At seventy-six, the electrifying Dame Shirley Bassey still wields her Midas touch
At this year's Academy Awards, the greatest excitement of the evening came when seventy-six-year-old Shirley Bassey strode into the blinding klieg lights, after a film tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the James Bond movies, to belt out her signature tune, "Goldfinger," to the delight and astonishment of the assembled glitterati in the Dolby Theater and television viewers throughout the world.
A perusal of YouTube videos of Bassey singing "Goldfinger" -- from 1967, 1968, 1974, 1980, 2002, 2011 and 2013 -- shows how the number has evolved from the original 1964 soundtrack recording. Bassey has, in recent years, dropped the key a mere semitone. Originally, her take was a bit sly and humorous, as if she were not so much warning the listener as educating her. For years, the performance was coy and a little vixenish, with lots of expansive, sinewy hand movements, and she would jokingly kiss her own (bare) shoulder after the lyric "knows when he's kissed her." The final sixteen bars, for years, were accelerando, with a big growl on the final "only gold" (which she still does). The mature performance is a bit slower, somewhat cautionary, with a big rubato on the ultimate "he loves gold." In each performance, she nails the belted climactic high note, with a very dropped jaw and a very flat tongue.
Bassey's acting style, like that of Vikki Carr, Connie Francis and other power belters of her generation, demands a certain suspension of disbelief; her acting work is at a slight remove, truthful but self-aware, and often beguiled by the irony of her own storytelling. She is capable of physical stillness, although body and mind are not always one: she is influenced by Indian dancing's lotus hands, and she throws in choreographed arm and hand movements when the music calls for them.
2013 marks Bassey's diamond anniversary in show business. Sixty years ago, the Cardiff-born artist signed her first professional contract to sing in a touring variety show, Memories of Jolson. Although we haven't seen her for some time in the U.S., Bassey has been anything but inactive: she released albums in 2007 and 2009; in 2011, she sang at tributes to Mikhail Gorbachev and the late John Barry, and that year also brought the BBC2 broadcast of a biopic, Shirley, featuring Ethiopian-born Irish actress Ruth Negga. And in 2012, Bassey sang "Diamonds Are Forever" for the Queen's Sixtieth Jubilee.
The grandmother of four lives a comparatively quiet life in Monte Carlo, where she is "in semi-retirement." Although she no longer grants interviews, she answered OPERA NEWS's questions by email.
OPERA NEWS: When you were a child, how did your voice assemble itself? Was it a big, powerful instrument from the beginning?
SHIRLEY BASSEY: Yes, from the beginning. ON: You have access all the time to a soprano sound, and you sometimes choose to go into head voice. Is that instinct or technique?
SB: The head was there, but I hardly used it. Many years ago, I lost my voice after I lost my daughter. [In 1985, Bassey's twenty-one-year-old daughter Samantha Novak was found dead in the River Avon in Bristol. Ruled an accident for years, the case was reopened when a convicted killer stated that he had participated in the young woman's death. The claims were found to have no foundation, although Bassey continues to believe there was foul play.] My throat specialist sent me to a vocal coach. She got me to use it more. Helped me to strengthen my vocal muscles. She was an opera singer. We worked together for a year. Her name is Helena Shenel.
ON: Your singing is far more powerful than most pop singing. Like Barbra Streisand, you're very comfortable using a more legit coordination in musical-theater novelty songs. When you sang Anthony Newley's "Typically English," from Stop the World I Want to Get Off, you sounded like a naughty soubrette. Did you originally have aspirations to sing opera or musical theater?
SB: No, actually, I did not. In fact, my vocal coach said that if I had started in the beginning, I would have made a wonderful mezzo/contralto.
ON: Are there any opera singers you particularly respect?
SB: Maria Callas, Jessye Norman.
ON: And what popular singers, both past and present, do you most admire?
SB: Sinatra, Ella, Peggy Lee, Michael Bublé, and my soul countryman, Tom Jones.
ON: How did you become the singer associated with the Bond films? Was there a plan from the beginning, or did the popularity of your recordings make it happen?
SB: I was touring at the time with John Barry, and he was writing the theme song for Goldfinger. At the end of the tour, he asked me to listen to it, which I really did not want to do, because at the time there were no words for it. I said, "John, I'm a singer. I need words!" But as he was John, and we had just finished a very happy and successful tour, I listened to it. As soon as I heard the opening bars (which are now familiar to everyone on Earth), the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I said, "I don't care what the words are. I like it -- I'll do it!" That is the first and last time I have agreed to sing a song without hearing the words. Am so glad I did.
ON: Your reputation was made on songs that are big, sweeping, emotional stories. Do you ever wonder where these songs are now?
SB: As far as I know, I am still singing them. [She had a 2007 U.K. Top 40 hit with "The Living Tree," and her cover of Pink's "Get the Party Started" was another hit. In 2009, Bassey released her album The Performance, her first studio album of original compositions in decades, which includes "The Performance of My Life," by the Pet Shop Boys].
ON: One of my all-time favorite coups de théâtre comes at the end of your concert performances of "The Greatest Performance of My Life." After a very emotional confession, the spotlight is blacked out. When the light is restored, it "catches" you, still overcome with emotion. Did a director give that to you?
SB: The director did not. It was just one of those things. A magical moment.
ON: Your vocal longevity is astonishing. You have been singing full-throttle for sixty years now! For everyone I know, you were the highlight of the Oscars show. So few singers are able to sound so good for so long. How do you do it?
SB: The love of singing. My vocal exercises. Never abusing my vocal cords, and never over-working. I give my voice plenty of rest. When traveling on the road and I have a day off, I send all my people away and do not speak. I exercise every day in the gym, wherever I am. But it's mostly the love of singing.
Singing "Goldfinger" at the 85th annual Academy Awards show, 2013
From top: on her own BBC variety show, 1976: at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Buckingham Palace, 2012; with her fellow Wales native Bryn Terfel in Cardiff, at the 1999 Rugby World Cup closing ceremony
By Scott Barnes
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ALAIN HANEL, at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, September 2013
SCOTT BARNES is an audition and performance coach for professional opera and theater singers. He produces many recordings, most recently Janene Lovullo: This Moment. He also teaches a class, "Operatic Acting in the Age of HD."
[Source: Opera News. Nov2013, Vol. 78 Issue 5, p20-22. Copyright © 2013 Metropolitan Opera Guild Inc.]