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An Apology to Andrea Bocelli

I sit in my kitchen, preparing a late meal, because I have had a full day. A day of teaching, a day of sharing knowledge with my dear and respected colleagues, Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff, who kept singers around the world engrossed in a 9-week Vaccai Project on Facebook, giving not only something to do proactively during the pandemic but also inspiring hope for a better continuation after the Covid19 crisis.  Afterwards, I found myself in a nostalgia-filled fest with my sisters, Nadine LaFond, a talented painter and singer, and Karling LaFond (a hero nurse in these times), reminiscing about our musical heritage.  Later, I found myself in the Youtube rabbit hole, face to face with the personality that is Andrea Bocelli, a figure that cannot be ignored, but that has been lampooned and ridiculed by the classical singing community, myself included. To be fair to myself, I never ridiculed Bocelli, but labeled him in previous posts over the years as a “pop singer using opera!”  I promise that all the subjects touched upon in this paragraph are relevant to the current discussion!

What is Andrea Bocelli?  

  1. First and foremost, a pop singer with a more substantial and flexible voice than the average pop singer, including the Josh Grobans of the world.
  2. An Italian who speaks the first language of opera with elegance.
  3. A musician of exceptional directness and musicality (I loved him as a pop singer first)
  4. A blind man who meets his audience through a very warm speaking voice and then enchants them with beautiful melodies, some composed by him and some taken from the finest of classical compositions (e.g. Aranjuez and Rach 2)
  5. A man with an unusual voice that in terms of substance, falls between Corelli (his teacher) and Tino Rossi, a Corsican singer in the 1930s-1950s, who also used opera as a means of expression but also brought operatic music to a pop audience.

When I first heard Bocelli, it was in this performance:

 

Franco Corelli was my vocal god at the time, especially after having the unusual opportunity to have three lessons with him in the late 80s.  When I heard this performance of Pavarotti and Friends back in 1994 or 1995, I heard that voice and thought I was hearing a smaller version of Franco Corelli, I did not know that Bocelli studied with Corelli. But I heard something uncannily familiar.

If you listen carefully, you hear Corelli in that voice!

 

 

It is said that when one loses one of his senses, the others are enhanced.  Possibly…Possibly, Bocelli used his ears to sense Corelli’s timbre!  Of course, Bocelli’s voice is not as substantial as Corelli’s but here are some pluses:

  1. Legato:  whether his Italian nature or his connection with Corelli, Bocelli sings legato.
  2. Purity of language: whether Italian or his connection to language, Bocelli sings beautifully in his native language.
  3. Emotion:  whether Italian or his connection with Corelli, Bocelli is an emotionally immediate performer.
  4. Top notes: Pop singer or not, his top notes are exciting!!!

 

The argument against Bocelli has been that he does not sing a tone supported enough to be a bona fide opera singer!  I was critical early on of his attempt at Werther at Michigan Opera Theater in the 90s.  He wasn’t present in the hall for much of the opera but quite powerful with “Pourquoi me réveiller?”  In truth, the voice has never been that far away from real operatic singing.  This is not Michael Bolton belting Nessun dorma! He is closer to the real thing, the way Tino Rossi was in the time of Gigli.

 

I grew up with that voice as my favorite! (I was a tenor from the beginning. Just didn’t know it).  That Rossi was a French/Corsican/Italian pop singer who approached his top notes in falsettone doesn’t erase his extraordinary legato, musicianship and charm. What Rossi did for the early 20th century, Bocelli provides in the early 21st century.

Tino Rossi was an international star, making waves in Rome and Paris, as he did in New York and L.A.  In my estimation, it is possible that in the developing postwar world of Melocchi, del Monaco and Corelli, the omnipresence of Tino Rossi in the Italian psyche may have given way to the voices to Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and LoForese in a post Gigli/Pertile world.  The lyricism, the legato, the purity of the text, the elegance of the phrasing! All Bel Canto attributes, which may have seen a confrontation 50 years before between the music of Tosti and Donaudy on the Bel Canto side and Respighi, Malipiero  and Casella in the Verismo side.

Bocelli’s place in the late 20th century and early 21st century is sealed.  As he benefited from the visionary Pavarotti’s influence in bridging the gap between popular and classical music, Bocelli himself continue to unite the classical and popular through collaborations with great artist of both camps as exemplified in the following clip:

If one reads the comments below this video, one understands why Bocelli has sold more records than any classical singer of his time, even though he is fundamentally a pop artist.

