’, he writes.

Toby conducted a theoretical study of the musical and aesthetic considerations of different singing styles, and explored the results of his study in a workshop with singers specialising in various different genres. The results showed that styles of singing in opera, folk music, and pop are all interconnected. This presents a significant challenge to the stereotype that opera is more ‘elitist’ or ‘posh’ than other art forms, and has ramifications for concert programming that seeks to marry opera with other genres.

Toby writes: ‘Going into the project I had lots of preconceived ideas about how things sounded and why they sounded that way. The most exciting thing during the project … was hearing our singers completely turning these notions on their heads … showing these styles all have a lot more in common than I had thought.’ Toby’s findings were shared on a radio programme for 104.4 Resonance FM, and in a concert programme devised specifically for McCaldin Arts. The concert fused popular and operatic vocal styles, and was performed around the country.

Toby also wrote a song for the company’s founder, Clare McCaldin, which she later recorded. This Fellowship research has provided the foundations for an AHRC major research grant application. If successful, the grant will provide funding to investigate this project over the next three years, as well as offering a larger platform to help disseminate the findings to the general public and the music industry.

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View of a concert hall from the sage towards the audience