Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving High C: A Tenor Milestone

It is so easy to say: "No you can't!"  I swore I would never tell a student that something was not possible.  I would explain why something was not attainable at the moment and what would be needed to achieve it.  But I would never say: "It is impossible!"

I have heard from many coaches and teachers that you do a student a favor when you tell them they have no talent.  You spare them the agony that they would face in attempting to reach a goal they never would reach.  Sometimes, I wish I could do that, but I find it unethical.  It is not our place as teachers and advisors to tell anyone what to do.  It is our job to present the realities as they are and let the student decide if they will chose to swim the "sea of troubles" that is the path to a professional career in singing.  The path that is unending an rewarding however is the path to artistry.  

When we tell a student that they should not sing because the world of the music business is impossible, we also tell them to stop the path of the artist.  "Cart before the horse!"  Why not instruct the student in the art of singing and music and then they can figure out whether or not they want to deal with the world of music business.  Armed with the tools of an artist, one has a chance.  Armed with nothing but fear of a nasty world of music business, one has indeed no chance.

When I started my journey to finding my true voice, my tenor voice, I decided a fully supported High C was a part of the package.  It is not that the High C is the end of everything.  It is simply something that many full-voiced tenors have accomplished and just because I began as a baritone does not mean that a high C was not possible.  So many tenors with more substantial voices than mine accomplished this feat.  Why not I?  I look at the singers of the past as models, not as Gods.  In fact the most exciting lesson is that they were mere human beings like all of us.  They practiced until they were able to do something that is indeed difficult to do.

I knew that a High C would be possible as a result of a complete technique, not as a goal unto itself.
My early clips on this blog from a few years ago show rough beginnings.  The following clip shows how far this has come.  The journey is ever-continuing, and while I enjoy my High C, the C3-C4 octave, my middle and lower middle ranges still need work.  Refining is a lifelong job.  

While practicing some songs this morning, I felt that the fluidity I had been working on through coloratura singing was bearing fruit.  My voice felt more released and flexible than it had in previous months.  As I warmed up, the top range felt a little lower, and when I sang the C in a scale, it did not feel stuck or resistant.  It was "released!"  I thought I would try it on my favorite High C phrase, the one from Pollione's cavatina from Norma:





The first try was relaxed, but perhaps a little too relaxed.  The second note of the phrase was a little unsupported and flat.  However, the balance of substance, air pressure/flow and brilliance was right and the C just released.

The second try was to prove to myself it was not a fluke.  My concentration was not as good.  It grabbed from the beginning.  Yet it still came out, though a touch stiff!

The third attempt was to regain concentration and balance.  I had to think about all the elements again and allow the instrument to function. It released again.  So it was not fluke.

The fourth try was to try to better the third attempt.  It was pretty good but not as balanced as either the first or the third.
-------------------------------------------------------------------
This is how practice works!  Mastery is not accidental.  Through repetition, we find out the difference between a stable structure and a faulty one, between excellent coordination of all the elements and "mindless hoping" that our natural inclinations might prevail and give us the desired result.  A professional does things on purpose!

How do I improve on this C?

The acoustic analysis tells me a lot about my tendencies.  If I looked at only the "spectrogram" (the scrolling history view), All four attempts look alike.  The greatest energy is carried on the 3rd and 5th Harmonics (peaks), the Second Formant (F2) and the Singer's Formant (SF).  This is precisely what we want.  However, the spectrum view (which represents a moment in real-time), when I freeze it for the High Cs, shows certain tendencies:

The first attempt was very good, but there was a tendency for the First Formant (which happens to be on the fundamental) to dominate during parts of the sustained C.  We would prefer to have a stability in the dominance of the F2.  

The spectrograph also shows us that the formant values (First [F1] and Second [F2] Formants) determine the vowel to be [ae] as in the word "cat".  This choice of vowel (probably influenced by all the tenors I hear do this piece) presents a struggle between F1 and F2, rendering the note a little unstable.  I theorized that the better choice would be the Second Formant of the vowel [a] as in father, which would focus the energy of the low formants on the second harmonic (second peak).  This lower laryngeal position would have a beneficial effect on the SF as well.

The tightness of the second attempt shows very strong peaks in the lower two formants while diminishing the SF.  This is to be expected when the tone is pressed and inflexible.

