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

10 thoughts on “Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Florez: A comparison for our times

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  1. Excellent article!

    As an old Track&Field buff, I couldn't help noticing that Florez was pacing as he marched in (moving the left arm and left leg simultaneously rather than moving diagonally)… Pacing can be seen naturally in some four-legged animals, and in some monkeys, but never among humans (unless they are conscious about their walking and thus interfere with the natural reflex).

    Not that this really had anything to do with your article, or indeed with Florez' singing. 🙂


  2. This is a very illuminating post, and such a refreshing break from all the voodoo opinions out there about to the passaggio!

    A feature of Florez voice that I believe helps him to get such a solid sound is a quite strong singer's formant, which may also may help his voice to respond easy in the higher region, in spite of bringing up the second-harmonic dominance beyond the passaggio. (But note also that the strongest singer's formant in your selection was Pavarotti's! His was almost as strong as the third harmonic!)

    I also want to remind us all about something that Gioacchino has been stressing: He gave examples of old-time tenors that employed a strategy for the high voice, different than the ones we are discussing here, namely an enforcement of the fifth harmonic; a frequency region that typically lies below the typical region of the singer's formant (but above the second formant). I seem to remember, though, that this strategy concerned notes in the higher end of the interval we are discussing now (F#4 – B say).


  3. Great post! Another singer I think of (that I know we share a love for) that sings with this proper balance is Bruce Ford. In fact, I am listening to the youtube video of his Mitridate aria as I type this!

    To take this to my fach, I would like to mention the great Robert Merrill (whom I of course adore). Despite my great love of his singing, I always felt that his approach to the upper middle was very chest dominant and a bit too open in terms of vowel. Therefore when he reached the top the shift into the high required a drastic timbre change. As exciting a sound as his middle singing was (because he had the strength to get away with singing that wide open), I often wonder what he would have sounded like with an approach that allowed the registers to balance a bit more.


  4. The more I thought about this post, the more it resonated with me. I recently have made some huge technical breakthroughs with regard to eliminating excessive medial compression in my upper middle and high. It totally makes sense to me that the lack of proper vocal fold depth was responsible. I never understood why I was having trouble with this issue, as I never felt that I was trying to sing “too big.” Now I realize that I had the opposite problem – I wasn't using my full instrument. Boy do I feel vindicated, and yet upset at all of those choir directors and coaches in my past who accused me of trying to make too much sound!


  5. Dear all,

    Thank you for your wonderful commentary. Ulf, I think there is research potential in your observation. I noticed it too.

    Martin, you are so right about both issues (SF and H5). I am working slowly on analyzing some clips to compare the old school tenors and the modern ones. Will post some here when I make some discoveries.

    Jacob you are so right about Merrill. It is in fact possible for a baritone to sing and open F on [a] without problem. The inability to turn appropriately is also based on inexact phonation patterns and Merrill lacked strength above Eb. It got better with time. And congratulations on your own progress. Don't waste time being upset with past choir directors and the like. Many voice professionals are limited because they prefer not to study further than what got them their job. This is what plagues our field, complacency.



  6. Dear all,Thank you for your wonderful commentary. Ulf, I think there is research potential in your observation. I noticed it too.Martin, you are so right about both issues (SF and H5). I am working slowly on analyzing some clips to compare the old school tenors and the modern ones. Will post some here when I make some discoveries.Jacob you are so right about Merrill. It is in fact possible for a baritone to sing and open F on [a] without problem. The inability to turn appropriately is also based on inexact phonation patterns and Merrill lacked strength above Eb. It got better with time. And congratulations on your own progress. Don't waste time being upset with past choir directors and the like. Many voice professionals are limited because they prefer not to study further than what got them their job. This is what plagues our field, complacency.JRL?TS


  7. As a latecomer to the blog.. That Florez does not 'turn' on G4: I wonder if his instrument is such that he doesn't have to? I am sure he would 'turn' on a higher pitch. From reading Jean, I understand now that the acoustics (acoustic passaggio)and the larynx (muscular passaggio) are two different things, so perhaps for Florez, turning on 'Oh' on G4 is too 'early' because his acoustics are such? Or am I not understanding the leggiero tenor instrument? Is a leggiero tenor someone with same larynx weight as other tenors, but with higher acoustic shift points, or one with less weight (higher muscular passaggio) but with same acoustic shift points? I realize that the author and the readers may cover this later, but I haven't read your later posts yet..


  8. Dear ScholarChanter,
    Sorry about the late reply. The leggiero has a higher muscular passaggio but the same acoustic shift points. To open an [a] vowel beyond F4 is an acoustic register violation, in the sense that it requires a mildly raised larynx to accomplish it, regardless of vocal weight. Unfortunately, that laryngeal hike comes with a slight laryngeal squeeze. The acoustic choice of singing open is not problematic in and of itself. It is a problem mostly because it reduces the strength of lower partials that are necessary to a good chiaroscuro balance. If the tenor ever wishes to sing heavier roles, requiring darker colors, then a tenor who sings with a high larynx only has fold mass as an option. Singing heavier and heavier to accomplish richness will cause problems as we hear with Di Stefano and Carreras when they took on heavier rep. By contrast, Björling sang Radames and Lohengrin among his heavier roles with no ill effect to his voice. Whether we think of Björling as a light voice, his production was full and his acoustic strategy consistent with tenors of any voice type in the traditional sense. That is why the comparison the Larry Brownlee, another leggiero is worthy. We see two approaches by two similar voices.

    Among leggiero tenors, it is very difficult to find one as accomplished as Bruce Ford as his best! Genius! In my interview with him he confirmed that he turns the voice at F#4 on the [a] vowel.

    Thanks for asking such an interesting and probing question.


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