iSing Why do you sing?
Christina Bianco It was a very early way that I could fully express myself. My parents say I was singing along to the music on the radio in the backseat of the car before I could even speak. I would sing phonetically. I just had to make noise through song. So, it was something I did before I actually was thinking about it consciously.
Once I could learn a whole song then it was, “Oh that is one sort of song and one sort of style, what is another one?” So, then I was hungry for the different styles, and it is never ending isn’t it? Music has always been the greatest happiness in my life. When I do it it just feels so good. It is meditation, it is therapy, it’s grounding. It is what brings me back to me.
iSing You started doing impressions innately from a very young age. But you took it more seriously about 6 years ago when you joined the cast of ‘Forbidden Broadway’. Do you have any specific process when developing an impression?
CB If I know who I am asked to impersonate I start the process a little differently than if I am intrigued when I hear a voice and I think I would like to try to impersonate that person.
If I choose to impersonate somebody because I hear something in the person that I think is unique or an identifying quality the general public would enjoy or would gravitate to, then I start with what I call the generalization of that voice.
Say, the Broadway performer Kristin Chenoweth. She is known for having a very high squeaky voice almost as if she is on helium. The stereotype is a helium voice, really nasal, really perky. So I go with that, and then I sort of play around. I acquire of course making funny faces and making awkward sounds, but I play with it that way. But, I start with the broad stereotype of it.
And, on the other end of that, someone like Liza Minnelli now has quite a husky voice. To me that is a husky sort of you know quality. And I make sort of these guttural noises. I do that because it is not just for me, it’s for the audience to latch on to something. Then it gives me something to build on.
Shirley Bassey and Whitney Houston are very similar placements to me. They both almost always sound like they are singing completely full out at all times. I mean, if you listen to a Shirley Bassey song, every word is almost the most important word the whole way through. That requires a lot of breath support, and for me she is very throaty. That is where it would sit with me. So, that could be dangerous to me. Then I have to figure out how to get the sound out as each person, how to do it safely and properly for me.
Once I do that, vocally, then I see if physicality helps, like holding my face or my jaw in a certain way. Not just for the performance factor, but it sometimes helps me find the placement of the person.
iSing: What do you think the important elements to a successful impression are?
CB In my personal opinion it is finding the balance of really sounding like the artist and presenting it in a way that is impressive, dramatic, or comedic. I think that many people can impersonate the voice quality of somebody, or many people can impersonate the essence of somebody. A lot of Cher impersonators don’t sound as much like her, but have her essence, and look like her and move like her. I don’t pretend to be an impersonator. I don’t put on the costumes. I don’t really have the goal of having a career being Celine Dion’s stand-in. I just really don’t have the stature. So I try to pick the features of a person’s physicality or voice and highlight them in an appropriate manner to what I am doing.
Sometimes I do something that is quite serious. If I sing a Celine Dion song in Celine Dion’s voice that is a dramatic song, like Titanic or something like that, “My Heart Will Go On”, I don’t want the audience laughing at that. I’d like for them to have a little moment to where they almost feel like Celine is in the room. That is my goal for that moment.
But, if I am doing Celine Dion singing, “Forget You” by Cee Lo it’s alright if they laugh. So, I still want to of course do an accurate vocal impression, but I don’t want to ever make the vocal impression always the most important thing of that moment.
I love performing in front of an audience. And, I have to listen to the audience. So, to me it is a healthy balance between the performance quality, and then the vocal quality of it.
iSing: So, aside from this straight ahead impersonation work, including this recent play and shows like Forbidden Broadway, how else has this skill helped you professionally?
CB It has helped me in two ways. As far as my career has gone it has opened many, many more doors for me than I would have thought. Because fortunately not everybody says, “She is the girl that does voices, that means she can do voices.” Which is fine, but it is very limiting. Instead people say, “Oh, she can do all of those voices. She can really embody each of those people, she must be a good actress.” And so people from the world of voice-over, parody review shows, and sketch comedy are calling on me to be part of things that require a versatile actor, and a versatile vocalist. And, that is really lovely.
