I have been trying not to worry too much about “sound”, since, like you said, it’s such a big problem of students and teachers today to focus on sound rather than on how the voice works. But that IS something that has been occupying my mind. I have always been aware that my voice was in the lightest side of the spectrum, but somehow, and I think mainly because of how things are today, I can’t have a good idea of what a healthy balanced light voice is supposed to sound like. The recordings I can think of are at least 50 years old, and even so I can’t even begin to imagine what a YOUNG pure light voice is supposed to sound like!
I have always been fond of singers from older generations – because I grew up around my parents, and much older people, listening to the music they enjoyed. Even now I’m not very aware of who are the new singers, what’s happening, etc. However, for lighter voices specifically, it is close to impossible to use older recordings for reference because: A) the musical taste has changed dramatically over the last 50 years (even in “classical” music) and much of what was considered tasteful in terms of phrasing and ornamentation is frowned upon today; B) there have been many interesting studies about style, musical pieces discovered, forgotten composers brought back, and that can’t be ignored, it has to be taken into consideration when studying that specific music; C) there seems to have been a conscious effort in the last decades to completely avoid the “tweety bird” soprano sound that was characteristic of older singers like Amelita Galli-Curci, Toti Dal Monte, Mado Robin, etc.
I just wanted to know if you think that’s a reasonable observation. It seems that, nowadays, it is expected by teachers, and even audiences I think, that every voice (even the lighter ones) sounds “dark and ringing”, and there are “n” number of ways to achieve that. However, when singing more ancient repertoire (XVth, XVIth, XVIIth century music), there also seems to be an expectation that the voice sounds deliberately lighter for a more “authentic” sound. That’s confusing!!! Looking through youtube, I found a couple of examples of sopranos who (correct me if I’m wrong) seem to be darkening the sound for “standard” repertoire and then deliberately “lightening” it to sing baroque opera.
“Je suis titania” (Thomas) [that is one big mouth!]
“Myself I shall adore” (Handel)
“Rejoice greatly” (Handel)
“Dal mio permesso amato” (Monteverdi)
Now, I have always been interested in different kinds of repertoire (medieval music, folkloric songs, baroque opera, sacred music, contemporary opera, chamber music, latin-american rep. in general, etc) for different reasons. I have been told before, by a couple of teachers, that a voice like mine is only supposed to sing ancient and baroque music because it is “too light” to sing with a modern orchestra. The few chances I got to work with a maestro, he seemed to expect that I sounded like “X”. And then, when I got the chance to spend a few months rehearsing in a baroque ensemble, they seemed to want me to sound like “Y”. It’s pretty nerve-racking to have people expect you, even as a student, to sound like this or that, instead of simply sounding like you. OK I’m hoping there is a way, in time, to learn how to use the same voice (cause I only got one) to sing whatever style I want (with wisdom, of course, I’m not stupid I know what a young singer is supposed to sing), but I am also fearful that my voice won’t be accepted as a legitimate sound, because of just how the system functions today.
Yes, I understand your concerns. The gap between what is expected sound-wise and what is good, healthy function can be a wide one. I’m glad to hear that you are trying to focus on the right things. Unfortunately there are a lot of questionable opinions in the professional world, and we just have to try and stick to our principles.
Your observations are correct regarding not only the singers you mention but also the general practice of altering the voice between early music and more modern classical. And it varies by the singer. Some sing more naturally in the early music and then add artificial color for the standard rep. Then I noticed the opposite with another singer. Although I wasn’t too fond of her singing in either version. But the altering happened in the early music by “lightening”.
But I have to say something about this lightening that many believe is appropriate for early music. What many of them are really doing is just disconnecting the voice. That is why early music style can be (but doesn’t have to be) damaging to the voice. If the singer chooses to alter in this way they risk the health of the voice. I personally have a hard time accepting this opinion of early-music singing as being correct. I understand that instruments were more limited in their sound-output. But these early composers for the voice had the castrati to write for. Supposedly the greatest singers in the history of singing. And we’re supposed to accept the theory that they sounded thin and “off the voice”? I don’t buy it. They are reported as singing in a natural, fully-connected manner with strength and range that the instruments could not match yet.
