Jul 20 2011

Singer Spotlight - Cornell MacNiel

Today’s Spotlight is on another singer that sang with Jussi Björling and also recently died. Here is his bio from Wikipedia:

Cornell MacNeil (September 24, 1922 – July 15, 2011), was an American operatic baritone known for his exceptional voice and long career with the Metropolitan Opera, which spanned 642 performances in twenty-six roles.

MacNeil was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Among his teachers were Friedrich Schorr and Richard Marzollo. He debuted with various companies in the United States from 1953 (including the New York City Opera) and at La Scala and the Metropolitan in 1959. In 1969 he became president of the American Guild of Musical Artists.[citation needed]

MacNeil’s voice was notable for its huge size and volcanic top notes. Despite some vocal decline in the late 1970s, he maintained a high standard throughout his long career. Two of his most notable roles were the title role in Rigoletto, and Iago in Otello. MacNeil was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera.[citation needed] His debut was on March 21, 1959, as Rigoletto. Rigoletto was also the role he sang the most at the Met, 104 times, including the Met’s first telecast of that opera in 1977, in the production by John Dexter.

MacNeil was also well-known for the role of Baron Scarpia in Tosca, a role he sang 92 times at the Met between November 2, 1959 and December 5, 1987, which was his last performance with the Met.

And his Obit from the New York Times: http://vocalwisdom.com/macnielobit

Cornell MacNiel was a Baritone that had high notes that could make tenors jealous. He sang with a natural approach that slipped some late in his career. In the 1970s he started to sing his passaggio more “open”. I don’t know if this was a conscious choice or the result of a weakening of his body from age.

Here is a nice article from Opera News: http://www.operanews.com/operanews/templates/content.aspx?id=6210

As we can see in the videos that follow, the “openess” was not the result of “spreading”. His mouth position is consistently in an ideal form. But the cause of singing open is not really an issue of the mouth. It is the result of losing the connection to the body. That is the experience we feel as the singer. What is happening physically is the larynx loses the appropriate level of resistance necessary to balance the air pressure.

The main thing I find him a good example of is this natural approach. There is no darkening or trying to sound bigger than he is. That actually is what allows him to sound big. He also is very aware of expressing the words while still producing a complete tone.

Here is the very end of Verdi’s Rigoletto where the baritone often interpolates a high A natural (if they can).


Here’s a recording of the aria “Cortigianni” from earlier in his career. Listen to the diminuendo on high F at 2:15. The thing that makes great natural singing is not trying to sound great. No altering the voice to sound better. Just using the voice as it is, to the best of your ability, to express the music, words and character.


And one of my favorite arias, Renato’s “Eri tu” from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera


Another thing Cornell MacNiel was a good example of was the concept of “chiaroscuro”. The bright/dark tone. Most singers only have one or the other. A well functioning voice has both at the same time. This is a result of a complete vibration, open resonators, and deep connection.

The voice starts at the bottom of the throat at the larynx. The larynx actually should take a relatively deep position to stabilize itself against the pressure of the breath. This also allows the resulting tonal vibrations to resonate over a longer portion of the vocal tract. This provides the dark component. The completeness and intensity of the vibration provides the bright component. And the uplifted form of the mouth makes sure that brightness isn’t muffled by the soft tissue of the throat and tongue.

The free reflection of the sound waves through the bones give the impression of placement in the head and face. This condition allows the greatest flexibility and freedom of the voice to be expressive.

  1. Thank you Michael; I never knew about him before. He is a wonderfull singer.

    I have some questions. When he sings high notes, is it the famous head voice that is so talked about? Or is it just his natural voice working very well — Does he still have a passagio at F4?

    These questions always bug me, especially since my voice breaks at F4.

  2. You’re welcome, Colin. Yes, this is an example of connected head voice. When done correctly it sounds like just an extension of the natural voice. For instance, that diminuendo I point out would not be possible in chest voice. It is like the voice stretches through the passaggio. So it doesn’t break. If the voice breaks it means the larynx is not connected to the breath and reaches a point where it can’t vibrate any longer. So it “snaps”.

  3. Thank you for your answer Michael. I have some more questions. Does it take time for the head voice to be connected? (I really have never tried to develop mine) Or am I just doing something wrong out of habit?

    Can a person naturally not have much head voice? For fun I have slid up my voice up to high c but it is a very un-manly sound. It is also hard to come down without breaking. I do not have a high speaking voice – my current range is from G2 to about F4.

    I would greatly appreciate some answers.



  4. Yes, absolutely it takes time. Strengthening through repetition, just like any physical development. And the problem is it only strengthens if done correctly. Another way to think of the registers, especially in an undeveloped state, is as male and female. The upper register, or head voice, does resemble a female sound when undeveloped. Through exercise this voice gets closer to our natural voice. But unfortunately it is hard to get the full picture in just written words. Eventually I plan to have some videos to demonstrate what I’m talking about. But the speaking voice has little to do with it, because we tend to speak in the lower register.

  5. Olga Silva

    Thanks for posting this. I love Cornell McNeil, mainly because “Rigoletto” is one of my favorite operas, and he was the first singer I ever heard in the role. I heard other great performances on record after that but still, I think he was the one who made me fall in love with the opera.

  6. Colin, there is a nice article on this website that talks about strengthening the upper register. If you haven’t seen it already, I would highly recommend it. Of course, Michael is right that you can’t get the full picture with just words. But there is still much useful and fascinating information to be found.
    At any rate, here’s the article.

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