John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music



John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #8


JOHN EATON: Well, you know, there’s another thing that enters in to these kinds of plays and so on, taking place in opera. And that, to me, is the form of the Broadway musical. I admire the musical enormously. It’s a terrific art form. I tried to write musicals when I was a kid: they were a flop, completely. But the fact is, though, that it’s a very different thing from opera. And it’s very different in terms of what the music is expected to do. I mean, the music in opera really is the embodiment of the drama, of what you’re watching. And it’s involved with the drama being expressed by vocal gesture. In musical comedy, this just isn’t true. People sing in a way to make the words clear, absolutely clear and stand out. So that something which is in America, a popular American theater piece, does much better with a musical comedy setting, or with some kind of hybrid, you know, than it does as a purely operatic experience, it seems to me. First of all, there are too many words, usually.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. Yeah.

JOHN EATON: And then, as I say, the singing, the notion of singing is so totally different. I mean, in opera we go to have the exciting experience of a beautiful voice expressing very musically internalized drama in vocal gesture. And we just don’t do that in musicals.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is an issue that really strikes to the core of what I do as a composer. You know, you listen to Puccini and you listen to Verdi, and these singers are singing bel canto and it works because it was a style of singing created for the Italian language. Those vocal techniques were designed for European languages, and so it works for European languages. I don’t really know if it works in English, especially not American English. I don’t think it works for me at all as a composer, and when I work with a singer who has operatic training, I’m always terrified… I set a lot of poetry to music, and I want those words to come across very succinctly. And the “aesthetically good vowels,” and the way consonants are sung, I think destroys English syntax

JOHN EATON: Well, I think many English diction coaches have let us down in not paying as much attention to English diction as they have to, you know, proper pronunciation of Italian or German. I mean, I think that English is an exceedingly singable language, and always has been. I mean, look at Purcell, look at Handel, you know, it can be and should be sung. It’s just simply that, yeah, people falsified the vowels, and they shouldn’t.

FRANK J. OTERI: Or they roll the r’s. I can’t stand that!

JOHN EATON: There’s also a lot of bad text setting, in that composers don’t give, on high notes, you know, open vowels, nice vowels to sing on that open the throat. They don’t use those kinds of vowels for melismas, you know. And, I think it’s a really involved question. Now, I don’t want anything that I’ve said to be construed as thinking that I don’t think that there are lots of other possibilities. Like an amalgam of musical comedy and opera.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, certainly, I’ve heard that in some of your more recent pieces, certainly the Genesis opera, and also in Golk, where there are elements that are coming from musical theater or from cabaret singing. And I think it’s very effective, because it really works.

JOHN EATON: Yeah, although more from, I think, probably more from jazz, if the truth is noted. Jazz singing, and so on. But, oh yeah, absolutely it, I mean, it will work. But I think that just straightforward presentation of the text, without involving other musical genres and so on, works as well.