But this placement comes at a cost. To sing so comfortably above staff, you tend to bottom out below the staff. You can sing the higher roles, but not the heavier roles. And the middle voice may be rather less centered or settled.
Each ages about as well as the other. Which one prefers is a matter of taste. As a rule, I think that the top-down approach is rather more suitable to the range and coloration of a true soprano. It doesn’t sound like a mezzo on a mountain hike. But the choice depends in part on natural endowment. And we get something from each which we don’t get from the other. The bottom-up approach satisfies a certain sensuous craving, like a four-course meal.
Incidentally, it is often said that bigger voices are harder to record than smaller voices. That isn’t true. The problem is that recording engineers have a tin ear. They are not into tonality, but technology, electronics rather than acoustics. In addition, most conductors are musicians instead of singers, so they are just as tone deaf to the demands of vocal reproduction.
The way to record a big voice is put the singer in a fairly reverberant space, and position the microphone far enough away to catch the full resonance of the voice. This is why live recordings are often superior to studio recordings. In the usual studio recording, the voice is boxy, but the orchestra has a lot of depth because the conductor is less attuned to vocalism than instrumentalism. For him, the voice is just another instrument, to be woven into the whole.
A soprano with a pure head tone has a tinny, girlish or boyish sounding voice. German and English sopranos incline in this direction. Conversely, a woman with a raw chest voice makes a mannish, raucous sound.
What is true of female voices is true, to a lesser degree, of male voices. Pavarotti has a higher placement than Domingo. The production is sunny, resonant, and free, but not as rich as the baritonal lining on Domingo’s instrument, which can also take on heavier parts. Caruso, Domingo, and Melchior are all classic bottom-up voices.
This is also a matter of taste. For some listeners, the ideal tenor sound is a timbre which has no residual trace of baritonal coloring. It doesn’t range along the same continuum as the bass or the baritone. For this ear, a Gigli or Bjorling is optimal.
But for another pair of ears, too much head-tone makes the male voice take on a somewhat androgynous or effeminate quality. Lauri-Volpi used to say that Gigli sang like a girl! There is no doubt an element of professional rivalry in that barb. Nevertheless, which one would you rather have as your tail-gunner?
The Italian tenor is the star of the operatic constellation. He appeals to men and women alike, but for unlike reasons. Men see themselves in the role of the lover, while women see themselves in the role the belovéd. I also suspect that men are more likely to identify with a dramatic tenor, and women with a lyric tenor.
Moving further down the scale, Warren has a higher placement than Merrill. Indeed, some suspect that Warren was a lazy tenor, living in safety. This makes for wonderful clear and easy top notes, but the timbre is not as warm and round or well-centered when he comes down from the clouds.
Likewise, Ghiaurov has a higher placement than Talvela, Kipnis or Kurt Moll. This makes for spacious high notes with thin low notes, whereas the equation is rather the reverse in the case of Moll and Talvela. They have punchy high notes, but not the same amplitude. There’s a difference between a loud sound and a voluminous sound.
There are exceptions to the above. Nilsson had a high heavy voice. This also raises the vexed question of the relation between tongue, technique, and vocal range. Was it a matter of her vocal endowment, vocal technique, Finnish language, or some combination thereof? Hard to say since she’s the only Finnish singer of her kind.
On a related note, many singers use the same technique in every role. This is especially the case for German and Italian singers, for they can make a career of singing exclusively in their national repertory.
Some singers vary their technique. I classified Milanov as a bottom-up soprano. But she also had a way of singing soft, high-lying phrases by detaching the head register, thereby allowing the downward weight of the chest register to drop out of sight, leaving a sustained pianissimo which seemed to be suspended in thin air.
Caballe is another singer famous for her pianissimi. Sutherland has said that she can do the same thing, but when she tries, it’s hard for her to get her full voice back. So this, again, illustrates the tradeoff between one method and another.
Corelli used just enough laryngeal manipulation to produce a very big, full sound, but he kept the larynx sufficiently free that, unlike del Monaco, who always sang with a low larynx, Corelli also had easy high notes and a lot of dynamic variation--even a high pianissimo.
