Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Famous singers discuss the use of chest voice

Jerome Hines. Great Singers on Great Singing. New York: Limelight Editions, 1982.

I don’t believe any topic comes up more often at Bel Canto Boot Camp than chest voice. At some point around World War II, chest voice went into decline in soprano and even many mezzo-soprano voices. Singers of all types used chest voice as it is discussed in all the 18th and 19th century treatises. Then suddenly they start avoiding chest voice in the lower range. I can speculate why, but I’d rather know that guess. In my research I am looking for statements from signers, teachers and perhaps critics explaining this change and why it was thought necessary. I am calling this The Mystery of the Disappearing Chest Voice. For my first stop, I thought of Jerome Hines’s Great Singers on Great Singing. The book consists of a series of interviews conducted by Hines with singers describing how they sang. I share these quotes without comment, in the hope that the lead to a discussion and to further research in the view in the mid 20th century on the role of chest voice in treble voices.  All ellipses and brackets are from the original.

Licia Albanese

“Did you use your chest voice?”

“Not too much. It’s dangerous and vulgar. If you do use it, you must use it with much expression. Sometimes you use it as a defense when you’re in bad voice, but you can cover it up with beautiful expression.”

“Then you never had to face the problem of the passaggio [passage] from the chest voice to the head voice?”

“No,” was her answer. (p. 23)

Martina Arroyo

“What does chest voice mean to you?” I asked.

“I have no chest voice!”

“Really?” I said, surprised.

“It’s true. I can’t even fake it. I use a bit of opening when I sing down, but I have never had a strong lower voice, by nature. I have pushed, trying to find it.”

“You said pushed. What does pushing mean to you?”

“Just more pressure than necessary. Using muscles you don’t need. But if you support low you don’t force of push.” (p. 32)

Fiorenza Cossotto

“That is why I have always paid very strict attention to not exaggerating on the low notes, but to keeping the voice even, not shoving down the chest tones like a man. Once in a while when a certain word requires a more dramatic intensity, or power, I darken the sound, but only for a moment.”

“Naturally on the low notes I use a little bit of chest, but I see to equalize it with the middle voice.” (pp. 71-72)

“Did you ever have a problem with the passage from chest voice to the middle voice?”

“No,” she said. “I used chest voice, but I use it lightly.”(p. 73)

“There is a chest sound that some singers use which is not focused; it is completely abandoned, but that is not the true beautiful sound. It is vulgar. I absolutely refuse to use such a sound. I keep the chest voice contained, always within certain limits, controlled by the breath, also in terms of volume. I never give all that I can, but I always try to focus the sound and I use it so all the way down.” (p. 74)

Régine Crespin

“You know that in France, years ago, everybody was against singing in the chest. We were not permitted to do it. And that’s why I had such a difficult time finding the way to balance and not have a break. For my type of voice I needed sometimes to have some chest, from A…where it was going almost naturally.”

“I understand,“  I said. “Since chest voice was taboo, nobody taught how to smooth out that troublesome passage; you were only supposed to use head voice, thus avoiding the problem.”

“But,” she went on, “if I wanted to sing on chest on D flat, D, E flat, E, F [above middle C], I had to work hard. But now I know how to balance that, because I put my larynx down and just let it go free. It will go, because the chest is a natural sound. When we talk, we talk on it. Chest voice is the speaking voice.” 

I said, “I have heard many mezzos really sound as if they were yodeling as they went from chest to head and back.”

“That is terrible.”

“How can they overcome this problem?”

“With strong attention in preparing to go into the head tone, leaving the larynx open, but being careful to keep the soft palate high.” (pp. 81-82)

“Do you feel that the chest voice is more relaxed, less placed in the mask?” I asked.

“Yes. But it has to be connected always with the mask. Chest voice is more relaxed. Sometimes I start in the higher register and the breathing is not so easy, and I immediately go back to the chest ton. Immediately the breathing is easier, and I have more breath. And it relaxes me for going up.”

“You can’t really sing chest without relaxing, can you?

“Absolutely not! Unless you push.” (p. 83)

Gilda Cruz-Romo

“One should begin with the chest voice as a base and then build the rest on it,” she began.

