The particular subject of vocal mis-classification comes more and more to the fore in the training of classical singers in the present day. Labeling a voice before it’s fullest development is a grave mistake in teaching.
In CCM styles, vocal classification tends not to be such a bête noire in working with these singers because they are not stringently required to adhere to a particular classification. This permits some freedom on their part not to box themselves into repertoire choices – it largely doesn’t matter.
The classical world, however, isn’t as forgiving. Once a singer is ‘fached’ (or categorized), they tend to be stuck in that category. And there are A LOT of vocal categories nowadays. A humorous video I recently watched featured one hapless singer referring to herself as “a soubrette coloratura with a slight spinto coloring”. Huh?
In the Ricordi three-volume collection entitled L’Arte del vocalizzo, author Elio Battaglia writes:
It is not unusual in vocal pedagogy to encounter interesting and sometimes surprising aspects of applied psychology. In this case, the aforementioned categories (soprano leggero, di coloratura, lirico, lirico-spinto, lirico-leggero, drammatico, drammatico di agilità [this after the advent of Maria Callas], sfogato, Falcon [referring to the vocal characteristics of French singer Marie Falcon], verista or pucciniano-mascagnano, soubrette, tenor di grazia, leggero, falsettista, contraltino, di mezzo carattere, drammatico, lirico, lirico spinto, Heldentenor (tenore eroico), Wagnerian, and who knows what else!!) – most often served as a convenient alibi for incompentent or poorly qualified teachers who, unable to ‘discover’ the genuine technical potential of their students, saw fit instead to ghettoize them for life into precisely defined vocal roles. We know that the intuition of Tullio Serafin (who was not a teacher of voice but a famous orchestral conductor) made it possible for the young Callas to reveal another facet of her talent, passing over the course of just a few days from the Brünnhilde and Turandot of Wagner and Puccini to Bellini’s Elvira, an unthinkable proposition during the 1930s and 1940s. A special subcategory, the SOPRANO DRAMMATICO DI COLORATURA, was soon hatched to emulate this great singer, little did it matter that coloratura had always been the prerogative of nearly all voices, whether male (e.g., the bass trill in Rossini’s Mosè) or female, just as keyboard dexterity pertains to any self-respecting pianist. So equivocal had the state of vocal education become in Italy that it would have had three sopranos sing La traviata, matched to the different kinds of difficulty in each act. Yet Violetta’s vocalism seems, on the contrary, to share the same technical issues as her kindred Gilda in Rigoletto, and Leonora in Il trovatore, where naturally they are resolved with the perfectly familiar ‘retrospective’ approach. A close examination of these three characters seems to suggest that Verdi may well have been thinking of the same kind of voice when he created them. This would vindicate Violetta’s canto fiorito (not coloratura!) in the first act, where both ‘brilliant’ and ‘dramatic’ agility are manifestly evident.”
This trend to fach singers wouldn’t be a problem if singers didn’t need ‘categorization’ for some reason at an early age. Young singers with a vocal talent that present a certain vocal quality or timbre often get pigeoned into that quality, even if it is not native to their instrument. Anthony Frisell, in his book on the tenor voice, elucidates this rather succinctly:
“For example, if a beginner’s voice is incorrectly classified as a baritone, which is frequently the case with a “heavier” voice tenor, or a tenor with absolutely no “head voice” development, he will often make a conscious effort to produce vocal qualities and characteristics which is associated with the baritone voice, thereby denying the true qualities and muscular needs of his own “natural” voice. The first step in correcting the problem is to change the student’s mental concepts of his voice.”
Frisell hits on a very important issue here: vocal classification can also be a psychological issue. The singer who is told that they are a baritone, when in fact they may be a ‘natural’ tenor, will ADOPT a sound quality that reflects the baritonal classification. He will work in accordance to match the psychological ‘pre-concept’ INTO his central nervous system.
This is one of the greatest injustices foisted upon the classical pedagogy world: misclassification of the human voice. I often wonder if this doesn’t also have an effect on the art form itself – robbing us of a variety of colors and choices in operas because we have become too-rigid in our thinking about the voice. This is something that didn’t exist in the height of the bel canto era.
Richard Miller wrote about the phenomenon of training a voice ‘to an end’ in his book On the Art of Singing:
“One can only speculate as to the number of sopranos who for technical reasons suffer from short top voices that have been forced into the “mezzo mold” with a bovine-like timbre that only minimally relates to the natural instrument. What must be the count on short-ranged baritones who have not learned to negotiate upper range, and who have therefore been taught to “darken” the voice in order to sound like basses. “Bassitis” is a major contributor to vocal disrepair among male singers, equaled only by the introduction of “bite and brass” into the tenor voice in the hope of the making it sound “resonant.” Or who can number the legion of soubrette voices that have been forced to scream their way into the spinto literature, going far beyond their native capabilities?
If a singer is a baritone, and if his instrument is taught to function efficiently, he will sound like a baritone; an efficiently functioning bass will sound like a bass. If one is not a member of one of these categories, and if one tries to superimpose on the instrument a Fach coloration that is not native to that instrument, one will have succeeded only in producing a manufactured facsimile. The studio may be impressed, but not the professional world.”
What seems to be missing here is a type of training that doesn’t impose from an EXTERNAL source a classification on a singer’s voice that shouldn’t exist until the voice is functionally free. Singer’s egos will take on these ‘fachs’ and adopt them into their own personas – a dangerous and deadly aspect of the art, because it doesn’t allow for a ‘what-if’ way of thinking about the voice. For example, what if we explored the head voice? What if I could sing higher/lower than I originally thought possible, and what if those things FELT GOOD?
The singers of the bel canto era sang a diverse array of repertoire and didn’t necessarily “specialize” according to vocal limitations. This diversity of roles continued into the early part of the 20th Century. Sopranos alone sang widely diverse roles because their techniques allowed it. Leonora in Fidelio one night, followed by Amina in Sonnambula the next.
My wish is that we would WAIT a while before we slap on a classification, and simply allow the voice before us to grow in range, flexibility, and color. No singer should ever have to go ‘back to the drawing board’ because their voices were trained to ‘sound a certain way’ which has compromised their instrument. This is cruel and unfair.
Allow the voice TO BE what it is – and work in a way that doesn’t impose an aesthetic preference on the sound. You MAY be surprised by the trees that blossom from well-tended seeds.