Time was when no social gathering would have seemed complete without somebody sitting down at the piano for a sing-along. Nowadays, the need to make our own music has long since been obviated by the phonograph and its long line of descendants. We need only pop in a CD or download a tune — or 500 — onto the old iPod to have our fill of Beethoven, Chopin or Lady Gaga, without having to lift a finger to practice a single scale. But there is one form of home-grown musicale that seems to retain widespread popularity — the barbershop quartet. All you need are three buddies with decent intonation (or strangers who will soon become buddies if their intonation is decent enough) and tolerant neighbors who won’t mind a free "concert" now and then.
I recently discovered the pleasures of barbershop singing when a group of friends decided their male quartet needed a female adjunct to provide variety (and perhaps to liven up the inevitable post-rehearsal cocktail hours). Barbershop is toe-tapping fun, and though I confess to liking it best in its original low-voiced form, it’s a great outlet for vocal wannabes like me, who can count and sing pretty much on pitch and even manage a passable "Voi che sapete"in the shower but outside the friendly acoustics of that tiled echo chamber could not produce a lush, opulent tone if our lives depended on it. Those four parts together, even sung in thin, individually unremarkable voices like mine, produce all the rich resonance one could wish for, and it is quite a thrill to be partially responsible for such a sound, even if one can only claim one quarter of the credit.
"So," a friend asked me at one of those cocktail hours, "has there ever been an opera with a barbershop quartet?" He thought he was kidding, but the answer, of course is yes. (Is there anything of musical value or interest that has not made its way into opera at some point in the long history of the lyric art?) There may be a multitude of examples, and I would be delighted to hear about them if anyone out there is familiar with others. The one that came to my mind was "We will rest awhile," from Scott Joplin’s only opera, Treemonisha, a work never produced in its composer’s lifetime, but which has enjoyed sporadic revivals in recent years. I sort of knew it was out there, but it wasn’t until I had tested the quartet waters myself that I grew eager to hear and inwardly digest the operatic form of that time-honored and very American genre.
YouTube to the rescue. In among a surprising number of dreadful renditions by amateur choral groups (one foolproof way to kill the spirit of barbershop is to perform it with massed choral forces, rather than one voice to a part) I found the following homemade video, taken in a backstage corridor during a performance. It’s not only good barbershop singing: it overflows with the sheer joy of making music and the matchless sense of true bonding one derives from collaborating in a tight ensemble. Watch the guy on the left — that electric smile and the way he locks in the other three with his hands, his eyes and every other expressive means at his disposal. I dare you to listen to it and not be tempted to try it yourself.
– Louise Guinther