A tribute to Cole Porter

By Philippa Kiraly

It’s always a red-letter week when Marvin Hamlisch comes to town, and even more so this time since he brought an entire program of Cole Porter’s music with him. I caught the last of four performances with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall Sunday afternoon and Hamlisch, who has been doing this for 40 years or so, sounded as fresh and as inimitably witty as ever.

His trademark style always includes some conversation with the youngest concertgoers in seats near the front, and thrown-off remarks about the weather, the city, or whatever, while at the same time he is making kind and appreciative comments about the orchestra, the audience, and the soloists. It’s all very relaxed and the performance goes along smoothly appearing to be quite casual, though you know it is the end result of years of well-designed practice.

Two conductors in identical tail coats and snowy shirtfronts came out at the start. While Hamlisch headed for the piano, the orchestra’s assistant conductor Eric Garcia took over the podium for the first number “A Tribute to Cole Porter” arranged by Torrie Zito.

Hamlisch had the piano lid down, but there was never a problem hearing his share of this medley of Porter tunes. After this Garcia disappeared, his part done, and Hamlisch then divided his time btween podium and piano, when he wasn’t chatting to the audience.

He brought with him for this program two fine young singers with stage style, soprano Kelli O’Hara and baritone Doug LaBrecque. The two strolled on and off the stage, singing together or individually in one after another of Porter’s songs, most very familiar: “Let’s Do It,” “You’re the Top,” My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” Tale of the Oyster,” “Always True to You in my Fashion,” and more.

These two have great voices. I was struck by the difference between theirs and those we usually hear in opera. Last week I heard three well-known, very fine opera singers, John Relyea, Eduardo Chama and Malgorzata Walewska, in Seattle Opera’s production of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte.” Each of these three has great dramatic impact as a singer. All have well-developed vibratos to their voices. There is nothing wrong with this so long as it is easy to hear what pitch they are actually on, but the vibrato is pretty well constant throughout.

O’Hara and LaBrecque, on the other hand, have voices which have the warmth and expressiveness we expect from operatic voices (O’Hara won her State Metropolitan Opera Audition and has a degree in opera), but they use vibrato as an ornament to decorate the note, not as an obsessive presence. Their pitch sense was on the money all the time, and top notes sounded easy.

However, O’Hara and LaBrecque use microphones, as is usual for this type of music. They do not have to strain their voices to pitch the sound to the furthest corners of the balcony. Opera singers don’t use mikes. Their voices, unless very carefully nurtured, can begin to show signs of strain—uncontrollable vibrato—sooner.

So why don’t opera singers use tiny mikes the audience doeesn’t see or notice the presence of?
Suffice it to say that while I thoroughly enjoyed the opera, I very much appreciated the quality of O’Hara’s and LaBrecque’s voices.

They ended with “Begin the Beguine.”

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