Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Florez: A comparison for our times

The two reigning tenors of the Rossini repertoire have been the talk of internet forums for at least a couple of years. We may be seeing a rivalry (not between these two fine singers and gentlemen, but as usual, between their fans) reminiscent of comparisons between Callas and Tebaldi or Pavarotti and Domingo. I am uninterested in rivalries of any kind as I find both artists remarkable in their vocalism, musicianship and stage presence. It is however of great interest to comment objectively on approaches to vocal technique.

I was recently stirred by a phrase which Luciano Pavarotti often used. On two occasions that I can document and others that I remember but cannot find on the internet, Maestro Pavarotti used the term “real tenor” to 1) describe his own voice pertaining to performing the famous 9 high C aria from La fille du régiment and 2) referring to the need to “cover” the voice on F4 (3:10 in the following clip).
I believe it is on December 13 1994 that Pavarotti and Domingo celebrated their silver anniversary at the Metropolitan Opera. On that night, they were interviewed together regarding important events in their respective careers. When Pavarotti was questioned about his Met performances in La fille du régiment that earned him the title, King of the High Cs, he commented that it was the first time that the aria was sung on key (at original pitch, untransposed) by “a real tenor voice“. Yet, there are performances by Alfredo Kraus of the aria that precede Pavarotti’s performance. Was Pavarotti determining that the legendary Spanish tenor was not a real tenor? Whether he was or not, it cannot be determined on that statement alone. The other time Pavarotti refers to the real tenor voice is in the sessions with Richard Bonyngue, Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, referring to Bel Canto techniques. In that occasion, Pavarotti insists that a real tenor must cover the voice at F4 and that it could take as much as 10 years to accomplish that skill correctly. For tenors who learned to “cover” the voice in their first or second year in college (sometimes earlier) this might sound exaggerated. Yet, a very careful observer of Luciano Pavarotti, I have learned to take him at his word. Of course, given that Pavarotti speaks in a language that is codified in Italian traditions of vocal training, it is important to decipher what he means.
A few facts must be considered, but we will begin with a supposition. Suppose that Pavarotti, in his own meaning, considers Kraus “not a real tenor” as compared to himself! Why would he say that? Let us take Maestro Pavarotti’s clear statement: that a real tenor covers the voice on F4 and that it could take as much as 10 years to accomplish that skill! First of all, we must make a slight correction. Maestro Pavarotti is correct that any voice (particularly important for the tenor whose top depends on appropriate treatment of the acoustic passaggio) has an acoustic shift from first formant dominance to second formant dominance on F#4 on the [a] vowel (other cardinal vowels turn earlier), regardless of weight. I have experience this phenomenon with tenors of all ilk that I have taught, be it a Rossini tenor or a dramatic. In order for the larynx to maintain its natural position and not rise, when singing the [a] vowel, the acoustic shift must occur at F#. With vowel modification one may chose to do this earlier in the range for specific vocal shadings, but it should not be done higher.
Indeed in the early years of his career, Alfredo Kraus’ voice did experience a register rotation on F#4. However not many years into his career, Kraus’ voice took on a less “deep quality” and progressively became thinner. I believe this is due to the larynx climbing. The larynx climbs when the folds are pressed, and pressed phonation occurs when fold depth is too shallow. In short, Kraus sang progressively thinner and to maintain pitch had to press the folds together to slow down the vibratory cycle (thin production raises pitch unless pressing compensates). In turn, the pressed phonation yields excessive sub-glottal pressure, which in turn raises the larynx. A higher laryngeal position also raises the first formant and keeps the voice in first formant dominance higher than is appropriate. sometimes up to or beyond Bb4.
The following clip of Kraus in 1970 (one of my most favorite performances of him) shows the voice considerably deeper than in the later clip of the Regiment aria.
The relative amount of pressing for thinner folds may not be problematic. The lighter the voice, the greater a small amount of pressing has an effect. It is also true that a lighter voice singing a high C is not under the same kind of sub-glottal pressure that a larger voice is. A lighter voice can get away with singing what sounds relatively healthy even when the voice is mildly pressed. In any case, such a voice would be “thinner” throughout the range, lacking in depth, exhibiting a sound in the upper extreme close to falsetto (lack of vocalis activity, flute voice; not the kind of breathy production in the middle voice that is also called falsetto). The acoustic proof of this would be the inability to make the acoustic shift on the [a] vowel on F#4 as expected.