(The opposite of this is equally incorrect. The darkening of the voice to sound “richer” or whatever is unnatural and dangerous. A healthy voice has a balance of brightness and natural darkness. The traditional “chiarosuro”. This is not something we try to accomplish in order to sound better. It is the natural result of appropriate function.)
I am basing my reactions on the statement I have heard that the instruments of the time give a clue as to how the singing was performed. I disagree. I feel that the reverse is true. The singing of the time inspired the instrument makers to improve their craft so the instruments could match the singing. And they succeeded in later years.
The bottom line for me, like you stated, is we need to use the voice we have. We cannot afford to alter it to try to sound like a pre-conceived idea. This is true for any kind of singing, and early-music is just one example. We should not try and match the “period” instruments, because they were incomplete. They had not developed the ability to build complete instruments yet. But this should not cause us to assume that it was not yet understood how to use the voice in a complete manner, because it was. The instrumentalists were trying to catch up to the voice. They did not progress at the same rate, and the voice certainly did not follow the instruments.
And again, the opposite case is equally incorrect. What I mean is modern vocal practice is full of singers trying to alter the voice in a darker, richer direction. This is part of the problem because early-music singers are reacting to the unnatural darkening that is so prevalent in modern operatic singing. So as a result both sides are wrong. The correct answer is between these two, where we find balance.
Voices should not sound “dark” They should sound balanced, with vibrancy and brilliance. This does not mean loud, or with excessive vibrato. Just balanced. To explain all of this would take a lot of writing. But that is the goal of this site. A big problem is we don’t know what each person means by the terms they use. Two people can use the exact same words and the examples we hear from each are completely different. So that is the dilemma I feel when trying to explain these concepts.
The bottom line for me is a high light voice should sound just like what it is. Same goes for a dramatic, lyric, spinto, young or mature, and every other voice type one can imagine. Every voice should sound like its natural identity. Too many singers are basing their technique on their imitation of other voices or their own imagined “sound”. The natural, balanced function of the voice will reveal what that individual voice actually is. And it should be our objective to discover and realize that. Not to sound “great” and like our idols. This attitude has been leading the way for a couple generations now. So all we have are singers that imitate a “sound ideal” rather than singing with their god-given instrument and sounding naturally beautiful. Artificial beauty will always be second-place. And is it actually beautiful if it is fake?
Please comment or question below. Add your perspective to the discussion. Thanks!
Hi Bea. Great information. Thanks for adding it to my post. Very enlightening. And encouraging to read that it supports what I said. Thanks. Also, I think I’m going to change the title to better reflect what is being discussed.
Another point by me. This is in relationship to the observation your questioner made about the “tweety bird” singer being frowned upon these days. She actually has a point. I would not call such singers by that label myself. They were light singers with well produced voices. Lilly Pons comes to mind. So does Bidu Sayao. Neither of these sopranos had voices that were huge in the common sense of the word. Yet, both of them had voices that the Italians say “run.” That means they carry over the orchestra into the theatre. They did it because of HOW they were produced. Neither singer attempted to make their voice into anything other than what it was. Nor did either sing repertoire that was not suited to their sound and personal temperment. Sayao actually studied with Jean de Reske, a great tenor of the Victorian golden age. Reske writes quite a bit, as do many of his students, how he taught. Basically he taught the singer to use their entire voice, to have it well focused, and to have it filled with warmth. It took time, but the results were wonderful voices. I can’t remember who taught Pons. More to our times, we have Reri Grist. Again, another singer who mastered her voice, but didn’t require it to be anything other than what it was.
The over darkening and rounding of the tone that is considered good today is really allowing the voice to fall back into the throat too far, what in the past would be seen as a throaty sound (but not seen as such today). Many bad things result from that production, the most common being really mushy diction. Often with it comes a retracted tongue that pushes against the folds requiring the singer to push far too much breath through the folds to get sound. Another thing that makes the sound dark and mushy.
I believe it comes from some strange desire to sound “rounded” at cost of everything else. Why it is considered beautiful is beyond me, as it is really reducing the communication of the song to a loud long sigh and nothing more.
