Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Sondra Radvanosky and Gregory Kunde: Big "High" Voices of Bel Canto's Past

It is not often that I write articles about currently active singers.  I am not a critic and I don't want to make current professional's lives more difficult than they already are.  But this is not such a case, but rather the contrary.  These are two singers that in my estimation represent a type of singing we do not hear very much of, not because the voices do not exist, rather because the categories of tenors and sopranos who sing big Bel Canto repertoire (what we could call Dramatic Coloruaturas, tenors included) are severely misunderstood.

I heard Greg Kunde some years ago and I was floored at the power of the voice singing what we have come to think of as repertoire for smaller voices.  He was singing Rossini!  Greg is the only tenor I know who managed to sing both the Rossini and Verdi Otellos in the same season.  Truthfully, it is difficult to come up with any name of a tenor who sang both roles with equal success.  Yet in the same year Greg came out with this little ditty:

Sondra Ravdanosky has been filling the Metropolitan Opera with such dramatic roles as Tosca and Norma (the latter totally in line with her Bel Canto history), but she can be found on youtube singing a glorious Violetta capped with an effortless high Eb:

Both singers carefully crafted their careers singing repertoire that lies in a higher tessitura than the average spinto soprano or tenor.  That is because despite the size of their voices, they are not spintos in the true sense.  Their voices "bloom" higher.  Once could say that they have thick (vertically) vocal folds but somewhat shorter compared to spintos.  Their muscular passaggi are higher even though they make similar acoustic choices when compared to spintos.

Because traditionally "heroic" bel canto roles like William Tell and Dramatic Coloratura roles like Queen of the Night or Constanze or Donna Anna (think of Edda Moser) are sung, these days, by relatively lighter voices, the big-voiced, high tessitura singers are too often mistaken for their spinto counterparts.  When we look at Radvanosky's repertoire, we find Bel Canto at it's center.  High-lying roles like Donna Anna, Lucrezia Borgia, The Donizetti Queens, Verdi's Belcanto Operas including Vespri Siciliani, Ernani, Trovatore (all requiring high tessitura and fioratura) and of course, La Traviata.  As the soprano's voice grows in strength and can sustain greater volume in the middle range, she added such parts as Aida and Tosca and of course Norma, a role she was probably destined to call a signature part. The flexibility of the voice in the traditional passaggio gives her voice a peace in such noble and subtle roles as Suor Angelica, Tatyana and Rusalka. Indeed, as gorgeously pleasing as those roles are in her beautiful resonant voice, when I hear her sing them, I often wonder if she is not singing them a third lower than original, because her voice indeed blooms higher.  She is now exploring some of Verdi's lower-lying roles such as Amelia in Ballo and the Forza Leonora.

The genius of Radvanosky is that she and her advisors understood that roles of lower tessitura such as Tosca and Norma (even though a Bel canto role, it lies a bit lower) would become more thrilling when the voice became stronger in the middle.  Voices with that kind of radiance (resonance) and easy power could easily be confused for heavier.  It is worthwhile to compare her magnificent Tosca with that of another one of my other favorite Toscas--Violetta Urmana.  This tells it all!  These are two magnificent voices, but different.  The way Callas and Tebaldi were different.

I have experienced both of these magnificent artists at the Met in this role, and I can attest that the experiences are totally different.  Yet, both voices carry with incredible power in the house--Different kinds of power!  Radvanosky's Tosca has a gentle flexibility that sears every corner of the house with palpable energy, while Urmana is the traditional spinto who sends great waves of sound that throw you out of your chair.  I truly do not have a preference because they are both truly magnificent in ways that can only be experienced in the house.  Germane to this article however is that they are two different kinds of voices whose repertoires cross at a Tosca juncture.

Could we experience Sondra Radvanosky as Turandot, Abigaile, Lady Macbeth, Salome and eventually the high-flying Walküre Brünnhilde  (all those roles have very high tessituras)?  With her characteristic care in chosen repertoire, I predict this singer will last a long time and will thrill us with many new roles with a very fresh voice.

Lately I have come across quite a few big high soprano voices like that in my studio and whenever they ask for a current voice to listen to, I send them to Sondra Radvanosky.

