Who Do You Think Sang This Stuff?

Dinner conversations with fellow singers can be a real treat, and banter never ceases for those that love to talk about their voices. We are a loquacious bunch!

Often, conversations are with various voice types, some friends, others acquaintances, and some ‘just along for the ride.’ When the discussion turns to vocal technique, I always listen to the conversations with more than a piqued interest.

A soprano friend, who sings only a repertoire of dramatic music, decries the idea of singing florid music. “My voice is very large, and it is very difficult to move. I just can’t get my voice to work in coloratura. I’m much more comfortable singing dramatic repertoire. It feels really good in my voice.”

Another soprano, also of an apparent dramatic bent, informs me, “What if I LIKE singing Wagner at 22? What if it just feels right to me and I’m not supposed to sing any of that coloratura/agility stuff?”

Once I’ve ingested a common diet of this vocal repast, I ask quizzically, “What do you think dramatic sopranos sang before Wagner? What did dramatic singers do during the time of Handel? Did they just spring from the imagination of Wagner in the 19th Century, and human physiology just adapted in the course of a 20-year period?”

Hardly.

The excuse for singers NOT to work on flexibility is a real cop-out of the totality of their vocal technique, and musical expressiveness. Since the time of the Scuola Cantorum, melismatic singing has been THE sine qua non of developed technique, and singers who didn’t have it worked relentlessly to acquire it. Jenny Lind, known for her own rather dramatic voice, worked daily in the acquisition of agility.

Imagine my surprise and validation to read the account of Herman Klein, a pupil of Manuel Garcia Jr., who wrote in his essay on Mozart:

Most of the traditional Mozart singers whom it was my good fortune to hear received their training from teachers whose memories, if not their actual instruction, dates back to those surviving artists who were actively working upon the stage either in Mozart’s lifetime or during the years that immediately followed. They were thus the third generation of his interpreters. It may therefore reasonably be assumed that they did exactly what he intended, and I cannot but think that he would have approved their treatment of his music as surely as he would have admired their voices and their pure Italian method.

This method was the one then being taught by such Mozartians of the second generation as Garcia, Lamperti, Sangiovanni, and Nava (the teacher of Santley). It was the method which Wagner openly proclaimed to be indispensible for the satisfactory rendering of the trying declamatory music of his operas and music-dramas. Indeed, practically the whole of the experienced German artists who created the heroes and heroines of Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal were trained in the Italian school.

Klein, Herman. Herman Klein and The Gramophone. Ed. William R. Moran. Amadeus, 1990.

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