Color and Chiaroscuro in the Professional Singing Voice

An important distinction between the voice of the professional classical singer and singers of other genres of music is the inclusion of warmth (color) and chiaroscuro, the combination and balance of bright, forward resonance and dark, colorful resonance.  Certain voice types are known for having more color, but nevertheless, every singer has a unique, individual color that needs to be cultivated.  Color can not be manufactured healthily!  It is the result of a good technique and I will discuss the details of how color comes into the voice in my next blog.

Color is what adds depth, lusciousness and sensuousness into singing.  It is the warmth – sometime very human-sounding and sometime very sexy – that is present in the sound and it draws in the listener in a very compelling way.  The ability to use a variety of colors to express the text and feelings of a character, adding layers of expression and emotion, is the hallmark of a true artist.  Color goes hand in hand with openness and ease, which I discussed previously.  The voices that have more colors and complexity in the classical singing world are considered to be the ones with the finer instruments.  In this way, singing is like wine.  Greatness takes longer and is much rarer, but has intriguing layers of colors and subtleties that the cheap, younger versions don’t possess.  However, every good quality vocal instrument can be trained to develop warmth and it is a crucial part of the professional sound.

Chiaroscuro is literally the important concept of simultaneous “light-dark” in the voice.  The light comes from the ring or correct nasal resonance and the dark comes from depth, color and openness.  Both of these need to be present in a balanced way to create true chiaroscuro and this is what the great singers were trained to have and maintain.   While some voices naturally contain more ring and are brighter-sounding and some voices contain more oro-pharngeal resonance and are darker, only one of these qualities does not make a professional sound.  A combination is crucial.  In those cases, the singer should work with a qualified teacher to build a solid technique and gain chiaroscuro.

The examples of color and chiaroscuro are too numerous to count in the recordings of the great singers.  Below are some wonderful recordings.  When listening, note the consistent ring combined with different colors, warmth and spaciousness.


Here is one of my favorite tenors, Franco Corelli, singing “L’amour…  Ah! leve-toi, soleil!” from Roméo et Juliette live at the Metropolitan Opera House with some help from the prompter.  Corelli was known for his ring, but he always maintains a heroic warmth behind it.


In this selection, Leontyne Price sings “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from La Rondine.  La Price has less obvious frontal ring in her voice (at least in recordings), but she consistently has high overtones that indicate ring combined with her natural warmth, as evidenced by the wonderful spin and shimmer in this rendition.


Mezzo Dolores Zajick sings here “O don fatale” from Don Carlo.  Throughout this tour de force aria, she maintains a buzzy ring in her voice, while bringing in luscious coloration.


And last, but certainly not least, here is the incomparable Enrico Caruso singing “Recondita armonia” from Tosca.  He epitomizes chiaroscuro with his fabulous ring and rich, baritonal colors, sunlight and shadow coexisting.  I bow to the master.


Color and chiaroscuro add immensely to the professional singing voice.  Much of the beauty, excitement and expression possible can be attributed to them.

Just like there is the belief that there are “round” voices without ring, there is also the belief that there are “pointed” voices without warmth and color.  That is a falsehood.  While certain voices naturally contain more ring, it is entirely possible to train a more pointed voice to have depth and color and thereby reach the chiaroscuro ideal balance of the two qualities.  The crucial point is to train the optimal functioning of the vocal instrument and not to add on false color through manipulation.  Each singer has a unique voice and unique coloration.  Mimicking other singers or an ideal of a voice type is a very serious mistake and has led many a singer down the path of vocal destruction.  Without appropriate information from a good teacher, it is very easy for a singer to try to create color through tongue tension, distorted vowels and a depressed larynx.  What a singer hears of his/her own voice (through the medium of the skull) is vastly different from what everyone else hears through the medium of the air.  What a singer hears can never be used as a guideline!  Ever!  Did you get that?  Color that a singer hears does not make it outside to the listeners.  Only when the correct technical conditions are in place and a singer does not hear a great deal of color from the inside, does the audience have the opportunity to experience the true color of that singer’s voice.

