More Bang for the Buck: The Swedish Phonation Model

When we think of Björling, Gedda, Winberg, Nilsson, etc, the picture that comes to mind is great power with what sounds like little effort and amazing elasticity. What is it about the Swedes that promote such cool fluidity? The machine-like efficiency of the Swedes have often compared unfavorably with their Italian predecessors. Swedes are often said to have a Nordic coolness as compared with their passionate Italian counterparts. In my opinion, nothing can be further from the truth. Indeed I find the Swedes to be fantastically passionate people. I have had the pleasure of teaching a few Swedish singers over the last few years and I have found them extremely passionate in their expression, both musically and personally. Those that I have met are all quite affable and rather extroverted. Why then do the Swedes get the reputation of being “Nordic cool?”

It is important to remember that opera began in Italy and that every singer who is not Italian, indeed any opera that is not Italian is unfavorably compared unless the opera or singer adheres to Italian principles and idiosyncrasies. For the last 100 years, operatic marketing has been controlled by the music of Puccini primarily. Even in our times when stylistic rules are much more clearly articulated, it is not unusual to hear performances of Mozart’s operas that are influenced by Puccini’s style. Today Internationally successful operatic tenors by and large are of Italian descent or of pseudo-Italian fashioning, with Latin descendents being an acceptable and plentiful alternative.

It is interesting that Nilsson, arguably the greatest Turandot in the history of the work, an excellent Tosca and Aida is more remembered for her “Nordic roles,” particularly Brünnhilde and Isolde. Björling who was a passionate Rodolfo and an excellent Verdian is considered the quintessential Faust, a French role closer to his Nordic heritage. Gedda is associated with Russian and French roles despite his excellence in a wide selection of Italian roles. Winbergh, a peerless Donizetti interpreter is associated with Mozart and later Wagner (really inappropriate to his lyric voice). The reason for this (at least in the case of tenors) is the following: the Swedes beginning with Björling’s and then Gedda’s meteoroic careers are models of the Italian technique heard in the first half of the 20th century. From Gigli to Pertile, Schipa to Lauri-Volpi, fluidity of phonation, elasticity throughout a very extensive range was the order of the day. Franco Corelli, a student of Lauri-Volpi, but also a product of the controversial Melocchi approach and Mario del Monaco, the standard-bearer of the Melocchi school, can be seen as a change in direction from the traditional Italian line. It is true that Del Monaco and Corelli had more robust voices and concentrated on a different repertoire. It is however essential to comment on the lyricism exhibited by Gigli and Caruso in such repertoire as L’elisir d’amore and Lucia. The voices of both Gigli and Caruso were of ample size but balanced more lightly, which yielded a different acoustic structure as compared to the post-war Italian tenors, particularly in the upper part of the acoustic envelope (Credit to Gioacchino Livigni for making this important observation. Sorry I doubted your observations).

The more dramatic Swedes include Set Svanholm, Carl Martin Oehman and Torsten Ralf. Although they were equally celebrated in the Italian repertoire it is Wagner for which they are remembered. Back then, it is fair to say that tenors were chosen for repertoire based on their nationality. Oehman was Gedda’s teacher and that of the great Finnish bass, Martti Talvela.

What is particularly notable in the performances of these Wagnerians is the lyricism with which they approach these roles. In this way is the pre-war Italian model evident. This kind of lyricism is very reminescent of the Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers who could have been influenced by the Swedes.

With the exception of Pavarotti among the internationally celebrated tenors, the muscular balance that is the hallmark of Italian phonation was abandoned with the reign of Del Monaco and Corelli. The new order until today is to balance the voice toward darker colors. There are two reasons why this continued. 1) The rise in the popularity of opera after the Second World War caused a shrinking of the repertory to include mostly Puccini, certain Verdian operas, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Mozart and Carmen, the few operas that could be easily produced by the rising number of small opera companies in the United States. 2) The superficial approach to vocal training as compared to pre-war times favored the more easily coordinated lyric voices. The spinto tenors required for much of this repertory are supplanted by lyric tenors thickening their voices after the Corelli/Del Monaco model. The result in those cases is a gradual lowering of the natural muscular passaggio and thereby a gradual inability to sustain the high tessitura of the tenor repertoire. In short, these tenors gradually undo their top range, Del Monaco, noticeably and Corelli less so.

