Building vocal power in a culture where patience is NOT a virtue

While surfing for voice science articles I accidentally read a sentence that dealt with a common vocal issue. At the time I did not pay attention to it because it was so obvious, but then it became very important when I realized how relevant it is to the sensations I have felt while I made my changes from baritone to tenor. I cannot seem to find the statement again, but it was something like this:

Irregular fold vibrations occur when deeper layers beyond the fold cover participate in the vibration of the vocal folds.

I am paraphrasing, but what is important here is what such a statement signify. What this means is that the voice behaves irregularly when one sings sounds that cause the folds to vibrate more thickly. As I made my change from baritone to tenor, the most significant changes occurred not when I noticed changes in the high range but rather when I experience a release in the middle and low range. In this context, what suddenly came to me is that my success as a baritone occurred because of my very driven, athletic background that caused me to push the voice beyond its natural weight. As a relatively young singer I was able to produce a sound that had a dramatic color and yet it did not restrict my access to the top range. Adding to this a very strong theater background, training as a conductor and a facility for languages, I had a package that facilitated getting work as a concert singer with regional orchestras lower level opera companies and even academic institutions.

However, at a certain point I had to ask myself why I could not go further up the operatic ladder. What I have concluded is that the very drive that got me to early success as a baritone limited my long-term success. Letting go of that drive both physically and philosophically is in fact what released the tension that held me back and in a sunny day in the South of France my tenor voice popped out.

The greater importance of this issue relates to the building of vocal power. Building is an interesting word. It suggests time. To build anything requires time and the term voice building has been part of our traditional vocabulary for a long time. Now the speed of life has exceeded the balance of patience. Let us try to understand power.

In the best case scenario let us consider a few tenors and sopranos! Diego Florez, Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti and Franco Corelli; Diana Damrau, Mirella Freni, Leontyne Price Birgit Nilsson. In order of vocal weight, each of these singers sing or sang efficiently and respect or respected their natural vocal weight. It is logical to think that singers endowed with naturally thicker fold-cover mass are naturally able to handle greater subglottic pressure, which is directly proportional to volume. But does volume translate into carrying power? Not always! Corelli’s voice would always be louder than that of Florez, but this does not mean that the loudness would always carry as well. Corelli singing his best high Ab will naturally blow Florez out the water because the relative ease of Corelli’s voice on an Ab creates an efficiency that is astounding. Same can be said of Pavarotti on a Bb or Florez on a high C. The higher the note, the more Florez would win. Just as Damrau singing a high Eb will be acoustically more present than Price on the same note because the amount of tension placed on the voice of Leontyne Price on that note is greater than that required for Damrau to sing the same note. Hence, Damrau would be more efficient on that note and the result would be more present. Price would win the fight on a high Bb and Freni might win on a high C and Nilsson would have the most powerful G5 of all of them. This takes for granted that all of these singers are singing at their peak efficiency.

The question then is can Diego Florez build a certain amount of muscular power that permits him to sing heavier repertoire? The answer is typical of me of course: yes and no. Simply by singing his repertoire and aging, Florez’ voice will gain the strength to handle more subglottic pressure, and he will sing viably some of the heavier bel canto repertoire without compromising his singularly beautiful, efficient and flexible qualities. Power of that kind can be developed, however to a point.

The problems would start to occur if Florez suddenly decided to compete with Corelli’s sound or Damrau with Nilsson’s or more subtly if Florez tried to compete with Pavarotti and Damrau with Freni. When lighter voices start to push their voices beyond natural limits, the vibrations become irregular and other musculature become active to compensate. The new coordination is tension-filled and hinder the natural resonance of the vocal tract. Over time, the resonance is hindered to the point that conductors, directors, colleagues and eventually the audience can tell the difference. In essence, this is a crystallization of the patterns that can be observed in our operatic times. Lighter voices pushing their voices beyond limits to sing Musical America’s top 20 operas, the majority of which require full-lyric and spinto voices in the lead roles.

But why do theaters allow lighter voices to sing roles beyond their voices? The expedient answer is the following: lighter voices coordinate more spontaneously because less air pressure is necessary for a viable sound. The smaller fold mass also makes it easier to achieve high notes even when the production is not perfect. Consequently, lighter voices become viable quickly while heavier voices are still learning to coordinate. Combine this with a culture that responds to name recognition. If a great dramatic tenor that no one has heard about was making his debut in Otello tonight at the Met and Diego Florez (only a supposition) decided on the same night to sing Cavaradossi at City Opera, where would the greater New York operatic audience be? It is a no-brainer. Despite the fact that the average opera fan would consider Diego Florez’ Cavaradossi ridiculous, the audience would be at that spectacle. This can only happen in an environment where the art of opera is no longer the reason for doing opera, but rather that opera has become a part of mainstream culture and is being treated no differently than film, television or musical theater. The business of opera trumps the art.

The building of vocal power therefore becomes a non-issue in our times. The beautiful, well-supported light voices that take less time to develop become famous and sell seats. It is therefore far more convenient to ask those same singers to gradually sing heavier parts rather than bring on board heavier voices when they are ready. Those heavier voices when they are ready are also unknown elements for opera houses hoping to fill houses. The extreme heavy part of the repertoire cannot be viably handled by lighter voices in the big houses. This is the repertoire that may still allow entry for heavier voices. Wagner societies exist and try to support singers whose voices and preparation are truly appropriate for that repertoire. The same needs to be done for Verdi and Puccini, such that the Spinto voices that also require more time can be supported adequately in their quest. Otherwise, light voices will continue to be pushed into the bigger repertoire and ruin themselves, and like musical theater before it, the opera singer’s vocal longevity will become a thing of the past.

© 05/01/2008