Everything Must Change ~ Metropolitan Room
When Marcus Simeone first came on the scene some years ago, a lot of people were taken with his voice—as was I. Pure, lovely, and ethereal, it is quite a striking instrument. However, I found his approach and sensibilities lounge-y, with too much emphasis placed on producing sounds, rather than on content or meaning.
Over the ensuing years, I have seen him perform many times, and I was pleased to see growth. A turning point came a few years back, when his show included several interpretations that were dramatically grounded and free of extraneous embellishment. Most notable of these was “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol’s chilling song about the lynching of blacks in the American South. Simeone’s rendition was compelling.
His new show includes “Strange Fruit,” and his performance remains strong-though a few words are not clearly delivered (easy to correct). There are other good turns, especially with a couple of comic Janis Ian songs: “Married in London,” a cute and pointed comment on the geographically varying legality of gay marriage, and “Autobiography,” a shameless celebration of oneself.
On just about every other number, though, I fear that his lounge sensibilities have grown exponentially. In the middle of a quiet rendition comes, out of the blue and arbitrarily, a loud note or phrase—vocally impressive, but anathema to interpretation, i.e., to the communication of meaning. Or a relatively straightforward rendition will be undermined by tacky hand gestures or by a too-visible vocal technique. (To the extent possible, the audience should be shielded from the mechanics of producing notes.) The most disheartening development is his increased use of melisma, which is present in at least 75% of this program. In the first two numbers alone, there is enough melisma to light the city of Cleveland for a month. [A while ago, I commented on melisma in my column on the MAC web site, www.macnyc.com; I’ve duplicated some of those comments below.]
This style of singing appears to be popular with a large segment of the population, so perhaps adopting it is a good career move, but I don’t know; if it is, I wish him luck with it. I do know, however, what I think of it artistically.
For the record, at the performance I saw, Tracy Stark was at the piano, substituting for musical director Barry Levitt with only one day’s notice. Her accompaniment was commendable; my hat’s off to her.
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Comments on melisma
Oh, dear, what a revoltin’ development this is—surely one of the most insidious malaises to have afflicted popular music in the past two decades. My dictionary defines melisma as “an ornamental phrase of several notes sung to one syllable of text.” It has become all but ubiquitous—and, regrettably, immensely popular with uncritical audiences, who greet this silliness with cheers, whistles, and applause; the longer and more irrelevant the frills and furbelows, the more enthusiastic the audience’s response.
Years ago, I heard someone try to legitimize melisma by characterizing it as the contemporary equivalent of fioritura, a vocal technique employed in 18th and early 19thCentury opera. While there are similarities between the two, there is a crucial difference. Soprano arias of the period were written for that aesthetic; one would not hear a soprano superimpose those embellishments on, say, Wagner or Puccini. Similarly, I do not have an argument with a singer’s employing melisma when performing a contemporary song that was written in that idiom; however, all too many of today’s popular singers think nothing of willy-nilly subjecting songs written with an entirely different sensibility to the unwelcome assault of melisma. There are two serious problems with this approach: (1) it mars the melodic line, and (2) it shifts our attention from the singer’s interpretation of the song-i.e., of its meaning-to his or her vocal prowess.
About the Author
Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.