First formant high voice: The virtues and dangers in Alfredo Kraus’ Legacy

Few opera singers in the last century have as much of a cult following as Alfredo Kraus, and with good reason. The term tenore di grazia was made manifest in the art of Alfredo Kraus. He was capable of great facility in the high tenor range, great range of dynamics throughout the voice and a sense of the musical line that made for very “graceful” singing as the moniker, tenore di grazia, suggests. Kraus’s voice and exceptional musicality made him the ideal vehicle for the great works of the Italian bel canto repertoire as well as the higher French tenor roles.

The paradox in Kraus’ legacy is the following: the singer who is the greatest example of longevity in our times has an inherent flaw that makes his example dangerous to tenors who do not understand how he managed his voice. This may seem controversial and disrespectful. But I assure you, I am a devoted fan of the art of the great Alfredo Kraus. This is not an attempt to blemish the reputation of the great tenor, but rather to bring to light a point of fact that accentuate both Kraus’ extreme awareness of the possibilities and limitations of his instrument, and the dangers when those who follow his example do not understand the limitations of the approach.

The issue I will bring up in this article has great relevance not only to lighter voiced tenors, but to the way that those who hire in the business misunderstand vocal weight in general.

The controversial characteristic of Kraus’ technique is his approach to the passaggio and above, and what the resultant vocal quality is. Kraus, unlike his contemporary, Luciano Pavarotti, and more like his predecessor, Giuseppe di Stefano, sings what we often all an “open” top range. The term “open”, which has multiple definitions has been dealt with in a previous article. In this case, I am speaking of resonance strategy. Kraus sings a high voice that can be described as “uncovered” or “non-girato”, and in more objective terms, first-formant dominant.

The term first formant dominance refers to the natural resonance of the tenor range below F#4.
In the case of such singers as Di Stefano, Kraus and currently Juan Diego Florez (another very successful tenore di grazia) this resonance strategy is taken higher than F#4 and in fact throughout the full range of those singers. The question therefore is: “Is there in inherent danger in first formant dominance in the high male range?” The answer is a qualified no!

Kraus’ longevity is enough of a testimony that one can sing in first formant dominance throughout the range and excell. Diego Florez is another singer in the style of Kraus who examplifies grace and flexibility. The caveat is the following: first formant tuning above the passaggio requires raising the larynx above its natural at-rest level in order to be resonant with the rising pitch. The raising of the larynx reduces the lower pharyngeal area which is necessary for the strength of lower harmonics of the sung pitch. The natural lower laryngeal position (we are not speaking of depressed larynx here) is also absolutely necessary for the resonance of lower notes as well.

In other words, a high larynx high range, takes away the naturally darker colors of the voice in the subtle chiaroscuro (bright/dark) balance. This is crucially relevant to repertoire choice and this is where Kraus’ awareness of his own vocal limits made him the icon of longevity but simultaneously restricted in his range of repertoire. The lack of strength in the lower harmonics give the voice a brighter more lyrical color, consequently inappropriate for roles that require richness of color. The closing off of the darker colors of the voice makes it virtually impossible for the first formant tenor to sing a fuller resonance, balanced by both sides of the chiaroscuro spectrum. In the first formant strategy, the only way to achieve darker colors is by singing a heavier sound, which over time would compromise the tenor’s ability to sing high notes.

This is the crucial difference between Di Stefano and Kraus. Both Kraus and Di Stefano might have had enough vocal power to address the heavier side of the tenor repertoire if second formant tuning was a part of their resonance strategy. Kraus respected the limitations of first formant tuning in the high range and sang a lighter repertoire. Di Stefano sang heavier repertoire and paid the price. Indeed, over time he could not trust his upper range, although he had a impressive and consistent high C in his younger years. Kraus on the other hand, never violated the basic weight of the instrument and accepted the limits of the brighter first formant strategy. It is really interesting to compare Kraus’ voice throughout the many years of his career. His voice had a lot more depth in the early years. Here I compare Kraus’ 1977 and 1989 renditions of the aria Salût, demeure chaste et pure from Gounod’s Faust.

Kraus 1989 Faust

Alfredo Kraus high C 1977 and 1989

This spectrograph shows the 1977 version on top and the 1989 version at the bottom of the high C5 with the green cursor going through the first formant and the white arrow pointing to the second formant. The vowel modification is [E] as in “met”.

The crucial observation here is that Kraus’ natural abilities point to a tendency toward second formant tuning in his early years. His technical philosophy, very much based on “forward placement” encouraged a high larynx production resulting in first formant dominance in the high range. We find confirmation for this in other comparative instances from the clips, for example the high G# at “enveloppant son ame”:

Alfredo Kraus High G#4

This spectrograph also shows a clear difference between the spontaneous approach of Kraus’ early years and the change to first formant strategy in the middle and later years.

This is one of the reasons why discussing technique is often a frustrating quagmire. It is difficult in this case to distinguish between Kraus’ nature and his technical nurture. I believe that Kraus’ nature reflected the traditions of the time. The quality of his voice was not unlike the young Pavarotti. In fact, upon hearing Kraus’ early recording of the Duke in Rigoletto opposite Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters, I mistook him for a young Pavarotti. In later years, I could not possibly mistake one for the other. The change to first formant strategy happened over time as a consequence of his technical philosophy.

As previously stated, the first formant strategy gives a brighter more lyrical sound. Compared to Pavarotti who as similar attributes (e.g. full lyric tenor with easy top notes, efficiency of phonation, dynamic flexibility), Kraus sounded considerably lighter in weight. Did Pavarotti have a naturally heavier voice? No doubt. But I submit: not by much! The two tenors sang similar repertoire in their early career and given Kraus’ tendency in the direction of second formant tuning, the voices had much in common. The divergence in repertoire, Kraus’ continual leaning out and Pavarotti’s deepening can be easily tracked through the difference in their resonance strategies. Did Kraus’ repertoire force a first formant strategy or did his technique limit him to a repertoire that required lyricism and grace rather than power? This is not so easy to answer, but given the continuous gain in higher partial and loss in lower throughout his career, I submit that his technique dictated the nature of his repertoire.

Pavarotti by contrast follows what would be considered a logical progression. Second formant tuning in the high range conserves his chiaroscuro balance. His voice never loses depth. Even with his naturally brighter voice, richness in the middle grows with time. With time the vocal musculature gains in strength and is able to endure greater breath pressure. Therefore Pavarotti was able to assume more dramatic roles with negligible loss to his attributes. He was able to expand his repertoire, while Kraus was limited.

These two clips show Kraus and Pavarotti at 31 and 36 years of age respectively singing “La donna è mobile”. They are similar in sound quality here. The next two clips show the difference in quality after 30 years of singing.