He did, in short, what his classical colleagues could not accomplish! He grabbed the hearts of his audience with beautiful melodies, direct emotion and a singular charm! His blindness is an incidental exclamation!  One cannot sustain this kind of commitment from his fans if he did not deliver.

The important factor is that this pop singer crosses over to classical and obliterates the bona fide classical singers. Kaufmann included!

To be fair to our top tenor, Kaufmann has to deal with a big orchestra, sans mic! Bocelli does not! But here is the rub! When Opera decides to go the route of Popopera, it will always lose.  And I believe that is the central problem! Bocelli, does not stand a chance, side by side with Kaufmann.  And that is evident with the first clip between Pavarotti and Bocelli. However, in that battle, Bocelli acquits himself positively! He stands toe to toe with one of the greatest tenors of all time and says:

I studied with your predecessor and I got game! As a pop singer, I am to be applauded!”

And he is correct!  If Kaufmann is inaudible in the theater as Siegmund or Parsifal, the reality of the day is not in his favor!  I wrote here, years ago, that Kaufmann is the first tenor in the world for important reasons, but that he should have avoided Wagner!  Because news is immediate, we get to celebrate Kaufmann for his HD simulcasts of Walküre and Parsifal, but remain disappointed in those roles in the theater. Yet, I am the first one to applaud his Cavaradossi, which is appropriate.

It is not Kaufmann’s fault!  Theaters are willing to pay him lots of money for his services. Why?  Because theaters are about now! Not about the future of this art form. Therefore, Kaufmann will be a footnote, just as Netrebko who takes on roles that are far beyond her vocal possibilities. But they will be rich!

But history will speak only of Bocelli and what he contributed to these times.

He might be falsely remembered as a classical singer, but indeed, he may have contributed more in favor of classical singing than his bona fide classical colleagues. Kaufmann as a pop icon does not come close to Bocelli’s power. However, Bocelli as a classical singer is confirmed in the mind of a vast public that could be drawn to opera, if only opera could deliver LIVE!

Tino Rossi brought average people to classical singing, including opera! Mario Lanza brought simple people to opera for similar reasons. And Bocelli will be the hero who calls to the average person and says: “Classical music is beautiful! And not so different from pop music!”  It is not Kaufmann who does that job!  But it was Pavarotti who did!

My friends, Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff, spent 9 weeks, convincing singers of our time that operatic success is about the fundamentals of beautiful singing, a fact that the operatic establishment has totally lost cognizance of!

To be audible while singing beautifully is the first and foremost principle of operatic singing!

6-packs are nice and so is a beautiful face. But without audible beauty, it is not opera!  If 6-packs and a beautiful face is your thing (first and foremost), you are better served by Hollywood and Pornhub than you would be by Opera.

In my heart, Pavarotti remains one of the most beautiful men who ever walked this earth when he opened his mouth and sang.

In that big open space of a theater, whether the MET or Scala, whether Covent Garden or Vienna Staatsoper, whenever I heard that man, I could not concentrate on anything else.

For the last time, whoever has influence in Opera must understand that Opera begins with beautiful singing.  Anything else is added bonus and must not supersede THE VOICE! 

And as my sisters, Nadine and Karling, reminisce about our childhood musical influences, I find that whether Antonio Aguilar or Miguel Aceves Mejia or the singers of the great Haitian bands or Tino Rossi, or the great singers of the early Motown era, or the great crooners, what my father, André L. LaFond loved and introduced us to was always beautiful singing! 

Dare I say: Bel Canto?

I would be remiss if I did not include this link to Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Groff‘s next Vaccai Bootcamp, three weeks from now!  I will be there as a participant, because it is important!  I recommend strongly that you join!  It is free!  There is no catch! But contribute if you got something out of it, because these wonderful people give a lot of their time and energy to bring something crucially important to us. The rescuing of the art of Opera, in my estimation, begins with Rachelle Jonck’s Vaccai program.

© 18 May 2020

 

 

Appreciating My Teacher: Judith Nicosia

I have had great teachers throughout my life! Voice teachers, directors, conductors, math teachers, and more.  As I thought of the teacher who was probably the most influential in the course of my life, it is Judith Nicosia.  She was my voice teacher, my last year at Westminster Choir College, but more importantly, I had her for three terms of Vocal Pedagogy and she opened a world for me of vocal science, critical thinking and holistic teaching.  She is a gifted singer and the most supportive voice teacher I have ever had.  She inspires confidence and shows possibilities!  She respects the singer she teaches and remains a source of guidance throughout our lives.