Many singers today also do that so they can sing “everything.” They do that so they seem as versatile as Callas (who didn’t change her sound for anything). Your observation of darkening the voice for “classical” music and lightening it very artificially for Baroque is quite good hearing. That is exactly what is happening, at least to my ears. The high placement in the Baroque sounds to me like a very raised larynx production, while the darkening is a type of forced lowering of the larynx. Neither is the correct way to sing.
Another reason I believe we hear so much of this fake darkening and lightening of the voice has to do with “image.” Directors these days want everyone to appear like a movie star and very thin. Substantial voices come usually in substantial bodies. There are exceptions, but for the most part, large voices do come in large packages. Large packages will never appear small and delicate. Now by large, I am NOT saying a singer must be fat (many are, very fat to be sure) but when the muscles that give you support are developed as is needed to endure the pressure of performing, you will not be a size 2 dress, or have an 18 inch waist. You will be larger.
Since directors really want sexy nymphs for singing, they overlook bodies whose voices are naturally strong, rich, dark, brilliant, and bright all at once. And that is because those voices come in larger sized bodies.
Small soubrettes, as they were once called, come in smaller bodies, even when well develop for support, and they look delicate rather than heroic. That seems to fit the mold that directors want. But such a voice simply does NOT have what it takes to perform the music required, so the singer is forced to darken the tone, really darken it, to give the impression they have the vocal weight to sing the music they are singing.
The result is that extremely unmusical sound we are subjected to today called “opera singing.” When a voice sings music that suits it, that sort of fake coloring is not needed, and we are not required to listen to “fake opera voices.”
But because that sounds too mature and overtly sexual, it doesn’t fit the ideals of authentic performances of Baroque singing, which has become one with sexless, emotionless, and mechanical. Sadly, even Mozart has been subjected to this silliness.
When a voice sounds as it should, it will have warmth and ring at the same time. It will also be large enough for what it is required to do. And listeners will know that what they are hearing is right for the music they are listening to.
One role often miscast these days is NORMA. At one time, it was the property of very large, dramatic voices. Pasta herself, who created the role, was said to be more mezzo than soprano, and had a highly dramatic flare. Whether her dramatic sound was similar to anything we heard in the past when this role was sung well, is anyone’s guess. Norma was considered a role very few would approach unless they were certain of themselves and their skills.
Even the great Lilly Lehmann said she would rather sing all three Brunhildes one after the other than one Norma. She found the role that taxing.
With much transposition Ponselle made it her own. And one would not witness it well sung again until Callas, Sutherland, and Ross sang it. Caballe did wonders with it. Then suddenly, everyone and their dog was singing it: contraltos, mezzos, dramatic sopranos (all tolerable even if ill adviced) and suddenly all the chirpy coloratures were doing it. What made Norma Norma was gone. The drama through music was lost. It became as empty as Lucia had been for decades until the Callas movement brought truth back into the chirping.
Voices now days singing this music should NOT be singing it. They are cut out for far lighter fair. But they are forced into singing it because they can give the look the directors want, and their ability to use the scantiest costumes possible.
I do not believe the public really enjoys that sort of singing. All one has to do is go to YouTube and listen to the older recordings and read the comments of those listening. To many, all these singers (many no one has ever heard of) seem to have more than any singer of today has to offer. These singers have more in their little finger. Not all their interpretations are what we would call “good.” Some of them are really rather self-indulgent. But people instantly can tell that the voice is just right for the music. The music comes alive, and the voice communicates to the heart. And it sounds “natural” for what it is doing.
If sanity returned to the theatre, and once again VOICE become as important as the decore and the sets, we would start to see and hear voices that matched the music they were called to sing, and I really believe that all this “faking it” would come to an end, for the listener simply would not want to hear something 10th rate when they could have something 1st rate.
You are wise to stick with doing things and learning things correctly. Your career may take a while to take off, but in the end, you will be far happier with the results than you would be if you sold yourself out to sound like some passing ideal.