The two key components of vocal technique are placement and breathing. The right way to breathe is less a matter of what to do, than what not to do. Inhalation requires no muscular effort, for the vacuum left by exhalation is automatically replenished by the spontaneous equalization of the deflated lungs with external air pressure.
Certain postures and clothing styles which inhibit abdominal breathing as well as the natural expansion of the rib cage and chest cavity are to be avoided. On the other hand, a tense, rigid military posture should also be avoided. The classic hip-lock stance, with an easy upright posture, is conducive to deep breathing. Unless a man makes his living as a drag-queen, I would strongly advise him against wearing a corset!
Jerome Hines has made the unusual suggestion that a singer not take an extra breath before he begins to vocalize. According to Hines, we don’t take a breath before we speak, and singing emits less air than speaking. On his theory, you breathe deeply by not taking a deep breath. For when you spontaneously exhale, you automatically lower the diaphragm. Since Hines sang his last role at the tender age of 77, see if his technique works for you.
In some churches, you sit, rather than stand, to sing. But standing is better for support.
In some trendy, "seeker-sensitive" churches, there are no printed hymnals, the music being projected onto a screen. This forces the singer to cock his head, stretching the neck muscles and tensing the throat. Except for the occasional high note, you’ll never see an opera singer cock his head back.
Of course, the music as such a church is ordinarily so abysmal, consisting of lullabies and patter songs, that a real voice would embarrass and overwhelm the materials. In this situation, it is probably best to mimic the delivery of a superannuated pop star who talks his way through the number with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Singers are often criticized for their mushy diction. This takes two forms: slurring consonants and distorting vowels. Now, some singers take this to an unnecessary extreme. There is, however, a reason for this, and music critics or choir conductors who obsess over elocution misconceive the medium. It would profit the average "music minister" to become a vocal coach as well as a musician.
Now, although singing is an extension of speech, it is not the same thing as speech. The phonetics of speech are not adapted to vocalism. Just as an athlete will modify the way he moves or breathes, a singer will modify his speech patterns to produce, project, and sustain a singing tone. What works for John Gielgud won’t work for Joan Sutherland!
In particular, singers tend to broaden narrow vowels on high notes. For example, men will sing a long "e" as a short "i," or even shade it towards an "ay" sound, while women will sing a long "e" as an "ah."
Likewise, many singers will sacrifice distinct consonants for the sake of legato. There is more to this than bel canto. It is less of a strain on the vocal chords to sing legato than marcato.
Lieder singers make a virtue of necessity. Because they lack the vocal endowment to make it in grand opera, they work on idiomatic pronunciation and other expressive refinements. For their part, aging singers exaggerate the consonants to conceal their inability to sustain the vowels.
Some singers age better than others. This is partly a question of solid technique as well as resisting the temptation to sing parts that are too high or heavy for the voice.
Singers tend to learn their vocal technique by ear. It is not uncommon for young singers to rely on their natural endowment and direct auditory feedback. This can lead to a vocal crisis later on. By the time they learn how to consciously or properly produce their instrument, the baby-fat is off the voice.
A singer’s instrument is also more vulnerable to a personal or emotional or medical crisis than a pianist or violinist. The singer is his own medium. This can also precipitate a vocal crisis.
In a way, there is no such thing as vocal technique, in the sense of a uniform set of rules that can be instilled to yield reliable results. Many great singers become voice teachers when they retire, but very few of their students become great singers. So it’s not something that can be passed on.
Like any athletic endeavor, two men may have the same basic physical equipment, but one in more intuitively in touch with his body than the other. He has a better sense of balance. He can process the signals his body is sending him. Likewise, some great singers are less technically self-aware than others, which may be one reason they make poor teachers.
For some reason, most great singers are, to put it politely, overweight. Indeed, that’s often an understatement. You might think this would create problems for breathing and support, but it doesn’t seem to have that effect--not, at least, until the drag-factor of age begins to exact its revenge.
Yet it can be a problem when the libretto calls on the tenor to pick up the soprano and bear her away in his loving arms as the curtain falls. One soprano was said to be so obese that it took two separate trips to carry her off the stage!
