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!