The third attempt was acoustically the best.  It showed a tendency toward greater strength in the second harmonic (which is desirable).

The fourth attempt showed again a tendency for F1 to become dominant.

Although the Cs are relatively stable and well-coordinated, there is still some polishing work to be done for the note to sound beautiful.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Being able to sustain C5 means that I have a certain amount of flexibility (ergo strength) in the coordination of notes below that.  B4b or B4 are notes I can now trust in context and more important than that, the flexibility of my lower range is becoming a reality.

Furthermore, before a High C would be possible, I had to make friends with my "natural" voice.  Every time I would try to sound like a tenor, the voice would become tense and quickly fatigued. Whenever I allowed my voice to have the same "body" it always had in my baritone days, the ability to find the brilliance that made the voice tenor-like also became possible.

Now that I feel I have this High C, I have to upkeep it.  And I have to go beyond it!

This summer, as part of my Opera Academy in Sweden, I will be singing three concerts.  I am feverishly working of operatic arias and ensembles as well as some favorite songs and Rossini's Petite Messe Sollenelle.  It is fun to be able to really make music again!

Achieving this High C is just an example of the simple commitment to the idea: "Yes I can!  But it takes work!"

My journey is just becoming interesting!  I love achieving new abilities!  I love that I can sing tenor now when not so long ago, it was just a pipe-dream!  All reality begins with a dream, an inspiration!
I have bigger tenor dreams still, that have little to do with High Cs.  Dreams of masterful music making using this voice that is now coming into its own.

There is indeed no limit to what we can achieve when we commit all of our energy to a task!

Happy Singing!

© 05/28/2014

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Critics and Their Responsibility: A Response to Ann Midgette's Cowardly Postcript

In an attempt to bring some kind of closure to the entire Critics-gate debacle, Ann Midgette of the Washington Post wrote this cowardly attempt at middle ground, which does no more than to endorse this type of base behavior under the guise of a balanced view.  To Ms. Midgette, I have the following to say:

We are not simpletons! Any performer who has ever taken the leap to expose their souls on the boards, consciously takes the risk of being panned by critics. Critics play a visceral part in furthering the art by helping to remind us of the standards we should aspire to. A balanced review can critique an actor's performance without debasing the person behind the actor.

When did it become acceptable and fashionable to insult an artist in the guise of a critique?  There was a time when such behavior was considered the last resort of poor writers who lacked both skill and imagination.  A truly competent writer could manage to comment on even the physical attributes of the singer in question without resorting to downright mean-spirited adjectives for which he might be challenged by a respectable gentleman wishing to defend a maligned lady's honor, for indeed these comments go far beyond acceptable form for a learned person, let alone a writer who pretends to report on what is commonly accepted as high-class art.

Is it really a "formulaic" definition to accept that Opera is indeed distinguished by the quality of the singing? In an attempt to appear artistically liberal-minded, Ms. Midgette has done nothing more than to endorse a deconstructionist ideology that accepts any disrespect of the operatic form as an indication of modernism and/or the natural and necessary evolution of Opera.  To add insult to injury, Ms. Midgette concluded that even the praises of the singer's vocal performance must not have been warranted because "...had the singing really been as glorious as all that, they might not have focused so much on the looks." The fact that Ms. Midgette herself had not attended the reviewed performance makes that statement insulting and unbecoming of a critic of a major newspaper.  

Indeed "...it's not the job of the critic to be liked, or to pander to popular tastes," as Ms. Midgette writes.  But is it necessary for an opera critic to resort to locker-room misogyny to make a point? And what exactly is that point?  That Opera should no longer be an art form defined by high level vocal development? 

What is revealed in this equivocal attempt at finding common ground is only a revelation that Ms. Midgette had drunken the CoolAid of acceptance into the very modern operatic environment that is willing to do away with the classical vocalism that has always defined the art form in favor of more populist, if not popular values, that seem to suggest that opera will be more successful if it aspires to a status of Hollywood or  Broadway wannabe.

That which is popular is not necessarily artistically sound, Ms. Midgette.  Nor does a successful advertisement campaign for an opera company guarantee that the product that is being presented is valid for the current times or any times.  One may be able find flaws in a great production or find virtues in a terrible one.  A Gesamtkunstwerk as Wagner called opera has so many levels of skills to be considered that a singer's looks would have to be otherworldly to be of serious consequence.  This young woman is not obese by any stretch of the imagination, yet fell prey to nothing other than a modern obsession with the misogynistic, mythical size 0.  

The bard wrote it thus:

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves, when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die. 

Such is the power of music!  And even more poignant is that power when transmitted through a refined classically trained voice at the command of a well-trained musician.  This is what vocal musicians should aspire to--to move the listener from within, reaching a part of the human spirit that perhaps nothing else can reach.  A great operatic critic should love opera and defend it with a brutally critical pen if must be to prevent it from falling to the level of the banal and common.  In an attempt to avoid being elitist, too many influential parties in the operatic world have chosen, what is easiest and superficial and giving it the name of "democratization of Opera"  Ms. Midgette has simply become what she claims critics should not do: "to be liked and to pander" to those who have the most influence in the field:  the casting directors, stage directors and agents who have made the devil's deal that opera singers should look like Hollywood movie stars, since the most important medium is now the cinema screens where the most money is to be made. 

This modern "lookism" can be used as a terrible excuse to exclude singers on not only the basis of weight, but height, race, sexual orientation or anything else that members of a production team may find subjectively not to their tastes.  Rather than attempting to understand why these reviews struck such a loud dissonant chord through the operatic world, Ms. Midgette chose to play the role of collaborator.

The final slap in the face was Midgette's conclusive Exitus autem quae sunt ad finem (The end justifies the means), suggesting that the singer in question will probably have a more important career because of this scandal. Typical!  This only proves that Ms. Midgette has very little idea what moves artists from within.  We all wish to be successful at what we do.  But it does not even take an artist to understand that the type of success that one wants is the type that validates the blood and sweat that we shed for years to accomplish excellence in our chosen fields, not the notoriety that may result from infamy.

For my part, I would prefer to go back to writing about the newest exciting discoveries in acoustic analysis that give us a real understanding of what makes great operatic voices, but how can I focus on that work when these poor excuses for operatic criticism defy the very definition of the art we chose to learn by sacrificing our life's blood? Why uncover the secrets to the greatest voices in operatic history if we are being told that a gastric bypass will serve us much more toward making a career, even if we do not need one?

This scandal struck us at our core because those critics pretty much gang-banged a talented singer with unmitigated, harsh, verbal violence.  Ms. Midgette's response is terribly out of touch and downright deplorable.


© 05/25/2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Critics: By-products of an Operatic Culture Gone Amuck!

I could not ignore the current waves of anger regarding the brutal, misogynistic commentary about Tara Erraught, the excellent Irish Mezzo currently singing Oktavian at Glyndebourne.  The Telegraph's review was particularly insensitive.  Scathing reviews have always existed, whether it is Rossini referring to Gilbert Duprez's singing as "The shriek of a strangulated capon" or another tenor likened to a "stuck pig" in a review I remember reading 15 years ago. We have been far from civil, constructive criticism for quite a while as those who are given the task of critiquing or better said "criticizing" opera performances have rarely had the requisite understanding of the art form to appropriately help move it forward.  I once received a review praising "...the mighty vocals of Jean-Ronald LaFond" in the role of Don Giovanni.  The reviewer was obviously using language employed in a pop music context.  What do I do with such a review?

Ideally, a reviewer should have an understanding of vocal technique to be able to comment on a singer's ability to execute what the score demands.  Long ago, reviewers began to degrade enough that even the best of them could not hold a conversation with a singer about the physical demands of operatic vocal production.  Consequently they began to compare performances with whatever was considered definitive for the day.  "Did the soprano caress the phrase: '...ma falle gl'occhi neri,' alla Callas or Tebaldi?  What a stupid question?  Callas herself would have probably berated a singer who copied her manner of singing a phrase.

