My 2019, and Palm Beach first impressions…

In the last entry I composed, I mentioned that my 2019 has been “eventful”. I am hoping to set the record straight on some of the details of this year, and go into how I am doing, and how I’ve been recently. Such a statement would be appropriate for a Facebook post, if not for the length. I can be long-winded at times, but that’s because my preferred directness can leave some relevant details unexplored.

This year was a bit of a doozy, personally and professionally speaking. I started the year in Sarasota, where I spent the first three months singing with the Sarasota Opera chorus in Turandot, Nabucco, and The Magic Flute. I also covered the role of Abdallo in Nabucco, and actually went on in one performance to replace an ailing tenor.

I talked about this program in another entry, so I won’t go into tremendous detail about that.

Next, I went to Knoxville, Tennessee, to make my role debut as Don José in Carmen as a guest artist with the University of Tennessee Opera Theater, and had the opportunity to work with James Marvel, an amazing director, colleague, and friend. It was an incredible opportunity, and I’m so grateful that James brought me back to Tennessee for this opportunity, for personal and professional reasons, which I’ll go into later.

Sandwiched in between rehearsals for Carmen was a quick trip to Bangor, Maine, for a concert of highlights from Candide with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. This concert was a lot of fun. It was yet another example of something in my life coming full circle, as the conductor, Lucas Richman, is someone with whom I’ve worked in the past.

In April, I came back to Angelica from Carmen. Within two days, Talia (my wife at the time) and I decided to divorce. I won’t go into the details publicly, and I’m sure you will understand why.

We decided to keep our split a secret until the Fall, as I would be leaving for my time as a Young Artist with Palm Beach Opera in the Fall. I would remain in the same house until I left for Florida. We also decided to keep the split amicable, opting for an uncontested divorce, in which we divided possessions without legal assistance or interference. The peace of mind that comes from an amicable split cannot be bought with any amount of money.

Sure, people will have their opinions on this, especially people who know the details, but let me say this emphatically: I do not regret my time with Talia. I don’t regret having loved her, I don’t regret having married her, and I don’t regret our divorce. We needed each other at the time that we met, and we discovered that we were not meant to be together for life. Things just happen this way sometimes. You meet people, you invest a lot in each other, and then you go your separate ways. And that’s okay. I wish her all of the best, and all of the happiness that life can bring. We are not in communication except for necessary business at the moment, and we agreed to that.

Yeah, it was pretty rough on me emotionally in the months that followed. I had to do a lot of soul searching and figuring out who I really am in all of this. I found God again. My grandma Judy passed away in January while I was in Sarasota. That night, I said to God “Okay. You’ve successfully beaten me to my knees. I give up. Do with me and my life what you will.”

Finding God has been an instrumental component in my ability to heal and try to move on. The power of prayer is pretty unbelievable, even if you do not believe in God. The ability to speak the darkest words in your heart and feel like someone is listening is incredibly therapeutic and I would recommend it to anyone without reservation.

I also went through a pretty extended period of burnout. I didn’t have much interest in my field of opera and classical music, preferring to focus on metal, pop music, and songwriting. I’ve written enough at this point for an EP, but I’d like to make a full album eventually. But I didn’t really have much interest in being an opera singer. It felt like something that I had to do rather than something I wanted to do. I think it’s because I neglected my spiritual health for so long that I just got tired.

I also got to the point in which I wanted to let music serve me again, rather than the other way around. I had given about 14 years of dedicated service to music, expecting nothing in return, but I realized it was time to let music heal my broken heart, and heal me it did.

Accepting the process has been crucial as well. It is sometimes said that when God says no, it is only to prepare you for a better yes. And I believe that I’ve discovered this firsthand. During my time in Knoxville, I met an amazing woman who is now my girlfriend, Hannah Marie Friend. She was the Mercedes in my Carmen cast. While I was in Knoxville, she and I had only talked a couple of times, and we had gotten along very well, but it didn’t really go anywhere until June of this year.

