Confessions of a Classical Singer: Les Misérables

Brace yourself – it’s confession time.

Years and years before I even cared at all about opera, I loved musical theater.

And long before I ever dreamed about about singing La Fée, Norina, Sophie (both Strauss’ and Massenet’s), Marie, or Susanna, I fantasized about singing Cosette and Eponine. I listened to the Les Misérables Complete Symphonic Recording non-stop (I had the CD set, but you can find it on YouTube as well). I knew all the words and all the numbers, and I even knew the slightly operatic recitatives (perhaps a hint of the direction I would being moving in?) and found them weirdly fascinating.


Iconic Playbill and Les Misérables image. Broadway, 2014.

It wasn’t just Les Misérables I dreamed of being in. There was also The Phantom of the Opera (oh yes, I’m one of those opera singers who loves The Phantom of the Opera), Miss Saigon, and Into the Woods, to name a few. But it became apparent early on that I didn’t have that musical theater edge to my sound – no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to belt, and my friends got the pop solos in choir while I got the “classical” ones. I battled years of severe belt- and riff- envy, but eventually I got seriously excited about classical singing. 

I drew a sharp divide between the two styles all those years ago, but I’ve since realized there are pieces and places that allow for, even call for, an overlap. There are plenty of singers who do both, and I’ve even dabbled a bit in musical theater.

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Proof of my musical theater dabbling: A few of the Miss Saigon girls. Vista, 2010.

This cross-over trend isn’t just at the individual singer level either – operas companies have started including crowd-pleasing, audience-enticing musicals into their seasons (for example, Show Boat at San Francisco Opera), and there are plenty of festivals that program both opera and musicals (in fact, I have an audition this Tuesday for such a festival).

Occasionally I’m reminded of my musical theater dreams. It’s usually in passing: someone mentions a show I used to listen to all the time, or I hear someone singing and belting away. I think, “Yeah, I really loved that show,” or “Hey, she sounds great,” but I’m safe in the knowledge that I inhabit a different singing world. I have a few musical theater pieces I use on rare occasion, but I haven’t felt the urge to pursue a musical theater career in years.

Well, last month Baritone Boy and I went to see Les Misérables on Broadway, and I had a very visceral reminder of just how much I love musical theater. After all those years of listening to the tracks on repeat, I was giddy with excitement to finally see it live. It wasn’t the first Broadway musical I’ve seen since moving to NYC, but it was the first show for which I had very strong childhood associations and deep-rooted expectations.

What I experienced was a perfect mix of having my expectations fulfilled while still being surprised. The iconic “pictures” were present: the red flag waving above the crowd, the revolutionaries manning the barricade, the stone wall Marius scales to reach Cosette – and also some unexpected effects: Javert’s fall into the river, the use of hazy, painted backdrops inspired by Victor Hugo’s own sketches, Jean Valjean’s trek through the sewers.

I thought the cast was very, very strong. Acting was excellent all around, and the singing was great too. Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean) showed a lot of versatility with color and tone – in particular, the notorious “Bring Him Home” was a masterful success as he moved easily in and out of head voice. Will Swenson (Javert) was equally compelling on stage, with a very rich, full sound. Caissie Levy (Fantine) sang beautifully and movingly, and I probably cried in every scene she was in. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Andy Mientus (Marius), who made being a musical theater tenor sound easy and even. Keala Settle (Madame Thenardier) was also a stand-out, perfectly threatening and entertaining.

All in all, it was a fantastic show that definitely re-awakened those old musical theater dreams of mine. I don’t have plans to switch over, but I’m hoping to do a little more crossing-over!


Intermission at Les Misérables. Broadway, NYC, 2014.


6 responses to “Confessions of a Classical Singer: Les Misérables

  1. I understand this sentiment completely!! My story explaining how I got into opera always starts with my love for musical theater and the teacher who took almost a year convincing me (while only saying it once) that my voice more naturally lent itself to opera. Took me awhile to embrace that too.

    • I admire that your voice teacher as able to guide you without “telling” you — there are some realizations we have to reach ourselves, and which carry more significance when we have the opportunity to come to the understanding on our own terms rather than someone else’s. What experiences or factors helped you embrace it?

      • After working on various pieces I think she could tell I was putting the musical theater sound into opera, so she asked me to try to sound like what I was afraid of sounding like for one run through (on a classical piece) and then asked how it felt. I think I felt a little bit silly at first, but it was incredibly natural and much less frustrating at the same time. I can’t say how long she had been working at it, but it was a vivid realization for my 18-year-old self, that didn’t take more than a minute, after which I started to see everything differently. 🙂

      • Incredibly natural + less frustrating = a WIN and very hard to argue against!

  2. DearJoyce,
    As always, love reading your heartfelt, intelligent commentary on the music you experience. Would have loved to see you in MISS SAIGON.
    Your friend, Bill

    • Thank you, Bill – you and Ida have kept up faithfully with my adventures and thoughts over the years. I always love hearing from you. And I would love to revisit Miss Saigon someday – so there’s hope!

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