But why did reviewers begin to compare performances to so-called "definitive" recordings?  The truth is that they take their cues from the supposed experts.  When coaches are telling their young singers that "tradition dictates that this phrase should be sung thus," it does not take long before a reviewer starts to "criticize" based on that ludicrous expectation.  Because of this we have extreme reactionary movements by "early-music stylists" who make up their own rules that include more and more the music of the 19th century and beyond--One Russian conductor is coming out with a recording of the Mozart-Daponte trilogy that he himself refers to as an anti-operatic recording barring all vibrato-- This also leads serious conductors to adopt an ideology of come scritta, abiding by a rather limiting reading of what the composer provides.  All of these reactionary remedies are simply means to avoid the time-consuming task of becoming an expert musician and/or opera aficionado. Since it is easier to get paid for writing superficial nonsense, why would a writer of little knowledge put the effort into learning the tenets of the art-form?

As always the reviewers take their cue from what is happening within the discipline itself.  It was not too long ago that the career of Deborah Voigt began to suffer as a result of a domino effect beginning with the ludicrous "little black dress" episode.  This of course happened at London's Covent Garden. Is it any wonder that those particular British reviewers, probably lacking the requisite understanding of either voice or music, would take the very low road and simply criticize a promising young singer's physical appearance?

For all their idiocy, the reviewers are walking to the drumbeat of "contemporary opera attempting to take a populist path!"  I commented a couple of years ago on "Opera in the Movies"and the inherent dangers.  It has come to pass that opera is indeed separated between productions meant for Mass Visual Consumption, at the movies or for a real operatic audience, in the house.  The task of developing a mighty voice that sails through a thick orchestral texture to envelop an audience in a house seating 2000 spectators (i.e. the definition of opera) is now reduced to "peacocks prancing prettily in front of cameras while crooning carefree into a microphone!"

Is opera at the movies all bad?  By no means!  HD simulcasts bring opera to the masses and make a lot of money for elite opera houses.  A great solution, if only it brought audiences to the opera house.  But it does not.  "Opera in the movies" represents a superficial reduction of the operatic genre for consumption on a medium (the movie screen) that carries the skin-deep pseudo-perfectionism of a Hollywood-produced fairy-tale.  Opera at its best is expansive not reductive.  

As mezzo Alice Coote so eloquently expressed in her Open Letter To Opera Critics:


Singers and Teachers know that being underweight is far more damaging to a singer's wellbeing and performance than being overweight...
While I don't agree that singers need to be overweight to be successful, indeed this craze toward a "size 0" (whatever that oxymoron really stands for) is very harmful to any athlete, vocal athletes included.  Not everyone is meant to have 6% body fat.  Singers should find their healthy, most natural physical condition.  Some people are healthier with a higher body fat percentage and if those people are singers, a body fat index that is lower than that would be harmful to stamina and support of the voice.  Likewise, relying on high fat index as a support mechanism is a recipe for eventual disaster.  When fat content is substituted for muscular function, the instrument will not work optimally.  I wanted to address this issue in a balanced manner...but I digress!

The point of this article is that we should see these misbehaving critics as a reflection of an operatic Devil's Deal that we all tacitly accepted: "Let's make opera popular...At any cost".  Several singers have come out in defense of the talented Tara Erraught here singing Rossini's Rosina (Indeed a very comfortable, musical, dynamic young singer with a very beautiful voice).



Is it too little too late? Or have we singers finally figured out that we actually have influence?  If we are the voices of opera, should we not set the rules a bit more?  How many singers at a high level are going to be brave enough to stand for something significant?  Alice Coote is not exaggerating!  Opera as we singers value it is in danger of going out of existence in mainstream opera houses.  Will it take opera becoming a fringe affair before enough influential singers speak against the deconstruction of the art form by those who do not value it for what it is.  Can we imagine ballet without pirouettes and grand jetés?  What is happening to our myths of glass-shattering soprano high notes and off-the-piano Bass low notes (both are possible by the way)?

For my part, I will take the voluptuous healthy beauty of this young developing talent anytime on the operatic stage before I submit myself to the antics of prancing body-builders emitting non-tones that would be overpowered by a pair of mosquitoes whining in unison.  Furthermore, it is in complete disrespect to bona fide operatic artists to constantly have the feeling that they must reduce their voices to accommodate their weak-voiced colleagues who belong on Hollywood's Red Carpets rather than an operatic stage.

This problem is systemic!  How many great singers and their talents must be discouraged? How voiceless must opera become before we "Singers" take the reigns of our own destinies?