“What do you mean by chest voice?” I asked. 

“Oh, the chest voice is a meaty sound, it has a more open feeling. The talking voice is chest voice. When you teach a beginner you say, ‘Talk to me.’ Then: ‘Now sing that way.’ But with the chest we have too wide vowels. Then you must round the sound out, mellow it. It must be covered and made more beautiful. But you must not force on the chest. If you do, you will not be able to carry that force to the high notes. The voice becomes too heavy.”

I stopped her again. “I have heard some singers say that chest is too dangerous to use.”

“That is because they have never learned to mix the chest with the head,” she said emphatically. “Maybe it’s not for everybody but…”

“I know,” I laughed, “it’s your way of thinking.”

“Well, I’m a spinto, and when I sing with a big orchestra it is necessary to use chest voice mixed in to cut through the sound of all those instruments. Of course you mustn’t use chest beyond F sharp above middle C. Chest must be used gently, I can’t say it enough—carefully.” (pp. 91-92)

Cristina Deutekom

“Cristina, as a dramatic coloratura, do you use chest voice?”

“Yes, but never just chest voice alone, and I never use pure head voice alone. It is always a balanced mixture of the two. There are three registers in a woman’s voice: the first goes up to B or C above middle C, the second to E or F above this, and the third as far above this as the voice will go.” (p. 96)

Marilyn Horne

“I have the ability to color my voice in so many ways in the famous break area that I don’t even consider it a problem area. I can sing it all head resonance, I can sing it all chest resonance, I can sing it fifty-fifty, I can sing it sixty-forty. But I call that coloration.” (pp. 139-140)

“Many sopranos say they never touch the chest voice if they can help it,” I said.

“Which is crazy! They’re afraid of it because teachers don’t know how to teach it. The chest voice should be taught and sopranos should have it.” (p. 141)

Zinka Milanov

“All right. Now let’s talk about chest voice and head voice,” I said.

“I am personally against chest,” she said.

“Did you ever use it at all?”

“Yes, I did, but only when I had to. Never a chest note on F [she indicated the first F above middle C on the piano]. When you do this [sing chest] too much on E and F, then the next two or three notes are hollow [she demonstrated with a breathy, empty sound].I am against chest…especially for a soprano, you know. But for a mezzo-soprano too, it’s very bad, because of this hollow part…they start to push there.”

“How can a woman singer overcome this problem of the hollow sound just above the E and F?” I asked.

“With lots of breath, and connection…legato. I never used the chest. That’s why I lasted so long, and was so fresh. If I used chest, it was covered chest.”

“What do you mean by covered chest?”

“Covered means you do not open, like also the top [high voice], the slender sound on top.”

“Then you used a slender sound on the chest?”

“Absolutely!” She sang a blatant, spread chest tone, and then corrected it by singing a low, pure, floating awe. (p. 170)

Anna Moffo

“Do you use chest voice?”

“I do, but I’m more inclined to use the mixed,” she said. “The mixed voice has head voice in it. Chest voice has no head voice, no head resonance at all. I don’t think it’s very pretty. Chest voice I feel vibrate right here on my breastbone…as opposed to my nasal or head voice, which I feel right in the middle of my forehead, between my eyebrows…very high…a column of air going straight up through the top of your head, I guess. Basically, chest voice is not a good idea.

“They say people who use chest voice lose their top. Maybe you don’t lose your top, but you get very wobbly…a hole in the middle, and you get two big breaks in the voice.”

“Are there exceptions to this idea?”

“Jerry, there are people with extraordinary instruments…freak instruments…”

“I don’t regard these as freak instruments,” I said, “as much as freak techniques. We tend to limit ourselves by saying, ‘That’s a freak voice…I cannot expect to do that.’”

“No,” she disagreed. “We should know what we can do.” (p. 187)

Patrice Munsel

“Now, Pat,” I began, “you have successfully made the transition from Broadway to opera…” She broke in to correct me: “I sang both pop and classical from the beginning. When I first sang at the Met I got the ‘Prudential Family Hour’ with Earl Wrightson. I had to switch styles constantly at that time from classical to pop. When I had my own television show I would do ‘Un bel di’ and a jazz blues routine consecutively with only one solitary minute to change clothes, attitude, and vocal technique. Such a routine is really a schizophrenic exercise. You simply cannot mix classical and pop styles. I found the biggest problem was switching gears vocally as well as mentally.”

