One of the hallmarks of the sound of a professional classical singer is a sense of resonance, spaciousness and complete lack of effort in creating the sound. The sound spins out as if it were the most natural occurrence in the world, instead of a result of hard work and countless hours of practice. This is the deceptive ease of a master. Great athletes, musicians, dancers, public speakers, writers, etc. all make what they do seem simple and easy, creating a belief in any unthinking audience members that it actually is easy. In many ways, this denigrates the great effort and numerous sacrifices made to reach the pinnacles of accomplishment. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, true mastery takes much time and dedication, something that people are beginning to forget in our fast-paced, want-it-now society.
The openness of a well-trained classical voice combined with ease of production creates in the listener a quality of being carried away on a wave of unimpeded, beautiful tone. The openness and ease should be completely consistent through the entire vocal range. There is a physiological sense of relaxation that occurs in the listener as a result. Many technical vocal aspects combine to create this effect, but the singer also feels openness and ease in the production of the voice when achieving it. Because the coordination of the whole instrument is necessary to accomplish this, there are gradations of openness and ease in different singers, which can be used to determine the level of quality of their techniques. The less openness and ease, the less accomplished the singer, despite the quality of the natural attributes of each singer’s unique instrument. The more openness and ease, the more accomplished and professional the sound is. This is an important point. Openness and ease signifies that the vocal protection of an open oro-pharnyx is present and the singer is utilizing resonance versus muscle to amplify the sound. Singers with the best techniques and the most open and easy sounds should be the ones performing on the world’s stages today, not simply the ones who can make only a decent sound, but look the part or can sing while doing a handstand. Audiences not only deserve to hear the very best singers, but singers without good enough techniques should not be put under the strain of performing taxing roles regularly over an orchestra, when they could very easily damage their voices.
The vast majority of the great singers in the past have had the qualities of openness and ease in their voice, though some lost that quality after years of performing. Below are just a few examples of singers to listen to:
Baritone Robert Merrill used his gorgeous voice very wisely and had a very open and easy sound. In this example of his singing “Di Provenza” from La Traviata, a listener can experience the relaxing effects of a consistently beautiful, resonant voice.
The dramatic coloratura, Joan Sutherland, certainly made the very difficult bel canto rep sound as easy as rolling out of bed. This recording of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor shows her effortless-sounding production and incredible vocal flexibility.
Mirella Freni, a full lyric soprano, had a very open, natural-sounding production for many years. When she tried late in her career to transition into spinto soprano repertoire, that changed somewhat, because she did not have the vocal requirements necessary and she started singing more heavily to make up for the lack. Here she sings the Cherry Duet from L’amico Fritz with Luciano Pavarotti. It is early in both of their careers, so Pavarotti retains a lovely warmth and color from an open oro-pharynx that he lost later on. This duet is a delight.
The incomparable dramatic mezzo, Giulietta Simionato, sang very consistently throughout her career. She possessed a magnificent voice and definitely exemplified openness and ease. This duet from Aida with Mario del Monaco showcases her consistency, while del Monaco has exciting high notes, but clearly does not maintain a completely open middle voice and sounds a little shouty from time to time.
As an example of the opposite of ease, there have been a few famous singers who have traded on the sympathetic tension created in an audience when it senses the singer is in vocal trouble and won’t make the high note or through the next few minutes of the role. Maria Callas was one of the most notable singers of this ilk. With an inconsistent technique, fiery temper and arguably misdiagnosed vocal fach, Callas’ performances were noted for exciting audiences by her creative character interpretations and, as her career progressed, their active participation of willing her to make it through the performance vocally. Franco Corelli was another singer who evoked this type of reaction in his audiences. While he had a much more consistent technique than Callas, he was extremely insecure about it and worried about his high notes to the point that he had extreme stage fright. In his performances, that worry was transmitted to his audiences, who would “root” for him to succeed. While this type of tension can sometimes be temporarily gratifying in singers with high-quality vocal instruments like Callas and Corelli, it becomes very wearing. Those listeners who enjoy this type of tension do not understand the nature of true classical singing.
