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Minelli Follows Her Star

South China Morning Post—Hong Kong
May 25, 1997


For a singer, to lose his or her voice is traumatic. When Liza Minnelli lost hers earlier this year she did it in style. She went from singing the challenging role in the Broadway musical Victor Victoria, filling in for Julie Andrews, to absolutely nothing. No voice.


“I couldn’t speak at all,” said Minnelli, mimicking her not-even-a-whisper voice of a month ago.

She is in Hong Kong this weekend. Not to perform, or attend meetings, she said (although from a meeting that I found myself shown into by accident it seemed a local promoter might just have signed her up for a big Asian tour).


Nor is Minnelli here for a rest – which she probably needs after all the stress, caused as much by gossipy media coverage in the United States as her operation last month to remove polyps from her throat. She says she is here because this is where her voice coach happens to be this weekend.


“I followed Gary here because I’ve got to get my voice in shape quickly for three concerts in a row in San Francisco next week,” she said, grinning across the sofa at Gary Catona, singing coach to the likes of Annie Lennox, Paula Abdul, Seal and others.


“It works,” said Minnelli of the controversial method that has had many more traditional singing coaches in paroxysms of horror. “And I would go anywhere for what works. I’m cold-hearted: I’ll do what I have to do to get the job done.”


Catona, 44, is in Hong Kong partly to sit in on the Midem music festival and partly to clinch distribution deals for a new video-audio course called Voice Power.


The video, demonstrating vocal techniques, will be pitched to Asia’s karaoke -singing public, a potentially lucrative market.


Minnelli swears by it, saying her voice may, after hard work, have three octaves, including the soprano range she has never had, and be better than ever.


But how does the system work?


Minnelli and Catona demonstrated the beginning of a lesson.


“Let’s do that ‘Aaaaaaaaaa’,” Catona said, doing scales of Aaaa-s. They started aaaaa-ing energetically, until Minnelli’s voice started hitting the back of her throat, with more of a kkkkkkkaaaaa sound.


“I was isolating the muscles responsible for her voice, and exercising them. Where it sounds the worst is where it’s the weakest, and that’s where you’ve got to work with it,” the coach said.


“If you’re a singer you naturally go to the place where your voice sounds the best and if you’re having a problem in one area then you’ll avoid it, so that the problem just gets worse. And what I want to do is to find the problem and force her to stay at that point. It’s trouble-shooting,” Catona said.


While exercising, Minnelli stood up, and leaning on her hand against the window told me her version of the voice-training theory, as if telling a story.


And, natural storyteller that she is, her body language and sense of drama riveted my attention as if she were telling something rather wonderful.


“Everything in your body is a muscle, right?


“So one day you lean against a wall with your arm,” she said, leaning, “and it feels a bit weak. So what do you do? You exercise with a bell . . .” And that, Minnelli said, was what Catona has done with her throat. “He says: ‘Let’s build up all the muscles around the vocal cords, and then work out that those are muscles, too, and work on them,’ ” she said.


“You build them up so they’re so strong that someone could hit you in the throat while you were singing and it would still be all right.”


She demonstrated the new capacity of her rehabilitated vocal cords.


“It’s right from your soul, like Martha Graham used to dance. It’s down and as far open as you can get. And it keeps giving me images of tunnels,” she says.


It was good training for anyone, said Minnelli, who had volunteered to do this interview as a publicity favour for Catona, and frequently, deftly kept bringing the conversation back to the point.


“If you’re tone-deaf then forget it, but you’ll still be able to go ‘aaa’ in the wrong pitch and sound good,” she added enthusiastically. At the beginning of the interview, when we checked my tape recorder for sound quality, Minnelli started laughing because her voice sounded “so husky and squeaky”.


If you knew nothing about the operation, you might just think this was the normal smoky, jazzy, somehow sweet New York voice of the singer, who has hit 50 but does not look it.


But no, her usual voice was lower, she said, demonstrating although it seemed to hurt.

“A bit more work to be done there,” Catona said.

