In the last couple of decades ‘classical crossover’ has emerged as an immensely popular music genre that offers a more palatable entry point to classical singing and opera to the pop-music-oriented younger generations. Although it is much resisted in the more traditional segment of the classical/opera audience as ‘watered down goods’, crossover (or ‘popera’) is having much success in claiming a place in the mainstream of modern entertainment, thanks to the popularity of stars like Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, et.al.
One of the upcoming artists who is swimming in this musical water like a merry mermaid in the open sea is Elizabeth Tryon, a classically trained young soprano from New York who sings everything from self-authored pop tunes to Broadway and operatic numbers. She has recently released a solo CD, From Elizabeth, and, somehow, still managed to find time from her actively creative schedule to help round out my education in the various areas of music with this cyber interview.
Smorg: What is music to you? What compelled you to become a performer?
ET: Music has always been a mood elevator for me; I find it exhilarating and soothing at the same time. Ever since I can remember I’ve walked around humming to myself and I listened to all the recordings my family owned over and over again. I first knew I wanted to be a performer when I was four years old and I took part in a dance recital. I felt so at home and happy during the rehearsals and performances that I knew this was what I wanted to do. And that feeling has stayed with me ever since.
Smorg: You started out in pop singing but then branched out to include classical and opera arias… But your first exposure to the latter wasn’t all that impressive at first. Do you remember what the opera was and why the performance didn’t set you on fire?
ET: I didn’t really get my start as a pop singer professionally (my first paid gigs were singing classical music in churches) but when I was a kid I assumed I would become a pop singer because pop singing was what predominantly surrounded me. My mother and my friends listened to pop music, so I figured that all singers sang pop, with perhaps the occasional Broadway stint thrown in. I knew that opera existed, but I didn’t know anything else about it.
Then when I was ten years old my school music teacher told me she thought I could be an opera singer someday and she took our class to the Met to see The Elixir of Love with Pavarotti singing Nemorino. I was shocked to hear singers sounding so different than any singers I’d ever heard. The singing was so much more powerful and fuller than what I was used to that I thought it sounded very strange. Also the opera was in Italian, and the Met did not have subtitles at the time, so that made it seem even stranger to me.
With my music teachers’ encouragement I gradually started listening to more classical singing. Then after I started studying voice I sang my first aria and I discovered that arias feel better in my voice than any other type of song. And then I heard Natalie Dessay singing live and that made a huge impression on me. I was so amazed at the way the music seemed to be coming from all around her instead of just out of her mouth. I was so inspired and I wanted to sing that way myself some day.
Smorg: Did you study both pop singing and classical/opera singing at Indiana University (I remember that when Eileen Farrell was teaching there she taught scat jazz singing as well as opera)? Isn’t it hard to sing both, since they use such different singing technique?
ET: I only studied opera singing at Indiana University. When I came to New York City I studied some pop technique with my teachers here, although I mostly studied opera. It is difficult to sing in both styles, especially in my current concert in which I switch back and forth from opera singing to pop singing to pop/classical “crossover” singing. The reason I’m able to do this is because I study a technique called Breathing Coordination here in NY with Steven Flam. This innovative technique allows the diaphragm, ribs, and other breathing apparatus to work together very efficiently. Since I’ve studied this technique my body is flexible enough to allow me to switch between different styles of singing easily, and it also makes my singing in general much more powerful. I highly recommend it!
Smorg: Eileen Farrell was one of the few singers who made it big both as a popular singer and an opera singer… But in her glory days of the 1950’s a lot of classical singers also sang non-classical music. ‘Cross-over’ wasn’t such a controversial singing ground then as it seems to be now. Have you encountered much resistance from the traditionalist classical/opera audience?
ET: Fortunately I haven’t encountered much resistance. I think classical fans can tell that I’ve studied classical singing a great deal and that I love it as well as crossover. Also, it’s true that in the 1950’s classical music was more in the mainstream of our culture and that classical singers sang different styles of music, but even today I think that audiences are much more open to enjoying different styles of music than they’re sometimes given credit for.
Smorg: I think… that singing opera and classical pieces is made more difficult with the additional baggage of ‘inevitable’ comparison to performances done by past (or other present) great singers, whereas pop artists performing original material are allowed the greater freedom of expression. Do you find the comparison to other singers artistically stifling to a degree… even with the allure of the sense of accomplishment to be had in being able to handle such difficult music? Or do you enjoy it as a challenge?