On this concert performance of Callas in 1962 in Hamburg, Germany, she is in a little trouble in her “Ernani, involami” from Ernani. Go to 22:24 for the start of the aria. She is unable to keep her voice completely open and easy from top to bottom throughout and her high notes are precarious.
Openness in the voice is a result of an open oro-pharnyx – the throat and back of the mouth, including the soft palate. The throat or pharynx should have a relaxed, slightly lowered larynx with a laryngeal tilt, while the throat muscles are opened and widened in the pre-vomit reflex. In the mouth, the soft palate should be moderately high, wide and relaxed, as the back of the throat expands out three-dimensionally and the pillars of fauces (the vertical ridge in the opening arch between the front and back of the mouth) widen. It is important that the tongue be relaxed and released forward with the tip of the tongue behind the back front teeth, not in a bunch at the back of the mouth, which cuts off resonance, creates excess tension and effects the functioning of the larynx and vocal cords.
However, just like correct nasal resonance needs an open oro-pharnx in order to function appropriately (as discussed in my previous posting), an open oro-pharnyx can not exist in a vacuum. Correct resistance in the abdominal and lower back muscles, along with activation of the pectoral muscles near the sternum with the appoggio, are needed to manage the breath-flow and provide support for the voice, allowing it to keep the oro-pharynx open and create a sense of ease. Without the right amount of energy and coordination of the different muscle sets, it is impossible to find true ease in singing. A thin, fast stream of air and a healthy approximation of the vocal cords using the thin edges is also a requirement for an open, easy sound. Use of too much muscle mass in the vocal cords results in a labored, heavy sound.
I heard a young spinto tenor with a beautiful voice sing on a master class not long ago. He has been performing in some small opera houses and at festivals, etc., and is having some success with his career. His voice is now mature enough to sing his appropriate rep, but he consistently gets negative reviews for his singing. He has great difficulty making it through an entire role and is hoarse before the opera is over. When I heard him sing, I knew why. He had decent support and his vocal cords were approximating correctly. However, he was only using his oro-pharngeal space in a very limited way and the voice lacked correct nasal resonance or ring. As a consequence, he did not have the all-important vocal protection that would allow him to sing a whole role easily.
Since there are so many aspects to openness and ease, it is difficult to narrow it down to just a few exercises that will accomplish that. So, below are some exercises to help start singers on the first steps of the journey.
The ng exercise in my previous blog post on ring also helps teach the soft palate to raise. The pop on the held 8th should be sudden and the “ah” on the 8th should be held as the soft palate continues to lift and widen and the back wall of the mouth expands. After achieving that openness, maintain it on the descending arpeggio.
1 – 3 rest 3 – 5 rest 5 – 8 (hold)
ng cough off ng cough off ng
8 (hold) 5 – 3 – 1
(pop) ah – – – – – – –
5 – 3 pause 5 – 3 pause 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1
rrrr-u rrrr-u rrrr-u
This exercise uses a trilled rr (like the double rr in Spanish and Italian) before an “oo” or “u” vowel. The tongue trill helps release tongue tension as the u vowel opens the back space while raising the soft palate and expanding the back wall of the mouth.
Mmmm – i – E – a – o – u
5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1
Hum (w/ tongue btwn lips) i – E – a – o – u
The hum with the tongue between the lips releases the tongue forward, opening up the back space. Think of the soft palate and back wall expanding. When singing the vowels directly afterwards, bring the tongue back in the mouth, but keep it relaxed and forward, allowing the open back space to remain the same.
1 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 3 – 5 – 3 – 1
q-x q-x q-x q-x qu ———————- x
This exercise is from Manuel Garcia II and is definitely not IPA, but works well if the two consonants are pronounced just as they are. The “k” sound in the q pops the palate up, the “u” expands the back space and the opening of the jaw releases the larynx down, while the x brings the tongue forward and out of the throat.
An open oro-pharngeal space is crucial to adding beauty, resonance, color and ease to the voice, as well as providing the vocal protection needed for a long, healthy operatic career. Once a singer begins opening this space, the voice is on the path to healthy functioning.
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