Stuck in the Dark

The line between an open throat and ‘postured’ singing can be difficult to determine. In 19th century pedagogy there were two viewpoints on this type of singing. Garcia used the terms voix sombre or somber/dark timbre and voix claire or clear/bright timbre.

Garcia attributed these timbres to the particular positioning of the larynx and the soft palate. In dark timbre, the larynx was low and the soft palate high; in bright timbre, the larynx was higher and the soft palate low.

I’ve written on these timbres and the contrasting views on them from Garcia and Lamperti. In our modern day, there are prominent voice teachers and pedagogues that believe that the voice MUST be darkened in order to ‘sound’ like an opera voice.

When a voice has been actively darkened, several functions are at play. The elevators of the larynx (ThyrohyoidPalato-laryngeal-tensor veli palatiStylo-pharygeus) are rendered passive, and the depressors (Cricopharyngeus, Sternothyroids) have been drawn into extended and extensive activity. The sound that results could be described as dark, cupo, covered, and woofy. In many circumstances the throat wall is also actively engaged, and often the constrictors of the throat are pulled into activity.

For many classical voice teachers, this is the sound of the market-ready classical voice.

But there is another view.

Some teachers believe, including this author, that the dark timbre is not representative of the singing voice as described by the Old Masters. This dark tone is a false quality incongruous to freedom, ease, and range of the voice.

A teacher and writer that shared this view was Evelyn Hagara. She wrote a fascinating book called Vocal Secrets of the Ancients, published in 1940 (!).

Hagara makes observations on the dark timbre and its effect on the voice.

Though some modern schools place the voice by using the dark or somber quality, the ancient masters taught that this method of voice placement could have only a detrimental result and affect the muscles of the vocal box itself adversely. They constantly stressed the fact that the voice must be produced only by using the clear vowel. The vowels principally used were the “ah”, as in father, and the “eh”, as in feather. They did not deny the importance of knowing how the dark quality of the voice is produced, but they maintained that this use of the somber voice must be confined to an occasional effect in song interpretation and never involved in the actual placing of the voice.

This bears out in the writings of Manuel Garcia, Jr.. The importance of clearly defined vowels was the sine qua non of the Old Masters.  The dark timbre was never to be seen as a WAY of singing – merely as a tool in the expression of particular emotional states.

Hagara continues,

Since the larynx, aided by the functions of the mouth muscles and the cavities of the fauces, plays a direct role in the formation of sounds, it is imperative not to hinder the elasticity of these muscles. Only through the use of clear vowels is the perfect freedom of movement of the larynx permitted. The use of the dark voice distinctly hinders this complete flexibility.

Coloratura singing is impossible if the constrictors of the throat are pulled into play. Since the inferior constrictor wraps around the front of the larynx, where the cricothyroids “stretchers” live, does it not seem logical that this interference would prevent the vocal folds from stretching properly?

Simply stated, actively darkening the voice prevents coloratura and fluid movement of the tone. When singers say their voices don’t move, I often wonder if these constrictive tensions are not to blame. This active darkening also turns tenors into baritones, and sopranos into mezzos, belying their natural tessiture.

Hagara also understands the role of the depressors, elevators, and stretchers of the folds:

With this dark type of singing, the larynx rests immobile in its position. The essential movement of the ascending muscles (ed. cricothyroids) is held back and cannot operate in the proper manner. In fact, these muscles are drawn in exactly the opposite direction from that which they should take. The vocal lips are restricted until they cannot contract for the high notes nor expand for the low tones. When the larynx is restrained in this manner, it is absolutely impossible to manipulate the grand scale. The attainment of great range of voice and high notes is an impossible accomplishment, as these are obtained only with the larynx muscles have the ability to move unhampered.

But loss of high notes and flexibility aren’t the only manifestations of the use of the ‘default’ dark timbre. Because the vocal organs are not where they are supposed to be in the throat, breathing muscles must work harder to provide the larynx with the breath energy it needs. Hagara notes the same,

Conservation of the breath is also affected. The vocal cords cannot contract when held in the rigid position which the use of the dark vowel produces. As the voice ascends, they are forced even farther apart. This effect increases the air passage, so that the breath pours out uncontrollably and great volumes of it are lost. The muscles become almost paralyzed in their futile effort to stop this tremendous flow of breath. […] The result is one of near strangulation. No wonder the face of the unhappy singer becomes contorted and discolored. It is practically a struggle for self-preservation.

Clear vowels, however, have the opposite effect on the voice. They allow flexibility, ease, breath control, and other positive signs of vocal health to flourish. This does not mean that the larynx is not supported by the elastic scaffolding of the net of muscles in which it is slung, but that to favor the depression of the larynx, and dark timbre as the DEFAULT is to specialize the voice into limitations.

With the use of the clear vowel, the vocal apparatus is permitted to function without restriction, and high notes are easily attained.


Filatura notes, those beautfiul embellishments so advantageously used by the artist, can never be produced on high notes when the dark voice is used. This loss alone is sufficient condemnation of such a method of voice placement.

After the voice has been placed, the somber voice can be employed by the singer as the exceptional interpretative effect – and this for an instant only. It has no other place in the life on an artist.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves why dark timbre continues to be taught in studios as proper training for the classical voice? One pedagogue informed me that the this is the “sound of the classical voice, and without it a voice does not sound classical.”

I beg to differ.

Hagara’s book was written in 1940, yet dark operatic singing tends to be the rule rather than the exception. How many bibliographic sources have to be read before we finally say ENOUGH to dark, sepulchral singing in classical music?

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