NOT How to Sing Opera – Part 2
My previous post stirred up quite a bit of activity. That’s great. Pretty much everybody who commented was of the opinion that the demonstration of how to sing opera was severely misguided. That is also a very good thing. But I want to go deeper into this topic of how we create the sounds we are looking for.
Initially I wanted to post that video mainly because it was so off-base that it was funny. I actually laughed. But then I realized that the reality is some people think that is an operatic quality. (If you missed the post I’m talking about, you can find it here: http://vocalwisdom.com/not-how-to-sing-opera)
What I want to look at now is a similar belief of how to sing opera. This is less obviously wrong, but no less mistaken.
After discussing the video with my wife I remembered a teacher at our college in the Theater department. She was a voice specialist that worked with actors. She prided herself on her knowledge of all different vocal styles and techniques.
I remember a workshop that she gave to students that I was present for. I don’t remember the details and if I was participating or observing. But the thing I remember that relates was when she came to the topic of making an opera sound.
She told the students that to sing opera was very easy. All you had to do is yawn, and that would change the sound from a spoken quality, which was good for musical theater, to a rounder, more operatic sound.
Even then, before I had spent the many years studying, researching, experimenting and just generally figuring things out, I knew that she was way off-base.
As someone said in the comments to the last post, there are no shortcuts to a complete sound. This is very true. Any kind of direction to “just do this” is wrong. Even if the direction is accurate, there is no single direction that if done correctly will give you a complete sound. The complete sound that we desire is the product of a coordination of several component parts of the body all working together systematically.
And this necessary coordination is the product of years of development of sympathetic relationships. That is the aspect that young singers don’t understand. And this is probably because many of their teachers don’t understand it either.
The point is you can’t just do certain things as a technique and immediately have an operatic sound. Just like you can’t just be coached in sprinting technique and suddenly run a 10-second 100 meter dash. Even if you were able to know exactly what to do, and could execute accurately, you would need to develop the skill of coordination and the physical reactions of the nervous system to be able to achieve that goal. (Not to mention be naturally inclined to running fast)
This is why I’m always “preaching” not to focus on making a particular sound. That is just imitation. Most voices just aren’t capable of an operatic sound right away. But we hear first and second year college students trying to sound like mature singers. We should always sound like what we are. That doesn’t mean we can’t sound good even if we are young. But if we are 19 years old, we should sound 19, not 45.
What we want is a thorough development of the body as a tone producing instrument. The tone quality we will be capable of making in 6-8 months is not the tone we can make right now (even if we do everything correct), which is not the tone quality we will be able to create in 2-3 years, or 10-15 for that matter.
Then there is the aspect that, like the sprinter, not all voices are capable of the same operatic quality. Smaller voices can become capable of great acoustic strength, but they should still have the natural characteristics of a smaller, lighter voice. They shouldn’t be trying to make a bigger, darker sound that isn’t natural for their instrument. And there is repertoire for most types of voices. So as long as we’re not imitating some other type of voice and allowing our natural instrument to exist we will be OK.
But the main point I want to explore in this post is one about yawning to get an operatic sound. This is actually very common and most of us have been taught some version of this opinion. Yes, I include myself as well.
This belief is tied in with the mis-interpretation of what it means to have an open throat. I am reminded of the principle of medical ethics that says, “First, do no harm”. We would do well to remember this when dealing with an open throat. First, do not close it.
The challenge with that is any type of imitative sound involves closing the throat in some way. For that is the only way to control and alter the timbre of our voice. Which is what we are doing when we imitate a sound, even if it is a “good” sound that we imagine.
With most examples of modern operatic singers we can hear some form of this imitative sound production. The most common is the practice of “opening” the throat to create a darker timbre. In reality, what is happening is the singer is dropping the tongue, trapping the resonance deeper in the throat and applying extra pressure on the larynx.
Probably the most famous example of this condition now is the tenor Jonas Kaufmann. He is a very talented singer that is establishing himself as the top tenor of the time. But he is certainly not a model of natural function. Many can hear his obvious distortion of his resonance toward the dark end of the spectrum.
He does this by forming the resonators, primarily with the root of the tongue, to emphasize the back and lower resonance of the throat. These are important parts of the resonance system, but only parts. They should be balanced with the higher/brighter resonances as well.
This fixed resonance condition creates a limitation of an artificially dark, dramatic tone all of the time. In the roles of Wagner that he is now doing this actually is not too disturbing. I listened to a recording of Die Walküre from last spring and it was the first time I wasn’t repulsed (maybe too strong of a word) by his tone.
That’s not to say it was appropriate, just that it didn’t stick out as much in that style. But then he sang Faust this season and that tone is totally inappropriate for the french opera. This is what I mean by a fixed resonance. No matter what he sings the tone color is the same, whether the music is supposed to be a dramatic expression or a lyric one.
The fact that he is distorting his voice is confirmed by the lack of true vibration on the low notes of the Walküre aria and the high C of the Faust aria. Many think he is singing with an open throat. He is lowering his larynx, but it is causing him to disconnect from his larynx. So the vibration of his vocal cords are not true. He is in tune as far as pitch, for the most part, but not in terms of quality.
The real test to determine this is the character of the sung vowels. Traditional vocal training always emphasized pure vowels. Sometimes that is misunderstood because what we tend to associate with that is how we pronounce when talking. We actually do not talk with pure vowels.
Pure vowels for singing require acoustic vowels. Vowels made up of the complete acoustical spectrum of the voice. When a tone resonates completely the whole vowel is created. Often we can notice the impression that many singers only sing the bottom of the vowel. They are missing the top of the vowel.