© 05/19/2014




Thursday, May 1, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Revisiting the Fach System: Sopranos Part 3--Queen of the Night and Discussion

The Queen of the Night from Mozart's Magic Flute is superficially recognized as the archetypical coloratura role and yet it is not.  It has been sung by many singers who might not be considered high-tessitura sopranos.



Cheryl Studer

Cheryl Studer later made her career singing Spinto/Dramatic roles like Elsa, Eva, Aida, etc...


Diana Damrau

Diana Damrau made her career rise singing the Queen and then exchanged it for Pamina during a Metropolitan Opera run.  She continues to thrill audiences in the coloratura repertoire.


Lucia Popp

Arguably one of the finest dramatic coloraturas in recorded history, Lucia Popp concentrated on the lyric repertoire and operetta, oratorio and Lieder.


Cristina Deutekom

Cristina Deutekom followed the path of the dramatic coloratura and sang from Lucia di Lamermoor to the heaviest coloratura parts by Rossini and Verdi including Abigaile and Lady Macbeth.


Joan Sutherland (one tone lower)

Sang most of the coloratura repertoire both lighter and heavier and made a well-loved recording of Turandot (making a case that the tessitura of the role suits a big-voiced coloratura)


Beverly Hoch

One of the finest singers of her time, she sparkled in the lighter coloratura repertoire.


Luciana Serra

Luciana Serra practically owned the role for several decades and made a sensation singing the Queen in her 40s at the Metropolitan opera.  She must be in her 50s at least in the above video, making it clear that one does not have to lose top notes with age.


Yet more than a discussion about the Queen of the Night, per se, this discussion is more about the multi-faceted nature of vocal categorization.  The first two installments of this series established that soprano voices can be divided into  two types: low-tessitura and high tessitura.  The voices are then further divided by "weight".  Lightest to heaviest.  A heavier voice can be higher than a lighter voice and a lighter voice can be lower than a heavier voice.  This has to do with fold depth vs. fold length.  The variations are many.

The point of this is more a cautionary one than anything else.  Why would I refer to Salome and Elektra as Dramatic Coloratura roles?  Because Strauss loved big high soprano voices and tended to write very high for bigger voices (tenors too, judging by the tenor parts in Ariadne, Daphne and Danae).  Although the lead Strauss roles are usually sung by what is called a Dramatic Soprano, it is not all Dramatic Sopranos who can sing all the Strauss roles.  The lower Dramatic Sopranos tend to sing Chrysothemis and the Dyer's Wife instead of Elektra and Kaiserin.

Judging by the video of Hildegard Behrens singing Mozart's Elettra (part 2 of this series), was she a dramatic coloratura?  The girly quality of her voice that made her successful as both Brünnhilde and Salome would support that contention.  Therefore is Brünnhilde a dramatic coloratura role?  That Eda Moser sang Salome so successfully, does this make Salome more suitable for a big-voiced coloratura than the traditional dramatic soprano? A question worth discussing.  Yet my examples of a low-tessitura dramatic soprano include Nina Stemme who has sung both Brünnhilde and Salome with extreme mastery.

There are roles that lie between the two types of tessituras and in the end as  with Sondra Radvanosky who sings a powerful Tosca and demonstrates a higher tessitura throughout her career, tessitura is not the only consideration for a role.  Some singers are very skilled and develop abilities beyond their traditional repertoire. That is admirable.  Yet there are some who venture too far from their center to their detriment.

There is a reason why some sopranos tend to steer away from Abigaile, Lady Macbeth and Odabella and the Bel Canto Verdi.  Those roles were written with a higher voice in mind and lower tessitura sopranos who sing these roles encounter certain difficulties.  They are not insurmountable, but a traditional spinto of the lower tessitura type who does well in Forza del Destino and Manon Lescaut might not find Odabella and Abigaile so easily handled.

In the end, tessitura plays the greatest part in comfort in a role, and some voices lie in between tessituras.  Was Birgitt Nilsson as low as the traditional dramatic soprano? Was Leontyne Price more of a dramatic coloratura (the ease of her top Eb may raise eyebrows)?

Opera singers are more than their voice types.  One should be neither limited by vocal category nor should one ignore the constraints that the natural tessitura and weight of the voice suggest.  Repertoire does not determine type.  Konstanze and the Queen of the night for instance have been sung lately by lyric coloraturas mostly.  A couple of generations ago, it was Eda Moser and Cristina Deutekom, dramatic coloraturas who sang those parts.  Little difference is made today between true dramatic coloraturas like Ravdanosly and Meade and the more traditional spintos.  Therefore, lyric coloraturas who sing the traditionally dramatic coloratura roles began calling themselves dramatic coloraturas and in some places the title is accepted.  Edita Gruberova now sings Norma with extreme success.  But why not?  Her voice is beautifully preserved and she brings amazing musicianship to the role and she has no problem with the orchestra.  She is an unusual artist who is able to make a part at the extreme limits of her vocal weight work efficiently.  We should know that and not think that any lyric coloratura can accomplish that just because they share the same vocal category as Gruberova.  As always, it is never black and white.  The truth of every singer lies in the grey area that makes them unique.

©  05/01/2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Revisiting the Fach System: Sopranos Part 2--High-Tessitura Sopranos

High Tessitura Sopranos


Like low-tessitura sopranos, high tessitura (coloratura) sopranos come in different sizes!

Light Coloratura Soprano:  This is the lightest and highest category.  Comparable in size to the soubrette, the "leggiero" is more comfortable singing higher.  This voice type exhibits an obvious facility in the very high range and singers with this kind of voice can easily warm up above the Queen of the Nights F6.  Because of the lighter nature of this voice type, the listener sometimes cannot distinguish between when the singer is singing in "Flute-voice" and when a coordinated "modal voice".  Soubrette roles are often inappropriate because the coloratura soprano sounds as if she lacks in intensity when singing in the relatively lower tessitura of the typical soubrette role.  While the soubrette may exhibit great intensity in the range between D5 and G5, the Coloratura sounds more at home in the tessitura between F5 and Bb5.  Roles such as Olympia, Oscar, Lakmé and a number of less known French coloratura parts were written with a light, high voice in mind.  Although Oscar does not have many extremely high notes, the role lies higher than the standard soubrette part.  In the ensembles it is clear that a coloratura would have an easier part with this role than a soubrette.



Nathalie Dessay




Bevery Hoch

Lyric Coloratura: Most of the coloratura parts lie in this category.  They include Lucia di Lamermoor, Sonnambula, Norina, Gilda, Marie in Fille du Régiment, Philline in Ambroise Thomas' Mignon and Zerbinetta.  Ideally the lyric coloratura has a voice the size of a lyric but a higher tessitura.  The middle of the voice must be more ample than that of a lighter coloratura.



Diana Damrau



Edita Gruberova

Spinto Coloratura:  This is a category I invented because in my experience, there is a voice that has a similar tessitura to the various coloratura categories and is fuller than the average lyric coloratura and not as large as the true dramatic coloratura.  Roles such as Konstanze, Traviata, Elvira in Ernani, Norma, Fiordiligi, Leonora in Trovatore, Donn'Anna in Don Giovanni, the Donizetti Queens and Elena in Vespri Siciliani require spinto sized voices that are able to remain very high for long periods of time.



 June Anderson



Angela Meade

Dramatic Coloratura: This is a very particular voice type and it occurs more frequently than we think (as does the Spinto Coloratura).  Roles such as Abigaile in Nabucco, Lodabella in Attila, Lady Macbeth,  Strauss' Daphnée, Danae, Salomé, Kaiserin, Elektra, Turandot, Norma and Mozart's Elettra have in common that they lie higher than the average dramatic role and are accompanied by relatively heavy orchestral forces.




Cristina Deutekom



Hildegard Behrens


Eda Moser

Die Königin der Nacht: The Queen of the Night is a specialty role that requires a high F and the ability to menacing.  It has been sung by all types of coloraturas and even low-tessitura sopranos who can access the high F in flute voice.  Discussion follows in Part 3...