I know many who have felt her guidance and support…and love!  She is a caring human being, too.  

If I am a successful voice teacher, she is the example I look to.  I’m terrible at keeping in touch with her and I should do better.  I wanted her to know that I hear her voice often and that the last lesson a few years ago is still paying dividends.

I am so fortunate to have you as a teacher and when this virus is gone and I can travel to the United States again, I will pay you another visit.  Thank you for a lifetime of guidance!

 

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R.I.P. Donald G. Miller

I sang a recital in Montreal in 2005. After the recital, a dear colleague at McGill University, Winston Purdy, who attended the recital at L’Université de Québec à Montréal, invited me to his house the next day to experience something fascinating. It would change my life. In Winston’s living room I discovered the lanky man with a deep resonant voice next to a laptop and a strange contraption. That contraption was VoceVista, a vocal diagnostic tool including acoustic analysis and electroglottography (EGG) was as its name suggests: The Voice Seen! Donald Miller and his colleagues Harm K.Schutte and the late Prof. Janwillem van den Berg produced this magnificent instrument, which has become an industry standard in the field of Vocology.

Following that meeting (we were like three nerdy teenagers with a new toy), Don invited me to Fredonia University in Upstate New York to be a participant at a VoceVista symposium, where I met several colleagues who would become lifelong friends. Later on, Don visited my studios in New York and Berlin, where we presented “wired masterclasses,” in which we had access to real-time glottal and acoustic information for the singers in performance. Having already had a passion for vocal acoustics, I found a real friend and mentor in Don Miller. He later invited me to his home in Groningen, Holland, where we exchanged voice lessons, listened to an impressive performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, which he had sung during his professional career in Germany, years before. We also took in a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Boris Godunov at the local cinema.

Don Miller was a very generous colleague and passionate about getting the word out about VoceVista. I regularly received his newsletters as well as emails to his VoceVista group, the Fryers (vocal fry is used to isolate formant resonances in vocal acoustics). We met frequently over the years and encountered each other often at voice and vocal science symposia around the world.

Just a few days ago, after a few months of silence between us, I received an email from him, wondering how I was doing with the isolation imposed by the Covid-19 crisis. I was happy to receive his email and responded immediately. I had no idea he was ill (I don’t suspect it was Covid-19-related).

Don was in his 90s and lived a very full life and contributed to our art form first as a wonderful bass and later as a remarkable scientist.

In my mind, Donald G. Miller was a pioneer.

In 2000, when I began teaching at East Carolina University, one of my colleagues who was responsible for vocal pedagogy was very proud to introduce me to his new toy, a special computer system with a particular fast processor that made real-time acoustic analysis possible for singers. The Kay Elemetrics Computerized Speech Labs back then cost the University over $15,000 and was the standard tool for the analysis of speech pathology and disorders.

That year I received a faculty laptop that included a processor of enough speed to make real-time acoustic analysis possible. I found some free software online and began my love affair with acoustic analysis. Obviously, those tools were not optimized for singing analysis and my knowledge was pretty superficial. Less than five years later, there I was in Winston Purdy’s living room with Donald Miller, making a quantum leap in knowledge acquisition with the guidance of a leader in the field. Don was a pioneer!

The cost effective nature of the VoceVista software and Electro Glottograph machine turned my studio into a lab. I was able to observe thousands of singers over some 15 years, learning a great deal about vocal acoustics. I could not have done this without VoceVista and more importantly I would not have been able to do this without Don’s generous instruction. The low cost of VoceVista and the constant tweaking of the equipment (leading to VoceVista Video) has turned it into the industry standard ubiquitous in studios and voice labs all over the world.

Beyond the software itself, Don also produced a wonderful, short book, Resonance In Singing, written specifically for the beginner in vocal acoustics, which I reviewed here on the blog, on August 5 2008:

Because of Don’s instructions, I was able to make my own observations about the acoustics and glottal dynamics of the voice. We were not always in agreement in our conclusions but we were always able to discuss and I certainly learned a great deal from Don’s observations and he encouraged my own conclusions as well. He was a real teacher!

After our latest email exchange, I was looking forward to reconnect with Don and we wrote about seeing each other after the quarantine. I’m very saddened at his passing.

The new generation of Vocologists would not have taken their quantum leap without Donald G. Miller’s contributions. We are grateful to him and we will miss him very much.