It was pretty amazing, actually. It seemed as if the hand of God guided us to each other, as we are both exactly what the other person needs at this point in both of our lives. We possess, and have developed, a deep, rich, spiritually-based connection that has caused our love for each other to grow rapidly and healthily. Neither of us is perfect, but it really seems that we are perfect for each other. We have both become better people, and we want to continue to grow and change together. And we want to make our happiness together contagious, infecting the world with love and joy. Maybe it’s too idealistic for some, but neither of us is deterred by that. We won’t let others convince us not to reach for the stars.

So personally, where I am right now is in a state of gratitude. I’m grateful that even though this year was pretty rough (apart from the divorce and losing my grandma, three of my pets also passed), I was able to find a path through it, and my spirit has remained strong. I’m also grateful to have found real, intense, lasting love so soon after the fact with a wonderful human being, and to have her love me in return.

Professionally, I’m also feeling a sense of gratitude, but I’ve kind of hit a wall and realized that I have quite a bit more work to do than I previously thought. I’m so thankful to my teachers, coaches, conductors, etc. for all of their beautiful work in getting me to this point. But it seems I still have a great deal more to do.

I plan to use my time here in Florida (until the end of March) to polish my singing, open up my middle voice, and figure out what I really want to say as an artist. There is so much that I think I could say, but I think it’s time to narrow it down to what I want to say. And I suppose it really depends on the piece. But if I’ve learned nothing else this year, it is that everything I do needs strong intention. No half-measures, no aimlessness. I must be present-focused and future-focused simultaneously.

I think it is only through doing the very best I can possibly do that I can silence my extremely harsh inner critic. My inner critic often tells me that I’m a bad person, that I’m not good enough, that I don’t deserve anything good in life, including any success or any love or affection. And it’s tough to silence or reject that voice when it is loud and stubborn. Sometimes, I believe that voice. And when I believe it, I overcompensate and become a perfectionist.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn this year is how to be okay with not being perfect, and being willing to give myself a break once in a while. It’s not always easy, but it’s been necessary to my emotional survival and growth.

I’ve learned a lot about myself this year. I’m not much of a self-starter. I tend to finish things once I’ve started them, but good luck getting me started. I wouldn’t call myself lazy, but I admittedly have been undisciplined. The work I do can sometimes get sloppy, because I sometimes abide by the idea that “done is better than perfect”…kind of ironic for a perfectionist like me, and this cognitive dissonance is a source of a lot of problems for me. Maybe the next step is “Done and good is better than done and sloppy.”

I’m looking forward to what the next five months will bring with excitement and enthusiasm. I’m ready to take on the task, because I know how necessary the work is. The future is there for the taking, and I just have to reach out and grab it.

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A Farewell to Home

One year ago, I had absolutely no idea I would ever write a blog post like this. I was blissfully unaware of the eventful 2019 that was to come. I’ll go into the events that made up my 2019 in another post, but we can just say that this year has been quite turbulent, and leave it at that.

In just a couple of days, I will be saying goodbye to the Southern Tier of New York State, the area that I have called my home for my entire life. Even when I was in graduate school in Tennessee, I still always called New York home, whether it was Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, or Allegany County.

It’s strange, because I know I’ll be back here to visit a few times, but I know I will likely never call the Southern Tier home again. It no longer feels like home, even though it’s been my home for over three decades. I’ve changed too much, and there is very little these days keeping me rooted here.

Even knowing all of that, the feeling of leaving is quite bittersweet. Home is a thing that is ingrained in people. It’s sometimes a state of safety, a state of familiarity, a state of belonging, a state of harmony, and the center of one’s day to day life. Work can change, friendships can change, relationships can change, but we always have home.

I had a home here. I grew up in Olean, NY, and lived for the past five years in Angelica, NY. I used to wake up and know I belonged here, and I used to see myself waking up in Olean or Angelica every day for the rest of my life, at least between gigs.

Even when I was away for work , my thoughts always turned to home. I remember working with Sarasota Opera this past winter and rehearsing “Va, pensiero”, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Verdi’s Nabucco. Connecting with the text and its messages about being away from one’s ancestral homeland was almost too much to bear less than a year ago.

Still, none of that changes the fact that my heart no longer considers this beautiful, yet complicated place my home, and that is a very sad reality to face. I haven’t had the greatest past, but home has been the consistent thing through all of those very difficult times.

