Deckengemälde von Marc Chagall im Pariser Palais Garnier (Ausschnitt) © Thomas Prochazka

Deckengemälde von Marc Chagall im Pariser Palais Garnier (Ausschnitt)

© Thomas Prochazka

[EN] About Singing, Or:
Conrad L. Osborne And Others On “Chest Voice”

Von Thomas Prochazka

[...] Almost everyone knows today, many voice teachers tend to reject the full use of the chest voice. So much for a reaction to my impressions about the performances of Tosca and La traviata at the beginning of the season at the Vienna State Opera.

II.
Almost? Full? Rather? The choice of words seems vague. As if the commentator wanted to make a claim but is not sure whether it is true. The comment continued: There is always the fear that the voices would be made ‘heavy‘ and ruined. An eminent singer once said in a course that the chest voice was the lower, primitive and the head voice was the higher, spiritual.

We all know this eminent singer and about her upbringing in the German School as well as the fact that she—with her interpretations mainly characterized by intelligence and great care—hardly ever relied on the chest voice to achieve the vocal drama that, if one listens to the great old vocal artists, Mozart came to expected from the singers in his Italian operas. (Because this kind of singing was common practice at that time.) 1

III.
A soprano wrote to me that this comment was spreading the more than 50 years old crap about heavy chest voice to be harmful. A myth. And: The problem is that a lot of teachers at the colleges and universitites pass on this crap. And believe in it passionately. They never checked it. So, unable to produce a single clear tone themselves, they have to believe in an ideology. Unfortunately, they don't know how ‘cool‘ it is to sing chest notes, to have a well-developed voice.

IV.
Are the instructions of—among others—Virgilio Mazzocchi (1597 – 1646), Manuel Garcia II(1805 – 1906) or Mathilde Marchesi (1821 – 1913), who were considered as great voice teachers in their times, no longer worth anything? (And if so, why would that be so?) After all, the knowledge of the good teachers of these generations produced an abundance of great voices. Voices that had a core. And for whom the use of the chest register was the most natural thing in the world: Because they, who had grown up without the microphone, knew about the power of their chest voices.

Conrad L. Osborne: Opera as Opera. The State of the Art; Proposito Press, 2018; Hardcover, 827 pages. · ISBN 978-0-999-43660-8

Conrad L. Osborne
»Opera as Opera. The State of the Art«
Proposito Press, 2018; Hardcover, 827 pages.
ISBN 978-0-999-43660-8
USD 45,–
Available via amazon.com

Conrad  L. Osborne, the doyen of American opera critics, singer, teacher, and author of the book Opera as Opera2, said in an event for Opera America in September 2018: We’ve got this big system, this big architectural artist system, where all this talent—it’s like a big funnel, hundreds, thousands of singers every year go pouring into the big end of it, and at the other end out come people who have survived, the people who can go on into being associate young artists, then maybe get careers. And out of all of those people there is not a single dramatic soprano, a single dramatic tenor, a single basso buffo—whatever category of real operatic voice you want to name. There are a lot of good musicians, there are a lot of competent singers but … but somehow something’s wrong there and that has to do with training.

How do those allegedly “many” voice teachers who tend to reject the full use of the chest voice explain their assertion? How do you argue the—among professionals—undisputed fact that Birgit Nilsson was the last dramatic soprano of the caliber that has been taken for granted in the history of classical singing?

Conrad Osborne: I can’t tell you how many sopranos I’ve had in my studio who have been through respectable university or conservatory training and they have been told never use your chest voice. I mean, don’t use it, don’t cultivate it at all. Now … a few people can get away with that for a while and you can get pretty voices but it’s … it’s ludicrous.

V.
The time of the underdeveloped chest voice began around 50 years ago. Little by little, more and more singers were pushed onto the market who, according to Osborne, offer an intelligent interpretation instead of the simple, thrilling deployment of a great voice. Can one assume: in the absence of the latter? Because, obviously, the choice is only open to those who in fact have great voices.

It might help that “chest” doesn’t describe just any low note; it identifies a tonal quality, and the tonal quality depends on the activation of a particular set of neuromuscular coordinations–adjustments of the vocal cords combined with the encouragement of certain resonantal factors. Many of today’s female singers, unlike those of 100 years ago, are reluctant to engage these coordinations. They’re often taught not to, out of fear that they will be unable to navigate the resulting “break,” will “drive chest too high,” etc.3

While the absence of “chest” is more obvious in women's voices, where it accounts for only a small portion of the total range and the quality is a definite contrast with the rest of the voice, the relative absence of the same function, the same laryngeal engagement, is also (in Osborne’s opinion, among others) at least partly responsible for the loss of calibre and core in so many contemporary male voices. We just don't think of it that way because most of the male range falls below the passaggio, and the change in quality is not so severe. So the problem applies to all classical voices, of all categories.

If you take a young woman, says Osborne elsewhere, it doesn’t even matter which kind of soprano voice or mezzo soprano voice they may have, light or heavy, big or small, she will often not have anything much in the way of a chest register down there where it belongs. Then, when you start to cultivate it, you create a new series of problems. You create a break, a passaggio. Before, there wasn’t any passaggio because there wasn’t any chest voice. The voice just fades as it comes down to the bottom. If it is a nice, pretty, lyric voice, she can go on singing that way—maybe very effectively for a while. But in the long run …?

Osborne discusses these and other technical vocal questions relating to the art form in his book Opera as Opera. (I already wrote about it.) In doing so, he does not limit himself to just one voice category but rather analyzes the observed phenomena (and, I am tempted to add, the undesired developments) of the various vocal families. Osborne compares the voices of Luisa Tetrazzini and Joan Sutherland, among others, and provides numerous examples and references for review. A recommendation for all opera fans and—actually—a must-read for everyone who is professionally involved with opera.

VI.
In an article for the New York Times in 2008, Peter  G. Davis asked the question about the new Carusos and Ponselles: Is it simply that extraordinary vocal power is a rarity of nature, and that a Caruso comes to us only once in a century? No, say numerous impresarios, managers, voice teachers, coaches and administrators of organizations that assist budding musical talent. Potentially great voices are reasonably common, they say, but conditions in the music world today are not conducive to their recognition and development.4

Is there, perhaps, the possibility that one of the reasons of the decline in the art of singing are those many voice teachers who tend to refuse full use of the chest voice?

  1. See the review of the recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni under the direction of Bruno Walter at the 1937 Salzburg Festival.
  2. Conrad L. Osborne: Opera as Opera. The State of the Art, Proposito Press, 2018; Hardcover, 827 pages, ISBN 978-0-999-43660-8; USD 45.–. Available via amazon.com
  3. See Conrad L. Osbornes blog post of July 27, 2018: Q & A, Mostly About Voice, Plus a CLO Glossary.
  4. Peter Davis: Where are the great singers of tomorrow?, The New York Times, April 20, 1980. Quoted after: Joseph Shore: Where Have All the great Singers Gone?, to be accessed via www.historicaltenors.net

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