Michael, I have encountered this problem many times throughout my career. I have also seen wonderful voices destroyed and ultimately incapable of singing in pitch. I agree fully with you that a voice must sound like itself. To your questioner: good singing sound is a healthy vibrant, exciting, natural sound. It is not “manufactured.” That may sound confusing to you, as when one learns to sing, one does learn to “create a voice” to a degree. The muscular development, the agility, the volume, and the ring that develops through training is not natural to the average person, even one with a very beautiful voice. Because of that fact, many people think the developed voice is created, when in point of fact it is simply allowed to blosom into its fullest potential. What sounds like you should always sound like you, only better.
The problem with any interpretation of how ancient music is sung is it was all began by instrumentalists who were striving to play music of that period on period instruments to recreate the authentic sound of that time. Conductors did much research into performing practices of that time. The problem with the movement was that they then decided that the way things were played on instruments was exactly what the voice should sound like. And from there developed what we now call period performances. The problem was that they never took the time to research what contemporaries of that time said about singers. You may wonder why this happened. Well, it happened because of a huge change in how we look at things. Clear until the beginning of the 20th century, many famous pianists, violinists etc were told to BREATHE their music as a singer would, and were actually told to listen to singers to learn to phrase music correctly, and to build and form a phrase.
When I studied music (I began with piano and violin before I began singing, and actually won many international competitions in both instruments before I took to the operatic stage; there was a point in my career where I was really pulled in all directions as to which type of music I wanted to be known for, and to this day, when I give a concert it is often filled not only with singing, but violin and piano concertos as well) I had teachers who were still taught in this method. My piano teachers were taught by Rubinstein and by Paderewski and a great deal of the training was based on learning to “breathe a phrase.” Technically, these older pianists played tons of wrong notes (a thing not allowed today, thankfully, and something I was never allowed to do) but their style was still based on a “living interpretation” of the music, and still very much steeped in following the way a singer built and mastered a phrase.
As conductors become more and more important, and orchestras become more and more proficient in how they played (and opera orchestras were the last to actually play well, and often even to the mid 1930s couldn’t hold their own against a symphonic orchestra for playing music correctly; the reason was that most operatic accompaniments are not all that difficult compared to the advanced symphonic music) the importance of the orchestra took over the importane of the evening with voices not being seen as really as important as the whole.
Also, singers changed. Singers at one time were thorought musicians. Back in the days of the castrati, they knew all about composition, theory, and harmony. They relied on it to create their wonderful embellishments (and few were extemporanious, most were prewritten out, even if the public didn’t know that). As singers became more just singers and not good musicians, they lost the respect of conductors. And the rise of the conductor happened about the same time the decline in good musical training for singers started to fall off. By the beginning 20th century, it was rare to find a singer who could read music (fortunately a fault very much going out of style now days). Conductors became less respectful of singers. And instrumentalists, who have seldom had any respect for singers, began to become the musicaligists.
As these music historians approached this ancient music, they began by recreating the instruments. We have plenty of them in museums, and if the instrument could no longer provide sound, it could be copied in detail and then create a modern working model. In the beginning, modern playing techniques were used on these instruments, and the results were amazing and interesting. The sound was quite different from modern instruments, but the modern technique of playing still didn’t recreate the “sound” of the old days. So, after much research, how the old instruments were played was resurrected. Interestingly, as Michael has said, what basically happened was instead of moving technique forward, they actually had to deconstruct it to a form when playing rapid divisions, for example, on the violin was nearly impossible. Musicians simply didn’t have the bowing or the fingering technique developed to do that.
Also, the vibrato, which is a feature of a well-balanced technique vocally, was not possible on the instruments, especially while playing in that older and less efficient way. Thus, the conductors and instrumentalists who began the ancient authentic performance practices began to teach that singers didn’t use a vibrato either. We know that is not true because even organs of the 9th century had a “la voce” stop which actually created what today we would call a trill, all with the purpose of imitating the vibrato of a healthy voice.
Originally, they never requested any “funny business” with singers, but soon ancient music specialists realized that a well-trained healthy sound was too large for the weak, often “out of tune” sounding sound of the ancient instruments. So, they required that singers alter their sound to match the instruments and how they sounded.