“Is there an enormous difference in vocal techniques between the different styles?” I ventured.

“Not really. The production is about the same—except belting is much more relaxed.”

“Now wait,” I said, proud that I, as an opera singer, had even heard of belt. “For the unenlightened, just what is belt?” As Pat prepared to show me, I interrupted. “Don’t demonstrate by singing. Put it in words. After all, I am producing a book, not a recording.” 

“But it’s hard to put into words. I can’t verbalize it.” 

“I bet you can,” I persisted.

“Belt is a flatter sound with no vibrato. It is high chest voice. I can belt to the C and D above middle C, but no higher without damage to my cords…and a possible heart attack. It has to be very forward—almost nasal (not French nasal). There is more space in the back of the throat. Oh, it’s hard to verbalize.” (pp. 190-191)

Magda Olivero

“Do you use chest voice?” I asked

“My maestro said, ‘On some occasions you might have to, but support it as much as possible. Use it once in a while, but don’t abuse it. At the end of your career you may permit more of such luxuries.’

“Sometimes now I permit myself this luxury, but in the moment I do it I have a sense of remorse, because my teacher’s words remain with me…’Don’t do it’…and I feel I am betraying something.” (p. 208)

Roberta Peters

“Well, then, do you use chest voice?” I asked.

“No, I don’t use chest voice. He always wanted it extremely even. He never believed in registers. You have to keep it as even as you can up and down. You’re not going to have the exact sam position of the throat on the top as you have on the bottom. You can’t have that. When I was descending a scale, he would tell me to think high…think up, and as I was going down, because if you think down, then you dig, and you’re pushing, you want to make it bigger and bigger.” (pp. 235-236)

Beverly Sills

“Then you didn’t use chest voice?”

“I didn’t begin to use it, “she continued, “until I sang Constanza in The Abductionand had to go to G below middle C. It didn’t bother me, because it was only touched, and wasn’t used for dramatic purposes. It was simply part of the scale that Mozart had written. When I went into the bel canto repertoire, I began to use my chest voice higher than I had ever used it before, up to an F or F sharp, which is very dangerous for a voice like mine, and probably shortened its life, but it was a deliberate choice: I wanted to make a dramatic effect, and I made it, period! I opeted for the shorter career, though when people say fifty-one is young to retire, it might be, but I’ve been singing since I was seven, so for me, it’s forever!” (p. 305)

Joan Sutherland

“Do you use chest voice?” I asked.

“I feel the chest voice should be used sparingly,” she said. “In a way, my chest voice has been underdeveloped.”

“Because it is not necessary in your kind of repertoire?” I asked.

“Oh no! A dramatic soprano needs it in Trovatore, Norma, and also Fledermaus. It is also necessary in some of the Handel operas which have such a great range. But I really have left it rather underdeveloped.” (p. 328)

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Who was Nicola Vaccai?

Now that we are again working our way through Vaccai’s Metodo Pratico di Canto, this is a good time to ask the question, “Who was Nicola Vaccai?” If you had never heard his name before or only heard it in connection with his vocal method book, you are in good company. His many operas, liturgical works, and salon pieces are not well known. Other than Giulietta e Romeo very little of his music was published during his lifetime or heard outside Italy.

Nicola Vaccai bas born in Tolentino in 1790 into a family of doctors, but his first interest was in poetry. He composed poetry and even plays in verse before he began studying law, during which time he found his true calling in music. He first studied with Giuseppe Janacconi (who was later maestro di cappella at St Peter’s) and then studied composition with Paisiello in Naples. There he wrote liturgical pieces and insertion arias for opera revivals in the Neapolitan theaters. He wrote many operas, most of which were unsuccessful. 

