Modern Opera of 1917

As the foundation of all good singing is THE EMISSION OF A TONE OF MUSICAL QUALITY, and THE POWER TO STEADILY SUSTAIN AND BIND TONES (sostenuto and legato), it is obvious that if the student is really to SING Modern Grand Opera (Wagner wished his Music-Dramas to be SUNG, but seldom could get what he wanted) he must acquire first the technique, heretofore mentioned as necessary for the Old Style Italian Opera. Lilli Lehman [sic] did this.

What further in the way of vocal technique is demanded by Modern Grand Opera?

The “Old Style” opera referred to, from Mozart, whose “cast of melody is distinctly Italian,” down through Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, to Verdi, furnished the singer with “something to sing.” That is to say, the music written for the singer was adapted in its style to the nature of the vocal instrument. It gave to the voice opportunity to sustain and bind tones; it flowed onward in curved melodic outlines, with few angular or awkward skips. The singer was not often required to deliver many notes in a measure, with a syllable to carry every note, but was given musical material upon which it was not difficult to keep the stream of tone constant in its course.

The orchestral accompaniment was comparatively light. The Italian composers after Cimarosa, through criticised for a falling off in constructive power, are credited with a thorough technical mastery as “shown in an admirable skill in treating the human voice, and in handling the orchestra so as to make the voice effective.” Their orchestral accompaniment has sometimes been condemned as nothing more than the tinkling of a huge guitar, and as little expressive, though in certain instances this criticism is not fully justified.

The modern Grand Opera composer too often takes little thought of the peculiar resources and limitations of the human voice. He frequently covers it with a billowing ocean of orchestral sound, fiddles scraping, woodwind screeching, brass bellowing and percussion pounding their utmost, while one singer is expected to make himself heard above the din.

Furthermore the modern composer of Grand Opera is expected to make a serious study of the various orchestral instruments, their resources, limitations, and that “best range” in which each can exhibit its most characteristic tone-quality, and its special adaptability for delivering a motive, melodic phrase, or accompanimental matter. He writes violin passages, not piano passages, for the violin. He will not keep the clarinet constantly in the upper third of its range nor on its weak middle notes. He will study how to get the most characteristic color and delivery from each instrument in the orchestra.

Judging from much of his work, he makes no such study of the singing voice in its various “classes.” He does not sufficiently take into account its “best working range;” its inherent and characteristic power as an instrument for sustaining and binding tones. He often complicates the singer’s problem by treating the voice almost as a percussion instrument. He does not give it “singable” music, in the ordinary sense of that term. On the contrary, he assigns to it long stretches of declamatory material, with angular intervals or “skips,” many syllables to the phrase, and a plentiful sprinkling of the “explosive” and harsh consonants. He does not always “lay out” his climaxes so as to fit them to the most sonorous part of the solo voice employed.

It is therefore plain that in addition to the training which was sufficient on the side of vocal technique for the adequate delivery of the roles of the Old Style Italian Grand Opera, the singer who would succeed in Modern Grand Opera must make special preparation for his work.

First he must  be sure that he is well grounded in the management of the breath, for only then can he be certain of the necessary freedom of the vocal instrument, the fullest development of power, and that his voice will endure. Next that he has developed to the utmost the “power” of his voice, remembering that the pure tone carries farther than the impure tone. This means the fullest possible use of the resonance chambers quite as much as it means the acquirement of skill in using a controlled breath pressure.

As a special preparation he must study the problem of the delivery of the consonants. It is upon the vowels that we sing, express feeling; it is with the consonants that we make ourselves understood. Upon the skilled delivery of the consonants largely depends the preservation of the legato, or true singing style and, to a degree, the “carrying power” of the tone.

The larger the auditorium, and the stronger the body of orchestral sound, the greater the “percussion” necessary for the “explosive” consonants. Under the same circumstances, the sub-vocal and vocal consonants must receive more than ordinary “vocality”.

This special consonantal delivery can be exhibited without involved the loss of breath control, and the singer must study assiduously to obtain this result. Otherwise he will corrupt the tone on the vowel and lose the legato – in other words, he will cease to sing, and become a mere shouter or declaimer.

Next there must be prolonged and careful, intelligent study of the item of “coloring” the voice for expressional purposes. The range of emotional expression in the modern Grand Opera is much greater than that of the Rossini-Donizetti Italian Grand Opera. The modern singer must strive to develop to the full his powers in that direction.

Nevertheless it must not be forgotten that Grand Opera is after all a bundle of “conventions.” The auditor has to overlook much and take much for granted. Those who argue with “realistic” singing to the utmost limit in modern Grand Opera must fail to see that it is unreasonable to ask from the SINGING voice that which properly belongs to the speaking voice. The great operatic artist is he who, while continuing to SING – to sustain and connect musical tones – by his skill in “coloring” his voice and his artistic diction, manages to create in the auditor a feeling that there is appropriateness to the word, the music and the dramatic situation in his singing. It has been done, and it can be done again.


Wodell, Frederick W., “Department for Singers: The Vocal Technique of Grand Opera Singers”, Etude Magazine, April 1917: 266.