To some extent, vocal preservation may be an illusion. The standard repertory rarely takes a soprano above high C. Yet a number of sopranos, at least in their prime, can singer higher than that, which leaves them with a margin to spare as gravity begins to transpose the range. Although they may lose a high note or two, the repertory still lies within their remaining range. In fact, for a time they may sound even better, for they can still hit the high notes, but the voice is fuller in their forties than it was in their twenties.
There is a popular notion that high voices age less well than low voices. But the recording medium doesn’t bear that out. It is true that the aging process is apt to reduce the upper extension, but this applies to low voices as well as high voices. Each category has a natural range. For a bass, a top F is the equivalent of a top C for a tenor or soprano. And it is not uncommon for the aging process to nibble away at both ends.
Top-down voices hang onto their high notes, but lose the middle voice and lower register while bottom-up voices keep--or even augment--the low-to-mid-range, but lose the high notes. Likewise, bottom-up voices are likely to remain firmer for longer, while top-down voices become unsteady in the middle voice, keeping the head voice intact, but coming apart at the break.
At the same time, the tenor or soprano line is more exposed for a high voice than a low voice. So any diminution is more conspicuous.
IX. Vocal writing
Some composers are better at writing for voice, others at absolute music. The short list of great vocal composers must number Handel, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and Schubert--among others. The short list of great instrumental composers must number Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms--among others.
In my opinion, Bach is the greatest instrumental composer, and greatest composer in general, while Handel is the greatest vocal composer, and Mozart is the greatest operatic composer.
This is a difference of degree. One mark of a great composer is that he will excel in vocal and instrumental music alike. And although it’s quite possible to write fine vocal music without instrumentation, and fine instrumental music without vocalization, I would say that a cappella choral music has more to lose from the absence of instrumentalism than instrumental music from the absence of vocalization.
There is, indeed, a certain creative tension between a vocal and an instrumental bias. As I said before, playing a piano scoring of vocal music is a good test of vocal music qua music. I think it not incidental that Handel, Mozart, and Mendelssohn were all keyboard virtuosi. Schubert is something of an exception to the rule, but if you have enough raw talent you can write your own ticket.
Beethoven has a reputation for cruel vocal writing. Actually, Beethoven can write well for the voice when he wants to, but for Beethoven, the musical idea is ordinarily in the ascendant.
The same is true with respect to Bach. For Bach, the abstract structure is paramount. If you listen to the average Bach aria, it’s very beautiful, but if you separate out the vocal line from the accompaniment, the vocal line is often rather jerky and nondescript. The real beauty and distinction lies in the matchless accompaniment. That is what fires his imagination. Indeed, it is something of a misnomer to call it the "accompaniment."
For Handel, it’s rather the reverse. He has a natural feel for the human voice. But his purely instrumental writing is often less distinguished--almost workaday fare. For example, his overtures, written in the Italian style, are tasteful and eminently listenable, but not on the same plane as Corelli or Albinoni. You get a sense that Handel is going through the motions.
Handel wrote some very fine organ concerti, but that’s because he was a keyboard virtuoso, so that particular form engages his musical imagination in a way that orchestral writing does not. His concerti grossi are impressive because they’re meant to impress. Composers like to write in every form, just to prove that they can do it--not because they’re equally good in every form.
What gets Handel really fired up is a good libretto. He needs that to get his creative juices flowing. In this he differs from Bach and Schubert alike. Schubert could set a shopping list to music. So could Bach. But for Handel, dramatic imagination inspires musical imagination.
It’s not that the words are unimportant to Bach. But it’s more a case of bringing his musical art to bear on the text, rather than the text inspiring his musical art.
In rating their vocal music, I’d say that Handel composes greater vocal music qua "vocal" music, but Bach writes greater vocal music qua vocal "music." Bach approaches the task of vocal writing with an instrumental ear, but the supremacy of his musical genius makes for a greater overall effect.
Is there an ideal vocal style? This question raises yet another question: does a composer adapt himself to the voice, or the voice to the composer?