The male version of this equation is no less spectacular.  Greg Kunde's "elastic voice" (to use a favorite term of Pavarotti's when describing his own voice) can be experienced on Youtube singing most of the classic bel canto tenor roles in such works as Rossini's William Tell, Ermione, Otello, Tancredi, etc..., Bellini's Puritani and Capuletti and Norma, Donizetti's Fille, Pasquale, Lucrezia Borgia and many others.  In his second period, Greg has had great success with Vespri Siciliani, Ballo in Maschera as well as Otello and beyond the Italian repertoire, a huge success in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine recently.  It is not by accident that we see similarities in the repertoire that these two singers have sung.  Big sound with agility and flexibility and especially great comfort in a stratospheric tessitura.

Like I compared Radvanosky to Urmana, it is a worthwhile exercises to compare Greg's Verdi Otello with a singer I believe should have sung the role more: Giuseppe Giacomini:

Two absolutely different voices and I don't need my acoustic analyzer to know how well those two voices carry in the house.  We would have to go back to Lauri-Volpi and Miguel Fleta to find Verdi Otellos in the mold of the Bel Canto.  There is a different thrill with voices like Kunde's.  Just as we heard with the Fille aria above from a couple of years ago, it is almost unbelievable that a voice of such mass can sing high Cs so easily.  Giacomini is the traditional spinto with a voice that blooms closer to G4 than Bb4 as we hear with Kunde.

Gregory Kunde and Sondra Radvanosky represent a rarity in our times that should be remedied.  They are not the only "Big High" Voices around.  The important thing is that their glorious voices are not diminishing as they are experience their primes.  Kunde has been maintaining his prime for quite a while and Radvanovsky is become a model on the women's side.

The vocal folds are three-dimensional.  They are horizontal on two different axes and vertical as well.  The specific characteristics of the folds determine tessitura, ability to handle breath pressure (volume) and timbre.  It is a combination of those things that determine comfort or discomfort in a particular repertoire.

Greg and I did an interview a couple of years ago that ended up unfortunately not recording properly because my Skype-Audacity connection did not behave. His extremely busy schedule has made it difficult to remedy that loss.  I hope we will have a chance to discuss his magnificent career again!  I met Sondra Radvanoskly briefly after one of her Tosca, backstage at the MET.  She was gracious and friendly to everyone who approached her.  She seems just as easy-going as her very easy but powerful voice.  I would welcome a sit-down with her as well.

In a world where voices seem expendable, it is not only refreshing but extremely encouraging that two such great flowers should bloom in a field that does not always provide sunshine and water to bourgeoning talent!

I leave you the two Bel Canto Stars singing together in Lucrezia Borgia and Vespri. It is beautiful how well-balanced the two voices are together!

© 04/15/2014

Edit to add the last two videos, suggested by James L. Pike, my student who often gets valuable advice from Maestro Kunde.  May the two of them get to sing much more together.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Lisa della Casa and Orelia Dominguez: Vocal Acoustics Par Excellence

The development of acoustic studies as related to the opera singer gained some steam through the consistency that can be observed in the tenor high voice.  If anything had been made clear is that most of the great tenors display a clear strategy between the dominance of the first formant (F1) in the lower range and the dominance of the second formant (F2) in the higher range and a near equal balance on notes that lie at the border between F1 and F2 dominance---the area we call the passaggio (Fundamental Frequency depends upon vowels--i.e. the passaggio begins earlier for low-F1 vowels like [u] and [i] and later for [E] and [a], [o], [O] and [e] fall in between extremes).  Beyond F1/F2 balance, the presence of the Singer's Formant (SF), attributed for the "ring" or "squillo" (that which makes the voice present in the listener's ears when the singer is accompanied with orchestral forces), is expected throughout the male range (not all singers achieve this.  Even the great Pavarotti had little SF in his voice).

F1: [a] (or what passes for [a] in context) = 750 Hz (+/- 100Hz); F2: [a] (or what passes for [a] in context) = 1200Hz (+/- 100Hz)

F1: [o] (or what passes for [a] in context) = 400 Hz (+/- 100Hz); F2: [o] (or what passes for [o] in context) = 1000Hz (+/- 100Hz)

F1: [u] (or what passes for [u] in context) = 260 Hz (+/- 100Hz); F2: [u] (or what passes for [u] in context) = 900Hz (+/- 100Hz)

F1: [E] (or what passes for [E] in context) = 350 Hz (+/- 100Hz); F2: [E] (or what passes for [E] in context) = 1450Hz (+/- 100Hz)

F1: [i] (or what passes for [i] in context) = 280 Hz (+/- 100Hz); F2: [i] (or what passes for [i] in context) = 2100Hz (+/- 100Hz)

SF= c. 3000 Hz for female voices (c. 2800 Hz for males).  The SF is broad ranging enough that it can catch harmonics as low as 2700 Hz in the female voice (as low as 2500 in lower males voices).

