Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

James Stark: Bel Canto, A History

James Stark. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 

If you have been a Boot Camper for any time at all you will have noticed that many of us here are into reading historical treatises on singing. So there was no better choice for the first selection for our Book Club than James Stark’s Bel Canto.  I first read this book in a graduate course on the history of vocal pedagogy at University of North Texas with Dr. Stephen Austin. It made for an excellent framework in which to read treatises by Garcia, Lamperti and other famous pedagogues of the last few hundred years. Many of the issues were and are quite controversial (which led to lively discussions in our Wednesday night group). I know I have learned so many new things re-reading it, especially with other singers and teachers each contributing their experience and insight.

Stark does a great job of organizing the vast amount of writing on vocal pedagogy breaking it up into chapters on the onset (The Coup de la Glotte: A Stroke of Genius), resonance (Chiaroscuro: The Tractable Tract), registration (Registers: Some Tough Breaks), breathing (Appoggio: The Breath Be Damned!), vibrato (Vocal Tremulousness: The Pulse of Singing), style (Idiom and Expression: The Soul of Singing), and the very meaning of bel canto (Bel Canto: Context and Controversy). Stark’s writing is clear and ideas are thoroughly discussed, however, there’s no avoiding the confusion that arises from a lack of consistent terminology with which to discuss the singing voice. Confusion is therefore inevitable and much time has been spent in Book Club detangling some of the ideas presented. But that also made for some of the most lively and informative discussions. If you are a member of Bel Canto Boot Camp, I highly recommend joining the Book Club!

None of these topics is without controversy, of course. Here are a few examples:

On the onset Stark sides with Garcia in advocating for a light glottal stroke at the onset (coup de la glotte). In most of the vocal ped literature we read negative comments about the glottal onset, but according to Stark (who prefers the term firm phonation to glottal): 

In the instant before phonation begins, the arytenoid cartilages are drawn firmly together. During phonation, the combined muscular forces of adductive tension, medial compression, and longitudinal tension maintain strong glottal resistance to the breath. There is a large closed quotient of the folds, a vertical phase difference in the pattern of closure, and a muco-undulatory wave that may affect voice quality. Strong glottal resistance leads to raised breath pressures and low rates of airflow through the glottis. The resulting voice quality at the sound source is rich in high-frequency components.  (p. 31)

Stark also spends a few pages debunking the application of the “Bernoulli Effect” to the vocal onset. 

One further debate about the coup de la glotte represents yet another misunderstanding of Garcia’s theory and is also related to the question of muscular balance versus relaxation. This twist grew out of an infatuation with the aerodynamic principle known as the ‘Bernoulli effect.’ It serves as a case history in how a theory can be shoehorned into a misbegotten shape in order to fit a new concept. (p. 22)

At the beginning of a chapter-long discussion of breath and appoggio:

I have seen some professional singers with heaving chests, some with protruding bellies, some with raised shoulders, and some with bouncing epigastriums, all of whom sang beautifully, regardless of their breathing methods. I have also seen awkward postures that have not adversely affected good singing…. (p. 92)

There’s much more. It’s a book rich in sources and context that leads to further discussion and in many cases suggests the need for further research, which, of course, is still ongoing. I think those of us in the Book Club have enjoyed our weekly meetings. There are still a couple left Wednesdays at 8pm (EST) for any Boot Camp members who still want to join. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Reading Fast and Slow

This is the first of many blog posts I will be writing about books, articles and other written (both print and electronic) resources concerning, opera, singing, and various related topics. I embark on this while being told by multiple people on a regular basis that no one reads any more. I disagree. People read a lot these days. It’s just that much of our time is spent reading the flood of email, social media posts, signs, memos and the rest of the endless barrage of words that come at us without ceasing. So the problem isn’t that we aren’t reading. We’re all reading a lot. So what I’m asking people is not to read more, but to take a few minutes every day and reading something that’s longer than 130 characters (the Twitter post limit). 

Short, quick shots of text are good at hitting our buttons to make us feel happy (kittens, puppies, otters) or angry (politics) but they don’t really make us think and don’t cause us to reflect. Even more importantly, they don’t allow us to take in new information, especially any new information or points of view that contradict what or how we already think. What I’m asking for is more “slow thinking” or in this case reading. I’m borrowing this idea from a book called Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011). He compares fast thinking (reading a short sign or message and reacting without much need to think) and slow thinking (what we have to do to solve a problem or in this case consider a new idea or point of view). We do a lot of the former but not nearly enough of the latter. 

