Sayão didn’t have a great voice, no matter how she sang and if she passed over the orchestra. Her sound was always one of a lirico-leggiero and excelled in soubrette parts. As a full lyric she was not so sucessful, except in the French repertoire.
Also, her diction suffered from certain laziness. I’m brazilian and have some recordings of brazilian songs she did. They are awful. You cannot understand a word. She distorts the vowels voluntarily and it sounds like Polish. Granted, the recording technique was not so advanced then. I recognize she phrases well and makes good technical use of her little voice. But she is not one of my beloved singers. Maybe in the theater she was fantastic, I don’t know, but I can’t see a superstar quality in her voice.

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I appreciate your comments and opinions. From what you are saying it sounds like you don’t think a light-lyric can be a great voice. I pointed out that she was a light-lyric soprano, and that was what she was best known for. I admit I am not very knowlegable about her. I am most familiar with her because she paired with Jussi Bjorling several times. Most notably in the 1947 “Romeo” from the Met, which is considered by many publications to be the greatest live opera recording available. All of the opinions I have heard have been very positive. As I said in the post, when I have heard her I tend to feel that the tone is a little too white for my taste. But in this particular recording it is much more balanced. It is interesting that you mention Polish since she studied with the Polish tenor Jean De Reszke.
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I think that singing with some breath moisture to the tone is not such a great sin. Garcia admitted the use of aspired “h” in Rossini coloratura. Not to mention the idea of Vennard of an imaginary “h”, that inevitably leads to some air escaping (although imperceptibly) before the sound being uttered.

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The use of the breath in the tone is what I have been referring to recently as a belief. It is not based on the laws of nature. Imagine any other instrument functioning with an equal defect as breath in the tone and it becomes obvious that it is a big problem. A violin with a slipping bow ruins the vibration. A trumpet leaking breath results in no tone. A clarinet with a cracked reed doesn’t work. The voice is the only instrument that can give a result, and a surprisingly good one in some cases, even when it is functioning at an incomplete degree.


I am not familiar with that opinion of Garcia. Everything I have ever read from him and other master teachers of that generation expressly stated that an aspirate should not be used for the coloratura. The reason being it actually slows down the response of the vibration. And Vennard’s concept that you refer to was absolutely not meant to include breath. I admit that he did have a tendency to allow too much air in the tone of some of his students. But this particular concept was meant to help people feel the release of the throat while still allowing the vocal folds to vibrate in a closed position. Note that it is an imaginary “h”, not an actual “h”. By imagining an “h” it was intended to keep the air-way open so the vocal folds would close without closing the throat. Also by thinking an “h” without actually saying one helps to give action to the breath without causing it to go past the vibration. It is important to remember that just because we don’t want breath in the tone or to leak out of the voice it doesn’t mean we don’t still use the breath in the act of singing. The breath is an integral part of the coordination. It must be compressed towards the larynx to feed the continuous vibration of the vocal folds. But if it goes past the folds it is wasted because the only purpose the breath has is to feed the vibration. It serves no purpose above the larynx. The challenge lies in coordinating the application of breath pressure and the resistance of the vocal folds.
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Imagine a student or established singer who has a tendency to squeeze the folds, who has a pressed voice. Isn’t it what he is supposed to do? Use the airflow to his advantadge, to relieve tension? We know that ideally the edges of the folds must offer a slight resistence to the air and I don’t mean singing opera as a crooner. A balanced attack is not a breathy onset but also cannot be a grunt and make the singer uncomfortable, as if pressing his folds. So, I think this is an individual issue.

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This is exactly what I’m talking about. The need to coordinate these opposing forces. And what you describe does seem to make sense on the surface. But if we go deeper into the situation we can find other alternatives that are more correct.


If a singer is squeezing the folds to create what is called “pressed phonation” it is caused by muscles extrinsic to the larynx and excessive to balanced function. These are muscles that cannot be active during breathing, so it can be helpful to momentarily allow some breath to pass while phonating to experience those muscles letting go. But it must not be a long term crutch. The closure of the glottis, without extraneous help, only resists the breath pressure to the degree that the edges are caused to vibrate. If the glottis is able to stop the breath and resist it to the degree that the vibration is distorted, like you describe, than that is the result of extra muscles. Not just the intrinsic laryngeal muscles. So the logical remedy is not to use airflow, but to remove the extra muscular involvement. Then we can start to experience the proper balance in the relationship between the larynx and the breath. If we start to use airflow as a crutch we have just created a new problem.


