I will never forget having dinner with Mario Sereni during the summer of 1991. The celebrated Italian baritone was retired but continually received offers to sing. And no wonder! Even by today’s standards he would have been a catch for most managers. He appeared a lot younger than he must have been then, he was impeccably dressed, was a charming and supportive person (he gave me a peptalk before I sang Macbeth’s big aria in a concert) and then there was the voice!!! I had never heard someone speak, as he did normally, with such a powerful resonance. A few weeks later I would do a masterclass with Piero Cappuccilli and wondered if all Italian baritones spoke with such a powerful resonance. After meeting those two magnificent singers with their powerful speaking voices, I must admit, I had doubts about my own native talent. Over the years, those voices would come back to haunt me, but in a reassuring way. Somehow I felt they had appeared in such close proximity to help me understand something. The classes with Cappuccilli ended up being about “using the breath with generosity but without ever wasting it.” Another paradox!
It takes a lot of life experience to put such experiences to good use. In the end, there was obviously a connection between the way those two “confident” artists used their breath. In my teaching, I often bring a singer to an “altered” state whereby they sing with a powerful resonance. Unlike our great baritones, instead of living with it, they wonder whether “it is too much”, whether they are “putting it on!”
In a way, it is as if they are putting it on, faking it, because their default structural state is “other”, “smaller”, “socially more acceptable” especially in a more introverted society, unlike the Latins, Afro-Americans, Koreans, etc, who tend to be much more outwardly expressive.
After having developed my own vocal apparatus (structure), I found I still had to deal with a tendency of making myself smaller, vocally more “normal” (whatever that is). Even with my years of experience teaching singers that they must become their “whole” selves, I was tricking myself into a “safer” “more limited” approach, whether by developing an approach that was more acceptably “tenorial”! True “release” is based on a vocal coordination that defines the true voice, not our own ideas of what we wish it were or worst yet what we think we should sound like. In recent months (as might be evident in a recent post), I am constantly confronted with accepting the “baritone” quality of my tenor voice. Why would that be a problem?–After all, one of the most important agents in the business defines a tenor with a baritone quality as “very rich!”–
The problem is that it feels superhuman! It feels like “more than that which I identify as self!” I am fundamentally afraid at some level to be “all that!” A fully developed operatic voice is indeed “all that”. It is James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart and Birgit Nilsson! Those are people who are not afraid to be vocally complete in their every-day life. Particularly when one has a dramatic voice by nature, it is a lot to go around with. Most of us make it smaller! Opera can be gentle, it can be quiet, but it is never vocally small. The lightest coloratura voice fully supported produces a powerful resonance.
When the truly supported sound is not part of the singer’s every-day existence, it feels as if the singer is “fabricating” a sound, when it is in fact the voice that is used in every-day life that is fake. Support, as any aspect of vocal technique, begins with an idea of “self”! When we imagine ourselves to be “less”, “smaller”, how can we possibly take on the grand vocal presence that is required in operatic singing? The first part of any singer’s training should be to be introduced the nature of the full vocal resource. When one expects his voice to sound like James Earl Jones, or Patrick Stewart or Birgit Nilsson or Christa Ludwig, there is also along with that an expectation of a certain kind of breath energy. I will always remember Mario Sereni’s catch phrase: “mi spiego?” (Do I explain myself or Do you understand?) or when I asked Christa Ludwig for an autograph and she replied: “You are baritone, yes?…My husband was baritone? You are all sooo loud (zoooo laut)!” Their every-day speaking voices were as full as their singing voices. From normal day to operatic stage, there was very little change. For most of us, even when we know what the proper, supported voice sounds like, it is an unnatural thing. My students who sing the most naturally also speak with a supported voice.
I discovered the lack of proper support in my speaking voice when I began having difficulties in my lower middle range, where I was particularly strong during my baritone years. The same rich “baritone” fullness that sang “Thus saith the Lord…” from Messiah,–inspiring audience members to ask me after every concert of Handel’s masterpiece: “How does such a big sound come out of such a little body?”–is the same voice that must now sing: “Vincerò!” “Vittoria!” or any other normal tenor phrase for that matter.
Let us see if we have the humility to dare to speak/sing our true voices!