Catona – whose interest in vocal techniques started when he was trying out as an opera singer (“and I found that after years of training my voice was worse, not better”) – has been in the business since 1983.


He acquired some big-name clients early on – Shirley MacLaine was an early convert – and now has an impressive list of them.


He gives them lessons in person and by phone, to keep up with the singers’ peripatetic movements.


“I remember going to Venice Beach, California, with my parents who were over from Pennsylvania,” he said.


“And I suddenly remembered: ‘Oh, my God, Shirley (MacLaine) needs a lesson up in Canada.’ So I was walking around the beach with a cellphone going ‘errrrrrr’,” at this point breaking into an approximate imitation of a constipated cow.


“One person came up and said: ‘What are you doing?’ and I said: ‘Giving Shirley MacLaine a voice lesson.’ And he shook his head and said: ‘Boy, you belong to Venice Beach.’ “

But what makes voices go wrong?


For Minnelli it was years of singing wrongly, she said.


“Then I went into this show (Victor Victoria ) where I had to speak like a man, sing like a soprano and then sing full-belt, and my vocal memory wasn’t there for that,” she said.

“I don’t know how Julie Andrews could even talk, every song is like an opening or closing number. I was fighting for my life.


“I’d had years of singing too much and in different ranges. Working too hard. I’m a worker.”

She paused, and added firmly: “I don’t do the things you read about, I just do a lot of work.

“It was by no means carelessness and by no means laziness and by no means anything but hard work,” she said.


“He knows me,” she said, pointing to Catona. “I take good care of myself.”

“You’ve got to be an athlete,” come Catona’s reassuring tones.


His role is clearly to boost confidence as well as demonstrate voice control: a much-needed role for personalities made fragile through excessive attention.


Sometimes she calls him because she is feeling sensitive. “And he just says: ‘Screw them, let’s hear an E,’ ” Minnelli said, adding a rather stronger phrase in Italian, for effect.

“You just outlive the rumours and you just keep showing up as I do, and eventually they’re going to go away,” she laughed, it seemed sadly.


That pretence could not be her attitude to her vocal problems, however, when she thought she might never get her voice back. So, she continued, as soon as the surgery was over, “Well, I phoned Gary . . .”


As Minnelli talked, we all suddenly realised the ludicrous image she had created, of making a call without being able to speak, and using all our vocal cords to the full, laughed at the idea.

Catona mimed being on the other end of the phone hearing this croaky, almost soundless noise. “I heard nothing . . . ‘Is that Liza?’ I asked.”


Was her voice problem really why she pulled out of Victor Victoria ?

“Of course. I lost my voice for the last two performances. That’s all,” she said of the unpleasant rumour mongering around the cancellation – speculation about personal problems and rows with co-stars.


“It was a lot of publicity . . . they’re doing it with Raquel (Welch) too. They use people, boy,” she said of the entertainment and gossip press in whose pages she – first as the daughter of Judy Garland, and then in her own right – has been appearing all her life.

Does it hurt when she reads about all the things she is supposed to have been doing? Or does she ignore it? “I don’t care because I’m not doing it . . . My mother said a good thing,” Minnelli said.


“She said the legend, which is over there” – and she indicated a space on the other side of the room that suddenly seemed to be occupied by the legendary Minnelli leaning, Sally Bowles-like, out of a window towards 1930s Berlin – “will grow any way it wants. It doesn’t belong to you: leave it alone, it’s none of your business. Your business is your life and how to be happy in it: remember that (and she pointed again to our Cabaret ghost by the window) is not your life.”


Minnelli wriggled, snuggling into one of the cushions, and laughed again.


“I’m suddenly notorious. Me? I mean look at me, Gary, it’s so stupid. That’s Sally Bowles, it’s not me.”


And did she harbour any bitterness towards writers who wrote, or the public who bought, such invention?


“They need it . . . and as my mother said” – and here Minnelli’s voice was New York – “if they need it, then give it to them and shut up.”


Minnelli made her exit now, to change for dinner.


As she said a warm goodbye, she added, with a sense of something shared and nodding to Catona: “It’s nice to believe in something, isn’t it?”

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