You mention a grunt. Yes, a grunt is too extreme for the purpose of singing. But it is in the same family of natural functions as the act of singing. Allan Lindquest and others have talked about thinking of a mini-grunt. I find exploring the feeling of a whimper to have the most potential for people. A whimper is like a grunt in that it includes the action of the body in compressing the breath. It also resembles crying. But the difference from grunting and crying is the whimper is much smaller in size and intensity than either of these other functions. It also has more of a relationship to the lighter register adjustment, where the grunt and crying (forceful crying) are more related to the thicker lower register. 


The upper register, for both women and men, is a very productive condition of the vocal folds. They can be close together but very flexible at the same time. The flexibility allows us to apply just about as much breath pressure as we want and the folds will work with that pressure productively, rather than work against the pressure and get stiff and dampen the vibration, or the opposite and release the breath.


The key point to recognize is that the function of the voice is based on the relationship between the pressure from the breath and the resistance to that pressure from the larynx. If either of these opposing forces overpowers the other we are no longer in balance. So in the condition you describe the force of resistance is overpowering the force of pressure. If you resort to air-flow you have just changed the condition to one of insufficient resistance, which by default results in the opposite condition of the breath over-powering the resistance. As I said earlier, a new problem.


This condition of the breath pressure over-balanced in relation to the resistance is my definition of falsetto. Many people use that term to describe any kind of upper register adjustment. I feel it is more accurate to define it as a “false vibration”. A condition where the resistance of the vocal folds is lacking and the breath is not completely turned into vibration. This is what happens with unbalanced breath flow. (Again, I point out that the opposite of just stopping the breath is not what we are after either) So in reality we can have a falsetto condition in either register and in both males and females. Much of the so-called “legit” or “classical” singing being performed by high-school aged singers is actually falsetto. It contains an excess of breath in the phonation and a lack of balanced resistance. This would also be an accurate definition of “crooning”. An unbalanced condition where the breath is freely flowing through the glottis lacking an appropriate level of resistance. Generally crooning is recognized to primarily exist in the lower register and falsetto generally in the upper register.


Getting back to the condition you describe. The logical remedy is not to encourage an increase in air-flow, but to reduce the excess resistance. The weight of resistance needs to balance the weight of breath pressure to allow a coordinated function. In the same way a violinist can press the bow into the string excessively, we can fall into the trap of having an excessive weight of resistance to the breath. (This is usually caused by the root of the tongue, not the folds themselves) The results are similar as well. The violinist that has too much pressure on the string from the bow interferes with the vibration of the string, causing it to be dampened. A similar thing happens in the voice where the muscles “crush” the vibration stimulating the body to push the breath pressure harder to get through the excess resistance. This results in a harsh, excessively intense vibration.


The characteristics of a balanced condition that we are looking to achieve include a steady weight of breath pressure that is almost automatic from the proper posture. And a relatively light weight of resistance from the larynx. An image to help with the weight of resistance is to think of the larynx as a feather, bubble, or some other kind of near-weightless object. The idea being if the breath is too forceful the balance of the larynx will be blown out. So we are looking for a delicate condition, not just a hard stoppage of the breath.
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There are some singers, like Cecilia Bartoli, who uses this all the time and even exaggerates, that sing with much more fire (even very difficult repertoire) than those with perfect techniques. And I prefer them, once they can be heard. Bartoli only sings in medium-size rooms. Fleming sings in large houses and, as a very critical acquaintance from Germany told me, she fills the room. She started her career very well, but now she abuses with scoopings and crooning a bit. No one knows really what happens. They are very demanded and the toll is heavy. Maybe she uses that as some kind of compensation. Also, I think she is weighing her voice a little bit to sound more dramatic. I have a Don Giovanni from the Met in DVD which is not that good. She is making her voice very dark and heavy artificially and by the end of the performance you feel she is tired.

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These observations contribute to my point. The lack of audibility in the hall is a common complaint with Bartoli. And over time allowing extra breath to escape causes the voice to deteriorate. Hence the scooping and crooning. It is gradual so the singer doesn’t really notice until it is significant. And the artificial dark quality is the most common side-effect. If fact many singers want the tone so dark that they allow the breath in order to achieve that. 


The point I’m trying make with this comparison is not to say Bidu Sayao was the greatest soprano to ever live. Just the opposite. She was a very good artist with an average instrument and with good function she became world-famous. Renee Fleming and Anna Netrebko are world-famous because of great instruments and their artistry in spite of their functional limitations. The expectations of singers now are different than they were in past generations. Singers needed to compete with the greatest instrumentalists, and they did. Now the vocal function has no resemblance to that of great instrumental technique.

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