News Column

Kennedy Center hosts 'American Voices' festival

November 21, 2013

YellowBrix

By BRETT ZONGKER

WASHINGTON - While "American Idol," "The Voice," and other music shows draw many contestants who want to be stars, opera singer Renee Fleming is gathering experts and students in Washington this weekend to explore the art behind the singing.

Fleming is hosting and curating the "American Voices" music festival Friday through Sunday at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to explore the diversity of American signing styles - spanning pop, country, musical theater, classical music, gospel and jazz.

Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, Alison Krauss, Sutton Foster and Josh Groban are among those who will perform Saturday night with the National Symphony Orchestra. Some also will lead master classes with students throughout the festival.

The 15 hours of festival programs will be filmed and televised next year as a one-hour concert and documentary on PBS' "Great Performances" series.

Fleming said music education has long overlooked non-classical forms of music, though that's the most popular form of singing, from high school musicals to rock bands. So she wanted to bring some top talent from each genre to work with promising students from across the country.

"I'm a geek about singing," she said. "I've always been really interested in the cross-genre aspect of American musical life and what we as singers have in common."

Few music schools or competitions cross into all genres of music, though, Fleming noted. She said the nation needs a more standardized vocal education curriculum for people interested in pop music and other styles.

Three symposium sessions for music professionals and the public will feature leaders from the music business, including Peter Mensch, the manager of Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Mike Dungan, CEO of Universal Music Nashville, and other experts. They will cover trends in the music business, contemporary voice training and how to care for a professional singing voice.

Singers can damage their voices by following pop styles that require high belted notes, Fleming said. Adele is perhaps the most high-profile example.

Fleming wants to focus on styles that are distinctly American in sensibility.

"I chafed at being pressed into a European model of what an opera singer is," Fleming said. "I just really thought why? Why do I have to follow that same model when I'm American?"

Foster, who has performed in 10 Broadway shows and won Tony Awards for "Anything Goes" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie," said it's unique to have a festival with so many different perspectives on American singing.

Still, she said making a career of singing is difficult. Her advice for students pursuing careers on stage emphasizes "authenticity and sincerity .... and obviously stage presence, but it all kind of goes back to storytelling," she said.

"I guess I learned by doing. I didn't come from a showbiz family," she said, adding the learning never stops. "I'm back in voice lessons now ... and I take dance lessons three or four times a week."

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Kennedy Center: http://www.kennedy-center.org/

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Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat.

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