There is a body of performers in the world these days who feel sufficient respect for Baroque operas to try to do them justice, to try a sort of artistic time-travelling in order to perform them authentically. It may be stating the obvious to reiterate, however, that we can never achieve this. As my old colleague Nicholas McGegan has put it, ‘Absolute authenticity is like searching for the end of the rainbow.’ I am often bemused by the certainty with which pronouncements are made about singing during the Baroque era when the reality of the art must remain shrouded in mystery. However I believe some ideas current at the moment need re-examining in the light of a deeper technical understanding: some light can definitely be shed. I am confident that several aspects of my personal experience of singing the material will be able to clarify some issues and I hope to allay some worries in people’s minds about the whole controversial affair.
It is very easy to misinterpret the clues we have about the singing of Baroque opera. After all, we are looking backwards through the prism of our current lives at people whose everyday reality was utterly different from our own. We have the example of recordings of original performances of Elgar, conducted by the composer himself. These performances can feel unacceptable on an instinctual level to us now, as being too self indulgent and pompous, too empurpled, too rubato, too sentimental for our hard-edge, post-modern, understated world. We have the authentic sound, but we refuse to co-operate with it and prefer to produce our own, more muscular, more wry, less conceited versions with a bit less of the Kipling and the British Empire about them. Can it be that we would also find original performances from the 18th century, were it possible to hear them, too self indulgent, too perfumed, too absurdly camp, too swoopy with awfully overdone portamenti, absurd ornamentation and ungainly acciacaturas and even too much rubato perhaps, for our rather ascetic age? How would it be if for example we found the singing a bit too wobbly?!
Audio example 1: Yuriy Mynenko sings Serse aria ‘Crude Furie’ at Cardiff Singing Competition.
Like Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph, I am not actually keen on this sound, finding it a bit over the top, and simultaneously I have a strong feeling there were castrati who sounded just like it. How comical it would be if we found that, actually, authentic 18th century opera singing had quite a bit more vibrato in it than we really like to hear…..!
Performing music is a sensory
experience which is lived in the present. Sometimes a form of insecurity will
make people feel a need to define history and rely on a fixed theory instead of
using all the clues yielded by the senses, including the actual sound of the
music, which they distrust in some way. Academe is notorious in divorcing head
from body and I will feel very happy if I am able to put the head and the body
back together again. Of course a moment’s sane consideration makes one realise
that we are looking back at a vibrant world of disparate, arrogant, spontaneous
and disunited, if gifted people. So at the absolute start of this investigation
let us banish the idea that during the Baroque period everyone was doing
everything the same. This was a period in which the very pitch differed from
place to place, some musicians had never encountered other styles from their
own, and local tastes were certainly extremely various.
Our own recent efforts at recreating authentic performances began (and we were sure enough of ourselves to call them that, instead of Historically Informed) with the first Baroque reconstructed performances of operas - and I was there….and the attitude from the outset has had a tendency to confuse ‘What they were Stuck With’ with ‘What they Aspired To’. Because early instruments generally make a weaker and less resonant sound than their later modified versions, people have tended to assume that this is the sound that eighteenth-century musicians preferred. This constitutes a misunderstanding which causes musicians to endeavour to scale everything down when it is possible that musicians of the time were trying to scale things up. Why else was it such a steady trend for instruments to be modified to be more powerful, more resonant, more colourful during the period we are focusing on, from clavichord to harpsichord to fortepiano to grand piano, all in the space of a couple of hundred years?
There are mentions of Handel
searching for enough players and singers to create a really loud effect, of
Mozart thrilled in Mannheim to have finally enough good violins in the
orchestra to create the fuller sound he had been looking for, Beethoven
inspired by the delivery of a more powerful piano to compose because there were
more sound resources available to him.