ET: I definitely enjoy the challenge of singing music that was written for the vocal and interpretative strengths of great singers, and I’m certainly influenced by past and present great singers. But when I’m about to sing an aria or an opera role, I don’t think about other singers. I just think about what the aria / role means to me. I think every singer brings their own uniqueness to their performances whether they are singing opera or pop music, so I don’t really worry about it.
Smorg: What do you feel is the hardest aspect of singing opera aria? And in singing pop tunes?
ET: I guess the hardest thing about singing pop tunes is not using vibrato. As for arias…it varies as I continue to study. Things that were impossible eventually get easier, only to be replaced by new goals to strive for. Right now my challenge is to maintain my stamina while singing the role of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos.
But overall the hardest aspect of singing for me has been learning to get out of my own way and not try so hard. There’s sort of this paradox that I the less I do the better it sounds, so I have to trust that!
Smorg: You also write your own pop music and even a screenplay for a film. Is there a main motivation behind your artistic creations? To get out a particular message? To reflect current events? To relate your life experience?
ET: When I create anything I feel like I’m in my own happy little world and there’s so much freedom, so I just enjoy that feeling. Also I do find myself relating my life experiences through this process. My idea of a satisfying life is one that is spent creating things and performing them, since both things have to do with (hopefully) connecting with people and finding common ground. So I guess my main motivation is finding common ground with other people.
Smorg: Sherrill Milnes is one of the greatest operatic baritones of his generation. What was it like working with Sherrill Milnes the conductor during the opera concert tour of Greece? Did he pass along any tips?
ET: I believe that Sherrill Milnes is genuinely committed to helping young singers. He spent a lot of time with all of us, not just coaching but also talking to us in general. He let us relate to him as a person, not just an opera star, and I’m grateful to him for that. I learned a lot about the life style of a professional opera singer from him which was extremely helpful.
Smorg: You have a solo album out. Could you tell us how it was put together and what it means to you?
ET: Making my solo album has been one of my biggest adventures so far, and it is proving to me that anything is possible.
As I’ve been studying and performing classical music, I’ve continued listening to pop music, and I also write my own pop songs on the piano. For a long time I wanted to make an album that would include both my original pop songs and classical music, but the trouble was that I would have to record and produce my pop songs in a pop music studio with a producer, and I didn’t have any connections in the pop music world.
So I got on the Internet and I looked up successful pop music producers whose music I admired from the radio. Through careful searching I actually managed to find a few phone numbers and I just called these people out of the blue. Thankfully everyone was pretty nice to me considering that my phone call was completely unexpected! Eventually I found one producer who, just by chance, had grown up in the town next to my hometown. This gave us a foundation for conversation, and we started getting to know each other a little. He eventually listened to my music and referred me to a producer he knew in Brooklyn. That was the key – getting a referral from someone already in the pop music business! Suddenly people were much more willing to talk to me.
The producer in Brooklyn referred me to someone else, and in this way I found one of my current producers, Grammy winner Scott Jacoby. Scott listened to the rough demo CDs of my songs (which I had recorded in my basement on very cheap equipment). He helped me find musicians and he taught me a tremendous amount about record producing. After that I got a music attorney and through her I found my second producer, Anthony Resta. Anthony has worked with Elton John, Blondie, and numerous other stars. Anthony also contributed a great deal to my recordings and thanks to the two of them my songs have been brought to life!
After the recording process was complete one of my original songs “Fire Inside” broke the Top 10 on the FMQB AC National Radio Chart, and two of my other songs, “Gift” and “Dancing Girl“, both went to #12 on the chart. I also got on the Internet (again) and contacted a highly gifted young music video director named Zina Brown of Thousand Names Productions. Zina was willing to work with me on a music video for “Fire Inside“, and he did an amazing, almost miraculous job. With only a tiny fraction of the resources available to big stars, he has made a music video that looks one hundred percent professional.
So this album (which is available at www.cdbaby.com/cd/elizabethtryon) is a dream come true for me. I fervently hope it will be the first of many albums. I also have a live concert in which I perform the original pop songs on my album in addition to opera and other classical favorites. I have been performing this concert in the NY metro area to standing-room-only crowds, thank goodness, so I am feeling very hopeful that I will be able to continue living my dream of performing both classical and pop styles of music.
Elizabeth Tryon’s concert footage is available online at: www.youtube.com/elizabethtryon You can also check out other goodies at her website: www.elizabethtryon.com
Other musicians interviewed by Smorg: Juliette Galstian (operatic mezzo-soprano), Rene Tornero G (rock-fusion guitarist), Integr8d Soul (folk-pop band)