Over the decades, this weak, boring, lifeless sound has come to be seen as “authentic” for music of the Baroque period and earlier. But the problem was that these experts in all their research didn’t research into what the voice was doing at the same period of time. They didn’t research into WHY various singers sang in such a wide range of keys. They didn’t really study even how the voice was trained back then. Rather, they simply glued their information, which was correct, regarding instruments onto the voice.
If you take the time to read about singers in the past, and the castrati are a good place to start, you will find that there are indications that how we have interpreted the sound cannot be correct. Firstly, most castrati were noted for singing with extremely loud voices. The carrying power of their voices, the ring that filled the theatre, was legendary. But a voice that uses the functioning we hear today in “authentic performances” is so restricted one doesn’t hear any of that ring, especially a volume that would shatter your ears (as Marchesi’s “la bomba” was supposely able to do, or at least feel like to the audience). In this site, you will read about the Farinelli breathing exercise. I wrote about it in detail, and many readers attempted it with much difficulty, as it is extremely difficult and takes very well developed muscles to endure. Most singers who use it today claim it took them nearly 4 years to be able to do it well. It takes the body that long to develop the muscles for support it requires.
Now, even though that exercise is not always used today, support and breathing exercises used by well developed voices do use exercises that would do exactly the same thing — develop the muscles of support. The castrati method of breathing is actually used all the time now, especially in the first half of the 20th century, and by more recent singers like Horne or Sutherland.
Now as you listen to those voices, do they sound weak and ineffectual? They do not. They are quite able to sound well in a theatre, be heard, and have much flexibility in dynamics and much agility. Why would a singer of that time, if they used a very good and healthy balance to their technique sound any different than a voice we hear today that is well balanced? I cannot see why there would be any difference.
There is also this false idea that all ancient singers sounded like squeakie sopranos. There isn’t a real contralto amongst the lot of them. Yet, back in that day and age, many castrati were mezzo sopranos and contraltos and still claimed equal fame to those who were sopranos. Were their contraltos really all that “white and thin” sounding as we think?
But there were differences in how they were trained, even if the function was excellent and the same as we would want to achieve today, like Michael is striving to teach you. Now days, we put tons of importance on high notes, and as a result singers are required to sing lots of them. That was not the case back then. Even if singers had high notes, like Mozart’s sister-in-law and could sing many high Fs and Gs, the strength of their voices didn’t lie in those high notes (which were full and ringing, but not necessarily loud as we are accustomed to hearing today) but in the richness and fullness of their lower voices. while we hear Queen of the Nights that can break rafters with their Fs but are inaudible below the C an octave above middle C, in Mozart’s day they would have heard a singer who had a very full range in the lower, lower middle, and upper middle voice, and a well focused higher voice that carried but was not necessarily loud as we think of loud today.
That is why Marchesi’s “la bomba” was such an event to behold, for he sang an ascending scale and really let the volume fly on the top note, a thing that most people simply could not do with training of that day.
The other thing often overlooked today is the actual vocal ranges of the castrati, and because we are so fixated on this “super high sound as if someone is singing music six octave higher than written” many writers have actually falsefied the ranges of these singers to meet our own imaginings. Often the entire lower octave is removed. Farinelli sang often as a contralto and a soprano, his range descending easily to the E below middle C and only in his youth ascending to the F we associate with the Queen of the night (he seldom sang that high and when one consults his embellishments, which are readily available, he seldom ever ventures above the staff, and when he does, it is for only the tiniest second). Many castrati, like Pacchierotti, were noted for their lower range (as was Marchesi, noted for his “la Bomba”) which easily descended to the B one octave below middle C. He could and did sing tenor arias in their exact key, but of course with his rich dark contralto/soprano sound. People of that time expected a rich full voice, and divisions (what we call coloratura) from the chest, or with the fullness and richness of the lower sound.
