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. Compare e.g. "Säv, säv, susa" from 1940 with the same song 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).

No comments: