Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Aging Operatic Voice: Baseless Discrimination Because It Is EASY

We are living in dangerous times when discrimination of all kinds are becoming easier.  An American Presidential candidate rises nationally by inciting racism, sexism and xenophobia in such overt ways that only a few years ago would make the average fair-minded person cringe.  Similar right-wing zealots are rising to power worldwide. The "ARTS," which are supposed to inspire us to higher thinking should be the last refuge from such ignorance, yet we should be very mindful today that the business of art is not necessarily art.

There was a time when people aged in preparation for death.  I have been reading some 18th and 19th century novels lately which unabashedly support this.  After a certain age, one would wait to die and reduce any kind of activity that would be considered strenuous.  Today it is commonplace that older people maintain physical and mental fitness in ways that prolong their abilities by decades, beyond what was generally accepted as a time to slow down only a few decades ago.  I know for fact that I am in better shape now at 50 than I was in my 30s.  Taking up Kung Fu and Tai Chi have certainly improved my general fitness and health extraordinarily.  I feel stronger and have more stamina now than I did 20 years ago.  Being younger is not necessarily being more fit or more energetic.  I know young people in their teens and 20s who are physically weak and yet it is taken at face value that younger is stronger.  I have been an athlete in my life and I know that tissues wear out over time and the kind of fitness that a top level athlete must maintain becomes difficult with age.  But whether that is because of physical wear-and-tear over time or that tissues are weakened with age is still a question to ponder.  At very least, it is proven that those who stay physically fit can do a great deal more as they age than those who do not work on their personal physical fitness.

The question with respect to opera is does a singer's capacity to produce top quality operatic sounds diminish with age?  Does one necessarily lose range, flexibility, beauty of tone and/or stamina with age?

After 30 years of teaching (I began teaching at age 20) it is my experience that not only do voices not need to diminish considerably with age, voices that have diminished can be revitalized.

To what degree one maintains the voice has everything to do with understanding the physiological functions of the voice and how the respective musculature and tissues need to be maintained relative to the aging process.  One needs to consciously do more to maintain the body and the voice over time.  I can state with great certainty that imbalances in the singing voice take time to become debilitating.  When we hear a voice begin to wobble,  we should listen to recordings of that voice in the past and ask ourselves what dysfunctions were already at play before, which over time lead to wobbling and other irregularities.  It is also important to understand that wobbles occur because of muscular imbalances (not just in the throat but relative to breathing as well) that can be remedied.  However, such remedies require time and patience, which have become luxuries that the business of singing does not allow.

Muscles that are pushed beyond their natural functions will eventually give way to instability.  However, muscles challenged to achieve and maintain their natural functions will remain stable, given that supporting musculature also function properly.  Longevity in singing requires global physical health, not just the health of the vocal folds.  The process of singing involves pretty much all muscles of the body in some way.  Those that produce a healthy, balanced tone and sing repertoire that is friendly to the specific voice type will tend to last longer, all things being equal.




This woman, Fausta Truffa, (by all accounts so far an amateur singer) is the most talked about classical singer in the past few days because of this video.  If she is able to maintain her voice to this level in her 80s why can't others?

Her colleague in this choir, Ignazio Del Monaco, an octogenarian tenor is also causing a lot of opera fans to consume a lot of online time:



The retired soprano, Lina Vasta, produced this in her 90s:





Last summer, at the Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, tenor George Shirley at 81 years of age sang a concert that we are still talking about for his steady, beautiful and resonant voice and his refined artistry.  Yet there are singers in their 30s and 40s whose voices have lost all semblance of balance but because they had an early start to their careers, they are still hired because of name recognition.

But in the age of the internet when a video like those above can go viral in a matter of hours, could that tool be used by opera houses to get the word out about new talent, younger or older who have something special to bring to the stage?  Their names would quickly be recognized and they would fill seats.  I would go to Italy and hear Fausta Truffa sing.  That is an elevated musical soul carried through a gorgeously balanced voice.

More importantly operatic voices need time to achieve true balance and singers need time to understand their voices so they can determine early when the voice is ever so slightly out of balance.  Small imbalances become severe problems over time.  

Longevity in singing depends more on how balanced the voice is used. 

One of the great problems with operatic singing is that lower quality singing can lead to high level careers.  What is considered operatically viable today is not always depended upon voice.  Looks and charisma are dealt with as separate issues and not necessarily how they may combine with the voice to create a stage charisma.  Singers are recruited today more based upon how they may appear on a poster or video than what they actually sound like in the hall, with an orchestra.  It is not enough to make a pretty sound.  It is crucial to make a sound that is very visceral in the hall in the presence of an orchestra.  For this, the voice needs to be used optimally.  Optimal and truly visceral is not always "pretty" particularly in a small space.  I use the word pretty here to mean superficial, bland, inoffensive and lacking in personality. Those that make decisions about vocal quality too often hear singers in small rooms and are often not aware that the penetrating quality that transforms well on the operatic stage with a substantial orchestra accompaniment often sounds piercing to the ear in a small room.  

The previous article about Squillo addresses the global functions of the voice that lead to that special resonance.  It is this totality of functional balance that creates the special quality that is experienced as a visceral vibration in the house.  It is this quality throughout the vocal range that brings an audience back and that keeps the voice in shape.  An operatic sound requires concentration in a way that commands the attention of those listening.  There is a difference in a sound that is loud enough to be heard and a sound that seems to vibrate inside the listener's body.  Of the former there are many, of the latter not so many.  Not because some have it and some don't, but rather because it has to be trained.  Furthermore it has to be maintained in order to last.  All the bodily functions that lead to this special vibration must be maintained and so the individual singer must understand how s/he needs to eat, drink water, sleep, stay physically fit, etc.  And those issues are not the same for every singer.  Each person must find their personal routine for keeping in shape.

