Thursday, August 24, 2006

The 78s ping

Being a tenor and trying to learn proper (as in Bel Canto) singing, brings its own special challenges.

The tenor sound was pretty much defined by the giants of old: Caruso, Gigli, Corelli, Björling (for us Swedes), but do we really know now what they sounded like?

I've developed my own little theory called "the 78s ping". Many of the recordings of Caruso were made with him singing straight into a wodden funnel, the sound being engraved through mechanical coupling onto a wax-coated cylinder. It goes without saying that the frequency response was less than stellar. It's no accident that tenors were popular in those early years of recordings, because the "singer's formant" at ca 3 KHz, so pronounced in high operatic voices, came through nice and clear. It's tempting to think that that's all there was to the great tenor voice. Yet we know that Caruso could even sing basso repertoire (legend has it he even did it impromptu during a performance, when the basso lost his voice.) Clearly, the man must have had a huge voice. (update: listen to a 78s recording of Sollene in quest'ora from La Forza del Destino - it gives you a hint as to why baritones where not the great recording stars of this era.)

Jussi Björling was a lyrical tenor, but his recordings span a fairly wide range of technology. One may listen to excerpts at Jussi Björling Sällskapet (under "sångstycken"). Compare e.g. "Nessun Dorma" from 1944 with "Så tag mit hjerte" from 1959. Jussi's voice was considered to have pretty much reached maturity around 1940, so the most dramatic difference between the two samples is the recording technology. "Sånger på svenska" from 1959 was one of the first Hi-fi stereo recordings in Sweden, and it gives the startling revelation that Jussi's voice was really much fuller than earlier recordings were able to portray.

Now we have a whole generation of singers trying to sound like the great tenors did on the 78s (ok, exaggerating a little...) The easy way to do this is to rely heavily on head voice, emphasizing the resonance of the nasal cavities. This also gives the best feedback. The sound can also be significantly amplified using various tricks. The problem with this is that the "singer's formant" is generated by the larynx, as the result of significant "sub-glottal" pressure - not in the nasal cavities. The way to get there is to push the diaphragm roughly as far as it will go, lower the larynx, raising the soft palate, etc. etc.

Sound hard? Well it is, and it isn't. Anyone can do this - it's pretty much exactly what we do when we throw up. It's doing it in a controlled way while singing that requires some practice. It's also difficult to do it on your own, because while practising, you will not necessarily feel that your voice is improving. You will feel more like a baritone than a tenor, or like an alto rather than a soprano.

Once you learn how to produce a tone with a fully lowered diaphragm (etc), you will be able to find your way to a powerful singer's formant. It will sound to you as a loud "ringing noice". You may not find this pleasant ("Forget all about taking pleasure in your own voice", Bengt Nordfors told me.) To others, it may sound like a silver lining on an otherwise full voice.

So why go through all the trouble if a tenor sound can be faked? Well, for one thing, it's a healthier way to sing, and your vocal cords will thank you for it. But also, you will be able to make use of "exclamatory vowels" - sounds that are also shaped in the larynx, and which convey emotions in a primitive and universally understood way. In short, your voice will become more interesting, more moving, and able to portray real emotions.

So can you tell who's faking it? In tenors, you usually can. Watch the larynx. It should be lowered while singing, and it should pretty much stay there. Now, "faking" may be a bit harsh. The vast majority of singers are certainly most cincere and try their best to express something. What I mean is that they have not learned to properly ground their voices. No surprise - it takes about 5 years to learn proper singing technique, and in our day and age, that's too long.

Also, a warning: if you start searching for true Bel Canto, chances are that you will be disappointed with many singers that you previously thought were great. You may be better off not caring about it and continue to enjoy the art of opera such as it is, today.

Several of the great tenors were initially barytones. Today, if we hear someone singing tenor repertoire with a decidedly baritonal quality, we will be confused. "He's not a tenor", we will exclaim (even if he's hitting the high Cs effortlessly.) We want that "78s ping", and we want to be able to label people.

Giuseppe Giacomini is a tenor with an amazingly baritonal voice. So much so that it becomes problematic. I've heard productions were he sounds more baritonal than the barytone he's playing against (update: here's one where it actually works out - Giacomini is the one lying down). It is simply difficult to find a whole cast of such singers. While I think Giacomini is great, he's not my own ideal (I'm more of a lyrical tenor.) I tend to listen to Fritz Wunderlich for inspiration (update: F.W. as Tamino).