In Venice, he found himself in demand as a teacher to the students of the wealthy patrons. A few years later he finally found some success as a composer with Pietro il grande (Parma,1824), Zadig ed Astartea (Naples, 1824) and Giulietta e Romeo (Milan, 1825). Bellini’s opera on the same subject supplanted Vaccai’s but many productions substituted Vaccai’s final scene for Bellini’s. (That practice was so common that many scores of Bellini’s opera included Vaccai’s final scene in the appendix!) 

As his prospects as a composer diminished, Vaccai pursued his career as a voice teacher in earnest, first in Paris and then in London where he published his famous method book in 1832. He then returned to Italy where he was for a time head of the conservatory in Venice and then retired to manage his father’s estate. 

There is not much written about Vaccai in English, which is a shame. There is one biography in Italian written by his son, Giulio. La vita di Nicola Vaccai scritta dal figlio Giulio con prefazione del professore A. Biaggi (Bologna, 1882). It is fortunately available online: 

As for his music, other than the final scene from Giulietta e Romeo (which I discussed as we looked at Hillary Porriss’s Changing the Score), there are only a few other items available at New Grove lists some other works including salon pieces which as far as I can tell were never published. (I will keep looking.) So, if anyone has more information, I would love to include it. In the meantime, here are a few pieces that I was able to find easily along with clips from performances. 

“Sorte avversa!” Duet for soprano and contralto from Giovanna d’Arco. 

(Note: the two videos are student performances, curiously both from 2014.)’Arco_(Vaccai%2C_Nicola)

Aria and duet (final scene) from Giulietta e Romeo

There are complete recordings of the opera available (including on youtube), and I already posted clips of the final scene when discussing Changing the Score, but in the interest of encouraging mezzo BootCampers to pick up this aria, here is a recording of Romeo’s Cavatina. It is beautiful music and sung with good bel canto style (and the application of the ornamentation skills we’re learning) this would be a great recital piece!

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Bel Canto Bookshelf Bibliography

Austin, Stephen F. Provenance: Historic Voice Pedagogy Viewed through a Contemporary Lens. Inside View Press, 2017

Berger, William. Wagner without Fear: Learning to Love – and Even Enjoy – Opera’s Most Demanding Genius. Vintage Books, 1998.

Bushnell, Howard. Maria Malibran: A Biography of the Singer. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979

Caccini, Giulio. Le nuove musiche. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock. A-R Editions, 1970. 

Davies, J.Q. Romantic Anatomies of Performance. University of California Press, 2014.

De Angelis, Marcello. Le Carte dell’impresario: Melodramma e Costume Teatrale nell’ottocento. Firenze: G.-C. Sansoni, 1982.

Eisenbeiss, Philip. Bel Canto Bully: The Life and Times of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja. Haus Publishing, 2013.

Feldman, Martha. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. University of California Press, 2015.

Fitzlyon, April. Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age. London: Souvenir Press, 1987.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, 1990.

Monahan, Brent Jeffrey. The Art of Singing: A Compendium of Thoughts on Singing Published Between 1777 and 1927. Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Mordden, Ethan. Demented: The World of the Opera Diva. Franklin Watts, 1984.

Poriss, Hilary. Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Radomski, James. Manuel Garcia (1775-1832): Chronicle of the Life of a Bel Canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism. Oxford University Press, 2000.

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

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Gotham Books, 2003.

Viardot, Pauline. Une heure d’étude. 1880

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Garcia Family Part III: Pauline Viardot

Pauline Viardot, the youngest Manuel Garcia’s three children did not grow up aspiring to become an opera singer. Not wanting to compete with her internationally famous sister, she focused on the piano instead. She was too young to have studied with her father (and given the many stories of his abusive treatment of his other two children, that may have been for the best) so instead she mainly studied singing with her mother and brother. She did, however, have many chances to observe her father working with his singing students as she frequently accompanied the lessons, including those of French tenor Adolphe Nourrit. 