The process of selecting singers for an operatic career makes no sense relative to the visceral art form that is opera.  Opera is being packaged as the sophisticated person's musical theater and it is not.  Great operatic voices reflect the physical and psychological make up of the specific person who is singing.  It is much more than mere entertainment.  It is a transforming experience when it is being done by voices that are trained for it.  A trained operatic voice is the equivalent of a baby's cry or laughter if it were emanating from an adult.  In polite society, the natural voice is suppressed at an early age.  Opera is highly elevated music sung by the most primal voice.  And primal does not mean aggressive or violent.  It means the way nature meant for the voice to be used.

The previous three paragraphs address a systemic problem that confuses the process of selecting singers and by association also contributes greatly in redefining opera for the worse, not better.  If a non-operatic voice that sounds pretty in a small room can be hired professionally, then it follows that the field will become saturated because underdeveloped voices are admitted for other skills that though important do not translate in the house when the voice is not viable.  A great artist without a voice is like a great orator whose microphone has been turned off.  What if Martin Luther King's Dream speech was made while his microphone was off.  Would we get the message through his gestures and his obvious passion?  And do not take this to mean that we can fix opera by putting microphones in the houses, because the operatic voice not only transmits audible sound waves.  The coordination that produces an operatic sound also carries emotional information.  For that purpose microphones cannot replace an operatic resonance.

Because the training of an operatic voice requires time in order for the entire range to be properly balanced, singers, especially those with more substantial voices, need to be in their 30s before they are truly ready. Therefore competitions with age limits of 30, leave out a great number of superlative artists who are still trying to get their voices together.  An age limit of 30 also does not take into account that the winners, though impressive may not be physically aware of what makes their voices work and can falter very early in their careers.  Raising age limits brings more physically fit singers and therefore a better chance for longevity.  If all singers have time to grow, even the coloratura who may be coordinated at 20 may not sound so extraordinary when she faces a 32 year-old competitor who is not only coordinated but truly understands how to use the instrument.  The coloratura of 32 may end up lasting longer because she would have a better idea how to manage her voice in difficult situations.

The truth is opera is not a kid's game.  A voice can be coordinated at a very young age but the time it takes the muscles to grow in strength and stamina is another thing, and a young singer who starts a career early needs a teacher around all the time until s/he figures out how the voice functions and understands signs of problems before they ever become apparent to others.  Constant travel makes that kind of access difficult even with tools like video-conferencing.

The younger generation of singers needs to hear older singers who use their voices successfully at a high level with great artistry, so they understand what they are aiming for.  When we stop having great singers who have made long careers, we also lose mature interpretations of roles and songs that can only get deeper with life experience.

To bring another matter to rest, there is nothing that concretely proves that a post-menopausal woman must lose her voice any more than she would lose her ability to walk straight.  The rate of muscular degeneration more than likely depends upon the degree to which muscles were weak before menopause as opposed to that they rapidly degenerate afterwards.  Scientists have a tendency of observing a group of people and decide that certain trends prove the fact.  The two women above certainly go against the idea that you must lose vocal ability post menopause.  A random Youtube search for 90-year old opera singer yields also the following:



  





I am particularly aware of the flexibility of Maestro Loforese's breathing.  Released after each phrase! And I get the sense that his entire core musculature is compressing the sound.  Not just isolated muscles.

A healthy voice does get older and with extreme age, it is understandable that one will lose some muscle strength both in the laryngeal and breathing musculature.  However the degree of strength loss depends greatly on the person and how well they keep in shape.  Regular practice of balanced singing can keep one in great vocal shape for many years beyond what was considered possible.  In our times, the Age of Physical Fitness, it should be considered possible for singers to last a lot longer than their predecessors, not shorter.

The current ageism that is rampant in the field in the guise of dramatic realism is appalling!
There are well-meaning people in the field who have simply drunken in the fountain of modern operatic marketing and take the words of those who run the business as opposed to really thinking through the complex issue of building operatic audiences.

Size zero sopranos usually don't have the voices to sing Tosca or Turandot and tenors who sing in reinforced falsetto will not last long.  So why don't we just get real and sell opera as opera.  Begin with truly great voices that are accompanied by passionate souls and great musicianship and build from there! Age is the last thing on my mind when I go listen to opera!  I am usually more concerned for a young singer who lacks the physical strength to sing opera than I am for an older singer not looking the part.  If they are great singers, the moment they open their mouths one forgets what they look like!  Looking the part should be seen like a bonus that we are happy to have.  But without a voice, George Clooney attempting to sing opera would suddenly look extremely unattractive!

© May 24, 2016

3 comments:

Elizabeth Rotoff said...

I wholeheartedly agree! My own experience was that my voice got stronger after taking up triathlon in my 40s. The fitter I became and the healthier I ate the better my voice was. I have since become a personal trainer and nutritionist with the chief aim of helping singers find the potential of their voices through a holistic approach with an eye to longevity. You can check out my blog at www.thefitsinger.com. There is a 5 Day healthy eating group starting next week.

Arachne said...

In fact, post-menopausal women do sometimes find themselves unable to walk straight! That happened to me, as well as losing my voice during that time. It is a time of huge change, physical imbalances of all kinds and hormonal turmoil affecting the vocal folds. After two or three years of serious vocal malfunction, my voice miraculously restored itself without my doing anything in particular. But what an inspiration Fausta Truffa is.

Kashu-Do said...

I appreciate your comment! Hormonal changes during menopause are extraordinary in many ways! My observation over 20 years of consciously dealing with singers who have experienced the effects is that the hormonal changes multiply pre-existing muscular imbalances, which we otherwise take for granted. Many singers can function with imbalances until they reach a tipping point! Menopause can be that tipping point!