The road to Bel Canto

This is my main hobby - passion, even. Some might call it an obsession.

My parents were latent musicians, but didn't do much do develop their talent, but they did sing, play the guitar and piano quite a lot when we were kids.

My grandfather was a shoemaker and a fiddler (playing the fiddle in that part of the country back then seems to have been what Nintendo is for today's youngsters.) He is "famous" for having written "Skomakar Wigers polska", which is on the standard folk music repertoire today.

My brother, Torbjörn, started playing the guitar, and became quite good at it. He eventually had to choose between playing professionally and going for an MSEE, and chose engineering. At the time, he played in the band Joy's Toys and had just landed a record contract. Among the other members of the band were drummer/singer Jan Johansen and keyboardist/singer Göran Eliasson, who both went on to rather successful careers.

I spent a very short time in the Stockholm Boy's Choir in 2nd grade, sang in the High School choir, and later joined Nicolai Chamber Choir, where I stayed some 13 years. I sang in the Royal Philharmonic Choir for a year, just before it was closed down. After that, I decided to focus on singing solo.

My first singing teacher was actually Siw Hellgren in High School. The most memorable advice she gave me was: "if you don't think it's beautiful, noone else will either." Siw is quite a character, and did a great job conveying the wonders of classical music and opera to her students.

My second teacher was Margareta Ljunggren. She was very down to earth and helped me realise that singing wasn't such a big deal. Unfortunately, I had also started realising that my real passion was opera, and that wasn't Margareta's thing. All in all, though, it was a very fruitful couple of years.

In 1998, I met Katarina Pilotti. We were engaged two weeks later, and married in 1999. We found that we much enjoyed singing together, and I suddenly had an opportunity to meet professional singers and musicians on a fairly regular basis. Bengt Nordfors, Peter Kajlinger, Bo Wannefors, Michael Engström, and others, became household names and taught me a great deal. We arranged musical evenings at our house, and invited friends and relatives.

When Katarina turned 40, she gave a concert together with friends and colleagues in our local church. The singers were Katarina, Kristina Hammarström, Ann Charlotte Merhammar, Thomas Lander, Bengt Gustafsson... and I. Katarina and I did the whole scene from La Boheme where Rodolpho meets Mimi. I thought Bo Wannefors and I were in agreement to lower the aria "Che gelida manina" a seminote in order to avoid the high C, but for one reason or other, it didn't happen. As I approached the H (or so I thought), I thought to myself "it's a good thing we lowered it". All went well. "The only thing you have to fear is fear itself", as I later came to learn. I also got to sing a duet with Thomas Lander - I have a tendency to agree to things and only later consider what I'm getting myself into. But Thomas is a very relaxed and generous person, and it all went well. I felt that I had stepped up to a higher level.

Bengt Nordfors sat in the audience and afterwards murmured that I should come to his place at Ingarö and learn a thing or two. It took a few years before I took him up on the offer. I guess I wasn't ready...

Bengt Nordfors is an outstanding teacher. He opened my eyes to Bel Canto, and after three years of hard work (Bengt would say "goofing around"), I think I'm beginning to grasp the basics of voice production. Bengt studied with Berle Rosenberg, who studied with Carlo Bergonzi. Such is the genealogy.

The first project with Bengt was in 2003-4, preparing for The Barber of Seville, with OperaVox (where I had previously had small parts in Die Fledermaus and Carmen.) In fact, I went to Bengt two weeks before the auditions, when I realized I didn't have the technique necessary to sing the part of Count Almaviva. After a two-week crash course, I was able to fight my way through "Ecco ridente", and actually got the part. The following year was spent in intense preparations, trying to develop the technique and stamina required to get through the whole opera (actually, all five performances). Again, it went well. I visited Bengt hours before each performance to get hold of my voice. Each visit turned into a singing lesson, the result of which was to reveal itself on stage. A bit scary, but extremely productive. As Count Almaviva is on stage singing and acting for the better part of the opera, I also had to learn a lot about how to conduct myself on stage.

That was the starting point. I had begun to suspect what "connection" was really about. In the years since then, I feel that I have begun to develop a healthy "basic sound", to the point where I can at least begin to work on nuances without losing my technique. This may not seem as much, but I'll give my interpretation of what's involved in later posts.

Currently, I have no production or concert to look forward to. I will just keep singing to myself, and visit Bengt every now and then.