Her life was long and her story complicated, which may explain why there are three English language biographies. Unfortunately, all of them are somewhat disappointing for anyone wanting to study her artistry, teaching and compositions in a serious way. April Fitzlyon’s The Price of Genius: The Life of Pauline Viardot (1964) is probably the best of the bunch, although it is a bit outdated. Barbara Kendall Davies’ two-volume The Life and work of Pauline Viardot Garcia is the most extensive. It is well researched but unfortunately does not include any citations making it problematic as a scholarly source. Michael Steen’s Enchantress of Nations: Pauline Viardot: Soprano, Muse and Lover (2007) is well sourced and thorough (he went to the trouble of figuring out exactly where the Viardots’ various homes were located which is not easy since most of them have since been demolished) but he focuses much more on Pauline’s circle of musical and literary luminaries including whole chapters on the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. He is also dismissive of her compositions and even of her importance as a teacher. There is also an enormous amount of gossip and speculation about her relationships with various men and at least one woman. It all makes for interesting, reading but I could not help wishing that the literature on her life was a little more respectful of her as a singer, composer, and pedagogue. In other words, a little more serious musicology and a little less Real Housewives of Baden-Baden. Considering the number of excellent women in musicology these days, I am optimistic that a volume that takes Viardot (and the many other women who composed and performed) seriously in their own right and not just in terms of their relationships with famous men. 

Viardot’s career spanned much of the 19th century which saw her going from being accompanied by Chopin (singing her own “Le Chêne et le Roseau”) to being accompanied by Saint-Saëns. The latter’s Samson et Dalila was dedicated to her but she only ever sang it once, in a private concert that would be her last operatic performance in 1874. Along the way she inspired many composers, many of whom were also close friends. Meyerbeer created Fidès in Le Prophète for her and Berlioz arranged an edition of Gluck’s Orphée which she performed to great acclaim. 

As for her teaching, we do not have to rely on anyone’s account of her work since she published a volume of exercises with brief advice on singing in 1880. Much of her approach to singing is revealed in her volume of exercises. Une heure d’étude (An Hour of Study) is a practical volume in contrast to her brother’s more theoretical approach. It appears to have been intended for mezzo-sopranos, although it is useful for all voice types. Much of what we advocate at Bel Canto Boot Camp can be found in these pages. The only unusual instruction is an insistence on inhalation through both the mouth and the nose. (This is not the first I have heard of such advice, but this is the earliest example I could find.) The instructions are minimal and practical leaving most of the rest of the 104 pages for vocalizes. As most 19th century treatises do, she begins with her own version of One Note Monday. Then moves to leaps begging with octaves and then back to fifths and increasing by half steps up to the twelfth. Only then does she move to stepwise motion. 

The exercises progress through various melodic and rhythmic patterns. On page 80 she devotes a full page on her instruction on the trill (the most space she devotes to any single subject, followed by her exercises for developing that skill. The final pages are devoted to a Theme and Variations. It is an excellent set of exercises and strongly recommended. An Hour of Study is available online at’%C3%A9tude%2C_VWV_1001_(Viardot%2C_Pauline)

In addition to An Hour of Study, more than a few of her compositions can also be found on Also, the first volume of a new critical edition of her songs (including songs in Russian and Italian) has just been published by Breitkopf & Härtel (Hat tip to Hillary Poriss for tweeting this link just last week.) 

In addition to her own compositions and arrangements, she edited editions of many songs and arias under the title École Classique de Chant. I was only able to locate a few copies of single pieces from this collection in European libraries on I do not know if they were published together or separately and have not been able to view any copies. It would be interesting to see her ornaments, variations, and markings. If anyone has any copies of these or information about them, please let me know.

Pauline Viardot also turns up, thinly fictionalized, in two novels by her longtime friend George Sand Consuelo (1842-43) and its sequel La Comtesse de Rudolstadt (1843). Sand sets her Viardot-inspired character in the 18th century where she is a student of Porpora. I haven’t read either (they are on my very long reading list), but I have included them because they might be of interest. It is also significant to note that in the 18th and 19th century opera was of great cultural significance and that composers and singers had many associations, not just in the opera world but in the artistic worlds of their time. Younger BCBCers whoa re still in college might want to explore this as they study history, literature, and other topics in General Education classes.