My versatility as a musical theatre performer has not always been a good thing for me. A lot of people who cast these shows look for very specific types, and I don’t fall into a specific type of category physically or vocally. It doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It just means that I am not a clear-cut choice. Usually if you are not a clear-cut choice you are probably not going to end up getting the part. So it is nice to have something that has sometimes been a hindrance, now lead me to incredible opportunities.
I always did voices, but never took ownership of it. Then I got a little older, and I was in the business, and I got a little more confident. I looked at that audition notice for Forbidden Broadway, and I thought, listening to the cast album, I could probably do it. I don’t think it would be embarrassing if I went to this audition. So, I locked myself in my apartment, and I taught myself how to do a lot of these impressions. Called my mom and said hey does this sound like Bernadette Peters. And, she said yeah it does. So, when I went into the audition I knew I wasn’t going to make a fool of myself. But, I didn’t know how it was going to be received. When I got the job that was the first vote of confidence, saying, “Hey, you can do this.”
That gave me the confidence and motivation to take it further and try more impressions. I put together solo shows. It forced me to be more creative, to put together a show that appeals to everybody: the young people who follow me on YouTube and want to hear Britney Spears, the people that really like my Broadway impressions who want to hear the more classic divas. So I wrote and created some solo shows, which have, thankfully, done really well.
iSing: Have any of the voices you do cause you vocal issues?
CB Certain voices I now realize don’t hurt, but I do them in a way where I notice a change in me. I used to say, “I’ll do Kristin Chenoweth, here it is”. Now I realize I sort of only do it out of the right side. It feels like it is the right side of my voice, which is a weird thing to say. But, now I ask myself, “Are you putting your head to the right when you are doing something?” Are you straining?”
There are plenty of people I just won’t do. I can’t do Carol Channing or Elaine Stritch or Joan Rivers. These are wonderful iconic voices, which are very raspy. It is never going to happen for me unless I have severe vocal damage, which I hope never to have.
iSing Does the ability to impersonate hinder or help your own style in any way? Do you ever worry about losing your identity as a singer?
CB I’ll answer the second part first. I don’t worry about losing my identity as a singer because I always sing in my own voice. I am given opportunities to do so both theatrically and for concerts. One of my favourite things to do is sing with symphonies. When I sing with these symphonies I am hired to sing in my own voice. I am hired to sing jazzy songs and Broadway standards and operatic songs. Sometimes, because I do impressions, they will say, “Can you throw in an impression?” But, that is always an addition to me.
What the impressions have done to my voice? Nothing negative. And, I do think that in a way it has kept my voice more limber, more flexible. People expect me to sort of turn out, “Oh can you sing this?” “Can you sing the “Glitter and be Glib” parody from Forbidden Broadway?”, which is a parody of Leonard Bernstein’s “Glitter and be Gay”. It is a very difficult song, I don’t sing that on a regular basis.
I don’t typically sit at home and say, “Let me just sing “Glitter and be Gay” today”. But, I should. [laugh]. Because I am going to be asked to do it, every now and then.
iSing Let’s talk about the Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”, where you impersonate 19 singers. You posted it on YouTube last August and it has had over 7 million views. Why do you think it’s been so popular?
CB I don’t know, is the honest answer. I’d put out videos before then and since then that I thought had some of the same elements, none of them did that well. Typically with the Internet world it is chance: the right place, the right time.
If I’m pressed I say it was a combination of these things. I think that a lot of the videos that go viral on YouTube are ones that are not polished. I mean my video’s sound and visual qualities were so poor. My friend was holding up a camera over the person’s head in front of her just for the heck of it, just for me to have some record of what I did. It was the first time I was trying anything like that. I think people respond to that style on YouTube.