Color occurs when the following conditions are in place:  an open oro-pharynx; a slightly lowered, relaxed larynx with a laryngeal tilt; a throat widened with the pre-vomit reflex; a moderately high, wide and relaxed soft palate; a three-dimensionally expanding back of the throat; widening pillars of fauces; a relaxed, forward-releasing tongue; and correct resistance/support through the appoggio to manage breath-flow.  It is up to the singer to learn to trust that the correct technique is enough to bring out all of the natural colors inherent in his/her instrument.  That can be difficult, but singing for a few trusted and knowledgeable people and listening to good quality self-recordings can help a great deal.

I know a lyric soprano with a gorgeous voice who has come to grief by trying to manufacture color.  She had a very bad experience with a voice teacher and decided simply to work on her own, something that is extremely difficult to do without a thorough understanding of vocal technique and someone knowledgeable with wonderful ears to use as a sounding board.  She had the opportunity for an alto soloist position at a church and took it.  She decided to try to sound more like a mezzo and she began creating false color by over-lowering her larynx and holding it in place, while simultaneously tensing her tongue and pulling it far back in her mouth.  The results were disastrous.  Her top remained in remarkably good shape for a few years, but her middle voice and chest became a train-wreck.  She can’t sing in that part of her voice without sounding like she is gargling.  The sound is offensive, but no one tells her the truth and, inside of her head, it actually sounds warm and rich.  Unfortunately, now her wonderful top is being affected – she is losing her soprano spin and sheen and gaining a wobble instead, not a good trade-off.  This is the danger of a singer being too attached to the sound inside of her head.  Get the coordination working by feeling it and then accept thatsound as the best one for the audience, even if it doesn’t sound ideal to you.

Chiaroscuro, as the balanced combination of ring and color, is achieved by the coordination listed above for color and the coordination for ring listed in my previous blog post, Ring in the Professional Singing Voice – Part II.  All of the exercises listed in that post and in the post, Openness and Ease in the Professional Singing Voice – Part II, train the correct nasal resonance/ring and the openness that leads to color into the voice.  Below are several additional exercises to help develop color and chiaroscuro.


Ying – yang – yung – yoong – yah

Not written in IPA, this exercise helps train the ng thread into the voice when combined with different vowels.  The vowel followed by “ng” should be short and this should be sung with an open oro-pharynx.  The held “a” vowel at the end offers an opportunity for chiaroscuro.

1          –      1      –      1      –       1     –     1

Ying  –  yang  –   yung  –   yoong  – yah



Another historical exercise from the Swedish-Italian School, the cuperto (or cover) trains several different functions into the voice, including the high pianissimo, the thin edges of the cords, and color.  The dynamic markings are important.  This exercise should be done with the appoggio/body support engaged.  Try a one octave version first, before embarking on the more difficult two octave version.

All of the notes except the held ones are rapid.  You can either (1) go straight from the 1 to the 15 with a slide up; (2) take a breath after the 1, sing it again and slide up to the 15; or (3) take a breath after the 1 and enter right on the pianississimo high note (the hardest option).  The oo should feel less “sung” than normal.  The goal here is to get the healthy thin edge function of the cords with open space expanding behind it.


1 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 1 (hold)   15 (hold)

Ah – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –                oo

f                                                                  ppp

14 – 13 – 12 – 11 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


Ee –  oh  –  ee  –  oh  – ee

This exercise seems like a very basic warm-up without much of a point.  But in reality, it addresses the very essence of chiaroscuro – who knew?  The frontal vowels – ee, I (as in “it”), and e (closed eh vowel), naturally have more ring, whereas the back vowels – ah, oh, oo – naturally have more space and color.  Alternating the vowels allows each vowel to inform the other, creating a combination of ring and color.  There are two options here for vowel pairs.


1   –    2   –    3   –   4   –     5   –   4   –     3   –   2   –     1

1.  ee  –  oh  –  ee  –  oh  –   ee  –  oh  –   ee  –  oh  –    ee

2.  e    –  ah   –  e    –  ah   –  e    –  ah   –   e    –  ah   –   e



Color is the result of correct functioning of each unique voice and can not be artificially created or added without detriment to the voice.  Chiaroscuro is a highly-advanced combination of resonances, each of which must first be worked on individually before they can be blended and balanced.  Both are critical for a truly professional sound and the absence of color and/or chiaroscuro denotes a faulty technique.


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