Pauline Viardot is such an important person in the history of our art form. I don’t think I had ever even heard of her before being cast in her salon opera Cendrillon at Caramoor in 2004. (That is a charming piece. If it didn’t call for three tenor it might be done more!) Her songs are excellent recital repertoire as well. I’m happy to see that she is finally being given serious study in critical editions of her songs. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Opera Theatre Archives

As fond as I am of books, a great deal of information can be found online these days thanks to many digital archives. We even have digital libraries now like Google Books ( ), Gallica (si on parle français: and Hathi Trust (, the Library of Congress (which includes many resources including a digital sheet music archive, photos, and so much more ), a number of university archives (Harvard, etc.) and of course the Petrucci Music Library ( Some of these make available resources that were difficult to impossible to access just a few years ago. 

In addition, we have the archives of several theaters that have been digitized. Alas not all the major opera houses have made this information available online, but a few have. BCBCers are likely aware of the Metropolitan Opera Archive that Derrick Goff showed us a few weeks ago during a Sunday Matinée. ( The performance database is especially useful as it includes not only casting for every performance the Met has ever given (including concerts), but also links to reviews of those performances. ( This makes it easy to research the performance history of any opera at the Met, compile a list of which roles any given singer sang there and other information. 

For example, one thing that interests me are operas that were once quite popular but are now rarely given. So doing a search of the Met’s hit parade (  we find that the all-time most performed operas at the met are La Boheme, Aida, La Traviata, Carmen and Tosca. No surprising there although there was a time when the top three were ABC (Aida, Boheme, Carmen) which shows how preferences have shifted a bit over time. If we scroll down further, we start to see operas that were performed dozens of times but have not been heard at the Met in decades. At the top of that list would be Les Huguenots (129 performances between 1884 and 1915), Martha (116 performances between 1884 and 1968), and Mignon (110 performances between 1883 and 1949). The data is also searchable by opera and by performer. You can even find a list showing which performers sang the most performances. (Spoiler alert: singers who performed character parts top that list as they often sang several nights a week over multiple seasons.) 

Of the Italian theaters, there are excellent archives for both Venice’s Teatro alla Fenice ( and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala ( These allow us to see the history of repertoire and performances in those houses. For example, Rachelle Jonck stated during last week’s Sunday Matinée that Il barbiere di Siviglia was the first opera never to fall out of the repertoire. Well, with these archives we can see just how true that is, at least in Venice. At La Fenice (  we find a performance almost (but not every) decade since its premiere there (with a recent and somewhat curious gap from 1979 to 1995). La Scala’s information does not go back before the mid-20th century, nor does that of the Wiener Staatsoper (, but both are useful for more recent performances. 

Sadly, the Paris Opéra has not digitalized its archives, but the Opéra-Comique has ( This is another useful archive with links to information about the operas and their performances and casts. It was here that I found information about an opera Adolphe et Clara in which Gabriel Duprez performed several times just before leaving Paris for a multi-year stint in Italy. If you are looking for information about lesser-known French operas, this is an excellent resource and like the La Fenice database includes links to images of the original posters announcing the performances. In some instances, there are even digitized copies of the original documents necessary for getting the production past the French censors. 

One last very useful database for current performances is Operabase ( I have often used this to find information about current productions (has anyone produced a certain opera recently) and current casting trends. Or perhaps you would like to know which houses have performed Handel recently or have upcoming performances of operas by Meyerbeer. You could also search if you were wondering what roles someone who sings repertoire similar to yours also sing, this is the place to look. (That approach is not foolproof, obviously, but it is a good way to get some fresh ideas for repertoire.) 

At this point, it should not be assumed that you have to go onsite to gain access to historical documents. In some cases, you do, but increasingly libraries are digitizing their collections. I likely missed some excellent online archives, and new material is becoming available all the time, so if you know of any good ones that I omitted, please let me know. In the meantime, happy researching!

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Listening to a castrato: an experiment

Martha Feldman. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. University of California Press, 2015.

There is so much to recommend about Martha Feldman’s The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, but one particular observation stands out for me. We cannot know precisely what the castrati sounded like, especially not the great ones. Oh, for the chance to hear the great Farinelli just once! Like me, your music history classes any mention of the castrati was accompanied by caricatures exaggerating their appearance and listening to one recording of a castrato singer: that of Alessandro Moreschi singing the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria.” 