Female voices are much less analyzed for the simple reason that female voices show little consistency by the time that acoustic analysis became available to the average voice geek (pedagogy teachers and the like).  This is fascinating.  In a sense, the standards for male voices have remained consistent (though many professionals do not meet the standards).  For female voices the standards have pretty much fallen off.

The balance of F1 and F2 is just as important in the females voice as it is in the male voice.  The two formants determine accuracy of vowel shaping (modification) to fit the needs of the overtone series that is being produced on a given note.  However, this dynamic between source-tone and vocal-tract filtering can only have meaning when a strong source tone is produced.  This necessitates that the vocal folds close completely during close phase of phonation but that they are not "pressed" tightly together, for the propagation of air is what we hear as sound pressure.  Since the discovery of the F1 limits, it began to become clear why women have issues in the lower passaggio.  The range of F1 limits, from around c4 on the [i] vowel to f4# on the [a], is precisely the area of problem for female voices and not coincidentally, also for male voices.  The difference is that the event occurs from the middle into the high range for male voices, whereas it is the low into the middle for female voices.

Given that the majority of opera singers are obsessed with the development of their important top notes, the lower middle range of female voices in particular (true of high males voices too) is often under-developed and that is certainly the case with women in modern operatic times.  Instead of acknowledging the difficulties in the lower passaggio and work (as in the past) to even it out by developing substance and support, modern pedagogy "dictates" that the singer should go into some kind of "mixed" phonation in the passaggio.  This word "mixed" unfortunately means different things to different people.

If mixed meant working the substance of the chest voice with the stretch of the folds that facilitates high overtones and "head" sensation, all the while maintaining efficient closure (fully closed but not pressed) the results would be most satisfying.  Instead of working the two main muscle groups opposite each other to achieve a balance (taut and substantial vocal folds yield a much more efficient vibration.  See here), the easier but vocally inefficient option is to loosen the closure of the vocal folds resulting in a weak source tone that yields little power under acoustic analysis.

It should also be understood that the acoustics of the voice is a comparative exercise. Having a strong F2 dominance in the upper range means that vowel modification is correct but it says very little about carrying power.  In the best singers, appropriate F1 or F2 dominance is accompanied with an equal dominance in the SF (i.e. The strength of the SF should match that of the dominant lower formant [F1 or F2).

The average female voice shows very little in the way of balance between F1 and F2 in the lower and middle range up to e5 where both formants should still be consistently active.  Beyond f5 (the fundamental frequency, F2 presence depends on vowel.  F2 often falls between harmonics (overtones) on the [a] vowel and therefore F1 dominates until around b5 and then F2 of the [a] vowel takes over again.  More importantly, when the source tone is strong and formants are appropriately managed the SF is also very active in the female voice, even in the high range.  F1 and F2 of other vowels are unreliable as they fall most often between harmonics beyond f5.

When we listen to Lisa Della Casa and Orelia Dominguez, the result is precisely what is explained above.  Voices that have a lot of body (substance--fold contact area) and and a lot of brilliance, with the vocal folds adducted completely but not "pressed".  For modern ears used to hollow, darkened voices, these voices might sound overly bright on first hearing.  If however one can recalibrate the ear to become sensitive to the balance between low and high overtones, then one understands why these voices sound so visceral, powerfully present and neither shrill nor artificially darkened.

