This is always a question asked gingerly if at all. The entertainment industry has many, many points of view regarding age, depending on the genre one examines. In the pop world, the quality of a voice doesn’t always have a great deal to do with how long a singer maintains success, or acquires it. The celebrity aspect of a career in the popular music field often supersedes the actual standard of talent as the person ages. The physical image of a celebrity is typically the most important aspect. Youth is cherished, in fact worshipped. There are some amazingly talented veteran performers in popular music, who, while they might maintain a career as a recording and concert vocalist, don’t get the performance opportunities that younger performers do; they just sort of disappear. Is it because of their voice? Has it changed? Aged? Or is it that their style is out of fashion? Perhaps all of those things.
In classical music, there used to be a vibrant and busy concert hall and recital season. This is no longer the case. I have been singing professionally for more than 30 years, and when I was first coming into my career, the symphonic and recital arenas were still active, thank goodness, although they were already diminishing, especially in the US.
A classical singer in the 1950’s could have a season in opera and a season of recital and symphonic repertoire interspersed, and could go back and forth. Additionally, it was quite possible to make a lucrative living as a concert singer, with little to no opera in the repertoire. There was room for them, and there was still an audience for the classical singer. Today, we have still symphonic concerts, but fewer and fewer vocal soloists. Recitals are, sadly, disappearing. This makes me especially sorrowful, as some of my most important vocal experiences, either as an observer or performer, have been on a recital stage.
During my early career days living in Vienna, I witnessed so many great singers in their prime, up and coming new artists, and also established veterans whom I had grown up hearing on records. I saw what these veterans brought to the stage, both in opera and recital. Those voices; those presences. I learned so much from these artists.
How does our voice change?
Does our voice change as we age? Of course it does, our bodies change, our minds change, and so of course our voices change. But is that why we rarely see a mature artist on the stage?
I made the choice to stop traveling after 30 years of performing, and to focus my talents on my own company in CT, and in addition to singing, adding directing, writing and teaching to my interests, passions that I have always had, but didn’t have time to pursue while singing full-time. I still consider myself an active singer and I had the great blessing to choose to continue singing on my own terms. Many colleagues and friends wondered why I wasn’t on the international circuit anymore, that it was premature leaving it when I did. The truth is I wanted to pursue other things within music and theatre. Many people stop singing because of health issues, and sometimes voices for whatever reason, just don’t last. But one of the issues I see so often is that the decision whether to include singers beyond a certain age is visual.
Many characters in opera require a youthful sound and visage. This has always been true, and it is perfectly appropriate. As a mature tenor I was recently approached by a conductor I had just worked with who said. ” Your voice is so fresh you should sing Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress again.” I responded, that while I could vocalize it, it wouldn’t feel appropriate to me at 60, no matter how youthful my sound could be made, or how youthful a costumer could make me look, it wouldn’t feel authentic, no matter how hard I work as an actor, it wouldn’t feel right to sing that role at this age. While I was flattered, and it is a role I sang several times in my 30’s and loved. I have to feel authentic.
However, I did sing Jesus in JC Superstar in 2017, and while I was a bit concerned about my age. It was determined that with the age appropriate cast we had, and the way I looked and sounded I could be convincing. That character is a universal one and not so dependent upon his actual age. It was a great success. There are many roles that I would love to attempt or repeat, but it needs to seem authentic. The influences of veteran singers on me is undeniable both as colleagues and as teachers.
At the age of 39 I sang performances of Samson, and my Dalila was in her 60’s. She was sublime and very convincing visually and vocally, she knew exactly what she was doing. She was glamorous, smoldering and very sexy, and boy could she sing! She taught me so much about this role and about how to really delve deeply into a character in opera.
In my first production of Peter Grimes I sang the second cast performances and covered the star tenor for his performances, I was 33. This also meant I sang almost all of the rehearsals, with the star tenor directing…After three weeks of rehearsal, with his constant and marvelous attention to every detail, with no ego at all, just warmth and encouragement, I finally saw him perform the role in the opening performance, he was in his middle sixties. I could not believe how fresh and vocally opulent he was.
But, frightening as it might seem, he WAS Peter Grimes for that 3 hours! I almost felt as if I were a fraud in the role, while the press and colleagues liked my performance very much. He was the real thing. Did his voice sound like he was 33? No! But what he brought to this role, is still with me today. I sang Peter Grimes in 2015 with my small company in CT, and it felt like a great old friend, I had done this roles in 6 productions over the years, and It made me realize that we in many ways we improve as we age.
So, granted there are roles that require a young singer, but aren’t there many roles that thrive with a mature singer in it? I mean in addition to the great mature basses? There have been some exceptions to this youthful casting. Many an incredible artist, has sung in their later years in leading roles with love interests who were half their age, and many times it was quite convincing. Sometimes not, but that was due to the voice perhaps not being quite as convincing as it had been, or that in that character they couldn’t be convincing with that cast. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself a devotee of the theatre. I want to believe an actor truly is the character, they are putting forth. But I have often seen someone who is typically age appropriate and not at all convincing dramatically or vocally.
So, what changes?
Okay, so what changes for those of us as we age as singers? Health issues infiltrate; that is a fact. Medical conditions have changed and in fact shortened many careers. We all go through periods where we struggle with our voices. Our bodies change and so do our voices. As a dramatic voice, my voice has darkened and deepened. I still feel very confident in my voice, but roles that I felt comfortable singing early in my career, don’t always feel appropriate now. But why should they?
Dehydration, medications and general physical decline do intervene. One realizes, “Oh, I used to be able to just pop that phrase right out with no effort, and now I have to warm up and work on it a few days.” But it is marvelous to discover all of the new possibilities still within a piece of music. How wonderful to hear from an audience member what you, as a mature artist, can bring to it.
I have worked at keeping and recapturing as much lyricism in my singing as possible, and forcing myself to perform challenging music and keep my voice and my mind limber. My biggest enemy is non-use. I get busy directing, teaching and producing, and then I realize I have not practiced in the way I did when I was on the road. There are many factors that play into a voice sustaining its power and beauty. Teaching also illuminates what I need to do to improve as a singer. Yes, that means actually following what you teach others to do!
A youthful society!
We have always been a society that prizes youth. I do find some artists wish to recapture what perhaps they never had, a career in their youth, for example, that didn’t pan out, or even one that did, yet they have a need to focus on repertoire that really isn’t appropriate, rather than on material that they could actually have great success performing. As we age, we must continue to study, fine-tune and listen to our body and our brain. So much can be accomplished later in life.
A great conductor once said to me. “Great singing is so much more than the sound.” I think the sound of a beautifully formed human voice is one of the most sacred things in this universe. But I am also so grateful to the developed artistic essence of the many, many mature and sublime artists I have known and heard.
Thank you to the many great singers, teachers, coaches, conductors, directors and stage managers who took the time to show me the way, even if they sometimes scared me, maybe even disliked me! I learned from them all. As a mature singer, I look forward to another season, another lesson in life and art!
Marc Deaton is a dramatic tenor, teacher, director and playwright. He currently resides in New York City and in Madison, CT, where he is the Artistic Director of Madison Lyric Stage.