Lina Vasta and the Senior Voice (Historically)

This video of Lina Vasta is making the rounds again, with several marveling at her abilities (myself included). Vasta has wonderful control of her instrument, and the voice sounds fresh, youthful, and clear. There is very little effect of the passage of time on her voice.

I am not aware of Ms. Vasta’s training, but I can say that a well-used voice need not deteriorate at all until ill-health prevents one from singing. We needn’t be shocked and amazed at senior citizens singing well. The idea that they can’t comes from either poor singing technique, ill-health, or other mitigating factors. The wobbly choir lady singer is common, but it need not be so!

The traits of freshness and youthfulness in the vocal sound were not rare occasions in the training of the Old Italian School.

USE of the voice need not be relegated to ABUSE of the voice.

On Blanche Arral, the celebrated soprano:

Madame Marchesi (with whom Arral studied), Garcia, and other great teachers of the past began with the voice as it naturally existed…

If the scale is built on what is already there, the beautiful, personal quality of the individual voice is retained. Those teachers found the natural quality of each voice and preserved it, so that what nature had begun was developed, polished, equalized, not changed. That is why such voices lasted.

The pupils, finding art securely built on nature, grew confident as one never can be with artificiality. They gained the authority because they were manifestly singing the right way. They felt at ease and were able to express their individuality in song.

Arral, Blanche. The Extraordinary Operatic Adventures of Blanche Arral: By Blanche Arral; Translated by Ira Glackens; William R. Moran, Editor. Vol. 15. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2002.

Clara Novello possessed a voice that was clear and pure. Here is a description of her by a Rome reporter in an English newspaper in 1890, when Novello was seventy-one years of age:

Clara Novello, now Contessa Gigliucci, sang to us. Although seventy-one years old she still has her wonderful voice clear as a bell, and she sang as I never heard any one, “O rest in the Lord,” an air by Handel, and a charming little song by Veracini, with little shakes and trills all really sung and not wobbled. It was a most artistic treat. Her singing reminds me of Frau Schumann playing.

In fact, Novello was STILL going strong at the age of 90!

In early womanhood a celebrated surgeon, examining her throat, told her her singing powers would be unimpaired at 80, should she live to that age, a prediction fulfilled to the letter. She sang for others, the last time, when she was eighty-three, taking the first part in “Life thine eyes”, and, save it for a little huskiness once or twice, the results of not having sung a note for over year, her voice was as steady and limpid as of old. But to the very end, when she was verging on ninety, she would sing to herself snatches of old tunes in a voice so marvelously fresh and steady, it was an ever-recurring amazement to those around her.

Novello, Clara, and Valeria Gigliucci. Clara Novello’s reminiscences. Edward Arnold, 1910.

The same was true of Marietta Alboni at sixty:

Madame Alboni was a pupil both of Rossini and the greatest tenor of his period, Rubini. At well over sixty, and absolutely weighed down with fat, she still had complete command of her voice and could do with it as she willed. This, as well as are wonderful concentration of tone…

Eames, Emma. Some memories and reflections. Arno Press, 1977.

Galli-Curci remarked on her grandmother, who also sang around the house:

I remember that my grandmother, who sang “Una voce poco fa” at seventy-five, always cautioned me never to force a single tone.

… Even at the age of seventy-five her voice was wonderfully well-preserved, because she always sang with the greatest ease and with none of those forced throat restrictions which make the work of so many singers insufferable…

Cooke, James Francis. Great Singers on the Art of Singing. Presser, 1921.

What was one of the elements that helped these women maintain their voices?

Lehmann had some ideas:

The head tone signifies youth for all voices, from the deepest bass to the highest soprano– leaving out of question the fact that it furnishes the overtones of every single tone of the whole vocal gamut. A voice without vibrancy is an old voice. The magic of youth, freshness, is given by the overtones that sound with every tone.

Lehmann, Lilli. How to sing. Courier Corporation, 1924.

Or Tetrazzini:

The head tone or over-tone of the voice… is its salvation, for it means vibrancy, carrying power and youth…

Caruso, Enrico. Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing. Dover, 1975.

Tenor William Shakespare remarked:

With a right schooling the tendency of the voice is ever toward steadiness, freshness and purity of tone.

Shakespeare, William. Plain words on singing. GP Putnam’s Sons, 1924.

Older age does NOT have to mean vocal decline. If the voice is balanced, well cared for, and exercised properly, the singer should be able to sing for life – which is encouraging and happy news for those of us that want to express ourselves in song!

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