The Voice

The Operatic voice

So why do they sing like that?

There is a lot to say about the operatic voice. In fact, there’s so much to debate, so much to disagree about that one page, one website, or even one book cannot cover half of it. There are hundreds, if not thousands of schools, all of which pretend to have the right technique, and the truth about how to sing correctly. 

All young opera singers in all of this big world put forward their voice teachers. It is sometimes the first question they are asked, and the first proof of their undeniable skill they themselves see as indubitable.

 – I studied for Gianfranco Cecchele, who studied for Marcello del Monaco, who studied for the great Arturo Melocchi…

operatic voiceIt would seem very strange if a football player in every interview claimed that the reason why he’s so good is that he was trained by NN. Or if a Nobel prize winner in every situation praised one of his/her professors as the reason for his/her success. But with music, that is the norm.

And of all musicians, the singers are the most consistent in this matter. 

The limits of the operatic voice teacher.

The naked truth is that no voice coach can teach everything. A smart student knows what his teacher’s strengths are, and is prepared to get as much as he can from any pedagog or fellow singer. But he should also know what the teacher’s weaknesses are and be prepared to search elsewhere to complete the preparation. 

If you want to really learn how to sing, you need to take responsibility for your training yourself. Because, more than for any other instrument, nobody knows a singer’s voice better than the one who is actually using it.

operatic voice
Arturo Melocchi

A good friend and fellow opera singer (who is also a teacher, just like many of us…) once said:

 – Teaching singing is very different from, let’s say, teaching to play the violin. Imagine you meet your young pupil for the first time. Before you can even start to instruct how to play, you have to construct the instrument from a piece of wood. Then you will have to teach your student how to manufacture it, repair it, and maintain it from the same piece of wood. But some pupils want to play bigger instruments. and so you need to be able to build a Viola too, and a Cello, and a double bass, and maybe even some other strange old or very modern string instrument. Finally, all this needs to be done in complete darkness…

No, we can’t see what we are doing.

The last remark is important. And that is probably why there is so much disagreement when it comes to singing. We cannot see the instrument. The vocal cords, the larynx, the base of the tongue… All that is hidden from us. And so is the diaphragm, the lungs, the ribs, and all the bits and pieces that make up the respiratory machine. 

From the sixties and seventies, technological development has made it possible to actually see the vocal cords when they are engaged. We can register and film what happens when we sing. And we can measure sound very precisely. We still can’t film the lungs and the support mechanism, but we know more today than we did just a few decades ago. That is a big help for scientists, but for the performer, seeing the vocal cords doesn’t really help in understanding how the singing is actually done.

While singing and producing a pleasant sound with your voice isn’t very difficult, the fact that the voice is visually hidden makes it very difficult for the teacher, the one who’s instructing. You can’t just point with your finger and correct a mistake. Instead, you will have to use all kinds of metafores and flowery language… And quite a lot of guessing. 

Sydney Opera House

So, why do opera singers have those strange voices?

It comes down to volume. Or, more precisely, not really volume, but the ability to be heard through an orchestra. 

The voice is actually a rather weak instrument. Luckily, it has some characteristics that let it be heard from a distance. The opera singer develops and strengthens these characteristics through training and practice. And this is how it works:

All sounds, except a computer-generated sinus-wave, have more than one tone. It has the main tone, the fundamental frequency, but above that, it also produces other tones. These extra tones are called overtones. Look at a guitar cord. When you hit the E string it will produce an E when it vibrates in it’s full length. But it will also produce an E one octave up as the string while doing the fundamental frequency, also vibrates in half its length. Then it will produce a B when it vibrates in one-third of its length, another E at one-fourth, a G# at one-fifth of its length… The single E string will create a harmony of E – E – B – E – G# – B – D – E – F# and so on. 

voiceHow strong and weak these overtones are, together with the sound of the attack of the string, determines if a guitar sounds like a guitar. A clarinet has other individual volumes of every one of these and its series of overtones will make it sound like… Yes, like a clarinet.

The vocal ring – The Squillo.

What the opera singer is trained to do, is to create very strong overtones in a spectrum of roughly 3MHz – 4MHz. This is the spectrum where the string orchestra is weak, and it’s the spectrum where the human ear is particularly sensitive. How this is done depends to a great degree on what voice it is… If it’s a high female operatic voice, a soprano, or a low male voice, a bass. Still, the idea is much the same.

operatic voice
Luciano Pavarotti

That is what gives the opera voice that special metallic sound, known by names such as Vocal ring, Resonance, Ping, or Squillo (Italian). 

It is this typical sound quality that lets an opera singer penetrate the orchestra and arrive at listeners 30, or as much as 40 meters away. Even though some operatic voices can be measured to be voluminous, it is not the strength that cuts through the orchestra… It’s the Squillo, the vocal ring. 

One last thing. The first operas often didn’t have a big orchestra. And the instruments were weaker. Back in the early days, the singing wasn’t focused on great, strong melodic lines sung with a metallic and penetrating voice. Instead, the best singers were those who had soft, pleasant, and reasonably flexible voices. With time, the volume of the orchestra grew, the opera houses got bigger, and the performers needed more metallic (bigger) voices. 

The Fach system.

The Fach system (from German… subject. In this case, vocal specialization) is a method of classifying singers, or even better, the roles they are performing according to the range, weight, and color of the voices required. It is used primarily in Europe, especially in German-speaking countries. It divides opera voices into 31 (!) categories. 

It can be a help for opera houses, non-expert promoters, and agents to understand and classify different voices and singers. It is not a help for the singers themself, or students in training, to understand what they’re supposed to sing, though. The danger of trying to squeeze a voice into a closed category cannot be overrated. There are so many factors to consider… Personality, training, stamina… The conductor’s preferences, the theatre’s volume, how big the orchestra is…

I always, always stress the personal responsibility to my students. The artists should always consider and value for themselves what to sing. And the foundation for that should be what feels right, what feels easy, and what seems unharmful for the poor vocal cords. Sometimes you must take on tasks that might seem overwhelming and too difficult. And sometimes that can feel uncomfortable. But still, you have to consider and value. Not just take some self-appointed expert’s advice.

The great Nicolai Gedda was convinced by his agent to sing Lohengrin in 1966. After the first performance, he broke the contract, paid a hefty penalty, and never tried it again. He also, according to himself, denied singing Pinkerton in Stockholm when he was young. He was again talked into auditioning for the role. But he consciously sang as bad as he could, just to be refuted.

Remember, you only have two vocal cords, and they cannot be replaced.

The six major voice categories:

Female voices:

Male voices