I often quote this poem, Fear no more the heat o’ the sun… from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for those dear to me who have departed:

…Thou, thy earthly task hast done, Home art gone and taken thy wages…

…Quiet consummation have, and renowned be thy grave.

Requiestcat In Pacem!

© 22 April 2020

Breath Support: “Back Asswards!”

Singers spend so much of their times “learning to support!” If your friend is about to walk in front of a bus, you would yell: “Watch out!” Your body would go into automatic compression to emit a sound that would get the attention of the friend in danger!

What makes us think it is different for singing?

It is not only the support system that cannot respond for singing, it is the clarity of our imagination that is underdeveloped. Indeed the body can be too weak to support our desired vocal expression adequately,

but is it not also that we are unclear as to the sound we should be producing?

The true voice, in most cases, is discovered. Most singers do not have a clear idea as to the natural quality of their fully developed voice. Few opera singers have fully developed voices at the onset. Italians, African-Americans with Gospel singing backgrounds, Koreans and Black South Africans have proven very consistent in the winning of career-making competitions. It would be logical to conclude that a certain amount of cultural conditioning prepares some of the singers from those cultures relative to the desired operatic product. Eastern Europeans and Germans have very strong operatic traditions and those mechanisms may produce aural expectations that help developing singers along.

By and large however, young opera singers count on recordings of the singers who inspired them for a vocal aesthetic. Those models are not always evocative of appropriate reaction in the breath support system.

The central problem may be found in the definition of “self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds.”

A primary prerequisite for self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds is that the net transfer of energy from the airflow to the tissue be sufficient to overcome friction forces (Ishizaka and Matsudaira, 1972; Stevens, 1977; Broad 1979; Titze 1988).

The word “friction” is key to the definition. There is little discrimination these days relative to a viable operatic sound. As long as the singer is successful, it is assumed s/he is producing a viable operatic sound. This issue of friction speaks directly to the Italian concept of morbidezza (or flexibility).

Is it not possible that the singer’s personal sound aesthetic requires greater glottal resistance (friction) than necessary?

Hence, is it not possible that in many cases, it is not greater breath pressure (breath support) that needs to be developed but rather a tone concept that requires a normal amount of pressure?

In a balanced system relative to breath pressure and glottal resistance, the issue of development would be one of increasing the time that a singer can maintain a sustained oscillation as opposed to the increase of sub-glottal pressure to accommodate excessive friction at the glottal source.

Therefore I will list some causes of excessive glottal friction:

  1. Faulty Fold Morphology: The vocal folds must have a certain specific shape relative to F0 (pitch in layman’s terms) and vowel. This includes appropriate fold thickness (superior to inferior axis), the length of the folds (anterior to posterior axis) and acoustic/vocal-tract adjustment (vowel formation) as related to beneficial supra-glottal inertia that would reduce glottal friction. Faulty set up in this regard would cause compensatory tensions that would yield greater friction and require increased sub-glottal pressure.
  2. Medial pressure: How tightly the folds approximate (right-left axis) is the primary mechanism of glottal resistance. Should the folds approximate so firmly as to trap the oscillating mucosal layer (fold cover) against the TA muscle (fold body), the vibrating tissue would become considerably greater and stiffer, which would require increased levels of sub-glottal pressure.
  3. Fold Viscosity: When the folds are too viscous (less movable) because of disease, ranging from inflammation due to allergies, GERD or dehydration, the resulting stiffness requires A) firmer closure for a clear tone and B) therefore greater sub-glottal pressure to compensate for the combination of stiffer folds and greater closure.

These problems occur to some degree for most singers. Some are aware of the glottal problem and work patiently to find solutions that do not require excessive activity in the breathing mechanism.

Others will simply work to increase sub-glottal pressure (enhanced breathing techniques) to combat the un-natural glottal frictions.

All of these problems could lead the singer to have an unhealthy sound expectation that requires greater breath compression than normal. In the case of Item 2, medial pressure, the pre-phonatory (before onset) posture may be largely influenced, not by disease as in Item 3, but by inadequate (i.e. excessive friction) timbre (sound quality) expectations relative to the nature of the native vocal fold anatomy.

Relative to the final point, singers often begin with a desired sound quality as opposed to discovering their most efficient production relative to their native anatomy.

Since the glottal posture cannot be considered without the breath, a faulty tone concept yields compensation in the breath management. It can be surmised that barring disease, tension in the voice begins with faulty fold posture, leading to inefficient breath management.

© 22 April 2020

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