I get a lot of requests for examples of singers doing the things I talk about. So I came across a singer that makes a good example. The Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao was active from the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s. Her voice was essentially a light-lyric soprano, although she did perform some full-lyric roles. On some of her recordings I personally find her voice a little white in color at times. But in this selection her resonance is well-balanced and is a great example of clarity in the voice.
While listening to this selection, notice the lack of audible breath in the tone. It is pure. Even if you don’t understand Italian the words are intelligible.
Now compare this to some of the most famous sopranos of today. Let’s start with Renee Fleming.
The first thing I notice is the large amount of excess breath in the tone. Some hear that as a “lush” quality that adds to the beauty of the tone. I hear it as an artificial quality. And it makes the words seem “mushy” and hard to understand. This is a big part of the reason even English in opera is hard to understand.
Now let’s hear Anna Netrabko.
Similar quality to Renee Fleming. The singing is beautiful, but I am focusing on function. Some may question what does it matter. If the singing is beautiful why does function matter? The answer is vocal health and longevity. Any muscle that is habitually asked to act in a relaxed manner gradually breaks down. These modern singers are functioning with a relaxed glottal adjustment. This is what allows excess breath to escape while phonating. Now the answer to a relaxed condition is not to be tight. It is like anything with the body, there should be elastic muscular action. Now lax and not rigid. Balanced. The problem here lies in the fact that it is an unbalanced condition.
Another aspect to consider is acoustically Bidu Sayao would be more audible in the hall, especially in quiet passages, than her modern counterparts. This has to do with the purity of the vibration. The sound waves will travel farther than the diluted ones of Fleming and Netrebko.
Use the comment section below to contribute your reactions to comparing these different singer. Thanks.
It’s really sad people don’t understand the purpose of these discussions and just try to defend their favorites. I think that this article is just great and Michael Mayer made a point clear: singing is not bad here. Just a matter of reflecting and learn other ways to use the voice (a wiser way, I mean)
Interesting. I have not heard it. I would be curious if she is working on improving that as well.
Recently I remembered that quite a while back I have read a post about Anna Netrebko on your blog…Just out of curiosity Michael…Did you have a chance to hear her recent recordings from Salzburg in La Boheme (for example Si mi chiamano Mimi)? I am absolutely positive she ‘did’ something to her voice, or rather, started working with someone who helped her correct some things in her singing. Her tone wasn’t that breathy, especially noticable on her piano. While it’s not ideal yet, at least to me it sounded as a huge step forward from what I heard from her half a year ago. I’m not sure if it’s just me and I’m just imagining things…Or maybe the different repertoaire influenced her voice positively.
Would you, perfect technicians, explain to me why Mr.Jones wrote this article?
I don't share your golden ears nor your convinctions and it seems your mentor, Mr. Jones, doesn't join your voices either. I have attended some of Ms. Fleming performances and she is an outstanding singer.
Funny enough, in the quest for perfect singers, Mr.Mayer approves only the dead ones. He never heard Bjorling live. However, he claims relying on his super special aural skills to define who is a perfect technician and who is not. I would love to listen to one of you singing, guys. Really. Especially the master. On his site one cannot find a single song or aria sung by him. It's always easy to play the wise and criticize established artists!
Olga, the problem with Bidu Sayão was not her Villa-Lobos, which is outstanding. It would be unfair to say she distorts the vowels there because those songs are written mostly on a high tessitura.
I'm refering to some others brazilian songs available in cds, especially those recordings edited by brazilian label "Revivendo". It's almost impossible to understand, careless regarding her mother tongue. Take "Luar da Minha Terra", a fantastic song composed by Alberto Silva, which was, in fact, her brohter-in-law. Her diction is awful there. To sing with rolling "r" is necessary for projecting the sounds, and even pop singer used to sing like this, which is now considered old-fashioned.
Thanks for you comments V.A. and Olga. I'll be responding to them with a new post.
I was surprised to see Bidu Sayão in here! Regardless of the criticism she recieved and the limitations of her not-so-impressive voice, she is considered one of the finest interpreters Brazil has ever produced. Very ellegant performer (I'd have to disagree with V.A.Senna – her recordings of Villa-Lobos are still a good reference point, even if the diction is somewhat archaic).
It is true that she had bad reviews singing Mimì in the Met – as Manon, however, she was quite successful.
As for the contemporary sopranos, I have never had the opportunity to hear either of them live, but some friends of mine who traveled to NY said that hearing Netrebko live onstage was a disappointing experience. Fleming, however, always seems to make a great impression on the public and have good acceptance. Why is that?
A singer that caught my attention recently was Joyce DiDonato. I think her sound is very balanced and her technique is healthy. And she is a good singing actress. What is your impression? She sings with such a free emission that is impressive.
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.
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.
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.
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.