Historical Perspectives: The Opera House “Size Myth” Part II, The Pedagogical Shift

This is the second half of a post on changing vocal emission in the mid-19th century.

Part I can be found here.

What did happen?

I can summarize the changes in vocal emission and the consequent decline in vocal technique and singing standards in the following way:

  1. The passing of the castrati, significant not only because their vocal art required years of careful preparation unmatched since, but because with them departed also the traditional teaching which we may loosely call “The Old Italian Method.” (I am studiously and purposely avoiding the phrase bel canto.);
  2. The passing of the old-style florid singing and the introduction of more declamatory singing (see the shortening of Duprez’ career through screaming, and his subsequent career at the Conservatoire teaching others to scream);
  3. The shift in operatic acting to an intensely emotional, physically draining acting (see the description of Pasta fainting in Paisello’s opera Nina from a music critic: “Not only did this enchantress hold her listeners spellbound; she herself was so seized and carried away that she collapsed before the end. She was recalled, and duly appeared, but what a sight! Too weak to walk alone, supported by helping hands, more carried than walking, tears streaming down her pale cheeks, every muscles in the expressive face in movement, and reflecting as touchingly as her singing, the depth of her emotions! The applause rose to the highest conceivable pitch – and she fainted!”)
  4. MOST IMPORTANTLY: The increased complexity in orchestral textures, which is where acoustics comes in; in ANY enclosed space (i.e., an opera house), the more different kinds of acoustic timbres are introduced, the more the negative aspects of acoustics appear: cancellation, absorption and sonic confusion; in other words, a more dense texture which invites the singer to exert more effort in order to cut through it.

It is my contention that the combination of the new orchestral resources and the loss of that CLEAR, BRIGHT vocal emission which cuts through such dense textures instead of competing with them (Note: The alarmed response by the academicians Diday and Pétrequin to Duprez’s singing was to the TIMBRE OSCURE, not the UT DE POITRINE) is the real and direct cause of the vocal crisis in the early 19th century.

Singers simply did not know HOW to compete except by exerting the force and pressure which gave them the psychological impression that they were on equal footing with the orchestra. It is notoriously difficult to train singers not to oversing – force, push, blast – when they think they’re not being heard. Go back to the story about Rubini’s broken clavicle and try to imagine the PRESSURE in his chest which could cause such a rupture.

This kind of pressure is absolutely at odds with the breathing techniques of the old vocal emission, which is one of the things that frustrates us when we try to locate the “secrets” of bel canto in such laconic phrases as “He who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing.” (“Chi sa respirare, sa cantare.” Attributed variously to Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni (1808) and Girolamo Crescentini (late 18th century). No such direct quotation can be found in the actual sources.) It’s my considered belief, after years of researching these materials, that this means just what it says: If you are able to breathe, you can sing. (In other words, “If you can stand up and take a breath, you are physically capable of singing.” I DO NOT believe it implies a “secret” breathing technique, or a specialized breathing technique. The literature, where it mentions breathing at all, is laconic in the extreme.) Rubini learned his vocal technique not from a castrato, but from another tenor, Nozzari.

Rubini’s breath pressure is also at odds with the breathing taught in Garcia IIs Traité (1841 and 1847), which is presumably based on his father’s vocal emission and teaching, which Garcia I had also learned from a tenor; but HIS teacher, Ansani, was of the older generation, and had sung for years amongst castrati, in the same vocal style.

If we add the force of Duprez’ vocal emission to the picture – after all, the Italians came to call that kind of voice TENORE DI FORZA – we begin the see the problem more clearly as a universal response. Once Duprez began launching that “High C” into theaters, he raised the bar for tenors, and of course for the sopranos who sang duets with them. The introduction at the same time of the TIMBRE OSCURE was probably a more vicious practice, since it distorts the natural shape of the vocal tract and is fatiguing in the extreme.

Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

In Part III, I’ll include more from Foreman about the music of this period, the acoustics, as well as how these changes affected the female voice, including the inventing of additional voice types commonplace today. – Justin

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