The following thoughts are a sort of addendum to a previous post (Loud-louder-loudest!)
I was recently watching the video below and was astonished at how quietly, yet audibly, Ms. Bartoli sang through some of the latter portion of her aria. And yet, though not terribly loud, it was neither out of character, nor unsuitable. It was merely conversational, and it allowed for room to grow dynamically.
It is true that in terms of sheer decibels there are bigger voices and there are smaller voices, there are bigger works and smaller works, and there are larger houses and smaller houses. These are all important factors. It is also true that though the following text mostly refers to "dramatic voices", Ms. Bartoli is not among that sort. But she nevertheless provides a stunning example of a voice used with dynamic variation. I was immediately reminded of words I had read in an interview with Jean de Reszke -
"I participated as a judge during the final examinations at the Conservatoire and, indeed, I was rather astonished by the notions of the contestants and what they do to their art. Suddenly I understood why "dramatic singing” does not have its past glamour. While listening, I thought of the Biblical phrase: "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do." And that is the truth. Nine out of ten singers absolutely ignore what is coming from their throats; their voices are poorly supported and the consequent uncertainty constrains their performance. One cannot be 'dramatic' if one is concerned solely with vocal production. What I noticed more and more was that the contestants were screaming, as if they were burning up.… that's what they imagine a singer ought to do with a formidable voice. When such singers leave the conservatory with such notions, they run into music directors who reaffirm them in their error. I was looking in vain during the voice competition for a pianissimo or a mezza voce. Instead I heard many wailing muezzins and their youthful raging saddened me very much.
But then if you look around the opera houses, you will be struck that so many singers have the identical defect. The tenor erupts, yells, and becomes hoarse. Can he “abuse". the public in this way, performing words that have sense and are, nevertheless, calm? "Salut demeure, chaste et pure!" There is nothing menacing in that, is there? And where are the tenors who know how to use their voices to express such a sentiment? A director, whom I do not wish to name, developed a rather peculiar (and also Mediterranean) idea, saying: "A tenor must be virile.. And under such a tasteful pretext he burned out the throats of all his tenors! That director's method for singers is disquietingly original and,unfortunately, he applies it to all his employees.
As you know, Werther is a melancholy role compounded of controlled passion and suffering. But can you find a tenor who agrees in it to produce just one mezza voce? For a part that requires at least twenty utterances in mezzo voce! Last year I had the joy of hearing at a dress rehearsal of a classical work with a tenor who made an exquisite nuance, but when I went back for the premiere to enjoy the treat a second time, the tenor screamed that phrase.
Well, I would like to act against such a pitiful tendency at the Opera by instructing young artists in nuances and mellowness, and I would like to strengthen their vocal security. Finally, I would like to give them a sense of theatrical styles and to stimulate their artistic temperaments.... I, who had the honor of receiving Gounod's instructions, would like to transmit his indications accurately. I would like to instruct singers in the Wagnerian repertory. I will teach my younger colleagues how to sing Wagner and how to act his music….."
Jean De Reszke in Interview (1907)
My wife and I have often mused, "If there is a mezzo piano and there is a mezzo forte, why don't you hear about just a mezzo?" And it is that precisely that dynamic where I have often heard singing that carries the best. I have heard "loud" disappear, and I have heard soft carry beautifully. I firmly believe that the average singer would do well to practice speaking their text, raising their voice in pitch, as any stage actor might, but not expressly in volume, investigating where "speaking up" ends and raucous yelling begins. This would no doubt inform a singer's dynamic choices, and spare them some degree of vocal exhaustion. It might even make for a more interesting performance.