This leads to the next real misunderstanding,
which I feel confident in asserting firmly: the belief that, by the Baroque
period, singers were doing their best to emulate instrumental music and sound
as similar to instruments of the period as possible. It would appear to be
certain that it was the other way around. Instruments had before them the
inspiring example of wonderful expressive singers and were doing their level
best to come up to their standard and copy them in everything, from tone and
timbre to phrasing and ornamentation. As Mozart put it, ‘The human voice
trembles naturally, in its own way. Such is the nature of the voice and people
imitate it not only on wind instruments but on stringed instruments too and
even on the clavichord.’1
Quantz wrote his book for the flute based on vocal ornaments for the flute to
copy. As early as 1535 Ganassi says that flutes should copy voices. The singers
were the predominant musicians in the eighteenth century. Comments like these
are legion. It is most probable that it was so because the voice was the most
powerful and nuanced instrument of the time.
Despite the quotations above it is
often stated very categorically that there was a very straight sound used in
the singing of the eighteenth century. I would like to suggest that there may
SOMETIMES have been a very straight sound used and certainly not always. Here
is the eighteenth-century critic Jean-Jacques Rousseau writing in 1768: ‘A
voice without oscillations can be as pretty as one with them.’2
The 1770 Musical Grammar and Dictionary
says ‘There is a sort of wavering of the voice, very agreeable to the ear.’3
Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule (1756)
says that ‘The tremolo is an ornament that originates in nature herself.’
Manfredini writes in his Regole Armoniche
that ‘the trill must be natural, natural and then natural’ and that vibrato
is necessary to any cultivated voice.5
In the singing of polyphonic music
it is most important to have clean lines and weave a very fine thread so as to
follow the subtle interweaving of the strands that make up the sound picture.
In addition, church polyphony needed to sound well in a highly resonant
acoustic, so I would expect people singing such music to try to create a very
smooth blend between the voices and avoid a strong personal difference between
the timbres used. But I would expect the same group of musical singers to
approach a choral piece by, say, Brahms in a different way and to colour their
voices with warmth, and to achieve a blend more by listening to each other and
creating a chordal feel in the sound. When I myself sang concerts with a
sackbut and cornet ensemble, I found that it was important in the Renaissance
pieces, to cut back a lot of the natural fullness of my sound so that the
different strands of sound created an appropriate blend, but in pieces by
Monteverdi for voice and continuo, within the same evening, I sang quite
differently, because I was endeavouring to characterise the text and create a
feeling of individual emotion through the colours of my voice. From my own
experience it seems clear to me that there has been no huge shift in voice
production between then and now and that then, as now, there was a wide variety
of voices and sounds and many points of view about what sounded or did not
sound well, and that there was scope for a lot of variety. This is reflected in
a treatise written in 1592: ‘Amongst all voices one must always choose the
chest voices above all with a delightful biting quality and leave aside the
voices that are simply falsetto because the dull voices cannot be heard among
I truly believe that a style of powerful, individualistic singing has been
admired ever since singers sang solo as opposed to polyphonically, in short, at
least since the beginning of the seventeenth century and do not assume that
this sort-of singing did not go on long before this.
There are in each generation
singers whom no-one ever taught how to sing (in the 20th century
these included Kiri te Kanawa, Maria Callas, Feodor Chaliapin, Nellie Melba and
Kirsten Flagstad among many others). These singers were extraordinary before
they ever took any lessons. Their talent and sound is innate and people
sounding like that will have appeared every now and again in every generation.
Luciano Pavarotti sounded as he did because he had a very steep vertical hard
palate. Both Joan Sutherland and Maria Malibran could put an entire orange in
their mouths and did so as a dinner party trick... they had a cavernous
pharyngeal space and that was the key to the extraordinary sound they made.
Luisa Tetrazzini presented herself to a singing teacher having already mastered
twelve entire operatic roles asking for some lessons. After a few weeks he told
her she was ready for her career and there was nothing more he could teach her.
When singing with an entire orchestra, with its varied colours, timbres and personalities, the musical relationship is that the soloist is duetting with the whole lot of them and so, in some way, is providing a sound which matches them all together. It therefore seems obvious that the performer should be tuning their timbre and expression to a bigger palette of sound colours the more instruments are accompanying him or her. For me the true clue as to how to voice an aria in a Baroque opera lies in the sound picture created by the orchestral accompaniment and the palette of vocal colours that it calls for. So an aria with obbligato flute should sound ethereal and fine, an aria with trumpets should have force and bravura, an aria with violas should have warmth…. But exactly the same applies to any aria in any opera. So Nannetta’s aria at the end of Verdi’s Falstaff should be sung with the most light and gossamer fineness and pronounced vibrato would interfere with that.
