This post, a follow-up to my last one on voice-typing, has been surprisingly difficult to write. I began to suspect that it was because I was trying to make too many points at once. Not surprisingly, in my own head, these points are very intimately intwined. However, I kept getting stuck, realizing that as a result I was trying to make an argument that could too easily be argued against.
I think I have trimmed it down as best I can to only the salient points. But I feel that a couple of caveats may prevent some misunderstanding:
- It is certain that, up to a point, voice types will have some things in common or they would not be able to be even loosely grouped together.
- Yes, up to a point (!), timbre is indeed part of what makes a certain sound what it is. It can be the difference between one instrument and another.
Those said, I am a pretty firm believer that some terminology is best left to critics and have little place in the voice studio. Certainly, all language must be accessible for instructive purposes. But some words have come to reside a little too comfortably for my taste, and one of those is “color”. This term, frequently used to refer to communicative elements in singing, has also unfortunately attached itself heavily to our typification process. In conjunction with overeagerness to define a voice type, we have also adopted the recognition of a certain “appropriate” color or timbre that we expect, otherwise you are definitely not that thing.
Classical vocal music is no more a stranger to imitation than the pop music realm. And as much as I love it, opera sometimes suffers a little from being operatic. People contort and warp their sound, seeking deeper/higher, darker, rounder, more resonant, more expansive, more voluminous, more “ping”, blah, blah, blah, until not only have they lost any semblance of the text, but they sound nothing like themselves. Worse still, there will always be someone who will tell you, “I think we can get a little more depth from you.” “I think we can get a little darker quality out of your voice”, “I think there is more squillo that could be brought out in your voice”, “Your high notes could be more vibrant if only you just.....”, “I think you may actually be a (insert voice type)”, “Your color is all wrong for a (insert voice type)”
Now perhaps someone truly is hearing something that would benefit you to investigate. But one should always temper this sort of advice with the very real prospect that this music-lover (whether teacher, coach, or other) may simply be trying to get your voice to conform to their ideal - one, no doubt, developed over years of hearing recordings - and which may very well have nothing to do with your native sound.
I happily acknowledge that this is a subject to which I am sensitive, being a sort of in-betweener voice myself (high lyric baritone). As such, however, it is a subject to which I have devoted much thought and consideration. Much vocal music has historically been written 1)To apply to as many voices, generally, as possible; or 2)has been written for a very specific voice. But as much as human bodies, shapes, and personalities do, so too, do voices fall at every point along the human spectrum. After all, Jon Vickers and Juan Diego Florez are both tenors? Why not? And I have heard people argue back and forth whether the wonderful singer John Raitt (Bonnie Raitt’s father, and spectacular Musical Theater singer) is a baritone or a tenor. But the problem with the argument is that it doesn’t much allow for anything else. When I hear him, I hear a man who sings as well or better than many baritones and tenors I have heard over the years, and seems to just land smack in the middle.
Years ago I taught a baritone who, despite having a warmer, deeper sounding voice than my own, couldn’t sing as low as I could, often by a minor third, depending on the day. We both marveled at this. And it wasn’t a phonation fault. That was simply where he ran out, and my voice happened to be natively brighter. And there is where we run into this murky notion of “color”.
The example I’ve heard most often, and find the most irksome, is some version of the phrase, “He doesn’t have the requisite baritonal heft of a true Heldentenor...” Whenever I hear this phrase, all I can hear in my head is a translation something like, “I like deep voices made to scream high so they get all loud n’stuff” And if that is your one requirement of a Heldentenor, then sure, it’s exciting, it’s heroic sounding. It’s the sound of someone struggling valiantly against the discomfort of their own singing. Enjoy.* But it is the need to define by color that concerns me. What of the many wonderful tenors, firmly situated in tenor-territory with regard to timbre, or even higher-tenor voices who simply kick out a lot of volume? Are they to be restricted from assaying roles because you prefer your Melchior records? Well, I say stay home and listen to them, then.
A tenor friend of mine spent his time early in his career singing Rossini and Mozart, and much of that lighter, higher rep. To hear him on recorded media one mightn’t guess that he was suited to anything “heavier”. But to hear him live? This man would go on to sing Otello and similar roles. What one couldn’t tell on recording was that, in person, he was outstandingly loud. Did he sound like a baritone? Not remotely. But he was always louder than a great many other tenors singing heavy rep.
I’m inclined to believe that the era of recordings has put into our ears and our heads that certain roles are to be sung by this or that sort of voice. And within certain parameters, that’s true. But I have heard more singers than I can count trying to “color” their voice, or adopt a tonal quality that they deem somehow appropriate, and yet is nevertheless contrived and manufactured. We ought not allow ourselves to be burdened by the recorded voices in our ears, whispering that so-and-so has no business singing this or that role. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recalled the criticism he endured for his unsurprisingly lighter, and nuanced approach to an album of Verdi arias. He was essentially bashed for not being something or someone else.
What these instances actually are are missed opportunities. Missed opportunities to hear a new voice, a new take, a new personality, and combination with the familiar music and with other voices.
And so “color”, in my opinion, has a limited place in the consideration of appropriateness of a voice for a role. Range, tessitura, volume. These are practical factors that cannot be ignored. But when it comes to color..... I think a singer should ask themselves two questions, neither to do with tonal quality or color - “Can I physically sing the music?” and “Can I do musical and dramatic justice to the music?” Beyond that, I would love to hear your voice. I think it would benefit the classical vocal arena to embrace this music with a little more willingness to sound unique. A little variety perhaps. And just maybe, when auditioning, it would help you to not sound like everyone else.
* Now, as convinced as I am that what I just described is a real phenomenon, there are also many lovely deeper voiced tenors that sing elegantly into the higher reaches.