Bel canto by way of the Netherlands (or Musica Transbelgio), part 1

Last year I had the distinct pleasure of reading Daniela Bloem Hubatka’s book “The Old Italian School of Singing,” I know that I quote her book quite a bit on this blog, but I wanted to share with my English readers the transcript of a radio interview that she did in the Netherlands.

Since reading her book, Daniela and I have become FAST friends over our mutual love for the teachers of the the bel canto traditions, and a shared passion for beautiful, natural, and uncluttered singing. Both of us work to bring the knowledge of these great Masters to the community of singers, teachers, and avocational singers that thirst for deeper knowledge and history of singing.  Daniela has provided pretty strong evidence for a school of singing that should be revived or at least reconsidered in the light of present knowledge, and her assertions are deeply profound on the current state of singing.

I will be blogging her interview’s transcript over several posts, so as not to overwhelm the reader. I hope you will purchase her book, and find it as stimulating and exciting as I have.

The interview is between Daniela Bloem-Hubatka, her husband, Jan Hubatka, and the interviewer, Petra (Last Name Unavailable). The conversation has been translated from the original Dutch by the contributions of Daniela, and my friend Dirk Gevers.

Petra: Authentic instruments have been popular for years, but only the singing voice has been forgotten in that trend and that is why I have invited Daniela to tell us something about it. Her husband Jan Bloem also knows a lot about this subject. But first a little introduction. Daniela tell us, how did you get involved in all this. Have you always been interested in singing? And what background do you have in singing?

Daniela: It has already been said in the papers that I had always been involved with singing. But that was nothing special, it was just part of life. You were always singing. My sister sang, my father played the violin. And then I married a singer and he suddenly supposedly discovered my voice. He said: “What a very beautiful voice you got that should be developed!” I had never given it any special attention but my voice then was schooled in the present day manner. And that did not completely satisfy me. I did not feel at home with it. I did not feel that I sang as I used to previously, it was different. I did it more by imitation, those things I was told to but I never thought it really suited me and that it ought to be like this. I investigated this and consequently I discovered that singing was different and done in another manner in olden days which makes the voice sound more natural and what is also very important is keeping it fresh and young for a long period of time.

Petra: That’s really the crux of the matter, a young voice sounds different from an old voice where the years have taken their toll or not.

Daniela: You really can see that for yourself if you wish, for example when looking at young singers when they are being interviewed, who have a pleasant young speaking voice suited to their lovely appearance. But as soon as they start to sing they put on a different kind of voice that I could describe as pompous, certainly older sounding, often also melancholy but not suited to their young looks.

Petra: Okay.

Daniela: And with older singers who sang in the historical method it is just the other way around, older singers, like myself, have a young voice when they sing, like their speaking voice, they remain themselves.

Petra: That is the crux of the matter, they remain themselves.

Daniela: Yes that is right, then you can sing from your heart like you wish to.

Petra: Yes indeed for I read that nowadays they do not sing from their heart but from their head.

Daniela: Yes that is rather like it.

Petra: Next to you your husband Jan Bloem is sitting who discovered you and who stood at the beginning of your vocal journey of discovery.

Jan: Yes what should I say about that?

Petra: What is your background?

Jan: I studied singing rather late when I was already grown up and in those days there was no money. I studied at the Utrecht Conservatory and did my exams there and that is very long ago! I met Daniela years later after a first marriage that failed with a pianist who always knew everything better than I, and that did not work.

Petra: That usually causes some friction.

Jan: And then I met Daniela, I sang and she wanted me to sing and she promoted what I did and I gave lessons too and we were still young and nothing happened till a certain time when I had a pupil who didn’t do what I wanted her to do, that happens sometimes, my wife was in the kitchen and I asked her to join in the exercises.

Petra: And to stimulate the pupil positively…

Jan: And a quarter of an hour later Daniela sang like a nightingale and the pupil shut up and never bothered me again. Her voice was schooled, but she did not perform in public immediately and it was I who had to sing and I did even though I was really too old for the role I was given which was not even my voice type. I sang in opera and did rather well for the opera was performed more than 50 times. So that kept me busy for 2.5 years and after that I gave lessons until my pension. I was asked to stay on for they had nobody else to give the courses that I gave and so I stayed till my 80s. You have seen the courses on my website but they have to come off that now for I am too old and I leave it to my wife. I have always searched for a natural way of singing that I had not been taught myself but I wanted to do a good job, I have not found it but she has and she has written about it.

Petra: I have also seen that you were a singing therapist. But you are also opera singer and concert pianist, did I understand that rightly?

Jan: Opera singer and lieder singer and we have a house pianist with us that is Brian Lamb.

Petra: Whom I had on the phone.

Jan: And he has accompanied my concerts has also helped with the lessons I gave at the Lindenberg in Nijmegen and he works with Daniela too, we have a trio.

Petra: Very musical there in your home, here in Zeist.  We’ll come to the important bit after a little break.

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Blanche Arral on ‘Forward Production’

“The modern voice induces and applies resonance by means of a forward production independent of the pitch of the note to obtain a predetermined ideal resonance not naturally appropriate to the note.  Certain exercises stimulate supposed places of resonance, thereby working on the effect and not the cause of sound production, in other words putting the cart before the horse.  The result is that you sing with the voice that is predetermined and now in fashionable demand, not, however, your own individual voice, which was the fashion for several hundred years.  Blanche Arral illustrates this very clearly remembering the great voices she heard in her day:

Each of these voices had a color which was peculiar to it.  One voice might be said to be golden, another silver, one a brilliant vermillion, one a rich dark purple.  There was a wide variety in texture, color, and tone, and I attribute all this to the method of emission of which I have spoken…To my ears most of the young singers I hear now possess what we would have called in my youth la voix blanche.  This means, as well as I can describe it, a voice lacking in musical ring, lacking overtones, as they are called now, in fact having very little true tone any any sort – colorless, flat, artificial, and far from the genuine article, the true natural quality, for few voices are naturally white.

We see that Arral knows exactly why voices in 1937 sounded different compared to the voices she used to hear from her colleagues when she mentions the “method of emission” as the cause of good or bad vocal sound.  A quarter-century later Herbert-Caesari completely agreed with Arral condemning the modern “method of emission” in no uncertain terms: “The so-called ‘forward production’ method is largely responsible for the general low standard of singing, technically speaking, and for the ruin of innumerable voices. Its history is inglorious. It is invariably wedded to that obsession: Diaphramatic drive. The nefarious marriage has wrought untold harm.”
Bloem-Hubatka, Daniela. The Old Italian School of Singing: A Theoretical and Practical Guide. McFarland, 2012.