That recording is taken from 24 recordings made in 1902 and 1904, some solos and some ensemble numbers with fellow Vatican Choristers. 

Such unique auditory evidence might well be treated like Homeric fragments, yet the recordings are often dismissed as useless romantic artifacts of the Roman church by a singer said to have been past his prime. Why not imagine them instead as an aural palimpsest, the scraped and funneled parchments of an acoustic past, much like fragmentary parchments of Beneventan chant or Notre Dame polyphony? Will Crutchfield has shown how crucial it is to attend to early phonographic recordings that preserve ornamentation practices proximate to Verdi’s time and before and has argued passionately for the priority of early recordings to understand nineteenth-century singing generally. John Potter has shown the value of recorded evidence for understanding the transmission of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portamento practices into the early twentieth century. In that spirit I marshal Moreschi’s recorded voice as a serious part of the evidentiary package for accessing a material, physiological voice, however mediated. What exactly the evidentiary package consists of and whether Moreschi’s singing can be understood as a “living sample” of a castrato “vocal vernacular,” perhaps a meaningful link in a historical tradition, are the remains that haunt such a project.  

p. 81

Feldman proposes an experiment, one I have never heard of before. She posits that in order to hear Moreschi fairly, we must accustom our ears to the sound of sopranos recorded in the pre-electric era. Acoustical recordings can take some getting used to as there are limitations in the overtones in the sound. If you have been joining in our Sunday afternoon Audiophile Society hosted by Steven Tharp, you have heard some examples of these recordings. (If you have not been joining us, the archive can be found here.)

Feldman provides a list of turn-of-the-century sopranos who recorded the same piece recorded similarly to the recording featuring Moreschi. Listen to each of these to accustom year ear to the sound. Much of what we are likely go find off-putting about Moreschi’s voice on first hearing is found in all these recordings. The sound is often straight, white and at times shrill. How much of that is the singing and how much is the technology? 

Nellie Melba (1904)

Adelina Patti (1905)

Emma Eames (1906)–qJTw

Each is unique, yet all differ from modern singers in using relatively lush portamento, some virtually vibratoless white notes, and a relatively focused sound—what Italians call a filo (thread or thin stream of breath), marked to quite varying degrees of intermittent guttural effects. All seem to take the chest voice higher than modern sopranos do, and all therefore have more in common with each other in terms of vocal production that they have with the vocal production and stylistic leanings of present-day singers (and probably with most singers up until at least the 1930s….

p. 84

Now that your ear has become acclimated to hearing tremble voices recorded using this technology, give Alessandro Moreschi a hearing with newly attuned ears. 

Alessandro Moreschi (1904)

Yes, it is different in some respects, but nearly so much as it is from the soprano voices, we hear live or in modern recordings. It is just an informative experiment, and I must admit that I am a bit embarrassed not to have thought of it myself. I will certainly introduce this recording to students this way from now on. 

Note: Feldman’s discussion of chest voice usage among these sopranos as well as what we know of castrati registration will be of great interest to Boot Campers. Yet another reason to recommend this book!

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Everything you wanted to know about the castrati but were afraid to ask

Martha Feldman. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. University of California Press, 2015.

There is a great deal that is fantastic and strange about opera. The virtuosic singing, the orchestration, the high drama of the plots, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and so much more. But all of those elements, even at their most extreme, pale in comparison to the phenomenon of the castrati. It is hard to wrap our post-modern heads around the very idea that parents had their sons castrated to preserve their beautiful voices in the hopes of an operatic, or at least cathedral choir, career. But they did. And this phenomenon lasted in opera for over 200 years and continued for decades longer in the major Italian cathedrals (especially at the Vatican). How did this go on for so long and more importantly why?

Most English language sources on this topic have been disappointing until recently. In part, writers were unable to hide their (admittedly understandable) disgust at the topic. So, for a couple of centuries the topic has been glossed over with a few ridiculous caricature drawings and one acoustical recording being all most students of music history learned about these singers who were widely reported as the best singers of their time and perhaps the greatest singers to ever grace the operatic stages. 