To return to the general absence
of consensus on how to sing, consider the comments of an Italian castrato
visiting France for the first time in 1700:
‘In lor stil l’ahaha non puo passare…. In their style the ahaha could not pass.’ He describes a soprano thus: ‘After grimacing for half an hour she began to say "Iris" and on the ris of "Iris" forces her voice so much and dwells so long it must have been heard from Lyons to London. I swear by Bacchus that this shriek bores into my brain. She takes up a higher note, and then a higher, and her "Iriiis" tears my heart to tatters.’7 The ‘ahaha’ can be interpreted from the standpoint of a vocal technician as the singing with a full sound which has the full complement of partials, as this is the mouth position which flattens the tongue naturally, opens the throat, and creates the fully engaged sound associated with a voice with a natural amount of vibrato such as we might hear used by a Venetian gondolier singing ‘just one cornetto’. The soprano with her ‘Iriiiiiis’ suggests a straight sound, which is penetrating, but not moderated by roundness, and which this Italian hated when he heard it. I visualise a broader, rather fat smile on the facial expression of the ‘ahaha’ singer and a more wrinkled nose expression, or grimace as he calls it, on the face of the ‘Iriis’ singer, as he even describes. It is now known that Italian is the language which most encourages the presence of singer’s formant in a singer and it is frequently detected in Italians when speaking in public. It is worth commenting that books of the time recommend vocalises to be sung on the vowel ‘a’. Here is Nourrit on the subject of the vowel ‘a’, at the beginning of the nineteenth century: ‘The better one pronounces Italian the better the vocal sound. In French there are two ‘a’s, as in ‘jamais’ or as in ‘theatre’. The Italians have only one ‘a’, which is neither of ours. It alone is favourable to the production of the voice whereas of ours one is too cramped and other too free.’8
It is really impossible now to
know exactly what the early writers on singing meant precisely, because they
are not here to demonstrate how they are using terms. We don’t really know what
Tosi meant by a shake when he used the word. Whoever learnt to sing well from a
book alone? The skill is a practical one, dependent upon demonstration. More,
even, than that, we cannot know how effective Tosi really was as a singing teacher
or as a singer himself, or how he was viewed at the time. It is important to
maintain an open mind when reading ‘How to’ books and I certainly have found
that very many books are written in the present day about singing which I
personally would not be greatly helped by. All that Tosi’s book can initially
tell me is that he wrote it. I need to find out much more before I apply
everything he says indiscriminately, even assuming I have been able to work out
to my satisfaction what he precisely means. I am very grateful to him for the
details about how to embellish songs, which he helpfully includes, and I note
that he was writing for castrato sopranos and, I believe, for home music
makers. I note also that he has this to say about sopranos: ‘Among women one
hears sometimes a soprano entirely di
petto…’ and then again of sopranos, ‘ The voce di testa has a great volubility, more of the high than the
lower notes and has a quick shake.’9
Does this mean that male sopranos have a fair bit of wobble in their head registers,
or something else? Much more interesting to me, from a voice production point
of view, is to find teachers or writers of the period who either had great
careers themselves or produced very great singers from their system of
training. Thus I am personally more interested in Porpora, because he taught
Farinelli and because Haydn greatly respected him even though he knocked him
about a bit…. and because he provides an unbroken line to Beverly Sills, Joan
Sutherland, Marilyn Horne and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Claims have been made that voices,
somehow, at a certain point, got louder and that they had to do this because
there were suddenly very large opera houses to fill with sound and that this
could only be done by singing with a powerful projected sound, which we
associate with opera performers of nowadays. The point that projected sound is
needed in a large theatre is fairly made, but it would be good to establish
some facts at this point. You might like to know that the seating capacity of
the San Carlo opera house in Naples when it was first built to accommodate
opera performances in 1680 was 3,300 people. An effective and totally practical
way to start one’s research as to how an opera performance in that house would
have been sung is to go and give one in an equivalent space. When Cesti’s Il Pomodoro was given in Vienna in 1668
Burnacini built a theatre specially for the purpose. It seated 2,000 people.