A good example of the kind of reading I would like to encourage are Rachelle Jonck’s daily posts on this website. Rachelle spends a good amount of time trying to unpack the practical matters involved in each of the Vaccai exercises or other singing matters. Although many of these skills are fundamental to singing, they are no more easily explained that mastered. Skipping over them and jumping to the exercises is a mistake although that’s what often happens. Take a breath, click on one of her posts and start reading. Take your time. Think about it. Re-read if necessary. (There’s no prize for speed-reading here.) Come back to it as often as necessary. Re-reading something after a time away is always a good idea because after practicing the skills you will be reading it with new eyes. Don’t expect to absorb everything at once. Do expect to put in some time. Read, reflect, breathe, practice. Repeat as necessary. 

I’m also going to recommend a book every week that I’ve read and think will be useful to at least some of you. But first I’d like to encourage everyone to start getting into the habit of putting down the devices and taking some time to read and reflect. There’s a lot to learn. And the field of musicology has taken some interesting turns over the past couple of decades which makes for more lively reading and much that is applicable to singers. 

Read, reflect, breathe, practice. Repeat as necessary.

Guided by Voices: The Blog

A Young Person’s Game?

There is a persistent myth in the operatic world that singers sing difficult roles too early in their careers, and a related myth that this is the principle cause of the vocal burnout among early- and mid-career opera singers that has been plaguing the business of opera for decades now. (To see how real, prevalent and long-standing the problem is, take a look at Will Crutchfield’s still pertinent “Vocal Burnout at the Opera” from the New York Times back in September of 1986.)   At first blush, it may seem plausible that an early assumption of “heavy” operatic roles could cause vocal damage, and that too many singers have attempted the dramatic roles of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Strauss, leading to technical problems and shortened careers. 

The real issue, however, is not as straightforward as it seems, and I have come to believe that the primary cause of distressed voices does not lie in a specific repertoire sung prematurely, but rather is a function of the inadequacy of modern vocal training. In fact, it seems increasingly obvious to me that the reason operatic voices don’t last is not that singers take on big roles too early, but that singers arrive at the age when they should be earning a living from singing without the technical and musical foundation that will see them through the rigors of singing opera, period. For, historically speaking, it is simply untrue that singers from the “Golden Age” waited longer and bided their time singing small roles and “easy” music before tackling demanding operatic roles. Yes, there are cases of singers who sang lighter parts as their voices developed. Kirsten Flagstad is often cited as an example of someone who didn’t sing her big roles (in her case, Wagner) until she was in her 30s, but in fact, Flagstad didn’t bide her time singing only operetta and Handel; she essayed Desdemona, Amelia in Ballo and that notorious voice-killer Minnie in La Fanciulla del West while still in her formative years. 

Guided by Voices: The Blog

An Empowered Singer

In the mid-1990s I attended a performance of Salome at the Met starring one of the world’s most celebrated dramatic sopranos of the time in the title role. The entire production was deeply problematic on both a theatrical and musical level, but the central issue was the thorough inadequacy of the leading lady’s vocal performance, which was unsteady and tonally unalluring throughout the evening. (Her physical portrayal wasn’t much better, consisting of a lot of imperious gestures and arm flailing, all while wearing what looked like a young girl’s mid-1950s pink party dress. One critic wrote that she looked like a Hostess Snowball.) Now, Salome sings a lot in Salome, and she has the last twenty minutes nearly to herself; they were long and painful minutes this particular evening. So imagine my surprise when the Met audience burst into a long and sustained ovation at the end of the performance, with many curtain calls for the evening’s diva.

I was dumbfounded at the reaction, and as my then-boyfriend Jim and I shambled toward the exit and the promise of a badly needed drink, I managed only to shake my head and mumble, “But why?”

“That’s easy,” replied Jim. “They think that’s what a dramatic soprano is supposed to sound like. She screams at them, so they scream back.” And I realized he was right, that thirty years or so of increasingly wobbly and harsh voices in the great Wagner and Strauss roles had trained audiences’ ears to accept aural assault as the normal course of things. 

Guided by Voices: The Blog

My Callas Period

Continued from the previous blog post, “Bucky Saves the Day.”

