Secrets of Svengali – The Head Voice

Often as I sit here in the garden, I watch a crowd of little boys who, from time to time, rend the air with a most piercing sound they produce by whistling in a certain way through their fingers. Every little fellow in the crowd can do it more or less.  One day I noticed that one of them brought “a new fellow” among them and he could not whistle to call them, or give vent to his exuberant feelings as did his capering companions. It was not long, however, before one of them was sitting on a bench with him explaining in detail just how it was done.

“You put your fingers this way and your lips like this,” etc., etc. . . . “No, that’s not right, not so close together.”

The serious little urchin puffed and blew, and finally a faint whistling sound was obtained. He kept at it, off and on, all the afternoon, and you already know I am going to tell you that before many days had passed he could whistle in the same shrill, piercing way as any of the others.

It was just a little trick that he had learned.

So is the beautiful sound we call the head voice.

A person with a normally healthy throat, good air passages and fair physique can learn it.

Of course, one can’t acquire it in a few days as the boy did the little whistling trick, but I have known it to be learned in an unbelievably short time.

I have seen a tenor who made an awful struggle to “reach” A natural, walk out of a studio after his first trial at doing it the right way, with a splendid ringing B natural. Within two weeks he had a good C sharp.

In that case, you see, the tenor in question had “naturally” a high voice, only he did not have “naturally” a good way of producing it — and yet he had a real aptitude; it was only necessary to show him how. He had studied a number of years with teachers of reputation, but he had not learned to sing his upper tones correctly. That is where almost all fail.

It is true that certain masters in Italy are quite successful in teaching the head voice to Italians, but their American or English sopranos have the regular steam whistle high notes so prevalent among English speaking women; their American or English tenors have the wooden A and B flat and — nothing more; their Russians sing like all Russians, or rather all Slavs; and their Scandinavians make the same unearthly sounds they do in Paris or elsewhere.

When asked how Miss Smith sings, the revered master will reply: “Canta bene, ma ha la voce inglese” (“She sings well, but she has an English voice”).

He thinks that all Americans or English are bound to make those tones, and his efforts to change them are feeble and almost helpless.

Now there do exist qualities of sound peculiar to certain nations in a general way, just as most Italians have an olive skin, and southerners are apt to be dark, or Englishmen tall — that’s all.

Melba’s was the most beautiful voice of her time, and yet she was not Italian.

No Italian could sing “Casta Diva” as Lehmann did.

Many singers of Poland, America, Spain, France, Russia, etc., have had voices well trained in the Italian school, and there was nothing un-Italian in their singing.

It is not a question of race, and, although there is decidedly a question of language, yet there is no reason why a voice produced according to the old Italian school of singing should not sound absolutely like an Italian voice.

The reason that Italians learn to sing the head voice with great facility is that their throats and lips are generally free and supple, because of the purity and simplicity of the vowels and the softly pronounced consonants of their language.

When the master says “put that note in the head” to the average Italian student, he immediately gets nasal resonance on the tone. If he tells the same thing to a non-Italian, the result is very different.

I don’t mean to say that all Italian singers have fine high tones — not by any means; but most of their great artists have had splendid upper registers.

Imagine what a tenor Van Dyck would have been with a well worked out emission, a complete vocal technic, ah Italian voice. He would have had a place in Olympia with Campanini, Jean De Reszke, Maurel, Cotogni, Del Puente, Edouard De Reszke and Chaliapin, for he had a marvelous temperament and saw things in a highly poetical way. He was a great actor, too; his line was superb.

Well we must learn “the trick” of singing high tones.

If we’re light sopranos, we want to sing them like Sembrich or Melba, and if we are dramatic sopranos, like Lehmann. The tenors all want theirs like Caruso’s and the baritones like Battistini or Titta Ruffo, while the basses would be content to do them as well as Chaliapin, Edouard De Reszke or Plancon.

You have all heard what I have been telling Trilby about the general production of her voice.

Very well!

Just do the same until you reach the head voice, then I must see that your position is right.

Duval, John H. “The Secrets of Svengali on Singing, Singers, Teachers and Critics.” (1922).