Arts: The rise and rise of big voice

Broadway? Opera? Cabaret? Soul? Audra McDonald performs each style with awesome assurance. This summer sees her British debut - in cabaret and at the Proms - and she explains how she crosses so many musical borders with ease. By Edward Seckerson

There appear to be at least three highly talented singing actresses going by the name of Audra McDonald. Over the last five years each has scored a notable Broadway success and each in turn has scooped the stage equivalent of the movie Oscar, the coveted Tony Award. 1994: Audra McDonald, sweet-singing ingenue, scene-steals her way through the role of dizzy, homespun Carrie Pipperidge in the Broadway transfer of our own National Theatre production of Carousel. 1996: Audra McDonald, accomplished operatic soprano as feisty would-be diva Sharron in Terrence McNally's Master Class gives Zoe Caldwell's Maria Callas something to think about. 1998: Audra McDonald, soul singer extraordinaire, finds a lifetime of pride and defiance in just two numbers as Sarah "Brown Eyes" in the Broadway adaptation of EL Doctorow's Ragtime. Three very different characters, three very different voices.

In actual fact, of course, they all belong to the one, the only, the very versatile Audra McDonald. She has a solo album - her debut - out this month on the ever-enterprising Nonesuch label, and it's truly remarkable and innovative in several respects. First, there's McDonald herself - a "singing actress" for whom all bets are on, all options open. She likes the idea that she's difficult to pin down, to "place", and that she can go on reinventing herself as long as there are characters to find and their songs to discover.

It is satisfying for her to know that folk who heard her sing the "letter aria" from Verdi's Macbeth night after night in McNally's Master Class might not at first make the connection with the throaty soulfulness of Sarah's numbers in Ragtime. It's as if McDonald's voice evolves with the character she's creating. The range of styles encompassed in her new album is pretty bewildering, and the risk factor is high. But that's what drives her. "When it's music that fills my soul," she says, "there's just no fear." That's a quaint, even fanciful thing to say, but you know she means it. She looks you straight in the eye when she's saying it. The voice does, too. It tells you exactly what it thinks and feels and understands.

Let's take a look at the voice. Essentially, it's a lyric soprano, effortlessly produced, fresh, warm, "covered" throughout the range. Very easy on the ear. But then she starts mixing in the chest tones, singing sweet and low down, and a smokiness pervades. It's in the attitude as much as the sound. And out of that smokiness, the gospel truth emerges, the rigour and rasp of those soulful melismas. And when she really needs to turn on the power, there's the hard belt. And that's when you'd better watch out.

So there you have it: a voice that does what needs to be done when it needs to be done. It doesn't draw attention to what it can do (though, heaven knows, there's not much it can't) but rather why it's doing it. Ask Audra McDonald what she hopes listeners might take away from her debut album, and she's back at you without a moment's hesitation: "A desire to know these composers better." And that's the second most remarkable thing about Way Back to Paradise: you won't know a single one of the songs. Or, for that matter, the composers. Yet.

There are five of them: Jason Robert Brown, Jenny Giering, Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, Michael John La Chiusa. And they are the new generation of composer-lyricists resetting the stage of the musical theatre in America today. Adam Guettel (grandson of the great Richard Rodgers) may be the most familiar, partly on account of his stunning off-Broadway show Floyd Collins (soon to be seen in London). It's really not surprising that McDonald's first album should feature four startlingly original Guettel songs. Well, I say songs, but one - a queasy duet entitled "Come to Jesus", which counterpoints the thoughts of a woman about to have an abortion with those of the devastated lover who has deserted her - is a drama in itself. Guettel has the self-confidence to boldly go beyond where Stephen Sondheim has led us.

In fact, he and Michael John LaChiusa have just been commissioned by the Lyric Opera and Goodman Theatre, Chicago. In a unique joint venture that signals smarter times ahead for the Great White Way, the Lyric Opera will workshop pieces which the Goodman Theatre will then stage. It's a long-overdue attempt to promote symbiosis between opera and music theatre - something that Leonard Bernstein, for one, fervently advocated - and it reflects a sea change in attitudes to music theatre training at institutions such as the Juillard School, where Audra McDonald studied.

Therein hangs a sorry tale. Having made her choice between an acting scholarship at the University of Southern California and vocal studies at Juillard, she arrived at Juillard only to find that "vocal studies" did not extend to popular song and Broadway. And that basic performance skills - acting and movement - were not regarded as a valid part of a student's classical, that is, operatic, training. Things have changed now, but then, classical and Broadway just didn't mix. You didn't do both.

Except, of course, that McDonald did. Her voice was operatic, but her sensibilities were all Broadway. She had served her apprenticeship in dinner theatre where musicals were the staple diet; the goddesses in her pantheon ranged from Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand to Maria Callas and Mirella Freni. She had assumed she could develop both aspects of her vocal personality. Her credo was simple: "If I like the song, I'll sing it." So this was not a happy time.

There were those on the faculty who fought to get the Broadway sound out of her voice. She fought back. Her senior recital - equal parts European song, jazz standards and musical theatre - required three accompanists. But still she was made to feel somehow illegitimate.

She took a sabbatical and went on the road with Lucy Simon's The Secret Garden. Then Carousel came up. She fainted, mid-song, at the audition, but got the job and the Tony anyway. She cancelled her next audition - for McNally's Master Class - in a fit of panic half an hour before she was due to sing. But she got that job and that Tony, too. Maybe opera and Broadway were compatible after all.

It's probably fair to say that McDonald was genetically predestined to become a singer. Her mother sang, both her grandmothers sang. In Fresno, California, where she grew up (she was in fact born in Berlin, 28 years ago), five McDonald aunts, better known as the McDonald Sisters, toured (and still do) as a gospel troupe. "I reckon that if I hadn't sung well I would probably have been sent back!" But she did and she wasn't and perhaps the true secret of her success lies with her instinctiveness. By resisting the pressure to forge a purely operatic career, she has, if you like, held on to her vocal independence.

Her voice is easily assimilated into myriad styles, provided she keeps it well exercised. Vocal aerobics, she calls them. While doing Ragtime she needed to exercise the upper part of the voice, the soprano part, the part above the break (show music tends to bring the voice down to where there's more chest tone in the mix). The reverse was true during her stint in Master Class. Her singing coach would "take her down to the basement in search of Ethel Merman and then all the way up to find Mirella Freni". She'd go back to the theatre sounding like Minnie Mouse. Or Mighty Mouse, as the case may be.

The title song of her album - "Way Back to Paradise" - a punchy, impatiently syncopated gospel number, could mark the way to her fourth Tony. Its source is Michael John LaChiusa's Marie Christine, a Creole reworking of the Medea myth that is to be McDonald's next Broadway stage appearance. We, meanwhile, can look forward to her appearance at this year's Proms in a concert performance (conducted by Sir Simon Rattle) of Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town. A recording is on the way, too. And later this year she appears in cabaret at the Donmar Warehouse, as part of a second series of "Divas at the Donmar".

Last year she performed at Carnegie Hall singing selections from Porgy and Bess in a Gershwin Centenary Concert under Michael Tilson Thomas. No microphones. No costumes. No wigs. No make-up. No character to hide behind. Just Audra McDonald. The natural voice, the unvarnished truth. And it felt good. Scary but good. Which, of course, was precisely why she did it in the first place. "If it scares you", she says, "then you need to do it."

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