I had heard the name before, and had a vague notion that she was an opera singer famous for her temperament and a turbulent love affair with the Greek millionaire Aristotle Onassis. I had even registered that her art was always spoken of in the past tense: “She sang at La Scala” rather than “sings,” and that she had suffered a vocal decline that had ended her career. How I had gleaned even that much I can’t remember now, but I’m quite sure I had never heard her voice. Certainly, as I held that stack of my teacher’s records that day, I couldn’t have suspected just how important the voice, the artist on those discs, would become to me. 

The recordings Bucky lent me were representative of Callas’ entire career, and included her EMI I Puritani from 1953 and Aida, recorded in ’55, as well as her stereo remakes of Lucia and Tosca. The last complete recording he included was less than ten years old at the time, 1964’s Carmen. I knew nothing of the chronology of these discs, and rather than starting my listening with one of these, I decided to listen through the 3-disc anthology, La Divina, featuring arias and scenes selected from Callas’ EMI catalogue of recitals and complete operas. Recently I found the contents for that album online, confirming my memory that I started, on Side One of that collection, with the Act One scena of the title character of Norma, excerpted from what I now know is the 1960 stereo recording. (The booklet accompanying the records did not include recording dates.) I put the disc on the turntable and Side One started. As with my Turandot experience, I followed the provided libretto closely. In this case, the timbre of the voice and the authority with which it was used seemed to leave no alternative to complete attention. Just as the character of Norma compels the restless Druids to heed her admonitions, so Callas commanded my total concentration. 

Maria Callas La divina (Vinyl Records, LP, CD) on CDandLP
Guided by Voices: The Blog

Bucky Saves the Day

How I happened to become a teenage classical music and opera nerd growing up in Springfield, Missouri is really too long and complicated a story to go into here. (Okay, twist my arm!) But suffice it to say that by the time our first local mall opened in July of 1970, I had already purchased a few classical records from the allowance my parents gave me every week. It wasn’t easy to find a classical recording for sale in Springfield, Missouri in 1970. (It’s impossible now, but that’s another story.) A few of our local department stores had small record sections, from which I had purchased a couple of discs like Columbia’s compilation “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits,” and I’d also been seduced by Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach,” just the kind of thing you might think a classical music novice might pick up. But it wasn’t until I walked into the new mall and discovered Disc Records that I’d ever been in a room with a substantial collection of classical vinyl recordings. 

And was it ever substantial! Although the large store also featured pop, rock, country, soundtracks and every other kind of music, it seemed to have been stocked by someone with a serious pro-classical agenda. Years later when I got to know the Schwann Catalog, the listing of all the records in print, I realized that the buyers of the initial inventory must have stocked the store with practically everything available! The bins and shelves were filled to capacity, and there were far too many records to browse in the few minutes that my parents allowed me to spend in the store that day I discovered it. However, I managed to negotiate a return visit a few days later and it was then that my education about the breadth of what existed on records really began. 

I had to start somewhere, and my somewhat limited financial resources dictated that the proper place should be the side of the bins labeled “Budget Classical”. Wow, discs for $2.99 and $3.49 apiece! Even I could afford a few of those. From my Bach-on-the-synthesizer listening I had realized that I liked the sound and style of Baroque music, so I quite naturally gravitated towards a label that seemed to specialize in that genre: Nonesuch Records. I think my first purchase was the Karl Ristenpart recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, but the next must have been a disc featuring the same conductor leading Bach’s Magnificat and Cantata # 51. My first vocal record! It featured Teresa Stich-Randall, an American soprano, discovered early by Toscanini, but whose career had flourished in Europe. She possessed a clear lyric soprano with a notably fast and narrow vibrato, which led some listeners to describe her sound as “pure” or “cool,” In fact, her vibrato was sometimes hard to detect at all, and in that sense she was a precursor of many modern sopranos who sing Bach and Handel with minimal vibrato. At the time, I knew none of this, but I remember finding her sound attractive, though lacking some quality that I couldn’t quite define. 

I listened my way through a number of Bach’s vocal works and at the same time began to branch out into other composers: A Beethoven symphony, a collection of Chopin piano works, and a few more “Greatest Hits” composer samplers. Not all my choices were fortuitous, but the producers of Nonesuch, Odyssey (Columbia Records’ budget label) and Seraphim (Angel’s discount line) chose mostly excellent performances to reissue at low prices. This was also the era of Westminster Records’ re-launch, with some strikingly suggestive and/or humorous cover photographs which occasionally crossed the line of good taste. Those records are now considered camp classics. 

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Westminster’s Planets: crossing the line of good taste?