Is it real or is it Astroturf™?

This could be a highly controversial post, but I’m going to ‘take one for the team’ because I have rather strong feelings on the subject.

When I talk in lessons about an ‘over-cultured,’ ‘postured,’ and ‘cluttered’ sound, this is a good example of what I’m referring to. It also relates to what I’ve come to refer to as the ‘pre-conception’ of the vocal tone.  A singer’s ‘pre-concept’ (usually wrong) means that a singer makes a vocal utterance in accordance to how they think they should sound, not how they DO sound.

Justin Tucker is a football player for the Baltimore Ravens, and has also studied classical voice. He seems like a great role model for young people: ambitious, educated, well-spoken, and obviously very talented. We need more people in the world like this young man. But after listening to this excerpt of him singing, I’m struck by the fact that his voice resembles a great deal of the ‘modern aesthetic’ of the operatic male sound.

In listening to the voice from a functional place, the vowels are largely undistinguishable and ‘muddy’, the larynx is overly depressed, and the resonance cavities have been ‘over-opened’, thereby giving the singer a darker, older, and ‘woofier’ bass sound. The chest mechanism, or Arytenoid muscle system has been strongly developed, giving this singer a louder, virile masculine sound. Judging from the lack of dynamic contrast, I’m would hypothesize that he may not have worked very much in his head voice to allow him greater dynamic expression. (Of course I’m evaluating this from a very brief audio example, so I don’t have the fullest functional scope of this singer’s abilities).

True to the form of much voice instruction, he is obviously singing in a way that is expected in the current aesthetic of opera today and NOT with his true beautiful, natural voice.

There is a LOT of bad singing in opera that could be characterized as pompous, aggressive, overly dark. Daniela Bloem-Hubatka in her book, “The Old Italian School of Singing” calls these voices ‘corporate’.  I actually love that description as it describes an approach to voice that is systematic, configures to public taste and policy, and rather ‘cookie cutter’.

The basses of the 19th and very early 20th centuries possessed voices that were by nature (not design) darker and lower. Their voices were not ‘cluttered’ with extra adjustments of the larynx and vocal tract in order to ‘enrich’ their voices. Words were clear, text was intelligible, vowels were pure. Opera singers like French bass Pol Plançon even had a trill, and Italian Luigi Lablache was famous not only for his powerful bass voice, but also a striking agility in coloratura passages (he could put some mezzos to shame singing himself ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia complete with embellishments and fioratura). Alexander Kipnis, a basso profundo, displayed exemplary vowel definition and dynamic contrast, even the rare messa di voce in his recordings from the early 20th century.

Fellow teachers of ALL styles of singing, please be advised that just because something is branded ‘classical’ doesn’t mean it is automatically ‘legitimate’ or ‘better than’ or has to ‘sound’ a certain way. The Old Italian school of singing (which I will state till I’m blue in the face) was a FUNCTIONAL SCHOOL of singing.  This training places importance on the innervation of the fullest capacities of the vocal instrument (balanced registration first, then agility, sustained passages, and messa di voce). From this freedom comes the artist’s fullest palette of expression, unencumbered by vocal limitations.

I’ve made plenty of these darker vocal sounds in my day, belying the natural sound of my voice, which in time deteriorated my voice completely. It’s only within the past several years have I jettisoned much of that “aesthetic approach” to singing, and embraced a functional approach that is free from any aesthetic judgement. It’s important to be able to discern what is the TRUE VOCAL SOUND of the singer standing before me, versus what is Astroturf™.