“A Fine Instrument, a Classic Instinct” – New York Times Interview
September 24, 2009, 7:00am

Published: September 24, 2009

“A Fine Instrument, a Classic Instinct” – New York Times Interview

IT seemed clear from her reaction, at once intrigued and a little amused, that Barbra Streisand had never been asked by an interviewer about her diaphragm.

But as an opera devotee and a longtime admirer of Ms. Streisand’s voice, I wanted to explore the inner workings, as she understood them, of her singing. For me her ability to shape a phrase with velvety legato and find the right expressive coloring for each note and each word is the epitome of cultured vocalism.

Did Ms. Streisand, like an opera singer, think incessantly about breathing deeply from the diaphragm, about using the diaphragm as a natural support for her voice?

“Never,” she said, sitting up straight on a couch in the living room of a friend’s Upper West Side apartment, looking elegant in a dark dress and lacy shoulder wrap. Everything about singing came to her naturally, she explained, adding, a little sheepishly, that she hardly ever does vocal exercises. She was giving a rare interview, in person, apparently curious to speak with a classical music critic about vocal technique.

“I’m terrible about warming up,” she said. “That’s just too boring to me.” Years ago Tony Bennett sent her a tape with vocal exercises on it. “I listened to it once,” she said. She does keep handy one tape with solfège vocal routines that a voice coach made for her. “It’s very simple,” she said. “But I find myself doing the exercises only in the car on the way to the recording session.” That is too last-minute to do much good, she added.

Whatever vocal power, finesse and richness she has was not the product of traditional study and analysis, she said.

“I didn’t do it intellectually,” Ms. Streisand said. “I did it intuitively, unconsciously. I kind of like that.”

Ms. Streisand, who lives in Malibu, Calif., was in New York in anticipation of a concert scheduled for Saturday, billed as “Once in a Lifetime.” For the first time since 1961 Ms. Streisand would return to her roots and sing in a club: a one-night-only appearance at the Village Vanguard, the jazz haunt. But the big event for Streisand fans, other than for the 97 who could be accommodated at the Vanguard (tickets were given away free through a lottery) is Ms. Streisand’s latest album, “Love Is the Answer,” which will be released on Tuesday by Columbia. The recording is a collection of 12 songs, and a bonus track, all of them mellow, jazzy, intimate reflections on love, with standards like “Make Someone Happy” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” more recent songs by the composer and arranger Johnny Mandel, songs by Leonard Bernstein and Jacques Brel, and other offerings that nestle into the club gig concept.

The album, produced by the pianist, arranger and songwriter Diana Krall, features Ms. Streisand singing with a jazz quartet, enriched with subtle orchestrations. The deluxe edition includes an extra disc, in which Ms. Streisand is accompanied only by the mellow jazz quartet. So the recording is a throwback to her early days as a club singer.

“Some people like the simplicity of the voice with just instruments,” she said, instead of the richer version with orchestra. “And that’s the way I started. And I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

In its way the project was also risky. At Ms. Streisand’s request the engineers used hardly any electronic juicing or reverberation. Her singing is uncommonly intimate and exposed. Though even during the 1960s her high range was never her comfort zone, she had a way of reaching the peak of a phrase and sustaining a pitch with such focused vibrato and pulsating tone that she seemed to be soaring effortlessly.

Her very top notes are not as available to her these days. On the recording her voice sometimes turns breathy as she takes a high note. Yet she uses this to expressive effect, like a great jazz singer, lending an earthy emotional cast to the moment, as in her melting, vulnerable account of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” when she takes a top C at the wishful word “only” in the phrase “You’d be his if only he would call.”

The sound of her voice, at 67, is remarkably fresh. Back in the “My Name Is Barbra” days, from the mid-’60s, her singing was already mature and rich, never girlish. Her voice remains, as the pianist Glenn Gould, a self-confessed “Streisand freak,” put it in a 1976 review of the “Classical Barbra” album, one of the “natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource.”

As I pressed Ms. Streisand on the subject, she revealed herself as a vocal artist with powerful, if innate, insights into phrasing, legato, vibrato, interpretive nuances and, most important, the art of singing as an expression of words. She kept emphasizing, however, that from the time she was 7 she wanted to be an actress, not a singer, and that singing came as an extension of that passion, “a means to an end,” she said. Still, her exceptional voice emerged early and, from her perspective, on its own.

“I remember when I was 5 living on Pulaski Street in Brooklyn, the hallway of our building had a brass banister and a great sound, a great echo system,” she said. “I used to sing in the hallway. I was known as the girl on the street with the good voice. No father, good voice. That was my identity.” (Her father, Emanuel Streisand, a high school teacher, died from complications of an epileptic seizure while directing a summer camp in the Catskills. Ms. Streisand was 15 months old.)

More than the pleasure of singing, it was her capacity to use her voice to act, to express herself and convey words, that hooked her as a young girl, she explained.

“Life was peculiar to me then,” she said. “I was allergic to the country. I was raised on the streets, in hot, steamy Brooklyn, with stifled air.” But “there was — I don’t like to say pain, I don’t want to be too whiny,” she added. “But words meant something to me, words spoke to me. So I think it somehow unconsciously influenced whatever I do.”

Her mother, Diana, a public-school secretary, had a beautiful natural voice, “light and operatic,” Ms. Streisand said. But she thought that her gifted daughter’s voice was not strong enough. So she had her drink egg yolks mixed in milk, what she called a “guggle muggle,” Ms. Streisand said, giggling a bit at the memory. Her early voice training amounted to one lesson with a voice teacher. At that session Ms. Streisand sang “A Sleepin’ Bee,” the Harold Arlen song that she performed in her first television appearance, on “The Jack Paar Show” in 1961, just before turning 19.