And now I’m leaving. I’m leaving the only home I’ve ever known.

However, I’ve come to terms with it, because it’s time. It’s just time to go. I’ve taken myself as far as I can here in Western New York, but now, it’s time to fly. In the past several months, I’ve made peace with my past, constructed the beginnings of a new future, and right now, I’m on the last page of this chapter of my life.

You can take the man out of Cattaraugus County, but you can’t take the Cattaraugus County out of the man. My humble, working class beginnings have taught me to appreciate everything I have, and to fight and work and scrape for the future that I want. The people of this region are generally decent, hard-working, faithful (regardless of religion, anyone who still roots for the Buffalo Bills has some intense faith), loving people. There is a reason that a lot of people in Olean have not left, even after graduating college.

It is time for me to leave the village that raised me as a child, and show the world of performing arts what kind of people the Southern Tier can create, like many others did before me in my age group. First, I head to Tennessee to spend a week with my lovely girlfriend, Hannah, and then I head to Palm Beach for five months with Palm Beach Opera. After a block of time off in April, I have a two-month gig which I am not able to announce just yet, since I haven’t signed the contract. As far as where I will end up, we will see. God works in mysterious ways, and I am looking forward to seeing what awaits in the time to come.

I will cherish the many great experiences I’ve had with the people of the greater Olean area for the rest of my life, and I will not forget my hometown. I will be back, I promise.

But just in case I’m not, Southern Tier, I’ll miss you, and I will think of you every day.

Goodbye.

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An Open Letter to the Community Theater Companies of the World

I’ve made some reference to this before, but it bears repeating that I got my earliest experience as a performer in community theater, with companies such as Olean Community Theatre, Olean Theatre Workshop, Bradford Little Theatre, and others. This experience was invaluable to me as a young, burgeoning artist, and I have some fond memories of my first shows.

It is so important for the training of the artists of the future that these organizations are preserved. Whether one is a young, aspiring professional or an adult who enjoys performing but does not feel called to a performing career, community theater can be an important part of one’s life.

Because this issue is so near and dear to my heart, and because, frankly, I’m seeing far too many community theater companies crumbling under the weight of dysfunction or limping on without any inspiration, I’m here to propose some ideas for how to turn the ship around, or some things to keep in mind when starting a community theater. Be warned, this is tough love.

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What I’ve Been Up To Lately

2019 has been a feverishly busy year for me professionally, and I wanted to give anyone who is following what I do an update as to how I’ve occupied my time over these three and a half months.

Part 1: Sarasota Opera

From January 2nd to March 25th of this year, I was an Apprentice Artist at Sarasota Opera, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I was quite busy during my time there and didn’t get much time to post on social media.

While in Sarasota, I sang in the chorus for three different operas: Puccini’s Turandot, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Verdi’s Nabucco. I also portrayed the First Slave in The Magic Flute and covered (understudied) Abdallo in Nabucco, and did go on as Abdallo in one performance! All told, we did a combined 30 performances of these operas from February 9th to March 24th, with staggered rehearsals in January and February. At one point, I was rehearsing for all three shows at once! Sometimes, all four shows in the winter season in Sarasota have choruses. Such is the case with next winter’s season.

Sarasota Opera is a company that does more for and demands more of its young artists than any company with whom I’ve worked. The musical standards there are as high as those of any company with whom I have worked. Perhaps the great lesson I’ve taken away from this program is connection to the text.

One great thing they do at Sarasota Opera are the libretto readings. They do all of their libretto readings using a libretto in the original language only. Each person translates the text of his/her character in front of the cast, the maestro, and all of the covers. It makes sure we really understand what we are singing. I would recommend this to any company who performs operas not in the country’s native language.

Another thing that I liked is that each member of the music staff was to be called “Maestro” inside the opera house, with or without the Maestro’s last name. Maestro is a unisex term, by the way. It brings a seriousness and formality to the proceedings that I found refreshing.

