A genuine performer

A genuine performer

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 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 colouring for each note and each word is the epitome of cultured vocalism.

Did 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.

“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 solfege 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,” Streisand said. “I did it intuitively, unconsciously. I kind of like that.” Streisand, who lives in Malibu, California, was in New York in anticipation of a September 27 concert, billed as ‘Once in a Lifetime’. For the first time since 1961 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 is Streisand’s latest album, Love Is the Answer, released September 29 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 Streisand singing with a jazz quartet, enriched with subtle orchestrations. The deluxe edition includes an extra disc, in which Streisand is accompanied only by the mellow jazz quartet. 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. 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 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 emphasising, however, that from the time she was seven 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 five 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.”

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,” 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’, Streisand said, giggling a bit at the memory. Her early voice training amounted to one lesson with a voice teacher. At that session, 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, 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-,’” 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, 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 realise the mechanics of what’s happening with air and the body,” Streisand said. But the coach reassured her that she was using her voice well. “I realised 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. 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.

During her career, Streisand has been all over the stylistic map, and different camps of fans have criticised what they see as lapses of taste for exploring country rock or disco or whatever. 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?