One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome is the early conditioning of vocal identity and the other night at a master class with my male students, the conversation turned to vocal identity. One bass-baritone who was incorrectly trained as a heldentenor earlier was transformed after he sang the lead role in The Mikado. This ex-tenor who had a difficult time assuming the depth of tone that defined his buffo voice and personality was suddenly complete. His performance of Mozart’s “La vendetta” from Nozze di Figaro was a tour de force, particularly when I reminded him that his resonance should always match his unmistakable belly laugh that overwhelms anyone within earshot of it. In a sense, he had learned a solid vocal technique already. He simply needed some impetus to encourage him to inhabit his true voice. Mikado was it for him!
In that same master class, I worked next with a young dramatic tenor who began as a lyric baritone. I had imagined that a tenor with a baritone past might have a fear of high notes, and I thought that was a part of the problem to solve with this talented young man. He seemed often afraid to push and fearful of any kind of minor discomfort (the normal kind that comes with a major vocal change–i.e. the discomfort of the unfamiliar). Last night when I encouraged him to open his voice fully in terms of resonance space and occupy a bigger room for his voice, he erupted into a sound reminiscent of the greatest tenors. Then he asked whether he was pushing? I asked him if it felt uncomfortable. He said no, and also said it felt easier to sing that way but it seemed so big that he wondered if that was really his voice. He then confessed that as a lyric baritone he concentrated in always less, and in always reducing. Lyric to him in a sense meant unsubstantial! When he opened up to his true voice, dramatic or not, the voice acquired a certain lyricism. A well-produced voice, even a dramatic one, will sound lyrical, not because it has been reduced but rather because it has been allowed to be itself (i.e. occupy its true acoustic space, which is its most efficient adjustment). Reducing a dramatic voice in search of a false lyricism is just as dangerous as attempting to push a lighter voice beyond its means.
The night before, I had a class for my female students. One particular coloratura had progressed very quickly in 3 months. I was very happy with her technical progress and her quick acquisition of strength and stamina. Still, the tendency to squeeze, despite the training of a proper muscular and acoustic coordination, was engrained. There was a personal reason behind her tendency to push the voice. I had to abandon my principles of a balance onset to help her achieve a balanced onset. I asked her simply to “blow air”, indeed “waste it!” Suddenly her voice transformed before us into a warm, rich voice releasing supple, full-voiced high Fs as if they were the most routine occurrence. The sensation of “release”, to her, felt like wasting air. Once she recognized that the sensation was indeed not of waste but that it was the “flow” portion of a pressure flow system, she was able to enjoy true comfort and beauty in her singing.
In diagnosing vocal imbalances, I always begin with the thought that most problems are due to a basic muscular or acoustic fault. The follow up question is therefore: “what is the root cause of muscular or acoustic dysfunction?” It can be a lack of appropriate muscular strength or mismanagement of acoustic/resonance spaces. Further beyond the basic muscular/acoustic dysfunctions, it can be a self-image issue. What kind of confidence does it take to inhabit the speaking voice of a Patrick Stewart or a James Earl Jones? Whether instinctual or trained, one must on some level recognize such a grand voice as one’s own, otherwise one would not dare.
In her autobiography, Birgit Nilsson wrote of her very uniquely recognizable speaking voice when a taxi driver identified her by her very special voice as she gave him her destination. I believe that singers would develop much faster, were they to be trained after the manner of the Royal Shakespeare Company. If singers were trained earlier to develop their speaking voice, they would be less fearful of the natural grandeur of it and would find it easier to release such fullness in an operatic context.
Along these lines, a couple of years ago I remember being offended by a critic who was upset with the lack of “Diva personalities” in modern opera. He further berated Frederica von Stade for being a symbol of normality in operatic personalities and a negative role model for future generations who have taken on this “girl next door” persona. I think he missed the point entirely. I look at the great Nina Stemme as a model of the modern Diva. Her speaking voice leaves no doubt that she is possessed of a substantial instrument, but she is the most down-to-earth, friendly, unpretentious opera singer I have had the pleasure to encounter lately. What makes a great operatic personality, indeed a charismatic personality in any field, is the ability to inhabit one’s true frame–one’s complete physical volume, including the power of the complete voice, whether soft or loud. To put on a grand personality is a poor attempt at compensating for a reduction in the true self. When one opens himself/herself totally, there is no need to “put on” grandeur. One is then simply “grand”!
One of the biggest obstacles therefore is simply recognizing the grandeur in ourselves–not in an egocentric way but rather in a self-fulfilling manner. A society bent on conformity, the need to fit in, suppresses true individuality simply by definition. We artists have a responsibility to be models of individuality since our job depends on it. We are not going to be hired to be the poor copy of a great predecessor but by achieving the uniqueness of our complete selves. As opera singers, this means inhabiting our true voices. © 06/02/2012