One thing that is never looked at correctly either is the diapaison. At that time, it was not standardized as it is today (and even today I use that term loosely, for in my career, I have sung at an A 430, A 437 — used mostly in opera in North America, A 440 concert pitch but thought to be standard pitch by most people, A 450 and A 455, both used often in Germany). It could range from an A 390 to an A 460 all depending on where you lived. Thus the castrati had “suit case arias” that they used, and in the keys that suited where they were singing. They knew what their voices sounded like, and how they felt when they were functioning well, so they simply transposed music to suit the voice. In places where the diapaison was too low for comfort, they put the music up; in places where it was too high, they put it down. Although today diapaison is looked at, and we do find music tuned to the key of the period, conductors simply do not take into account the functioning of the voice. It still has its natural breaks and alterations it goes through as one ascends and descends throughout the full range. The breaks do not change, no matter what notes we change them to by rising or lowering the diapaison. The castrati understood that, and thus they transposed the music, not just for comfort and to avoid high notes (which at that time were not obligatory anyway) but so that the chest notes ended and began where they naturally fell in the proper use of the voice. Today, we seem fixated on making sure that singers sing only in what would have been known then as a high head sound, and we demand that super high sound be carried down to the lowest parts of the voice. The castrati would never have done that. Nor did women who sang at that time, and most especially basses did not do that (tenors were a “zero” as far as singers then were concerned and one seldom reads of any tenor who was anything; that would soon change when the castrati died out).
Because all of this is ignored by most “authentic performance practices” of today (there are groups in Montreal Canada who have done much research into this and now refuse to alter the voice at all, but allow it to be full as it is supposed to be; their presentations are fabulous to witness, even if the instruments sound like they have not developed their technique, which in reality, they would have sounded like then, as singers were decades ahead of instrumentalists in what they could do) we are forced to believe that a weak, shrill, nearly out of tune, empty, white sound is what moved people to tears in the past.
And as for such torturing of the voice when doing music of the time period prior to Monteverdi, using singers with naturally lovely voices but untrained would be more authentic than what we are subjected to.
Now why would I write such a long explanation? The reason is so you can understand the development of the “authenic music” movement and where its original ideas came from, and how wrong they really are. It is only because things have been done this way for so long people believe it is correct, and when they hear things sung in a more correct (and thus, more authentic way) they feel the voices is not matching the instruments. I doubt it matched them back when Farinelli sang.
One last comment: often in some older music (not Baroque, but in scores by Meyerbeer, whom we see as more modern) one will read the term “vibrato.” Because of that many modern musicologists have concluded that they didn’t sing with vibrato, but that is not true. All we need do is listen to singers of today who hold back the vibrato, and we hear voiced that cannot swell the tone, have little to no dynamics, and have pitch difficulties. That cannot be what is meant, for the public of that time would not have accepted that as sound vocalization.
A French soprano of the time (I forget her name at the moment, but it is thanks to her we know of many of the great singers’ embellishments and performing practices of the day) explained that what that mean was for the singer to regulate the vibrato, to speed it up to give the sense of fear the composer was desiring. A well balanced voice can alter the vibrato to produce dramatic affects without hurting the voice. And she explains that is what is happening in those passages, the vibrato was altered, mostly increased, so as to create the illusion of fear in the voice (and it is actually used to great affect in Robert le Diable when Alice is confronted with Beatrim, who is the devil). Most singers of today simply ignore those instructions because they sing with vibrato and have a mistaken belief that they didn’t use it back then. But again, poor research is the cause of such a mistake.
Now that you understand all this, I hope you can understand that you do not, not ever, want to make your voice sound like “this sound” or “that sound” and most especially just to suit someone’s misguided ideal of what ancient music sounded like. No great singer has ever altered their technique or their basic sound to perform this music. Horne, Sutherland, Caballe, Bartoli, and even Podles, all remain true to their own sound when singing this music, and the results are astonishing. What we are subjected to today is boring and lifeless. That is because the sound is boxed in and not allowed to be what it is.
Where people are making mistakes is they are confusing method, function, or how to sing with style and the differences of HOW emotions were presented in what we call “modern opera” (Verdi, Wagner, Puccini etc) compared to Baroque opera where the emotions were presented through dynamics, decorations (the trill in particular), and use of rubatto and all that sort of thing. And many experts of today have never clued into that fact.