Whatever the style, you can find some singers who are up to the demands of the music. Handel requires florid facility for all vocal ranges. Some modern-day singers have it, others not. In general, his music requires no great range or power--unless he’s writing for an exceptional singer like Montagnana.
Some Mozartian roles make great demands on the singer’s range. Again, some singers have the requisite range, others not. A few of his roles have demanding scale-work, but this is less common in Mozart than Handel or Vivaldi. And you don’t need a big voice to sing Mozart.
The vocal range of Wagner is somewhat beyond Handel, but not by much. Obviously, Wagner is not a fan of florid music. What his music requires is sheer vocal volume to compete with the orchestra. Melchior, Flagstad, and Nilsson are up to the demands of the lead roles. But that’s about it.
Russian choral music needs a bass that can drop down to low C or B flat, even the occasional F below low F.
Are composers writing for a preexisting voice, or can the human voice adapt to the demands of the new music? And does the native language condition the voice for a certain range or facility?
What would Handel have done with a Flagstad or Melchior? If Wagner didn’t exist, Flagstad would have to invent him!
In the past, a dramatic soprano would have sung mezzo or alto, and a Heldentenor the baritone roles.
Retired singers have a habit of treating the last generation--which is to say, their own generation, as the golden age, after which the vocal art went to pot. And there’s no doubt that in a post-Woodstock age, going to pot may aptly describe the lifestyle of some singers.
However, great singing seems to come and go in cycles. Melba’s scale-work was no better than Sutherland’s, while George Bernard Shaw says that Patti was better at legato than coloratura.
Sometimes a composer will write with a particular singer in mind--Handel for Montagnana, Mozart for Fischer and Constanze Weber. Billington could sing an A in alt, while Agujari could sing a C above high C.
Several things may account for this. Since baroque divas were competing with the castrati, it seems not unlikely that they may aspired to a more boyish, bell-like, flutelike timbre, rather than the big bosomy tone of a modern soprano. To judge by contemporary accounts, Catalani seems to have been the first dramatic soprano.
The castrato connection may be more specific. From Mustafa, one of the last of the castrati, Calvé picked up a vocal trick or "fourth voice," which was special sort of high voice, above the ordinary head voice.
Victorian divas were singing in a corset. You can’t sing from the diaphragm is that attire. It would be impossible to inhale and intone like Flagstad under such conditions. This may be one reason why the divas had a more girlish timbre back then.
Related to this, abdominal breathing expands the chest cavity. It isn’t merely that opera singers pile on the pounds over time. They also become broader across the beam.
In addition, women used to make their operatic debut in their teens, if not earlier. In this regard, Patti was especially precocious, making her debut at the tender age of seven! Nowadays, women make their debut in their twenties--and it often takes another ten years to achieve stardom. Obviously, the range and timbre of a teenager may be different from that of a grown woman, but if a woman began her career in the teens, she was apt to maintain the girlish timbre through--as you can hear in records of Melba and Patti.
Finally, improvements in diet have made modern men and women larger than their forebears. You can see this in old photographs.
George Bernard Shaw, under the spell of Wagner, bullied Jean De Reszke, the primo tenore of the day, into singing Siegfried and Tristan, soon after which De Reszke went into steep vocal decline. Ironically, Shaw later lost his infatuation with Wagner. But a music critic can outlive his critical misjudgments, whereas a vocalist cannot outlive his vocal misjudgments.
Yet all the blame cannot be laid at Wagner’s feet. If you compare the sound of a modern opera singer with old recordings of Victorian singers, it is clear that the 20C audience has developed an appetite for a bigger, fuller sound than was once the case, even in Wagner’s time, and there are singers willing and able to accommodate their taste.
Nowadays, a tenor lives and dies by his high C. But until the time of Duprez (1806-96), tenors resorted to the head register when taking their high notes. In Bellini’s I Puritani, the tenor line rises to F above high C. Duprez, an otherwise undistinguished tenor, changed all that when he make a career of taking the high C from the chest.
