Barbara Cook, above, at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand, below, have adjusted their art over the years.
At the end of Barbara Cook’s remarkable recent concert at Carnegie Hall to celebrate her 85th birthday, several guest artists and colleagues came onstage to pay homage. For me, the most revealing tribute came from an opera singer, the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who said that when she was a child in New Mexico in the early 1960s, the first beautiful voice she ever heard was Ms. Cook’s, on the original cast recording of “The Music Man.”
“I wanted to be you,” Ms. Graham told Ms. Cook, who is a passionate and informed opera fan. Ms. Graham said that Ms. Cook’s example was in no small measure an inspiration for her own career, a career that she hopes will continue for a little while longer, Ms. Graham added modestly, pinching two fingers together to suggest that even just a bit more was all an opera singer can expect.
Then Ms. Graham sang “Till There Was You,” the beguiling love song that Ms. Cook introduced in “The Music Man” on Broadway in 1957. The richness, tenderness and effortless soaring power of Ms. Graham’s singing made clear that, at 52, she has more than a finger pinch of years ahead of her.
Of course, to be singing at 85 is an absurd impossibility for an opera singer, though there have been artists, those who knew what they were doing and had good health, who sang impressively into their 60s, like the great Joan Sutherland. Plácido Domingo is another story. Unable to call it quits, he has remade himself into a baritone, the voice category he first emerged with as a young man, until, note by note, he built his top range and became a tenor. He will be 72 when he takes on the baritone role of Germont in Verdi’s “Traviata” at the Met this spring. The problem with his performances as a baritone, however, is that his voice still has a tenor’s colorings and character. His late success is the result of fierce determination and is no model for young singers.
As it happens, a week before Ms. Cook’s moving concert at Carnegie Hall, Barbra Streisand, now 70 (which in a singer’s life is nothing like being 85), returned to Brooklyn, her birthplace, to give two concerts at the new Barclays Center. Like Ms. Cook (whose birthday is on Thursday), Ms. Streisand has had to learn to adjust her vocal artistry as her voice has weathered. High notes do not come as easily, though even in her vocal prime, Ms. Streisand’s high range was not her comfort zone. In those days, whether she let a top note shimmer with penetrating power or coaxed her voice to reach the peak of a phrase with breathy expressivity, her singing was driven by the instincts of a born actress who was using her voice “as a means to an end,” as Ms. Streisand explained in a 2009 interview.
She continues, to the delight of her countless admirers, including me. In song after song during the first Barclays program, Ms. Streisand found her way, even when it had to be a new, altered way, to enthrall and move her audience in songs she first claimed long ago, like “My Funny Valentine,” and an achingly wistful performance of “The Way We Were,” dedicated to its composer, her old friend Marvin Hamlisch, who died in August.
The best pop singers seem never to age. Look at Frank Sinatra. You cannot say his singing declined as he matured; rather, it changed, mellowed and took on more vocal weight and emotional depth. He may have given some shaky performances toward the end, but no one said he was too old to sing.
I could not help feeling a little bad for Ms. Graham and any opera singers who happened to be in the audience for Ms. Cook’s concert. Singing is singing, and there are whole areas in which the artistry of pop singing and opera singing overlap: in phrasing, color, inflection, character and making words matter. Still, vocal technique in opera presents almost superhuman challenges and, in comparison with pop artists, opera singers can count on just two or, at best, three decades of top-notch singing. At 30, most opera singers are still developing, figuring out the dimensions of their voices. By their mid-50s they must listen to critics and demanding buffs telling them that their voices are losing luster, or technical agility, and that they should retire certain roles.
The main difference between these vocal practices, of course, is obvious: amplification. It was amusing to see Ms. Graham, when she walked onstage to address Ms. Cook, fumble as she tried to figure out how to snap a hand-held microphone on to its stand. But after speaking through the microphone, she pushed it aside to sing, and filled the hall with her creamy sound.
You can sing with much more subtlety and nuanced attention to words when you have amplification to help you. So, at least in the realm of technique, there is not much that opera singers can learn from artists like Ms. Cook and Ms. Streisand. Still, both offer inspiring examples of how to adapt artistry to changes in vocal capacities. And this is something opera singers think about all the time.
The hallmarks of Ms. Cook’s artistry, as Ms. Graham said, have always been integrity and honesty. At this point, her voice may have lost some body. She may not have the uncannily fresh bloom in her sound that she had way back in her late 70s. And physical troubles that caused her to walk with a cane onto the Carnegie Hall stage, and to sing sitting down, may have affected her vocal stamina that night.
Long ago Ms. Cook figured out what really matters in singing: to put lyrics across as if she were confiding in you, to bend melodic phrases to expressive ends, to inflect her sound with heartache, happiness, sass, bitterness or whatever the moment calls for, as she did in her affecting rendition of “The Nearness of You,” the Hoagy Carmichael standard, sung with the subdued piano accompaniment of Ted Rosenthal.
Ms. Cook’s move in more recent years into swing songs is partly the reflection of an artist exploring new terrain, but also an acknowledgment that in songs like “Makin’ Whoopee” she can make magic happen, as she did in her sly, charming performance, by emphasizing, almost half-speaking the words.
During Ms. Streisand’s concert at the Barclays Center it was hard to imagine that in 2000, when she gave two concerts at Madison Square Garden, she all but announced that concert tour as her last. Since then she has found new ways to adjust and continue. Will she be performing at 85? It’s doubtful. But who would have thought that Ms. Cook would still be singing so beautifully at that age?