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Cunegonde and Coloratura: Harolyn Blackwell on Musical Technique

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Harolyn BlackwellHarolyn BlackwellCunegonde's aria "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's operetta Candide is a performance of a performance, a show-stopping coloratura solo in which the character describes how she has been "forced to bend my soul to a sordid role" of being the caged slave of the Grand Inquisitor and Don Issachar. The character switches back and forth between her disgust at her situation and her temptation at the jewelry, furs, and champagne that come with her new status. It's a tricky song, not least because it requires the actress to hit high E flats in the coloratura solo. "It's an endurance piece," said Harolyn Blackwell, who sang the part in the 1997 Broadway revival.

When I spoke to Blackwell about her thoughts on the piece and on playing Cunegonde in general, a funny thing began to happen. To recall the performance, Blackwell began to perform it again over the telephone, singing the lines and then pausing every so often to interject her own comment. Here I got a sense of Cunegonde through the lens of a singer's technique, as she rehearsed the technique so many years after performing it five days a week. This is not news to any actress who can talk about her craft, but it was striking to hear Blackwell speak in three different voices—her singing voice, her speaking voice as Cunegonde, and her own voice as she explained the technique. "There's a more optimistic look on life for Cunegonde. She goes through all these tribulations…" she said. She began to sing lines from the final song of the show, "Make Our Garden Grow": "I thought the world was sugarcake…"

"Yes, we both thought that," Blackwell explained, taking on the voice of Cunegonde as she reminds Candide what they have both learned on their travels. "But this is what life is about." Then she modulated her voice again. "Through that optimism there's a practical way of living." In Voltaire's telling, Cunegonde takes control of the story as she narrates her story for two chapters. In Bernstein's operetta, she rules the stage. "I think ‘Glitter and Be Gay' says it all," said Blackwell. Here Blackwell became Cunegonde once again: she sang the lyrics of the song as her explanation of the character.

"Maybe I can have the jewels, the champagne, that extensive wardrobe," Blackwell explained Cunegonde's attempt to make sense of the situation. "Perhaps it is ignoble to complain. She goes back and forth!" Cunegonde tries to convince herself of how she'll "show her noble stuff, by being bright and cheerful."

Pearls and ruby rings
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
….
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
 

"The lyrics are great," Blackwell said as she remembered the lines and acting out Cunegonde's story. "They really do say it all." I ask if the aria's virtuosity is the musical equivalent of all those baubles, where any actress can glitter and be gay. "Yes, exactly! That's it. It's an endurance piece."

She described the technique: "Well first of all the first half of the aria you have to sing it very legato. When you get to the ‘ha ha ha' part you have to keep the legato but you have to have the marcato, too. You have to think of the staccati notes as legato notes, but shortened. … It will cut off the air if you don't think of the legato line under it. Keep thinking from the beginning of the phrase to the end—never think of it note by note. You have to learn the passagio from top to bottom. You don't want to hear breaks from one note to another. It has to be as clean and as tight as possible. It's like have a gearbox in a car? Do you know what I mean? If you don't go through the gears properly, it starts to shake."

It was here that I sensed that Blackwell had taken on yet another role: teacher. "Do you teach voice now?" I asked. "It sounds like you're teaching someone how to perform the piece now."

Blackwell paused. "Oh, yes, I hadn't thought of that." She has been teaching voice at Barnard College for a few years. "I probably wouldn't have been able to explain it like this when I was performing it," she said, "but I have a different perspective now, and I have to be able to teach it, not just perform it."

She resumed her instruction: "You have to speak in the middle of this piece. What you have to learn is how to support your voice in speaking and in singing. When we speak normally, we don't support. Here you're supporting your voice from the beginning to the end, from the singing to the speaking. It would be interesting to see how it would be different from an opera singer's perspective, as opposed to someone from musical theater training.

"Working with a great voice teacher and coaches can help… When you're doing this five shows a week, it's tough. I asked Barbara Cook [who played the role in the 1957 production] how she did it. In the opera houses, they have a day or two off, but on the Bway stage you're doing it five shows a week. At the end of the week I was saying, ‘just give me one more E flat! Just one more!' I would say that technically, that show taught me what it was like to survive, from a technique standpoint. Some days you can go out there and interpret all you want to but other days, you really have to focus on technique."

See related post: "Candide on Broadway: An Interview with Maureen Brennan"

Arrange to see a variety of Candide-related videorecordings at the Theater on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) at the Library for the Performing Arts. For example:

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