Callas Conundrum (Part 2)

In a functional voice approach, more open-mouth positions tend to be affiliated with ‘chestier’ tones, and less-open mouth positions tend to be consistent with the participation of the head tones. It is obvious from the image above that Callas is singing with a very dominant chest register to achieve her most dramatic effects.

As will be discovered throughout the rest of these posts, the balance of registers in Callas’s voice was the primary cause of the greatest amount of technical issues in her sound. Since registers are a LARYNGEAL event, any imbalance here would radiate out into other parts of the tripartite vocal mechanism. This would have set up a ‘domino-like’ effect in the totality of Callas’s technique. Therefore, issues with breath and breathing would be a natural result. If the actual valve (the larynx) is functioning improperly, problems with breath management and control are a natural corollary. Since breath issues are more kinesthetically obvious to a singer than the finer workings of the laryngeal muscular complex, it would make sense that this singer would attribute her problems to her ‘support’. But would logic and reason tell us that this GREAT artist simply forgot how to breathe properly for singing? This seems to stretch the limits of credulity that Maria Callas simply forgot how best to breathe.

As was seen in the previous post, vocal issues in Callas’s technique were apparent even as a YOUNG singer, and the wobble was already present in her singing as a student in the Conservatoire.

According to Carol Baggott Forte in her Essay “Could Callas’s Voice Have Been Saved?” she identifies several functional issues in Callas’s voice:

  1. A ‘locked’ registration. By this she refers to as a setting of the vocal cords that is maintained over several pitches, rather than allowing a “changing and rebalancing” on successive notes. This area of problem is most obvious in the range of G#4 to C#5 demonstrated tones that might be referred to as ‘fuzzy’. As time passed in Callas’s career these tones more and more became to be known as the ‘hole’ in Callas’s voice.
  2. Tremolo. These are tones that exhibit a very fast vibrato rate and are also accompanied by constriction of the superior, medium, and inferior pharyngeal constrictors.  It is in evidence in the Nedda/Silvio Duet on the Pagliacci recording from 1955.
  3. Wobble. This is vocal quality that most singers and teachers would identify as problematic for Callas. Even she admitted herself to problems with it. This could be due to the over-dominant chest register that was forced too high in the tonal scale.  In this clip this vocal phenomenon can be heard in the clip below at 2:54 and also at 3:41.
  4. A poorly coordinated ‘break’ in the lower middle range. The result of this was that Callas sounded weak when descending phrases ended in the area of D4 and F#4. She would also “act” on her chest register, pushing it through the register overlap in order to conceal the fact that her head voice was very weak.
  5. Tonal sharpness or flatness. The fact that Callas was under pitch was MOST decidedly not a hearing deficiency but one of an imbalance of muscular tension. When Callas removed the chest register in the middle range, the tones (A-flat 4 through C5) “sagged flat”. According to Forte, the tones that were flat were functionally healthier than the tones that sharpened, possibly owing to the concomitant throat tension that came with the sharpened notes.
  6. Nasality: which became more noticeable in the later part of her career. The cause of nasality is a mix of constrictive elements in the throat. It could be that Callas was using the nasality as a way of achieving register balance in her voice and ‘lessening’ the weight of the chest voice.
  7. Strident tones. These tones were due to the result of a higher laryngeal position and the presence of tongue constriction.

In the next post, I’ll include some clips of Callas and discuss some of what can be observed.