Monday, April 21, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Pharyngeal Voice: A Mystery Created From a Normal But Less-used Function

A year ago, a very attractive young singer came to New York concentrating on auditioning for Musical Theater opportunities.  She was a student of one of my students in the Southeast United States who in turn recommended her to me.  Upon arrival she had several auditions coming up, which required several different musical styles requiring different vocal adjustments.  She also explained to me that she had a real desire to pursue operatic singing.

We spent the first 8 months preparing her for one audition after another because she was having success, getting to call-backs and final call-backs.  After 8 months, she had a bit of a break from auditions and performances and wanted to explore her "operatic" voice.  When she started to sing the aria she had brought, she could not believe how much more powerful her voice had become and how much lower the aria felt.  She was a little confused.  I told her that we had been working on her classical voice all along!

What do I mean?

Simply put, we developed "chops"!  Call it muscular structure.  Whichever name we put to function, I believe in a "coordinated" voice that maintains an antagonistic balance between vertical mass, furthered by the Vocalis muscle and longitudinal tension (stretch) furthered by the Crico-Thyroid muscle.  This coordination, when properly balance maintains a voice of substance and elasticity.  Furthermore, I advocate a fold closure mode that brings the folds together gently, inducing a sensation of clear fluidity (call it flow-phonation) that is neither pressed nor breathy.  These are fundamentals that used to be true of both classical and popular singing before the second world war.  As pop music became diversified and less-balanced vocal productions became not only acceptable but desirable, classical singing also became diversified.  Evenness of tone production became less important.  Extremes of falsetto/flute production on one hand and extremes of chest production became popular effects.  Well-balanced voices are sometimes treated as "boring" by those who seek idiosyncratic voices that they judge more "individualistic!"  Voices are unique by nature.  No two voices sound the same.  However proper production can make voices sound like they have something in common.  Idiosyncrasy is not necessarily "Individuality".  It is rather like taking two exact same automobiles, painting them different colors and calling them two completely different machines.  It is superficial.

But how does all this relate to "Pharyngeal Voice?"

The only consistent attribute I can find relative to the term pharyngeal voice is that singers can "belt" all the way up the range without a break and that voices feel less fatigued.  This is pretty much what my student experienced.  The truth is that all my classical singers have the same ability to belt all the way up the range if they so chose because the muscular balance explained above makes this possible.  The basic difference between a good belter and a classical singer is resonance strategy in the middle octave. Where old school classical singers establish a second formant dominance in the middle range, the belter maintains a "speaky" first formant strategy throughout.  The classical female singer sings first formant dominance below F4 and above F5.  The octave between F4 and F5 is the area that distinguishes the belter from the classical singer.  A belt strategy by definition will require a slight laryngeal rise in the middle of the voice without glottal squeeze if the CT-Vocalis balance is adequate.  That says, F1 strategy in the middle voice and the raised larynx associated with it makes for a glottal posture that requires a slightly higher level of sub-glottal pressure to maintain vibration.

The kind of belting that cannot continue up the range constitutes a pressed glottal adjustment that sounds extremely intense in the low range but becomes stiff towards the middle of the voice.  Some classical singers produce a slightly pressed low voice, leading to a slightly breathy middle voice eventually achieving full-closure due to longitudinal tension (stretch).  The External Thyro-Arytenoid (also called muscularis) draws the folds together as it assists in the stretching of the folds.

A voice that shows no break and easy modulations from low to high without losing power constitutes healthy and exciting vocal production.  This can be done for both classical and popular modes of singing. What they have in common is a balance muscular structure relative to phonation (i.e. source tone).  The basic difference is acoustic (resonance). One requires a very low larynx and released jaw where as the other necessitates a slightly higher laryngeal position to facilitate F1 dominance and a slightly more closed jaw to evoke a more mundane, speaky quality.

In essence, the difficulty in explaining the mechanics of this "Pharyngeal Voice," as explained in this article, is based on a desire to present the function as something rediscovered (having its roots in Italian Bel Canto) and having particularly successful application in popular musical modes.

The concept, or rather the results aspired to, by those who champion the term, are noble.  However, the tendency of some CCM voice teachers to package vocal function as if it is something totally new is sometimes misleading, and only point to the fact that current classical practices are inadequate with respect to the needs of modern CCM singers and by extension incomplete for classical singers as well.

In short, "you either have chops or you dont!" Great singing technique gives singers choices not limit them to the genre they chose to concentrate on.  A great classical singer, if trained properly should be able to switch modes and belt a song without problem. Knowing how to use the instrument in different modes should be the expectation from a "professional" singer.  The ability to sing an operatic aria should not be beyond a well-trained pop-singer.  The ever-growing abyss between CCM singers and classical singers is only symptomatic of the inadequacies on both sides.

© 04/22/2014

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.