Although small theatres have always existed, the main houses from the inception
of opera, exactly as nowadays, were from the start, designed to accommodate a
very large audience. In the days before recordings, opera enthusiasts would not
go once to hear their favourite work, because that might be their only chance
to see it. They might try to go to all the performances, and when society
ladies mentioned having a box at the opera they meant a season ticket. So
impresarios were able to fill large buildings throughout their season even in
cities so much smaller than ours are now.
The original La Scala Theatre in
Milan in the eighteenth century seated 3,600 and was rebuilt later to seat only
2,800, so the reverse process was happening. The extremely lavish sets and
costumes and the huge stage and auditorium obviously required a grand,
theatrical and large-scale performance from the singers in every way, in
gesture, in deportment and movement, and above all, in VOICE! It is often
difficult for musicians whose life and focus is an orchestra pit or a library,
studying musicology, to put themselves in the place of theatrical beings who
are projecting their personalities on a very large arena and I have to confess
that I sometimes wonder if an element of jealousy or resentment of the freedom
and physicality of the sound plays a part in the wish to rule out the lushly operatic
side of performing from early music. And it remains a travesty of great artists
to assert either that they did, or that they should, conform to rules. We could
hold a discussion here about the role of artists and the fact that their
refusal to be constrained by rules and their freedom of spirit within the
confines of the conventions of their given art are why it is worth listening to
them. Please may everyone remember that music delivered along the lines of
obeying rules is stiff and uninteresting and ultimately doesn’t teach you
anything new. I have myself sung Baroque opera in a 2,000-seat auditorium with
a Baroque orchestra several times, and found out for myself what was needed. It
was important for the soloists to have projected voices in order to be heard at
all, regardless of the presence of the orchestra as well. An attempt to sing in
the style of an, as it were, amateur choral singer who is used to blending with
others and not applying powerful breath pressure, was actually made in the
rehearsal of one Handel work I sang in at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam by a
soprano soloist colleague and she could not be heard further than the first
four rows of the stalls in that hall which seats 2,000. Members of the team
placed themselves around the house to see where she could be heard and they
told her that she must sing more powerfully in the room in order to create any
sort of balance in the performance that evening. It has been suggested that it
is not significant that singers without power could not be heard in such large
auditoria because the audience was busy chatting and not bothering to listen to
them. However, from the time when the great San Carlo theatre was built in
Naples, singers were hired to sing there, to whom fabulous sums of money were
paid. The interest generated in the upcoming performances was as great as that
found in tabloid papers now about star footballers. Singers were clearly
important enough to be listened to. Here is Susan Burney writing a letter about
a night at the opera at which she was listening to Pacchierotti: ‘I never heard
anything more touching than this aria. It was felt by the audience wonderfully…
it was encored with fury and he repeated it in a manner which made it wholly
new – most divinely indeed. It was so applauded that the scene was changed and
he upon it again before the audience could stop their hands…. such an applause….’10
It is worth noting that Handel travelled into Italy to find, audition and hire
singers for his seasons at the King’s Theatre in London. He was paid £800 for
an opera season in London for which he was composer, impresario and conductor.
His lead singers were paid £2,000, more than twice what he took himself. This
clearly demonstrates the cult of the opera star much as we know it today, and
must mean that the voices heard were unique and specially worth importing and
paying to hear.