Lisa Della Casa, R. Strauss: Es gibt ein Reich (Ariadne auf Naxos)

Orelia Dominguez, Bizet: Card Aria (Carmen)

The balance that these women exhibit not only in the lower half of the voice but throughout their range is exceptional.  The Singer's Formant (around 3000 Hz for the female voice) is active to some degree throughout and both singers show strong F1/F2 balance throughout.  Above E5 F2 of the "so-called" back vowels [a], [o], [u], falls between overtones, so F1 stays dominant, F2 of front vowels [e], [i] and the like can be dominant on the second harmonic for [E] or third harmonic for [i].  This is observed here and in the voices of singers who maintain good closure in the high range.  Many women sing breathy in the top range and only show strength on the fundamental.  Since so many women sing what is tantamount to a falsetto in the high range, it has become not only accepted but preferred.  Singers like Tebaldi and Della Casa here exhibit very strong overtones in both F2 areas and on the SF.  Their voices were known to be very powerful in the opera house.

Some excellent female singers today, like Anja Harteros and Stephanie Blythe display very consistent activity in both F2 and SF.  Unfortunately a great majority of female singers develop with a totally different ideal in mind:  "Warm and pretty at all cost."  Warm unfortunately is translated into darkened, muffled vowels and pretty is understood to mean sing in a falsetto set-up.    The appropriate formant influences are the only standards we can point to in terms of acoustic norms.  How these formant values influence the rest of the sound spectrum is also interesting to comment on (next time).    

Singers today are also obsessed with the idea of having a unique vocal quality.  In such pursuits, they will sing sounds that are against the natural function of the instrument, whether extremely chesty or extremely fluty.  The fact is that every voice is indeed acoustically unique without reducing the voice to unnatural adjustments.  A singer is more likely to encounter the unique nature of the voice by allowing the voice to function based on acoustic norms.

Even in the past, female singers had difficulties balancing the muscular function that balances vocal substance (vocalis) and stretch (CT), as well as the acoustic issues that rise from such a muscular balance.  However, from analyzing voices of the past, I get a sense that singers back then were aiming for the same results, whether they achieved it or not.  Today, I get the sense that singers and pedagogues want to invent their own new norms that result in voices that have very little presence in the house when singing in the presence of orchestral forces.  The voices may sound immense in small rooms with piano accompaniment (that was my experience as a former baritone) but sound relatively weak in the house with orchestra.  

Acoustics does not necessarily give the singer a means to "feel" the voice (kinesthetic empathy), but it does give us clear feedback as to whether the voice is functioning correctly or not.  Indeed, if a singer has the ability to "feel the voice",  s/he nevertheless must know what it is s/he needs to feel.  Acoustics can guide one to those sensations. The norms observed in the singers of the past is quite consistent.  The values for at least some of the top singers today are also consistent with what we saw in the past.  But singers below the top level are considerably far from tradition.  If a singer can accomplish what today's best singers are doing, they may find some room at the top.

© 03/20/2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Top Ten Countries Reading Kashu-do! Thank you and much more!

First I would like to thank everyone who reads the blog.  Although I can write in 8 languages and hoped to translate the blog into as many languages as possible, time does not allow right now.  So with Google, we can do the next best thing.  I added a "Translate The Blog" gadget (to the write of the body of the post) so you can read the blog in your own language (Thank you Google!) Some of the most exciting developments with Kashu-do are happening this year, including our new Opera Seminar in Sweden this summer, offering lessons in more places in the world, developing Kashu-do Training Seminars for Voice Teachers, etc.  I just wanted to take the time to thank you all and just for fun list the top 10 countries reading the blog over it's existence.

USA:  Thank you
UK:  Thank you (imagine different accent)
Deutschland:  Danke schön
Canada:  Thank you, merci (Québécois)
Sweden: Tack så mycket
Brazil: Obrigado
Taiwan: 非常感谢
Norway: Tusen takk
France: merci
Australia:  Thanks mate! (totally different accent)

United States
United Kingdom

Ours is the first blog to deal with vocal technique (although other websites have been around long before us).  Because of your interaction, the blog has become very important to over 200,000 readers worldwide.  Blog readership actually grows even though I have written less frequently.  Our journey is entering a truly exciting phase as many of my students have become very successful teachers themselves and our philosophy of "technical inclusion" and hard work is spreading.  There will be more audio and video clips, more spectrograms, more refining techniques as well as opening up our techniques to many over the internet.  

I began writing the blog as a means of clarifying the often paradoxical nature of the science of the voice and it has transformed to a place of international interaction.   The blog reports we have 180 members, but our tracking information shows thousands of unique users.  So click here to become a member, so we have a truer reflection of our readership!

Looking forward to a more active blog in the next few months.

All the best and thank you in all languages for making this blog a success!