Great Performances: What Makes a Good Performer

Yesterday, I had to submit audition material for an opera opportunity. In looking at my different takes of the same aria, what sold me on one particular take over another was my commitment to character, and how I looked more urgent to convey the message in the aria (“Ah, fuggi il traditor” from Don Giovanni by Mozart). That was the take I submitted on video. And speaking of video–I have a friend who sends me videos of her two-year-old who is immensely entertaining. She loves to sing songs and perform for the camera, even dubbing herself “Good Singer” at her tender young age in a display of extraordinary self-confidence! This has led me to reflect on the performers and performances we love. What is it about them that really grabs us? Rather than list general characteristics, I will comment on some performers or performances, ones who are generally regarded as great and others that I particularly like. This is by no means a comprehensive list, only some thoughts off the top of my head.

-Freddie Mercury. Why do we love him? This shy, buck-toothed British-Parsi man who captivated the world before his untimely death? Perhaps because he gave it all went on stage, in great contrast to his offstage personality. He was fierce, unbounded with his emotion. His voice was beyond that of most rock singers, sustaining long, lyrical lines with a range that went quite high for a man. Needless to say, his flamboyant costumes were part of the appeal. He could soar with great passion, croon as though singing a lullaby, or belt out a rock anthem, and we would always believe it.
-The Carol Burnett Show. This classic chestnut of TV not only featured comic geniuses in Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway, but it had skits that mocked popular culture, day-to-day life, and even well-known films or performances. “Went with the Wind” was probably its most infamous spoof on “Gone with the Wind,” and truly one of the best parodies in television. It never took itself too seriously, well-aware that the mockery was part of the process (Korman could not contain himself in the “Old Man” skits with Conway and always laughed). The sets were lavish, and Burnett’s tacky costumes by Bob Mackie were part of the over-the-top 70s appeal.
-Gil Shaham. One of my absolute favorite violinists (who is a wonderfully nice guy when you meet him offstage), he has the extraordinary ability to communicate with the audience when he plays. He almost seems to angle his violin more toward the audience, as if the violin is speaking with them in a dialogue. This is a quality rarely seen in any other violinist.
-Queen Latifah. The woman has presence. For anyone who has seen the film “Chicago,” her role as Mama Morton steals the scene every time. There is something so grounded and confident about her.
-Oprah Winfrey. True, she has done some acting in her time, but I think of her more as a journalist/TV host. Frank, funny, honest, and inquisitive, her curiosity and rapport with her guests was always personal and unique. When she moved on to later projects, such as “Super Soul Sunday,” she revealed her deeply spiritual side. In being herself, she has revealed that she is a natural performer, someone who is able to convey her appeal and engage the audience.
-Adele. I am not a great fan of Lady Gaga, whom I find an attention-getter and whose musical career and performances strike me as being highly derivative (though I find her quite good when interpreting others’ work, such as in “A Star is Born” and in her album with Tony Bennett.) But Adele is the truly talented one of her generation; by avoiding fuss and feathers, she performs by singing from deep in her soul. Not to mention her natural beauty, which I think was almost more stunning before her weight loss. She has tremendous integrity as an artist, and Grace Jones commented that she would not work with Lady Gaga but with someone like Adele instead.
-Figure skaters–too many to name. Scott Hamilton, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Johnny Weir, and more. We love watching them glide on the ice, fly through the air, and (in the case of Davis and White) dancing together. The combination of spangly outfits and superhuman movements is captivating.
-Bollywood stars–too many to name. Is it their good looks? Their carefully choreographed dance sequences? The songs (which are, inevitably, dubbed by playback singers)? The beauty of Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai, the charisma of Shah Rukh Khan (who played against type in the poignant, meaningful “My Name is Khan”) and Amitabh Bachchan are all something otherworldly.
-Joao Gilberto. This introverted Brazilian man who often sang in almost a whisper, as though strumming a guitar while sitting by a bedroom window, drew us in to his power by his heartfelt sincerity. Nothing could be simpler than his lyrical melodies sung to a percussive guitar, but they are the most touching songs one could hear. One of his albums would inevitably be a desert island disc, so to speak.

These performers are so varied in their genres and styles. And yet they all hold one thing in common: they touch our feelings and emotions. Who are some of your favorite performers?

Black Artists Matter

In a sense, it seems foolish to single out black artists, solely for the reason that a great artist is a great artist, no matter what her/his/their race is. However, given the recent tragic, violent events (that are still continuing), it is fitting to pay tribute to them. I think everyone in the arts has to have a personal canon, an individual pantheon of greats, follow a particular “lineage” (that will be the subject of a post in the future). Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists/works of art that made an impression on me, by artists who just happen to be black.