The main attraction of the early
operas was vocal display, and it had its roots in the original attempt to
recreate the directness and strength of the Ancient Greek drama. Here is a
French traveller to Italy in 1636: ‘As far as the Italians are concerned they
observe a number of things in their method which our singers lack because they
do their best to portray the passions and emotions of the soul and the mind –
anger, fury, rage, madness, heartache, with such a strange vehemence that they
seem to be experiencing the feelings they depict as they sing.’11
This sounds like a description of verismo
opera performance. All the manuals of the eighteenth century speak of the
blending of chest and head registers which forms the basis of classical
operatic training. The voix sombre
that was spoken of in the early nineteenth century had already been under
discussion many years earlier. The taste for a dark colour coming in suddenly
can be disproved simply by referring to the discussion of chiaroscuro in the voice which occurred during the eighteenth
century. Mancini asks for dark and light in his book Practical Reflections on Figured Singing 1774. He wrote that every
sung tone should have a bright edge as well as a dark and round quality in a
complex texture of vocal resonances.12
Musical instruments and musical styles had been on an expanding path from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century but the notion that singing technique suddenly actually changed seems to me to be spurious and peculiar. There was no sudden change in orchestral forces, rather a gradual progression, and several styles of opera composition existed side by side. Two sources of this belief are the tragedy of Adolph Nourrit who tried to enlarge his voice and as it were died in the attempt, and the writings of such researchers as Manuel Garcia. Adolph Nourrit, we may imagine, was as it were a Jose Carreras to Louis Duprez’s Placido Domingo. He wanted, like Duprez, to be able to sing a powerful and beefy top note on full voice, which tenors in Paris had not been in the habit of doing. In the effort, he essentially tried his hardest to sing with chest voice right up through his rather delicate instrument and destroyed his own voice. His despair may have led to his suicide and he became a cause celébre. Duprez would appear to have been someone gifted with a very powerful voice who managed to belt a top C. But whatever he was doing technically was not of a piece with a long and healthy career because he only lasted four years in this way and by 1838 Rossini heard him sing and wrote ‘His singing struck my ear like the squawk of a capon whose throat is being cut.’13 In other words he was probably over singing in a heavy and dangerous way which destroyed his own voice. So whatever Duprez was doing did not originate in a sustainable technique and had to be abandoned. He agreed to retire early. I think that the option of singing in full voice to the top of the scale remained in the canon but so did the gentle floating of falsetto top notes and there are YouTube clips to prove it.
Tenors in living memory such as Gigli are still famous for floated head tones and there are many opportunities for them to use them up to the present day. Consider this perfect example from Nicolai Gedda:
Audio example 2: Nicolai Gedda sings Bizet’s ‘Je crois entendre encore’
Scientific study sometimes wobbles very violently before it finds its equilibrium. When it first became possible to x-ray the human body, a selection of sick people were stood in front of an x-ray machine and photographed. Their internal organs were all in unexpected places, a dropped kidney here, a drooping stomach there. The doctors instantly sent the patients in for urgent operations to have all their organs stitched back where they were meant to be, that is to say, the way they looked when corpses were studied on a slab. After a while when they discovered that fit people were like that too, they finally realised that organs in the body drop because of gravity when a person stands up. So Garcia, when he examined throats and larynges through his laryngoscope, announced that a dramatic drop in the larynx was taking place. Now that we have fibre-optic cameras we can establish that it was the great big instrument displacing everything in the throats of the singers he was studying which distorted their position and that when the thing was not there they sang quite differently. Naturally well placed singing results in movement of the larynx and people may find it interesting to analyse this but ultimately the searching for a finely-attuned sound is the way around this issue that I prefer.
A word about the singer’s formant at this point: it is present in any voice which is raised so as to be heard when someone is asked to speak up. It is certainly not a recent import of some kind, merely an aspect of what it is that makes and made the singing voice such an outstanding musical instrument.
Audio example 3: Renée Fleming sings Handel’s Alcina aria ‘Ah! mio cor’
It is not surprising to me that the singing of a late Handel soprano aria and an early Verdi aria require exactly the same vocal powers and in many cases would seem to use very similar orchestral forces. The vocal writing of the second act finale recitative and aria for Alcina requires a very strongly centred soprano voice because of where the phrases lie. Any other way of attempting them will meet with disaster. It is no coincidence to me that the only recordings to date of Alcina have been made by as it were mainstream, strong, operatic voices, namely Joan Sutherland, Arlene Auger and Renée Fleming. Note that the orchestral texture is basically identical to that of (for example) Bellini’s aria ‘Qui la voce’ from I Puritani.
