The goal of the professional classical singer is to gain an excellent, reliable technique that then allows the singer to bring songs, arias and roles to life through musicianship and emotional connection. Many singers stay within that technique and are able to maintain beauty and consistency of tone while using vocal colorations and emotive devices to interpret the meaning of the text. Other singers make the opposite choice and give more import to expression, leaving technique behind. There are famous singers in both camps, but they are usually famous for very different reasons.
By singing only within the parameters of an excellent technique, it might be assumed that there are great limitations as to the types and amount of expression available to a singer. I would argue that there are no more limitations to the singer than there are to a painter when using only oils. While the medium, number of colors and size of the artwork might be limited, only the imagination of the painter limits the possible combinations of colors, shades, subjects, shapes, composition, style, etc. Anything from mediocrity to greatness is possible, depending upon the abilities, understanding and technique of the painter. The same is true for a singer. There is a whole world of expressive possibility within the framework of good vocal technique. With an innovative imagination, musical understanding and expertise and a wonderful technique, greatness is possible. The first attributes without a solid technique only lead to an interesting performance, but rarely to the beauty of tone that truly moves an audience.
And that is because music is about beauty, pure and simple. We respond to beauty instinctively and are drawn to it like moths to a flame. Beauty speaks to our souls. The voice in particular is so emotive an instrument for most of us, so intimately associated with our own feelings that we as an audience respond to it more strongly than other instruments. The combination of a gorgeous voice with the language of musical expression – dynamics, stresses, crescendos, decrescendos, phrasing, etc. – is almost hypnotic. Singing that is not beautiful has the exact opposite effect. So singing that is not beautiful is, in the end, an exercise in futility. It distances the audience versus drawing it in. As I have shown in this series, the qualities that are the requirements of the professional classical singing voice are those that are both healthy for the voice and extremely gratifying for the listener physiologically. Deliberately going outside of a healthy technique to “express” the music robs the singer’s voice of the necessary protections and robs the audience of the satisfying, moving experience it craves.
There are numerous examples of great singers who have stayed within the boundaries of their excellent techniques when interpreting. A short list of these singers to listen to is as follows: Franco Corelli, George London, Rosa Ponselle, Richard Tucker, Janet Baker, Kiri Te Kanawa, Monserrat Caballé and Enrico Caruso. These singers are technically consistent and always sing musically and expressively. As a consequence, they all had wonderful singing careers.
There are also many examples of singers who have placed the interpretive needs of the music first. Some of them still had major careers, but those careers were not based on tone-quality. A short list of these singers is as follows: Astrid Varnay, Maria Callas, José Carreras, Catherine Malfitano, Natalie Dessay, Guiseppe Di Stafano and Tito Gobbi. These singers started off technically much better than they ended, because of their choice to put expression first. This list could contain a number of other singers, but many young singers’ careers have not taken off, simply because they put interpretation ahead of technique/beauty of tone.
Due to a lack of education and understanding of what truly great singing is, some people have come to accept and enjoy singing that is technically inferior and sometimes screamed, believing it to be dramatic, impassioned, or even simply the best that is possible for difficult repertoire. Singers, from a lack of excellent teachers who understand how to train voices, don’t keep striving to develop themselves to their highest potential, but merely to be good enough to get into young artist programs and get some singing gigs. Both of these situations are very upsetting. The most beautiful music in the world deserves to be performed beautifully with the best voices and best techniques. The instrumental soloists of the world aren’t excused for having bad techniques. They are held to the highest standards of beauty of tone and of expression. The same should be true of singers. Singers should always strive to sing at their technical best for the health of their instruments and for the benefit of the audience. If there are not enough singers able to sing at a technically high level and interpret the music expressively, which I don’t believe for an instant, mechanisms need to be set in place to help modern singers reach the levels of the great singers of the past. Both the music and the audience deserve the best.
With this post, I conclude this series on the necessary qualities of the professional singing voice. I hope you have enjoyed it and gained some additional insight into the world of classical singing.
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