While we were there, all of the company’s singers, non-local orchestra, and stage management and design team (with some exceptions) stayed in the Steinwachs Artist Residences. Most of the apartments were 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartments with full kitchens, free WiFi and cable, and various other amenities. A keycard was required to enter the building, so the living experience was safe. My roommates, Sebastian Armendariz and Spencer Hamlin, both tenors, became such great friends of mine that I am certain we will be in contact for a long time, and our paths will certainly cross regularly.

Sarasota was a great experience. I learned a great deal about myself while I was there, made some great music and great new friends, and developed my voice a great deal, which is a huge benefit of the program. The six or more hours spent performing or rehearsing in a day is bound to make one’s voice a great deal stronger and more resilient. I recommend the program to anyone who is really serious about an opera career, and anyone with further questions can contact me.

Part 2: Carmen

I was a guest artist at one of my alma maters a little while ago, performing the role of Don José in a production of Georges Bizet’s seminal work, Carmen with the University of Tennessee Opera Theater. I didn’t get the call from James Marvel, my mentor, until a couple of weeks after I arrived in Sarasota. I accepted immediately, as I had wanted a chance to return to Knoxville, especially in a role debut as important as this one.

I left Sarasota and flew straight to Knoxville, having already learned and memorized the music while in Sarasota (which was no small task on top of my performance schedule). I stayed in a hotel near campus, and didn’t have much human contact outside of my rehearsals (only three hours a day), except for when I went out to get some food. That left me a little stir crazy but gave me plenty of time to practice and to get on the task of finding representation, which is going to become crucial in the next couple of years.

This production was so inspiring. Sets and props were minimal, costumes were mostly traditional, but James Marvel, our director (and the man I’ve come to call a mentor) put his signature on this production in the actions of the singers. It was a physical, challenging staging, but it was worth it. James is a genius, and I’m fortunate to understand his vocabulary as a director and as a teacher. This Carmen hit hard, and it was unrelenting, especially in the final act. It’s exactly the kind of tension you want at the end of a show like that.

I have never been prouder of one of my own performances. I wasn’t feeling great that day, but somehow I rose to the occasion and did some of the best singing I’ve ever done. Everything seemed to click onstage, even though I left a prop backstage at the end of the second act. No run is ever perfect.

But before Carmen went up, I took a quick jaunt to Maine.

Part 2a: Candide and the Bangor Symphony

I was hired by the Bangor Symphony (literally on my way to Sarasota on January 2nd) for a performance of highlights from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, singing the arias “My Love” and “Bon Voyage”, as well as a verse of “What’s the Use” as Police Prefect, and the Governor’s part of the bombastic finale “Make Our Garden Grow”.

I had done this same concert with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in 2013 as a grad student, under the baton of Maestro Lucas Richman, who also conducted the Maine performance. Only one performance, but it was really quite magical. I had a great cast of singing actors around me, who were thoroughly professional in their preparations. It was a lovely time at a particularly beautiful time of year in Maine!

Upcoming Things

I can’t really divulge most of what is coming up for me as it hasn’t been finalized yet. I will be performing the role of Gastone in La Traviata with Nickel City Opera in Buffalo on May 24th and 26th at Villa Maria College! Those of you who are local to me will be able to see me there. It is a semi-staged concert production, so while the sets are minimal, we will all look elegant in our evening wear!

You can find more info on that production here.

That’s it for now! Follow me on Facebook and Instagram for more updates as everything progresses.

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On Motivation: A Personal Statement

I’ve mostly used this blog as a professional venture, giving information to any aspiring or seasoned performer on how to do better, but the question that I’ve rarely, if ever answered is Why? The how is still important, but everything has to start with why we do what we do.

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How to Be a Serious Performing Artist

This weekend, I am performing with an extremely talented group of singer-actors, and it has brought to mind the question of what makes a true artist.

You don’t have to be a professional to be a serious artist and go the extra mile that connects good to great. Most of what makes a great artist requires no talent at all, though talent certainly ties it all together.

Here are a few things that you can do immediately to become a better artist. These rules can apply to any performing art, in comedy and in tragedy. There is no particular order here, and I believe these guidelines are of equal importance. I just know that everyone likes these Buzzfeed-style numbered lists.

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On Concert Etiquette

Have you ever gone to a professional classical music concert, opera, or musical, to hear a cell phone go off, or a tiny distracting noise in the middle of a tender moment?

Here are some rules that you can observe and pass along which help make the evening as enjoyable as possible.

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How to Be a Good Colleague: Part I—Actors

A good colleague, in the theatrical world, is broadly defined as an employee who does nothing to disrupt the smooth flow of the process of putting on a show.

As a performer, I understand how frustrating certain behaviors can be from other actors and directors. These guidelines are based on my limited experience, but through these tried and true rules, you, too, can be an absolute pleasure with whom to collaborate. Some of these rules I learned by breaking them myself and paying the penalty for it, so if I speak plainly here, it is only for your own good.

These rules stem from personal experience as well as some anecdotes I have heard about unprofessional behavior. It may seem ridiculous, but every rule on this list is broken frequently.

1) Show up on time. Out of every rule I’m going to list here, this might be the most important. Don’t show up late, ever. And definitely don’t show up late with food or coffee in your hand, because then everyone will know why you are late.

Think about it this way: if you’re in a show with 20 other actors and you show up 5 minutes late, you have collectively wasted 100 minutes–over an hour and a half–of the time of other people who did show up on time. Be ready to begin at the call time, which means you should arrive long enough before the call time to get your materials in place. It’s amazing that this has to be explained even to adults, but you’d be surprised at how frequently people show up late to things.

If you do arrive late, do not disrupt the rehearsal while it is in progress. Set your stuff down, and get to your spot. No “Sorry, sorry…”, no “I’m late because X.” Don’t be any more of a distraction than you already are by being late in the first place. Just get to your spot and apologize later.

2) Don’t double book. Honor the commitment you make first, or back out of that first commitment as soon as possible if you get a better offer. Just like a good Camembert, you are at your best when you aren’t spread too thin (thanks to Frasier for that one). Definitely do not leave people hanging at the last minute wondering if you will come through.

The most important word in the English language for any performer is “No.” You don’t need to take part in absolutely every opportunity under the sun. Theater is not just something to do to kill time in your evenings. It’s an artistic experience that people pay money to see.

3) Meet deadlines. If you have a set deadline for memorization, be memorized by that deadline. Otherwise, you slow down the progression of the show.

If you have a deadline from your producer to send a bio, a headshot, or anything else, meet that deadline. It goes a long way to building a reputation of dependability. Don’t forget, in the professional world, it’s the producer who hires you.

4) Treat your colleagues with respect. Your colleagues are anyone who is a part of putting on the show you’re doing, from the producer, to the director, to your cast mates, to the stage manager, to the janitor cleaning the theater every night.

You never know who will one day run a theater company for which you are auditioning, or who might be able to give an opinion about you to an administrator. Karma has a way of straightening things out in the long run, so make sure you treat people well. Remember, these people are collaborating with you to create art.

And for the love of God, don’t cause drama! That is the quickest route to being blacklisted. If you’re toxic, or even seen as toxic, no one will want to work with you, no matter how talented you are. Petty interpersonal disputes have no place in theater.

5) Shut up in rehearsals. Unless you have a question for the director that is relevant to the work you are currently doing, unless you are speaking lines or singing, shut your mouth.

Some people like to speak up to give advice to less experienced actors, but don’t do this in the middle of rehearsal, and definitely don’t pontificate to one person in front of the whole cast. Doing so makes you come off as conceited and rude. Yes, even you.

I understand that when you’re young, your attention span is about as long as did you see what she posted on Facebook??? Your professionalism in this regard not only makes the rest of the people in the room happy, but it creates a better working environment…

…which brings me to my final point on this topic. Theater is not a social hour. There is serious work involved in putting on a show that is even halfway decent. If you’re in this for something to do with your friends, you’re in it for the wrong reason.

6) Respect the rehearsal/performance space. Clean up after yourself, and throw out your trash. Custodians are there for maintenance, not to clean up every single bit of food and trash that you bring in. Sometimes there isn’t a custodian, and the stage manager ends up cleaning up after you.

Also, do not wear wet shoes onto the floor where you are rehearsing. This not only damages the floor, but can create slip hazards for others on the floor. Non-marking soles, please.

