Pavarotti’s Legacy, part 2: Efficient phonation or the baby’s cry

As I prepared to write this issue, I kept wondering how to distinguish Pavarotti’s near perfect phonation in words. Let us say he achieves perfect fold closure with the least amount of effort. His folds simply come together as nature intended and he does not fight it. The result is an intense, clear tone that always has a “floating” element to it. Many fear this float because not many can immediately achieve full closure without pressing a little. However this is the goal. This is what we hear in all the greats: Bjoerling, Gedda, Wunderlich, Kraus, Gigli, and today, Florez, Beczala, and a young tenor I had the pleasure of hearing this past weekend, Leonardo Capalbo. This is a tenor to watch.

To properly understand how special Pavarotti’s phonation is, we must consider the many parts that contribute to this. The manner that the vocal folds come together depend on the following: thickness (mass), length and tautness. The thicker the vocal folds, the less work the inter-arytenoids need to do to bring them completely together. However, for a given pitch the folds should assume a default thickness that is dependent upon how thin they are stretched. The tautness of the vocal folds depends upon how much opposition the vocalis muscle provides against the lengthening action of the crico-thyroids. This tautness, which is variable for each pitch, in the best case scenario, provides additional thickness (a slight bulging effect) without losing any length. This natural but complex coordination gives Pavarotti’s voice an immediacy of presence, a raw sense of the natural, a sense of speech. In effect, Pavarotti achieves the longest relative fold length for a given pitch, which makes the change from one pitch to the next higher pitch a very easy muscular transformation. This phonation is responsible for the ease of Pavarotti’s top. Giuseppe di Stefano’s influence cannot be minimized here. Di Stefano was also blessed with this kind of fold length (leanness), and he too had a great facility in the top, marred only by his inadequate resonance strategy above the passaggio.

The reverse is more easily understood. A singer, who sings with relatively short and thick vocal folds, may be able to ascend to the top range, but there will be a point where the thickness must be suddenly released in order to achieve a given high note. In the most extreme case we hear this as a crack.

How does Pavarotti achieve this maximum fold length (leanness) on each note? There are several factors of course. But a singer who accomplishes this kind of consistency has a sound concept in mind. As previously said, Di Stefano was a strong influence on the young Pavarotti, and Pavarotti talks about his father slapping him for saying that Di Stefano was better than Gigli. In essence, emulating Di Stefano’s wide open approach is one of the foundations of Pavarotti’s technique, which he later refined, by learning how to turn the voice gradually in the passaggio. That open lower voice prepared the mechanism perfectly for what was necessary in the top. The “wideness” of Pavarotti’s vowels I believe contributed to the optimum fold length, which set the conditions for the muscles of the larynx to react accordingly. This is not different from the baby’s cry and when we look at Di Stefano singing we could almost imagine a baby crying. When speaking of chiaro-scuro , we often imagine that such a bright, wide sound would be devoid of any depth. This is untrue up to a certain point in the voice. I met a lyric tenor the other day who sings a beautiful open G with the larynx remaining perfectly relaxed. The operatic world is in love with dark sounds. But the most successful dramatic voices aim for absolute brilliance. When we hear Vickers or James King, Windgassen we hear sheer brilliance and clarity.

So what is the difference between Pavarotti and those who sing a bright sound that sounds thin? Pavarotti understood that the efficiency of phonation depended as much upon the concept of the vowel as anything else. In this case, I am not talking about vowel modification, but rather what is the most natural vowel sound that can come out of an individual throat. This is why we need to remember the baby’s cry. My teacher in Rome, Ada Finelli, used to say in Neopolitan: “Chiagni, chiagni!” In Italian, “piangi, piangi!” This primal crying sound was the foundation of the vowels. I never achieved this fully, thinking I was a baritone and fostering what I thought was a baritone sound. As a tenor, I realize how much it really helps in terms of consistency, even in my transitional stage. The “covering” of the voice, as Pavarotti calls it, has that primal crying sound as a foundation. From this root sound, vowel modification has a discernible effect. Until that sound is achieved, vowel modification is almost useless.

It is worth listening to recordings of some great singers singing the same aria, Donna non vidi mai, to make sense of this premise. Gigli had what we might call a noble sound, so balanced that it is difficult to hear what he does. If we close our eyes, however, we hear the width and brightness of the sound, just a stone’s throw from Pavarotti’s comparatively exaggerated sound. I submit however that Pavarotti’s approach here is the standard from which many find a point of refinement. Corelli is also very successful in this aria. However, we can hear distinctly when he sacrifices the width of the baby’s cry for a more covered approach on F4, a touch too low. Listening to other tenors on, I find that their level of success or difficulty in this aria depends on vocalic range of motion. How close do their vowels come to the baby’s cry, as Pavarotti’s so wonderfully accomplishes. The broad baby’s cry that never violates the natural position of the larynx is a key element in developing ease in the top. In my case, it is certainly a crucial tool in developing as a tenor from a baritone past. From this baby’s cry adjustment, the voice tells the singer when and how it wants to turn. We are not advocating Di Stefano’s wide upper range, however that width in the lower range up to the top of the passaggio is the perfect spring board from which to accomplish a properly modulated top voice, and it is also the adjustment that provides clarity and presence in the lower and middle range.

© 07/08/2008