The characters on “Sesame Street.” Who didn’t have feel-good vibes from Gordon and Susan? (And then, as a corollary, Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on “The Electric Company?”) This is so crucial, as from a young age, if we expose children to diversity, it becomes something very ordinary. Children don’t discriminate in the way adults do. A child will look with loving eyes at a black character simply because they feel love for that character, because that character puts them at ease. Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it featured a diverse cast, yet it was not something we children were conscious of. Gordon was Gordon, Mr. Hooper was Mr. Hooper, Maria was Maria. Decades later, it was an incredible thrill to see “Maria” on the street or on the bus when I lived in New York City!

“The Cosby Show.” Before we knew what a disgusting, perverse, frightening monster Bill Cosby was, there was his fabulous, entertaining, family-friendly show that we adored as kids and teens. My generation grew up with Bill Cosby, seeing him on commercials, hearing his voice on “Fat Albert,” watching him with the goofily-named marker Ichabod Mortimer on “Picture Pages” on the children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” movies, TV shows, and then his own eponymous show. His gift for comic timing, clean humor, onomatopoeic gags, and physical comedy were nothing short of genius. The revelation that he was a drugging rapist feels, to many of us, like we were personally violated and betrayed. We grew up with The Cos, he was our dad, America’s Dad.

Reading Lena Horne’s autobiography in the seventh grade left quite an impression on me. It was quite long, and I was fascinated by her challenges and how she overcame them. She was also incredibly beautiful and talented.

Richard Wright’s Native Son. The sheer power of the novel, when I read it in the 10th grade, was beyond belief. It is a disturbing novel, and not without controversy (James Baldwin famously disliked it). As a writer, I strive for emotional complexity and like writing about emotional dilemmas. This book is rife with them, for there is no clear-cut good or bad. James Baldwin I only came to very late, but he is a stunning prose stylist and one of America’s top intellectuals.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for my AP English class was mind-blowing. It was not merely a book; it was literature. It was the first time I understood what literature was, something beyond two covers, something that was complex, full of symbols, unique prose, and transcendent.

John Coltrane. Hearing “Giant Steps” for the first time my sophomore year in college in a jazz theory class was nothing short of a revelation. We had been given the score, but the pace at which the saxophone line moved was like lightning and nearly impossible to follow. How did anyone have the genius to do that? How could anyone create those rapid chord changes and put a melody on top of it that still made sense, musically? When ‘Trane plays the sax, it sings. That is the ultimate compliment to give any instrumental musician. Coltrane also went on a spiritual journey through his life, one that was continued by his widow, Alice, a gifted musician in her own right. We lost him too soon. Thankfully, generations can enjoy his genius on recordings. As a lifelong jazz fan, there are too many favorites for me to name, but let it suffice to say that jazz is America’s contribution to the world, thanks to all the brilliant black musicians who have created an art form that has been inclusive and inspiring to non-black musicians of all genres.

Oprah. What can we say that hasn’t been said already? Oprah doesn’t do junk. Anything she puts in front of us is uplifting, of good quality. Consider her own journey–from unwed teenage mother to news reporter to talk show host, media mogul, America’s Mother Confessor to whom even the most difficult people will open up, and spiritual seeker who encourages everyone to look deep within, examine their issues, and operate from a place of healthiness and joy. There is no one in the world like her. And of course, we have to give a shout out to her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, who must be the most emotionally secure male on the planet!

The great opera singers. Highest admiration for my last voice teacher, legendary tenor George Shirley, who won the National Medal of the Arts from Obama a few years ago. Truly a great artist, and (literally everyone will affirm) a great human being. And of course, the other legends like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, and even current stars like Lawrence Brownlee and Nicole Cabell (who is part black, white, and Korean and a truly beautiful person inside and out.) Black singers have made a huge contribution to the world of opera, no one can deny that.

Aretha Franklin. That voice from the pit of her soul–anytime I listen to “Respect,” I get goosebumps. I was fortunate to see Aretha perform in Detroit a few years before she died. She could’ve made a living as a piano player just as well. A voice like that was nothing short of a divine gift.

James Brown. I was also fortunate to see him perform shortly before he died, and as I watched him dance, I realized he had been given a gift of rhythm. This is not to discount his fierce work ethic (something that often frustrated his band), but even with all the hard work in the world, an artist of that caliber was clearly gifted with something.

Arthur Ashe. Not quite an artist, but an icon in the world of tennis. Tennis is one of the few sports I have followed since I was very little, and though I was probably too young to really understand much of what was going on, I remember Ashe being quite the star and a calm, well-spoken man who had to overcome many barriers. He died much too young from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. Watch any interview with him and it will move you to tears–it is heartbreaking to think of his early loss.

These are my canon of my favorite artists who are black; who are yours?