I also think that it is a song that everybody knows. Young kids know it. I mean even One Direction covered it! Adults know it, grandparents know it. It is a song that is iconic.
iSing You met Bonnie Tyler on the Paul O’Grady Show. Did she comment about it?
CB She was the best. That was one of the coolest moments of my life. Bonnie Tyler was so nice and so supportive. She got a kick out of it. I mean, plenty of people have parodied that song in one way or another. Nobody can sing it like Bonnie. She has one of the most distinct iconic voices there is. I cannot impersonate Bonnie Tyler because she has such a raspy voice; she has got this grit and this fire behind it. So, she thought that this was hysterical to hear her classic sung in the voice of Barbra Streisand or Celine Dion. She got a kick out of that she said, you know.
And, the writer of the song, Jim Steinman, actually contacted me, and he said how much he loved it too.
iSing Do you have any tips for a singer who might be adding impersonation or character voices as part of their skill set?
CB I would start with people who you think your voice is similar to. Because the last thing I want is somebody hurting himself or herself. If you listen to somebody and think that person’s voice really sounds similar to mine, then you probably could get a little impression of that person. Maybe it is not a matter of changing your placement or your tone at that point. Maybe it’s your pronunciation, or trying to slow the speed of your vibrato, or speeding it up. That’s a good way to start because even if you are very, very strong singer and you have a very strong voice, you might not be able to do impressions in a way that won’t hurt yourself. The last thing I want is for people saying, “Oh I can do that”, and jumping into an impression that might be too rough. So, I would say start with something close to your voice, and build it from there. Because it is like any muscle, you have to stretch it, you have to work it. And you will become more flexible. You just have to take it one thing at a time.
iSing So, how do you keep fit for performance?
CB Well, I warm up. I believe in singing a lot. I am not one of those people that has a set of warm-ups I have done everyday for my whole life. I don’t do that. I do need different warm-ups for different types of performance and different show lengths. So, it is a case-by-case basis for me. But, there are certain warm-ups that keep me centred and grounded in my own voice. I sort of always start with the same 3 or 4 exercises.
And, I then build on from that and do what I need in order to support my singing. If I am singing for a very long time my warm-up is going to be shorter. If I am singing for a short amount of time, I have a one-shot chance; I am probably going to warm-up a little longer.
A physical warm-up is definitely key, particularly for the show I am doing right now [Application Pending] because I am sitting down the whole time. Half the time I am talking, doing these crazy voices and my entire core is completely scrunched over a desk. So, I try to make sure I am aligned and comfortable. I guess to put myself in a position where I am prepared. You never know what is going to happen onstage.
It is wonderful that we all are told to practice and sing with our feet shoulder-width apart and nice flat feet, flat shoes, being grounded. But, that is not really how you are going to perform is it? Probably not. [laugh]. So, I just try to prepare for all possible scenarios, and try to make sure I am physically and vocally warmed up.
iSing Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
CB I hope that I am still doing live performances all over the world, hopefully to even bigger audiences, where I get to do my own show, my own creation. Doing impressions as well as singing in my own voice. I love doing that. And, as long as there is an audience for it I am going to keep doing it, and keep trying to make it happen.
I’d love to, while I am doing that, always still be singing with symphonies. I would love to have, at the same time, probably a theatrical piece, Broadway, West End. Where I get to sing as me. Not playing multiple characters. Playing one character. I am capable of that. And, various people let me do that nowadays. [laugh]
If I can travel around doing my own show, my own creation, that would be icing on the cake. And, also, at the same time, get to be sort of that vessel for somebody else’s work and do it as me without the many voices. That would be fantastic. I would love to put out a live CD of one of my shows and also have a nice in-studio CD. That way you get a little bit of everything again. Just keep it up, keep growing and being challenged with unique vocal challenges.
When you can do what you love and particularly if you are working really hard at it, to be appreciated for the work you have done, does feel good. So, so far, so good. I am happy.