The difference in the approach of tenors beginning in the 1950s gives a clear view of Swedish superiority from an objective standpoint. I was lucky enough to have heard Gedda and Winbergh live and can appreciate the extraordinary resonance of their voices. Yet resonance is dependent upon the source tone, and therefore upon the mode of phonation. In this area, the Swedes armed not only with the pre-1950 Italian sound as a virtuous muscular model, but also with the onset of modern vocal science for a confirmation of their superior acoustical model. The writings of Johann Sundberg proved the superior efficiency of the Swedes at that time. However, they were too good!

The prewar Italians (Gigli, Lauri-Volpi, etc) were models of perfect muscular balance. Each note was ideally balanced between vocalis and crico-thyroid yielding a glottal pattern that exchanged air efficiently across the vocal folds. The limited vocalic choices of the Italian Language however limited vocal tract adjustments. The Italian school would not deal with second formant resonance through vowel modification but rather through rounding and widening of the cardinal vowels (i.e. aperto and coperto/cupo). Theoretically this is vowel modification, but of a limited fashion because the acoustic distance between the cardinal vowels leave large gaps. The Swedes however have a vocalic vocabulary extensive enough to allow for more exact tuning of the vocal tract yielding a more consistently inertial acoustic environment. Supra-glottal Inertial Reactance makes possible a longer open phase of the glottal cycle, which means greater propagation of air during each cycle. This yields greater acoustic pressure (i.e. volume) because of lesser medial glottal pressure. This is why the Swedish voice (particularly of the tenors) can seem somewhat overly breath-driven when compared to its Italian counterpart. Yet it is not. Through vocal tract inertia, the Swedes are able to release more air, yet during the shorter close phase, the folds close completely. The partition of the air stream for each glottal cycle is complete. The sluggishness of the supra-glottal air lengthens the close phase even as the glottis is actually in an open posture. Thus more air moves through. It is perhaps serendipitous that Sundberg published his early theories on the acoustics of the vocal tract around the same time that Björling and Gedda became two of the most celebrated tenors of the time, with a number of other Swedish singers close on their heels.

The ease, with which Gedda and Björling sang, throughout their range and of course notably in the high register, was a mixed blessing. The higher glottal resistance with which the Italian predecessors sang was more effortful. But not so effortful that their voices would ever suffer. It was a matter of degree. Empirically, Björling’s voice under acoustic analysis is considered the absolute model of efficiency. Many papers have been published to that effect, most notably by the late Richard Miller. However, Italian opera was built upon Italian passion, better represented by a little tension (or a lot of tension in the case of the post-war Italians). Furthermore, there is no substitute for an Italian opera singer singing in his/her native language. Superior glottal efficiency and superior musicianship as exhibited by both Gedda and Björling were considered bland when compared to the physical histrionics of Del Monaco, and the bella figura of Corelli.

In the United States at least, an operatic package is multi-faceted. An operatic culture developed on a steady diet of Italian stars, American fans for the most part favor Italians in a largely Italian repertory, and of course favor native Italians singing it. And with Corelli being a particularly tall tenor with a head like the American movie idol of the time, Rock Hudson, the Swedes had not a chance. In fact, even comparing all of this as a historical exercise over youtube, I am equally seduced by Corelli and the many successors who attempted to fill his shoes. And I bet many Swedes are also. Indeed in our operatic times, if we have to chose, passion and tension and a beautiful face trump efficiency and musicianship every time.

Far from disparaging the Italian model, this article is meant to assert that perhaps the Italian tradition was better carried forward “techinically” by the Swedes after World War II. For my part, I say bring back the Swedes! For if you see them live and not just listen to them on recordings, they are also beautiful and passionate. Don’t let their easy voices fool you.

Edgardo: Uno Stjernqvist
Lucia: Margareta Hallin

© 07/29/2009