But the tenor voice paid a toll when it crossed that bridge. Verdi and Puccini write lower tenor parts than Rossini and Bellini. There are ever some early Verdi arias in the old tradition. In spite of that, precious few tenors have a good high C. There are men with a naturally high range, but they usually lack chest resonance; then there are men with the resonance, but they lack the reach. They are really high baritones. It is rare to find a man who can place the voice high, with real chest resonance, and still sound at ease. Among postwar tenors, Corelli and Pavarotti are the most successful. Domingo is very fine, but there are times when you suspect that he’s a pushed-up baritone (same with Caruso and Melchior), while Leonard Warren sounds like a Heldentenor on a holiday.
This is also a question of technique. Caruso and Melchior sang with a low larynx, which makes it possible to carry the chest register quite high. But the effect is somewhat effortful.
Frankly, there’s no way to make the modern tenor sound entirely natural. It is the most artificial vocal category. For the opera buff, some of its appeal lies in this high-wire act. Will the tenor crack on the high C or burst a blood vessel in the process? For my taste, the tenor voice is a bit too overbred to be quite manly. When you take the wolf out of the dog, you end up with one of those nippy yippy lap-dogs.
The Verdi baritone must have a solid high G, as well as the odd A flat and A natural. But it retains a drop of wolf blood in its veins, which is why I prefer the growling sound of a high baritone to the yippity-yap-yap of the tenor.
What are we to make of all this? In terms of ideal vocal writing, it is probably best to compose music which a good voice with good technique can sing, rather than write music which only a freak of nature can sing.
And even when you can find a freak-mutant to fill the role, the overall effect may still be less than entirely pleasing. Extremely high voices tend to sound rather adolescent, while extremely big voices are so godlike that they lose the human touch. This is why many connoisseurs prefer Frida Leider to Flagstad, or Crespin to Nilsson, in the big Wagnerian roles.
One reason Joan Sutherland was so popular and so exceptional is that she could combine the acuti with a very warm and womanly middle voice. Indeed, that was part of her technique--a plump middle voice which she carried all the way up to a high B natural, before flipping into the head register for the acuti.
At the same time, we can take a cue from the ad libitum character of Baroque music. If a singer happens to have an exceptional high range or low range or trill or whatever, let the singer embellish or interpolate where appropriate.
It would be best if a tenor not sing any higher than he can comfortably sing in the chest register. For purposes of choral music, say, the composer shouldn’t say the tenor line above the range of a Verdi baritone.
For purposes of hymn writing, the average untrained voice has little more that an octave of usable range--say, between a lower C and an upper D. Occasional excursions above and below this are okay, but the tessitura should stay within this general range.
It would free things up if more congregations could do part-singing. Learning to sight-sing would benefit untrained voices, since unison singing means that everyone must tackle the treble line.
Many hymnals are pitched too high. But in the age of the digital organ, it hymn can be transposed at the flip of a switch.
Choral singing can be rather more ambitious, but less so than operatic writing. The average choir is always underrepresented in the tenor section. Most amateur sopranos can’t ascend above the staff with ease, although you often have a natural high soprano or two. It’s probably best to have an alternate line or optional descant for high sopranos. The bass part tends to run a tad high for a true bass and a tad low for a true baritone. It also depends on whether we’re talking about a church choir or professional choir.
It’s an oddity of traditional choral writing that that the range of the alto part is so narrow while the range of the bass part is so wide. As a rule, an alto has a naturally longer voice than a bass, because she can sing in both registers. Choral writing ought to reflect that.
The reason it doesn’t is, I suppose, because a number of the great composers took the keyboard (organ, piano, harpsichord) as their primary instrument. They compose a chorus the way they’d write for the keyboard, where the outer voices frame the music. The soprano line reprises the right-hand, supplying the melody--while the bass line reprises the left-hand, supplying the harmony. The inner voices (alto, tenor) are the musical scavengers, gobbling up the leftover notes.
Certainly keyboard technique has a lingering impact on compositional style. The orchestral "repeat" is a throwback to the two-manual (loud/soft) harpsichord.
To some extent, this also has a prehistory in antiphonal singing, with opposing double-choruses--such as you see at San Marco. And that format goes all the way back to the Psalter.