During the lesson Ms. Streisand got as far as the first line: “When a bee lies sleepin’ in the palm of your hand.” The teacher stopped her. “She said, ‘No, no, you have to say bee-e-e-,’ ” Ms. Streisand recounted, prolonging the word and singing it with a rounded, quasi-operatic tone. “I thought that was unnatural so I told her, ‘No, I have to sing the word as an extension of my speaking.’ ” On her own, over a career of nearly 50 years, Ms. Streisand figured out just about everything there is to know about singing. During her early club days she once lost her voice and had a brief crisis. She called in a coach who explained the physiology of singing.

“She showed me a chart, so I could realize the mechanics of what’s happening with air and the body,” Ms. Streisand said. But the coach reassured her that she was using her voice well. “I realized how much of singing was mechanics and how much was psychological,” she said. “People kept asking me, ‘How can you hold a note so long?’ I never thought about it. I held it because I wanted to hold it.”

For her, singing has always been a matter of sheer will and determination.

Opera singers might learn from Ms. Streisand’s way of treating singing as an extension of acting. In working so hard to cultivate the beauty and carrying power of their voices, too many opera singers compromise with indistinct diction and generic expression. Ms. Streisand sings as if she is speaking to you.

Ms. Streisand can turn the right song into a sung-through dramatic soliloquy, as in several works on “Love Is the Answer,” especially “Where Do You Start?,” one of three songs she sings as a nod to an artist she reveres, the jazz singer and pianist Shirley Horn, who recorded them on “Here’s to Life,” a 1992 album produced and arranged by Mr. Mandel. “I think she’s sublime,” Ms. Streisand said.

“Where Do You Start?” is the wistful regret of a woman at the end stage of a breakup. The ruminative music is by Mr. Mandel, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman “profound, poetic and yet conversational” lyrics, as Ms. Streisand writes in the album’s liner notes. All those qualities come though in her subdued performance when she achingly, without a trace of self-pity, poses questions: “Which books are yours?/Which tapes and dreams belong to you and which are mine?”

For all her demurrals Ms. Streisand revealed sophisticated intuitions about the technique of singing and the art of interpretation. I mentioned once hearing Yo-Yo Ma give a master class. With several of the student cellists Mr. Ma talked about how important it is to not let a sustained tone that is decreasing in volume just go limp.

There is a way, by using a quicker vibrato and a penetrating tone, as Mr. Ma demonstrated, to make a sustained pitch actually increase in intensity as the sound dies away. Something similar is a hallmark of Ms. Streisand’s singing. Did my description of Mr. Ma’s technique ring a bell?

“It sounds familiar,” she said. “It’s true. You have to almost give it more air. The sound is not really dying out.” But, she added, “I don’t know what it is I do.”

When asked if it was true that she essentially cannot read music, she answered in a Fanny Brice deadpan: “I don’t read music. Not even essentially. Not even nonessentially.”

In learning songs, usually all she needs to do, she said, is to hear a melody once, and she gets it.

Of course she is in great company among vocal giants who did not really read music, not only Ethel Merman and Mary Martin but Luciano Pavarotti.

Besides winning a best actress Oscar in 1968 for her performance in “Funny Girl,” Ms. Streisand earned an Oscar for best original song, “Evergreen,” the love theme from her 1976 film “A Star Is Born,” which she composed to lyrics by Paul Williams. The depth of her musicality came through when she talked about her fantasy of composing a symphony.

“I hear these melodies,” she said. “I hear horn lines and string lines. That’s what’s fun about recording with an orchestra.” She can sing things, and composer-arrangers like Bill Ross or Jeremy Lubbock have the skill to write them down, she said.

She talked about recording with Marvin Hamlisch. “I can go, ‘That’s not the right chord, no, it has to be an 11th or a 9th or something,’ ” she said. “I just know that the chord has to be in contrast, it can’t just be this.” She sang a sustained husky pitch. “I’ll say: ‘It has to rub. I want that slight rub there.’ ”

The interview eventually turned to opera. Though not a buff, Ms. Streisand goes to the opera now and then with pleasure. She is a big Maria Callas fan, which makes sense. Talk about a singing actress who drove her artistry through force of will.

During her career Ms. Streisand has been all over the stylistic map, and different camps of fans have criticized what they see as lapses of taste for exploring country rock or disco or whatever. “Classical Barbra,” offering songs by Debussy, Faure, Wolf and others, in orchestrated arrangements, was a rare instance of her being too deferential to the originals. “I was going to write on the album, ‘a work in progress,’ ” she said. “But they talked me out of it.”

Still, no one can argue with success. She is the top-selling female artist in American recording history. And she has great hopes for her new album.

Yet some of her insecurity came out, touchingly, when we talked about the new album. When I mentioned her approach to standards, she cut in, “Did you like ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’?”

She said she had recorded it before, but never released it. Recording it this time, she made new discoveries into the lyrics of this bittersweet love song.

When with melting sound she sings the opening lines, “They asked me how I knew/My true love was true,” she allows her voice to swell at the end of the first phrase. Sliding seamlessly into the next one, without a break in the legato, yet with a clear sense of new statement, she answers the question: “I of course replied/ Something here inside/Cannot be denied.”

Did I like it? Are you kidding?