If we follow the money managing metaphor that is often used in singing, indeed principal is necessary in order to generate interest. That is also true of singing. But let us define what is meant by the use of this metaphor!
When one is said to be using his/her vocal principal or capital, it is meant that the singer is singing in a way that does not promote longevity, that the voice is being used in a way that will ultimately harm it. It is also meant that the voice is not being used efficiently but with bad tension that will ultimately hurt it.
But there are some who equate vocal ease with vocal balance. However not all vocal ease is a sign of good vocal technique. Singing a breathy sound can also feel easy on the throat but it is not what we ultimately look for in vocal technique. Some even advocate avoiding the chest voice altogether, as if chest content were tantamount to wasting one’s vocal capital. This is misguided thinking.
It is crucial to understand vocal sensation in order to make sense of these metaphors. What we need to understand is the nature of phonation. As with any physical action, phonation begins with a desire–in this case a desire to produce a specific pitch with the voice. Indeed pitch is the driving force of vocal technique as a whole. A specific pitch can be created in three essential ways. The vocal folds can set up a pitch in the following ways: 1) too deep and breathy (they go hand and hand), 2) too shallow and pressed or 3) appropriately deep and most efficient closure.
Pitch is driven by a combination of the depth of the vocal folds and how tightly they close, which together determine how long it takes the folds to complete an open-close cycle. A pitch is determined by how many open-close cycles occur during exactly one second of time (e.g. A 440Hz is equivalent to 440 open-close cycles every second).
The depth of the vocal folds is determined by the contraction of the vocalis muscle. How deeply the folds are set up is felt by a proportional sense of connection to the chest. The correct amount of connection yields the ideal amount of medial closure to produce what is called a “focused” tone, somewhere between too thick and breathy and shallow and pressed. The precise amount of depth and closure also yields a balance sensation of being “grounded” and “suspended” that is neither rigid nor precariously loose. In essence, the balanced flow that gives a feeling of “height” or “suspension” depends upon the right amount of chest voice, not the absence of it.
Following are models of balance in each voice type:
The last time I saw Kurt Moll live was in a Met Zauberflöte. The performance was lackluster until he walked in and merely spoke and then sang “O Isis und Osiris”. It was like going to church. Everything became still and it was indeed a prayer. The honesty of the voice speaks to this balance. It is grounded but not heavy. It is focused by not pressed. Chiaroscuro throughout.
I chose the next video for Cappuccilli as an absolute example of baritonal balance. I had the rare pleasure to spend two weeks with him once. We spent the entire time on breathing. This duet from Verdi’s Don Carlos is one of the finest examples of Italian singing in the last third of the 20th century. Yet what I wish to compare is the excellence of Bergonzi to the near perfection of Cappuccilli. Only next to such absolute efficiency could Bergonzi’s little faults be evident. I often say: “Ground, not round!” If you listen carefully, you will hear Bergonzi’s production to be a touch “thin” (I used the term shallow earlier), and as a result he had to round his vowels to prevent sounding strident. Compared to Cappuccilli, the voice is a little less present.
There is reason why Björling is considered to have produced the most efficient, most balanced tenor sound ever. Again, one can hear clearly the chest connection and the absolute clarity of the tone without pressing. It is a joy to hear these singers in their own language.
Rossini tenors should take a page from tenor Bruce Ford’s book. Again he exhibits an elasticity of incredible proportions in this aria that challenges in giant leaps the way only the impetuous young Mozart would do. Once again a real model of balance. No note is ever falsetto and no lower note is ever one-sided. The presence of the upper voice is felt even in the lowest notes. I look forward to Mr. Ford’s return to the Metropolitan opera in 2010 in Rossini’s Armida.
Few female voices are so well balanced as Borodina’s. Even in the treacherous first passaggio where most women resort to driving the chest voice, Borodina remains attentive to balance.
The result is powerful presence without vulgarity.
I would go as far as calling Eleanor Steber the pride of American vocal technique. The full evenness of her entire range is evidenced also by her well-supported piano. Here she sings the Czardas from Die Fledermaus in English, with sustained high D at the end.
A singer who gives the future much hope. She does not resort to flute voice production in the upper end and only uses a loose chest voice for dramatic effect in the opening of this treacherous difficult aria, Marten aller Arten. The difficult downward scale to the depth of her lower range utilizes a more balanced approach.
No singer is perfect and being an opera singer is a complex package. However at the root of this art should be this kind of balance that is exhibited by too few singers in our time. We are at the end (I like to believe) of a decadent period of history that leaves its traces in economic excesses and downfalls, in environmental excesses and disasters. Excess is more expedient. The last generation of singers has also shown a tendency toward excess. Raw chest voice and flute voice are utilized in parts of the range where they do not belong. Yet this has been rewarded. The evenness of a balanced sound is conceived as boringly monochromatic by some who do not understand that this balanced sound is the quality that travels through an orchestra and that the extreme sounds, though interesting in small audition rooms will not be heard once a few orchestral instruments are in the mix. For my part I prefer the boringly rich and efficient chiaroscuro of a balanced tone. But then again, the singers featured hear are everything but boring.