The Vocal Technique of the Grand Opera Singer

What sort of vocal technique was needed by the singer of the “Old School” of Italian Opera?

The voice must show at least these tonal characteristics:

Clearness – freedom from defects, such as harshness or huskiness.

Steadiness – no tremolo

Power – as much as possible this side of loss of musical quality.

There must be command of voice so as to show:

Flexibility – power to “shade,” make variations of force without injuring quality.

Agility – power to deliver rapid “passages” or “divisions,” arpeggi, trills, ornaments of all kinds, with a true LEGATO, yet with distinct articulation of each pitch, and this at various degrees of power.

Tone-coloring – power to vary the “color” or “hue” of the tone, independently of the vowel, or of the “method” of production, or of the pitch (within limits), according to the varying emotional content of the words and music and, to a degree, of the dramatic situation.

Clearness depends, in the first instance, upon the unimpeded, natural action of the vocal cords in generating tone, thus making it possible the correct “attack” or “start” of a note. If the tone be not well-born, it cannot be improved through the influence of the resonating chambers. Such an attack is the result, first of securing and retaining absolute freedom from rigidity throughout the vocal instrument, and second, of the willing of the realization in sound of a correct tonal concept. ON THE BASIS OF THE AFORESAID CONDITION OF NON-RIGIDITY.

Steadiness of tone depends upon the non-rigidity of the vocal instrument, a correct tonal concept, and a control of breath-pressure exercised upon the principle of the least possible effort that will bring the desired result.

Power of tone depends upon the condition of non-rigidity of the vocal instrument, a correct tonal concept, adequate “attack,” skillful breath pressure, and full use of all available sources of resonance.

Flexibility depends upon non-rigidity of the vocal instrument, correct concept of the tonal effect desired, and of the accompanying sensations. Also upon a well-developed control of varying breath-pressure, and skill in the use of the non-rigid instrument.

Agility depends upon continuous freedom of the instrument, and a strictly economic use of breath-pressure. Also upon a correct concept of the measure and rhythmic accents, and of the figure or phrase as a “musical unit,” rather than as a succession of individual notes. There must be also a keen appreciation of the imperative necessity of “letting the vocal instrument do it,” rather than trying to “make” or “compel” it to function. In passing it may be mentioned that all passages to be sung on one vowel must be done without movement of the jaw, except possibly to allow the chin gradually to drop a little, of its own weight, when ascending to the higher pitches.

Tone-coloring depends upon continuous freedom of the instrument and absolute control of the singing breath. Also upon the possession of fancy, imagination, and sensitiveness to the emotional significance of music, word and scene. There must be a giving up of the whole self – a becoming, for the moment, poet, musician and playwright in one. There can be a mechanical preparation for this, in the technical study of the high and low resonances or colors of the various vowels. But, in the last analysis, the vocal artist is able to “color” his tones, or “act with the voice,” because he has a free instrument, under skilled control, and is “improvising” (as it seems); identifying himself with the thought, feeling, personage, situation to be expressed and portrayed.


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

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