I’m sure you’ve heard the line, “If you can sing classical, then you can sing anything.” Well, it’s simply not true. Have you ever heard Placido Domingo’s versions of popular hits? He’s got an incredible voice, but it’s not pop singing. Incidentally, the term pop refers to all popular modern music styles (rock, R&B, rap, country, folk, etc.) In the same way, I doubt Steven Tyler would ever make it past the first audition of a regional opera company if he were an unknown. The fundamentals are the same for all singers, just like basic physical training is necessary for all sports. From there, specialized muscle behaviors develop based on demand. What an opera singer requires from the voice is much different than a pop singer; to say that one is easier than the other is ridiculous. Yet, pop seems to retain a Rodney Dangerfield complex; it never gets any respect.
There was a time in history when opera was pop music. Before electricity, what defined you as a singer was the ability to fill a hall with sound. In order to project the voice, the resonating cavities within the body must be specifically aligned and the vocal folds need to be supported with a precise amount of air pressure. This is no easy task. A shirtless, tattooed, muscular hard-core singer doubled over in effort cannot match the volume produced by a concert tenor on top of his game. The only way to travel back in time and witness this kind of skill is to attend a performance of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The Met is the last great theater in this country which does not enhance performers with a sound system. The singers project naturally over a full orchestra, up to the fifth balcony, and never show a hint of muscle effort. Pretty amazing.
These days, what defines you as a pop singer is the ability to fill a hall with people. To do this, you must embody some element of modern culture. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sex symbol or a raging poet you’d better be comfortable with the image because it takes years of consistency to build an audience. This is no easy task, either. The schedule of any moderately successful pop singer would make a classical prima-donna wither. Singing night after night, even with the aid of a sound system, requires incredible strength and stamina. Spend a few weeks behind the scenes with any major touring act and you will witness non-stop promotional chores, as much as any presidential candidate, topped off by a demanding show each night. Pretty amazing.
An opera singer’s objective is to become the voice of a composer; to allow Mozart, Debussy or Puccini to shine through. A pop singer’s objective is to become the voice of a generation, which often means he or she is the composer. Opera singers seek vocal purity. This specific goal often requires that they cheat the pronunciation of a word in favor of maintaining the right internal environment. For emotional impact, pop singer’s also alter the sounds of their words. I am always quick to defend this by pointing out that the Met offers small screens on the seat-backs which scroll the lyrics, even when the opera is in English. So, what’s the big deal if you can’t understand a few words in a rock or rap song? It is true that pop singing can be hard on the vocal folds. But it is a misconception that only pop singers blow out their voices. Imbalance will punish any singer, no matter what genre. To maintain your voice, it’s healthy to explore various singing styles just like athletes who cross-train. However, there is never a reason to apologize for being a pop singer. There is no such thing as second class art.