Masculinity and the Singing Voice

Anyone listening to recordings of opera singers of the late 20th and 21st century is struck by the overt expression of aggressive masculinity in the lower male voice.

Baritones and basses are heard to sing with a low laryngeal posture through aggressive use of the depressors of the throat, poor vowel quality and enunciation, and concomitant dullness in the tone. What brilliance there is has been falsely attained through tongue tension and pharyngeal wall constriction. Invariably, the pitch center of these voices is also imprecise, some presenting vibrato rates that encompass as much as a minor third. For many of these singers it is difficult to ascertain a pitch center.

From a lifetime of listening to singers, it has become clear to me that the singing voice is an organic representation of ‘bisexuality’ of the human being.

Were I to place various photographs of the larynx before the average viewer, there would be absolutely no way to make a determination of the possessor’s sex.  In every human throat, masculine AND the feminine are evidenced in SOUND through the strong chest register, and the sweeter, more tender head/falsetto register.

In much current classical pedagogy, the development of the male voice shuns the use of the upper register mechanism in toto.

But let’s get down to a more deeper issue at hand, the ‘why’ for the upper register’s neglect: the masculine fear of ‘feminization’ of the voice.

Many teachers reject the upper mechanism, not for its inherent functional properties and textures, but because they ascribe to it sounds of an effete and feminine nature. They believe that these tones are ‘useless’ in the development of the male voice. For a man to ‘sound like a woman’ is considered somehow unmanly, (and a man should always sound manly) – or so the theory goes.

However, the functional nature of every human voice is the perfect yin and yang of the masculine and feminine.

When that male voice is trained without head/falsetto, the strong, clarion upper register of the male voice is simply not possible without functional compromise. Therefore, the baritone or bass will take chest voice up into the area of E4-G4 with mounting weight and volume in a quasi-belt. In order to smooth out the belty quality of the top voice, the vowels are ’rounded off,’ which mutes some of the aggressiveness of these more shouty top notes.

The only way the singer can achieve higher tones in the scale is through greater ‘pressure of breath’ coupled with ‘vowel adjustments.’ There simply is no other way to gain the upper voice of the lower male voice WITHOUT aggressive breath control, greater ‘support’ and direct vowel adjustments.

The voice, lacking its functional partner – the head/falsetto – resorts to compensations for its atrophied partner, like all biological systems of the body. The voice will be loud, aggressive, dark, woofy, and to some ears may sound ‘barky,’ an unfortunate description of canid vocal production. Because this is the ‘sound’ of opera for many, these qualities do not register as being a detriment to the artist, and in many cases these sounds are applauded. The listening audience has become literally ‘deaf’ to them.

The overly masculine voice will be incapable of any kind of floridity, and what florid or agile singing there is is indistinguishable in pitch. Many lower voiced males sing the florid runs of Handel to Bellini, not as cleanly articulated pitches, but more of a volatile wobble that just moves ‘around the notes.’ I often refer to this as “approximatura” – approximation of pitch but not cleanly defined melismas.

This fear of feminization of the voice was something unknown in the Old Italian school, whose highest exemplars were castrati voices! Our current fear of the feminine in the male voice is a mid-20th century occurrence, arising from our own inhibitions and hangups with regard to gender.

It’s important to remember that the highest achievement of the Old Italian school was the messa di voce. If this vocal sound – as I believe it to be – is a representation of total vocal integration – then this integration was also of a sexual nature as well – the combination of masculine and feminine into ONE TOTAL VOCAL GESTALT.

We must learn that our biases against the upper register and sweetness of the male voice is a result of our own cultural bias and deep seated discomfort with issues of sexual identity and expression. It is very hard for a sexually repressed person to make sounds that integrate the masculine and feminine within themselves.

If our voices are the TRUEST reflection of ourselves as human beings, we must question the overly aggressive masculine voice. It speaks to our deep-rooted fear of true integration with its partner, the feminine. While the voice may sound ‘exciting’ or virile, we cannot say that the instrument has reached its highest function if an entire element of expression is lacking. All male voices should have dynamic variety, sweetness of tone as needed, and agile flexibility. No less than Luigi LaBlache and Pol Plançon can serve as role models for the current generations of lower male voices. These men possessed all the qualities of integration, and yet these were male voices!

A truly integrated voice has all qualities of masculinity AND femininity in order to lend the greatest humanity to the singer’s art.

Without it integration, we are left with a one-sided facsimile that only works to make us feel aurally and sexually ‘safe.’

This is not the highest purpose of art.