To express this in the positive, fold depth must be exact in order for the exact number of vibratory cycles to be produced for a a given pitch. When that is the case, no extraneous muscular activity is necessary to make up for the imbalance in pitch production. That exactitude of glottal resistance yields a sound that has both brilliance and depth –the famed Italian chiaroscuro. If this were Pavarotti’s aural point of reference, then in his way of thinking, Kraus would have been a tenor whose production was more falsetto-like in the top range and therefore not a real tenor. It is certainly a different production to produce a full-voiced High C, a coordination that indeed takes time to train. This coordination depends on greater fold-depth. This means that crico-thyroid muscles that stretch the vocal folds would experience greater resistance from the vocalis muscles than in pressed phonation. That means that the crico-thyroids must become stronger. This production would be appropriately thicker and would yield an easier pressure-flow balance than inappropriately thinner folds. Such a coordination would require strength from both sets of muscles and depending how unbalanced the singer’s phonation was at the onset of study, it could indeed take as much as ten years unless the training is targeted. (I began working with a contralto whose voice was either pure chest in the low end or flute voice in the upper. It has been a few months and she has achieved balance throughout the range, albeit the new balance cannot endure great breath pressure yet. So the sound is good but not very powerful yet).
If we consider the preceding set of principles, we can view the approaches of Brownlee and Florez very much in terms of Pavarotti and Kraus respectively. Acoustic signals of the four tenors singing the same aria speak for themselves. Whereas Brownlee-Pavarotti alternate between the two vowel formants with F#4 as the axis point when singing the [a] vowel, Kraus-Florez have a single-formant model, a single color that is easier to manipulate but robs the voice of depth. Subjectively one could say that the Kraus-Florez model yields a sound that is “purer” in a way “more innocent”, where as the Pavarotti-Brownlee model is more complex and in a way more difficult to master, yet richer, more imposing, more “heroic”.
It should be very clear to the ear that is a “chesty component” in both Pavarotti and Brownlee. Whereas both Kraus and Florez exhibit a “purely heady” quality. Looking at the acoustic analysis, the second harmonic (first formant of the modified [o]) is dominant (the tallest peak on the right of the picture) for Florez and Kraus, whereas it is the third harmonic (second formant) that is dominant for Brownlee and Pavarotti.
All four singers sing the sustained G4 on the second syllable of drapeau at the end of the second vocal phrase of the aria. The samples are taken with the corresponding clips above.
Objectively I prefer the Pavarotti-Brownlee model, yet when we speak of musical interpretations and vocal facility, at this point it seems Florez is more at home with his simpler acoustic approach. I find great charm in both singers. My experience tells me that with time, Brownlee will gain greater strength and control of his already magnificent instrument. His approach requires greater physical strength in the short term but greater power and facility in the long term. This premise is in agreement with Pavarotti who in the same clip with Bonyngue, Sutherland and Horne says that the singer is first an athlete.
When we speak of lighter voices such as those of Brownlee and Florez, the difference is minor. However if the voices were larger (greater fold mass), the Kraus-Florez approach would not work very well. That is why spinto tenors and dramatic tenors almost uniformly abide by the Pavarotti model. Indeed most of the tenors we consider legendary uniformly exhibit the acoustic shift at F#4. It is only in rare occasions that they allow themselves to “open” F#4 on the [a] vowel. In the case of Pavarotti, he does this in rare dramatic moments when he resorts to a yell for effect or when singing popular songs, the stylistic traditions of which require such an approach.
It should be pointed out that I am not making a judgment against the package that is Juan Diego Florez. He is a refined, charming musician with a considerable stage presence. I have enjoyed every performance of his that I have seen live. Objectively however, the Brownlee approach is in keeping with the tradition of the great tenors of the past and indeed consistent with what we know about the muscular and acoustic nature of the vocal instrument.
© 09/20/2009