7) Respect the stage manager. Really, this should be rule number 1, but my number 1 would be the number 1 on every stage manager’s list of rules for actors.

If the show doesn’t have a stage manager (which every show should, by the way…more on that in my rules for directors), then apply this rule to whomever performs the stage manager’s duties, which is most often the director in a smaller setting. Listen to literally everything they say and do what they ask, and do it with a smile on your face. Period.

8) Put your phone away. Your phone has no place in rehearsal or performance, unless it is a prop. Even in that case, a phone is probably provided for your use.

Phones are much more of a distraction than anyone younger than 35 thinks. People miss entrances, they don’t hear pertinent information, etc. Just do yourself a favor and turn your phone off before you start, and don’t turn it on until you have a break or the rehearsal ends.

9) Act like you want to be there. Even with the most unprofessional cast mates I’ve ever had, if they showed up with enthusiasm for what they were doing, their breaking of other rules bothered me a little less.

Bottom line: if you don’t make it a chore to show up to rehearsals and do the work, I won’t feel like it’s a chore to work with you. Real enthusiasm is a true shot in the arm for everyone else.

10) Leave your day at the door. If you have personal issues, they have no place in rehearsals or performances. Your bad day should not be everyone else’s problem.

11) Don’t try to impress everyone in rehearsals. Yes, we get it. You’re a very talented singer/actor/dancer and you want everyone to know it. Well, stop it.

Most people in any level of theater can recognize talent without being beaten over the head by it, so it’s not that you want us to know you’re talented…you obviously want us to tell you how talented you are.

I understand the need for validation, but you need to understand your place in the creation of art. Your need for attention does not take priority over the success of the show. You are not the driver of the dogsled, but one of the dogs pulling it. So MUSH!

12) Respect the music and text. This means that you must perform the music and text as written, or only with traditional additions or changes. Those changes and additions are typically determined by the composer/writer, not by whoever did the role first on Broadway.

Only in solo music is there any room whatsoever for interpretation, and it must always start with exactly what is on the page, for the sake of the conductor and orchestra.

13) Respect the show’s vision, or leave. If you can’t respect what the director wants, make suggestions for alternatives (privately, of course).

If you don’t get to a mutually agreeable outcome, then leave the show. Don’t sabotage, don’t protest, just leave. That way it will show that you are leaving because of artistic differences rather than to satisfy your ego.

14) Show up prepared. Have all of your materials with you for every rehearsal. Have your script/score, appropriate footwear, and whatever else you need to have with you. This makes the transition to tech week much easier.

Also, when you are working out of a script or score, please make sure it is a hard copy. Don’t be that person who has to use a cell phone or tablet.

15) Treat anything that is not yours with extreme care. Always know where your props are, don’t eat in costume, don’t smoke in costume (or at all, for that matter), and remember the Golden Rule. Would you like it if someone borrowed something from you and tossed it carelessly on the floor after rehearsals?

Conclusion

Good rehearsal etiquette is more important than talent in putting together a good show. Art is nothing without dedication, focus, and deep respect for art and your fellow artists. Any artist who is “great to work with” follows these rules pretty much constantly, and it makes a real difference in the environment around you.

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Vocal Protection and You

Many singers, particularly aging singers, find the task of protecting their voices to be both confusing and frustrating, due to many factors: conflicting advice from expert and non-expert sources, a lack of understanding that vocal protection is a long-term strategy, a lack of knowledge of one’s own voice and its individual characteristics, sudden vocal maturity, and many other factors. I hope to demystify this process with some general advice and small tips to help you on your way. My assessment is by no means complete, but I hope to give you a good place to begin. Continue reading

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Vocal Classification in Musical Theater

Musical theater is arguably the most popular of the performing arts in the modern West, with Broadway shows becoming synonymous with the New York City experience, and with myriad films dedicated to the form, such as The Sound of Music, Chicago, The Music Man, Les Miserables, and many others.

However, vocal classification in musical theater is nebulous in comparison to classification for classical music and opera, due to the often unconventional vocal practices employed by composers. Most simply stated, the categorization for opera often does not match up with categorization for musical theater.

So You CAN Sing It, But Should You?
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