© 05/01/2014


Kashu-do (歌手道): Revisiting the Fach System: Sopranos Part 1--Low-Tessitura Sopranos

After writing the last post about Big High Voices of Bel Canto's Past, I flew to Härnösand, Sweden, where Kashu-do Studios will present the first Opera Academy, to teach a two-day master class to the students of the prestigious Kapellsberg Musiklinje Opera Program.  I heard 18 students in all and worked roughly 20 minutes with each.  The difference in the vocal colors among the sopranos in particular inspired me to think closely about repertoire for these young women.  Indeed there was a big voiced dramatic coloratura that I had heard two-months ago (she sang Liu the last time).  I remember her as being tall, with a giant flexible voice.  She reminded me of all the big voiced dramatic-coloraturas I had heard recently including Sondra Radvanosky.  She sang Massenet's Hérodiade this time and although the piece was no problem for her voice and encouraged her to find the warmth/space she was lacking last time, I wanted to hear her voice in something higher.  The teachers at Härnösand are doing amazing work with these students.  Even though she had a cold, it took very little encouragement to get her to sing and quite well at that.

The many young voices were very varied and were singing very appropriate repertoire.  The experience crystalized in my mind why a correct vocal categorization is crucial, even at an early stage.  Because these young students in their very early 20s are taught so well, it was possible to hear the true nature of the voices.

As explained in the last blog, there are two kinds of sopranos:  High-tessitura and Low-tessitura.

Low Tessitura Sopranos

Low tessitura sopranos can have all gradations of "weight" (native fold depth):

Soubrette:  Although the category "soubrette" came out of straight theater (non-singing), there is a vocal corollary.  Roles like Zerlina, Despina, Susanna, Nanetta, Marzelline, Ännchen, Blondchen Adina, Lauretta, and the Architype Serpina (from Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona) have their origin from the comic stock character "Colombina" from Italian Commedia dell'arte.  The characters are usually comical but in some cases (Adina, Zerlina and even Despina) have serious moments.  Vocally speaking, the tessitura for these roles are relatively low.  It often confuses modern singers that Fiordiligi and Donn'Anna are placed higher in the staff than Despina and Zerlina.  Some attribute this to the noble statures of the principal roles as related to the servant characters.  I do not believe this is the case.  Fiordiligi and Anna sing higher throughout the opera.  This is because they were written for voices that are meant to sustain a higher tessitura. Perhaps Mozart chose the dramatic coloratura voice as symbolic of nobility.  Such voices exhibit great intensity in a higher range than the soubrette does.  I sometimes do not include Susanna in the straight soubrette category and consider Norina to be a different voice type because of her relatively high tessitura.


Edith Mathis


Judith Blegen


Lyric soprano: The lyric soprano is a slightly larger version of the soubrette.  The vocal color is warmer and the traditional roles, Pamina, Agathe, Mimi, Rusalka, Contessa Almaviva, Donna Elvira tend to have a tender and noble quality (Elvira is an angered lyric, a touch out of the normal lyric mold).  


Genia Kühlmeier



Mirella Freni

Lirico spinto:  The moniker is literally translated as "pushed lyric" and indeed some lyrics push their voices to sing "Spinto" repertoire.  This is a post-Bel Canto categorization and relates to a type of writing more associated with the Verismo period than with Verdi.  Indeed the Forza Leonora, the Amelias in Ballo in Maschera and Simon Boccanegra and perhaps Desdemona and Alice Ford can be called spintos because they do not remain in the high tessituras associated with the earlier Verdi.  When we look at Santuzza, Maddalena from Andrea Chénier, Tosca, Minnie and Manon Lescaut, it becomes clear that we are dealing with voices who are more at home in a slightly lower tessitura than Aida, Trovatore Leonora and Abigaile in Nabucco.



Renata Tebaldi



Aprile Millo

Dramatic Soprano:  The term, dramatic soprano has become too commonly used.  Any young singer who develops a full voice these days starts to look at Wagner.  It is a shame!  True dramatic voices often do not come about because spintos or even full lyrics are calling themselves dramatic.  It is because many believe that they will have a better chance if they present themselves in a heavier category.  Like in boxing, light-weights get crushed if they fight in the heavyweight category.  Roles like Beethoven's Leonore, Sieglinde, Senta, Ariadne, Isolde, Chrysothemis,  Färberin (Frau ohne Schatten), etc are meant for lower tessitura sopranos with very large voices and who are able to venture into the highest range (but not necessarily live there).



Eva Marton


Nina Stemme

Continues in next post with High-Tessitura Sopranos....

© 05/01/2014