The reason is physiological. The tongue is dropping in an attempt to have an “open” throat. So the low resonance that makes you think you have a rich tone only represents the bottom half of the vowel. It lacks the upper half. And because the upper part of the resonance, and vowel, is missing there is a lack of brilliance in the tone. Making it less present in the space and forcing the singer to work harder to produce as much result.
But the key aspect to this difference between the yawning throat and the naturally hollow throat is the ability to understand the words being sung. The majority of singers on stage today can’t sing intelligible words because they are distorting their throat in order to “open” it.
This next video is from 1998 and is a good example of his natural quality. This illustrates how much he has changed how he uses his voice.
The production is not totally coordinated. But it is not deliberately distorted like he does now. The only real problem he shows is singing too much out of his mouth. This decreases the amount the resonance is able to reinforce the vibration, which would make the singing easier. It also would improve the register balance in the upper range. But he doesn’t seem to have too much trouble, either.
Another example of Jonas K. singing french, this time the Pearl Fishers duet with Dmitri Hvorostovsky. In this we can hear a good example of the distorted vowel quality because it really shows up in the quiet singing. It sounds like he is holding the vowels in the back of his throat.
We can hear Hvorostovsky has some of the same quality, but not to the same degree. Let’s listen to a version of this that is considered by many to be the standard.
The simplicity and purity of both voices is a real model for all singers.
So the question is, if it is so obvious that the “Kermit” approach to operatic singing is off, why is it not so obvious that the “yawning” approach is as well? They are both distortions of the throat space. The Kermit sound is trapping the resonance in the upper oro-pharynx with a raised larynx. The yawn sound is trapping the resonance in the lower oro-pharynx with a lowered larynx.
I think part of the confusion is not only with the open throat issue, but with the low larynx. It is true that in a well-coordinated voice the larynx is in a low position. But it is not preset there. The larynx lowers itself as part of the vocal gesture. And only for the fully intensified vocalism.
The larynx should always have stability. But the position of it depends on the degree of intensity. It sets itself in response to the expression. Doing any kind of preset lowering over-rides the instinctual coordination of the larynx.
The natural positioning of the larynx is what allows the singer to still sound like a person when they sing. When the vowels are distorted because of the manipulation of arbitrarily lowering the larynx they no longer sound like a person. This is because of the fabricated nature of the imitative sound. The real human character of the voice was a quality of all the great singers, regardless of vocal style.
Now, I have just used Jonas Kaufmann as an example, but he is certainly not the only modern singer doing this. And to be realistic, there were singers in the past that did this as well. They just were recognized as limited and not considered the great singers that they are now.
To close out this post I want to include some examples of singers from the past that illustrate some of the characteristics I’m talking about. These are not necessarily the “best” at what they do. (Although they are pretty darn good) They just approach the act of singing in a fairly natural way. They certainly don’t make a pre-conceived sound by yawning the throat open. And for the most part we can understand the words.
Beniamino Gigli, Tenor
Notice the lift in the mouth form. The combination of strength and sweetness.
John Charles Thomas, Baritone
The Italian pronunciation isn’t great. There is little dynamic contrast. But listen to the tone production. The words are clear, the resonance balanced and the vibration constant. Artistically it could be improved. But right now this is about vocalism, and for our purpose here this is a great example.
Here is an example of JCT where we can see him. He is well past his prime, and singing a light-hearted song. But the voice is still there doing what it is supposed to. And the words are still clear.
Eileen Farrell, Soprano
The first video shows Eileen Farrell in the role of Opera singer. The tone has color, and is even dark at times, but there is no hint of singing down in the throat.
This second video shows Farrell in her alternate role as Jazz singer. This is a great example of many aspects of good singing. Balance between vibration and breath, clean initiation of the voice, balanced pronunciation, spontaneous expression, varied dynamic levels. Also, it shows how it is possible for a big voiced opera singer to express naturally in a popular style. Maybe the most impressive is the healthy use of the lower register orientation that is necessary for popular styles. This actually might be better male voice oriented singing than most actual men I’ve heard.
Joel Berglund, Bass-Baritone
With Joel Berglund we have a great example of getting a rich, warm tone by singing in the head resonator rather than the modern way of singing in the enlarged throat.
Torsten Ralf, Helden Tenor
Ralf was a student of Flagstad’s last teacher, Mdme. Haldis Ingebjart. His timbre took some getting used to for me, but he certainly uses his voice in a good way.
Rita Streich, Soprano
In both of these videos we get a good example of the lift of the face that I often talk about. This helps keep the tongue from dropping down the throat, blocking the tone.
This shows her older but still with a youthful voice.
Apollo Granforte, Baritone
A lesser known baritone, but a great example of a true huge voice. Rich and robust without the falseness of yawning. Notice the words are still clear at “e poi” sung piano near the end.
Sergei Lemeshev, Tenor
Lemeshev is a singer I plan on Spotlighting in the future. He was Russian and not well known in the west. He sometimes had instability in the middle, but the top was incredible. Although the audio is sometimes off, this video from a movie is a nice example of the perfect mouth form he used to accomplish his great head resonance.
I know this has been a long post. Thanks for going through it. I hope these concepts are getting clearer. The biggest point I want people to grasp is there is no difference between any of the various manufactured sounds. They are just different versions of the same thing.
The other thing I hope people are starting to notice is modern singers tend to keep their resonance in the throat, treating the roof of the mouth as a ceiling. The singers that exemplified traditional principles allowed the resonance to be in the head, where the roof of the mouth was more like a floor to the tone. I hope you can hear that in these examples.
Please comment below.
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