It is unfortunate that the requirements of Church polyphony have been imposed upon the evolving and noble, ancient art of classical operatic singing, and with it a seeming distrust of the freedom of true vocal bravura. In this YouTube clip note Beverly Sills’ superb technical control and style, aware that her school of singing goes seamlessly back to Porpora, and the half baked comments posted beneath:
Audio example 4: Beverly Sills: ‘Da tempeste’, Cleopatra’s aria from Giulio Cesare
The challenge that faces us as singers of Baroque opera is to phrase, colour and convey the spirit of the music of the time. We understand now that a cello and bass section of an orchestra will be serving the music and the singers well if they can implement a cat-like, light and springy approach rather than a forthright, Beethovenian style. We know about lift as opposed to stomp, and to taper our phrasing with a light touch, and we know that the majority of Baroque arias are written in dance rhythms. We know that embellishment is on the cards though that too is very personal. Here are two stories from the period. They may be apocryphal, but they illustrate the idiosyncrasy of composers, performers and music:
The singer sang the aria off with perfect phrasing and feeling, but exactly note for note as written. The composer said ‘Thank you signor, very nice, but not at all what I wanted.’ He said the melody was merely a skeleton which the singer should clothe with whatever his imagination and artistic instinct prompted. The singer introduced runs, trills, roulades and cadenzas and the old composer shook him warmly by the hand. ‘That was my music as I wished it to be given.’
A singer sang a highly flourished and decorated version of an aria and the composer said to her ‘Very nice my dear, and who wrote the aria you have just performed?’
So we have to find our own way,
and above all try to stand back and give the music
its head: ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’14
Rather a good way to sum up singing da
capo arias, I feel.
As ever, with the performance of
music, instinct bred of familiarity has to be the ultimate guide and the sound
texture, colour and mood must lead us. We have to breathe the music in – and,
after all, that is what ‘Inspiration’ means. I am a fan of one singer of Baroque
opera currently singing for us and I count myself lucky to be able to enjoy
what she does. I would like to point listeners to the Handel singing of Sarah
Connolly. She seems to me to combine dignity, style, phrasing, beauty of tone,
and characterisation, and Handel likes what she does because he told me so.
Audio example 5: Sarah Connolly sings ‘Mi Lusingha’ from Alcina
Sally Bradshaw gained a Cambridge degree in English and then studied singing at the Guildhall, London, and in Paris with Regine Crespin. She has achieved a considerable reputation in opera, particularly baroque. She sings the title role in the recording of Handel’s Agrippina, a world premiere for Harmonia Mundi, which was Sunday Times Record of the Year and Opera Now! Record of the Month. She recorded the role with Nicholas McGegan during the Gottingen Festival production.
With the same conductor she has performed five other roles in performances in the USA and Europe. Sally has made more than 20 appearances in Germany and Austria in opera, concerts and recordings. She sang Handel’s Alcina at the Halle and Berlin Potsdam festivals, a live broadcast of Hasse’s Piramo e Tisbe from the Musikverein, Vienna; the live recording of the world premiere of Cesti’s Il Pomodoro at the Hofburg, (Royal Palace) Vienna; concerts and recordings for the International Haydn Festival at Eisenstadt and the premiere of Scarlatti’s Gli Equivoci nel Sembiante for the Innsbruck Festival. Sally performed with most leading baroque groups from London Baroque, to The Parley of Instruments, Opera Restor’d, The Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, Chiaroscuro, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Tafelmusik, Les Saqueboutiers de Toulouse and many other groups.
She is known for her acting powers and indeed won a drama award at the Edinburgh Festival for the musical play Maria Malibran which she wrote and starred in, singing Bellini and Rossini arias.
Sally is a founder member of the group Words and Music which creates entertainments with readings on particular themes. Actors who have worked with her include Prunella Scales, Timothy and Samuel West, Eleanor Bron, John Julius Norwich and Alexander McCall Smith. The group has toured worldwide for the British Council doing three Far Eastern tours.
Pavarotti described her thus: “Bella faccia, bel colore di voce”.
Sally teaches regularly for Cambridge University at Fitzwilliam College, where she is a senior member. She has run Vocal Summerschools in Malta for the International University there, and run masterclasses in Florence. She has taught at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, USA and runs a yearly residential course in the Scottish Highlands and in South West France.
Recently Sally has recorded Ancient Greek Songs for KPM EMI to coincide with the Athens Olympics. She has already recorded an album of songs inspired by Ancient Greek Myths, “The Soul of Orpheus” which was released recently and a cantata record of contemporary music for Metier Records. In summer 2010 she recorded a song cycle for the composer Francis Shaw.