Teach Me Thy Ways, Oh Ye Rock n’ Roll Tenors
by Britt Olsen-Ecker
What exactly is it about a Rock n’ Roll tenor that makes everyone – male and female – weak in the knees? Is it their performance, loud and in your face? Is it their voice, pure and melancholy and amazing and heart-wrenching all at the same time? I can listen to Freddie Mercury sing “Somebody to Love” at any time of day. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant gets me in a rock and roll mood. Both, however, give me chills.
My first knock-you-off-your-feet experience with a Rock n’ Roll tenor was, of course, Freddie Mercury. I was stunned. How did he do it? He had the ability to sound like the most angelic angel and the most badass mofo at the same time. My first memorable song was “We Will Rock You.” So mean in the beginning, so sweet at the end. I often wonder if he had training. I like to think he did – because a voice like that must have had some guidance – but at the same time, perhaps he didn’t. I think the mystery of it is perfect. In fact, Freddie Mercury recorded an album with a famous opera star, Montserrat Caballé. She is quoted saying, “the difference between Freddie Mercury and almost all the other rock stars was that he was selling the voice.”
This past spring, I worked alongside a full fledged Rock n’ Roll tenor who sold his voice. I participated in the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s most epic production of “VALHELLA.” Robert Bradley played the role of Kar, who was mute for the first half of the show, and then found his voice in the latter half. Robert sounded like he had been singing… and singing these crazy, powerful, Freddie Mercury-esque high notes… for a long time.
VALHELLA is about three brothers trying to save their village from starvation and desolation. Each of the brothers, though, has a disability – Har is blind, Ivar is deaf, and Kar is mute. So clearly, the effect of Kar ‘discovering’ his voice after he had been silent for more than an hour was jaw-dropping. Check out this video at .16 where he sings for the first time.
What I admire in these tenors is their vocal control and their marriage of classical techniques with rock. No one can doubt the pure essence of rock n’ roll when they hear someone like Robert or Freddie Mercury sing. However, what I also hear is the beauty of the tone, the vibrato, and most of all, the passion. This resonates deeply with anyone who is a musician.
I pondered how Robert was able to sing this way. So, I did what any good singer does and practiced in the protectiveness of my lovely shower. Belting that high is difficult whether you are a man or a woman. I tried to do what he did, by sliding up to that one money note, and noticed I felt the sound go into this strange high belt place. It wasn’t quite belting – but it wasn’t quite singing in my head voice. It was a mix of the two, and I was thrilled.
When I listen to Freddie Mercury, he sounds effortless and free – something we strive to accomplish as classical musicians. When I watched Robert perform alongside me (even though I was headbanging most of the time), he felt it, he embodied it – he WAS the music. We can definitely learn something from these so called “rock gods.” I certainly have – I’ve learned to engage the audience, use my body more, and overall – enjoy the music and empower my nervous energy into something great. We should all strive to make people weak in the knees. It doesn’t matter if you’re being backed up by a rock band or an orchestra – your goal as a performer and a musician is to move people, and make them clap real hard at the end.
Praised for her versatility on stage and in recital, Britt Olsen-Ecker has been hailed as a “renaissance woman” by Urbanite Magazine. She resides in Baltimore where she writes, acts, sings, and runs Britt Olsen-Ecker Photography.
While in Baltimore, she has performed with the Strand Theatre, Glass Mind Theatre, Single Carrot Theatre, Run of the Mill Theatre, and Stillpointe Theatre Initiative. She was last seen in the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s production of “Valhella.”
As a director, Britt has worked with many companies, including Rhymes with Opera, a company dedicated to contemporary works. She staged two brand new operas that premiered in New York City in June of 2012. For her directorial work with Glass Mind Theatre in Den of Thieves, Emily Schiller of City Paper wrote, “The writer/actor/singer debuts her directing talent with Glass Mind Theatre’s season opener, and it would appear a talent has arrived.”
Britt’s essay, “Why College Matters: A Response to What’s The Matter with College” was published by NYtimes.com. Her photography has been published by the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, City Paper, and the B. Britt Olsen-Ecker Photography specializes in portraiture and publicity work that does business in Baltimore, New York City and Los Angeles. She has photographed over 250 faces from coast to coast.
Britt also works as an actor at the Maryland Historical Society, where she portrays historical figures such as Clara Barton and Rebecca Davis. She performs both in the Civil War gallery, as well as the War of 1812 gallery.
Britt looks forward to performing next with the Performance Workshop Theatre in Mixed Doubles, opening in December, and doing musical direction for Single Carrot Theatre’s The V.I.P., opening in January.