Even for those who do not experience a change in vocal categorization, the idea of knowing what your natural voice is is a constant problem for opera singers. When children are asked to imitate an opera singer they do what they think is a fake unnatural sound usually making fun of the idea of opera. It is not because they find it “unnatural” per se but rather because it is something that is “not common” to them. It is like asking them to pretend they are a super-hero. It is extraordinary! The truth is the more I teach singers, even professional singers, the more I notice they have a problem with doing something “extraordinary!” That is the price we pay for trying to make opera an ordinary thing. Ever since Pavarotti and Friends, pop singers think it is a cool thing to do to attempt an opera aria. Perhaps the desire to “popularize” opera is just reducing it to the least common denominator (i.e. what we think people are comfortable with). Many developing opera singers go only so far in seeking their total vocal color for precisely that reason. They are afraid to go too far from “normal.”
Vocal categorization is another limiting factor. “A tenor sounds like this! Your voice is naturally too dark. You must be a baritone. Maybe a bass-baritone.” Such authoritative pronouncements I have heard from some teachers when I began the process of accepting my tenor voice. Thank God there were voices like Giacomini, Galouzine and Efe Kislali around to see and hear on Youtube. They have more baritonal voices than I do and they made great careers. When it comes to vocal categorization, we must be very careful not to be reductively influenced by “norms.” Every voice is unique when it is “complete.” Today’s definition of unique seems to be “in what way can you go against good function so the voice sounds unusual?” That is the pop definition, not the operatic definition.
Even well-meaning voice teachers can have a wrong idea on a given day. My excellent colleague, Karin Bengtsdotter Olsson, at Härnösands Folkhögskola likes to remind our students that they own their talents. We are only their guides! In the end, they know what feels natural and must always seek a sense of their true selves even as we help them make changes. Great advice from a great teacher!
Likewise, I often tell my more advanced students that they will have to make the final steps on their own. A teacher can give us the tools to fundamental techniques, however who we are as artists/human beings can only be experienced by us first. A good teacher can discover the nature of the student over time, but the clues come from the student, even if they are often not aware that they are giving clues. Our job is to find the nature of the singer in front of us not to dictate what they should be.
As a singer, myself, I am always in search of the truth of my voice. More than 15 years ago I did a series of Tango concerts with the Latin Grammy-winning Bandoneon Master, Raul Jaurena. One of my colleagues at the time told me after a concert that it was the most natural he had heard me sing. There was something about Tango that brought out the complexity of my musical heritage. It combined Latin rhythms, a touch of Jazz, great emotion and even a touch of the classical elegance that drew me to Opera. My father brought all kinds of music to our home, including Tango. I was very drawn to this form before I knew what it really was. It also fit my natural vocal color. Tango singers like Carlos Gardel or Roberto Goyeneche (two of my favorites) had rich voices that worked well in the speaking range.
We can immediately make the connection between this music and some of the classical forms that influenced it.
Goyeneche at this point in his career was less steady of voice but remarkable with what he did with text. A master in phrasing and emotional context. Going back to playing with Tango (I recently joined a Tango studio to learn to dance the Tango better), I was able to make sense of something the late mezzo-soprano Ada Finelli told me when I began the change to tenor: “Whatever you do, do not lose your natural baritonal color. I believe you are that type of ‘tenor robusto’ and if you try to color your voice like a lyric, you will never find true ‘morbidezza.'” The difficult part of becoming a tenor for me was not developing high notes, but rather developing flexibility and true support in the low and middle. Going back to Tangos gave me a balanced sense of both:
It is quite low, touching on low G#2 and only going as high as D4. This is precisely the range I need to balance. The tendency is that as a tenor, I became afraid of engaging my full lower voice. Under-supporting this region made the approach to the passaggio and higher more difficult. And if I must go down to the middle and back up to the top it was often a problem. The Tango comfort of my low range makes for a cleaner approach to the top of the voice.
We may talk about technique in all kinds of technical ways and in the beginning, in terms of building a structure and maintaining it, we need to be very empirical and very disciplined about function. When we get to more advanced stages, it is no longer about the root and the branches but about the leaves. This means we must experiment with intuition and instinct. That can only come from the singer himself. Helping a student to find out their true nature often depends in finding out what type of music really excited them in the beginning and how they tend to engage that repertoire.
I have decided to commit some of my energy and time to developing my Tango repertoire. It provides me a real balance in my approach to Opera.