Fortunately, we now have some new sources, the best of which is Martha Feldman’s The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. If you are only going to go to one source to understand the phenomenon of the operatic castrato, it should be this book. Feldman remedies so much of the distorted narrative of the past by taking an interdisciplinary approach in her research. For example, when looking for answers to what procedures were performed and where, she doesn’t just quote Burney (who tried and failed to find an answer) but looks to research into Italian medical practices of the time. In her research she found several documents related to surgeons who had performed the castrations.

She also explores the social lives and financial circumstances of the castrati. She even digs into the relationship between the most famous of all the castrati Farinelli and the Italian librettist Metastasio. She also probes the problems of their legacies since they had no direct heirs. Property, mementos and important documents were mostly lost after relatives squabbled over estates and sold off anything of value. Their legacies often crumbled to dust soon after their deaths. (In spite of that, there are at least two recent biographies of castrati as well as a very old one of Farinelli. I can recommend Roger Freitas’s Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage and Music in the Life of Atto Melani, 2009.) 

Perhaps the biggest question about the castrati is “What did they sound like?” To a certain extent we will never truly know. We only have one acoustical recording of a castrato and not one of the great ones (more on that next week). But we do have descriptions from many sources detailing the glories of their singing (and in some cases mocking them mercilessly). 

And finally, we have their artistic legacy. They are among the first voice teachers to publish their methods and in doing so created much of the foundations of what we still teach today as bel canto technique. They raised the level of what was expected from singers both musically and technically. They are in many ways the first virtuosi. Instrumentalists like Paganini and Liszt would reinvent the playing of their instruments in order to compete with the glory of the singing of the castrati (and later the tenors, contraltos and sopranos they tutored). The legacy of their art lives on in the music of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti even though only Rossini wrote a role for a castrato. Their manner of singing continued after the last one (Velluti) left the stage in 1830. 

This is an essential source for anyone studying opera up through the bel canto era. One of the best things about this book is the generous inclusion of portraits, drawings and other visual resources that paint a far clearer picture of the castrati than the handful of exaggerated caricatures used in almost every book about opera. We have long needed a thorough, insightful look at this phenomenon and this is it. It’s a must-read. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Paper Trail of an Impresario

Marcello De Angelis. Le Carte dell’impresario: Melodramma e Costume Teatrale nell’ottocento. Firenze: G.-C. Sansoni, 1982.

Last week I wrote about Bel Canto Bully in which author Philip Eisenbeiss provides a detailed portrait of the bel canto era’s most important impresario, Domenico Barbaja, whose career was extraordinary but not typical of most impresarios of the time. A more typical impresario provided a troop of singers with a bill of 2-3 operas for a particular season: Carnevale (December 26 – Mardi Gras), Lent, Spring, Summer or Fall. (Note: During this period at least, theaters were open during the seasons of Lent and Advent!)  The company arrived  rehearsed and prepared and performed operas from their repertoire and then typically moved on to another town for the next season. This provided opera to smaller cities like Lucca, Senigallia, Trieste, etc. This was typical of most opera presented on the Italian peninsula in the first half of the 19th century.

There were several of these impresarios during that era, one of whom left behind a great many letters and documents which were acquired by the Biblioteca Nationale Centrale di Firenze in 1887 and are housed there. According to De Angelis, the collection was quite disorganized when he first encountered it and consisted of about 15,000 letters including many from the great singers of that time including Tadolini, Strepponi, Pasta, Moriani, Tacchinardi, Ungher, Lablache, Duprez and many others. They cover a 30-year period from about 1820 to 1850 and concern many Italian theaters including La Scala, La Fenice, San Carlo, Filarmonica di Verona, Communale di Bologna, Municipale di Reggio Emilia, Sociale di Mantova, as well as minor theaters like the Cannobiana in Milan, Siena, Padova, Pisa, Livorno and many others. De Angelis observes that they document a “rigidly vertical and paternalistic structure” with complex rules. This was the opera world of the bel canto era. (p. 8)

I should mention at this point that the book is entirely in Italian. This will present a challenge to many readers, as it did to me, but this is an extraordinarily useful resource for information about singers and composers of this era as well as the structure of theatrical life in Italy during this period. Anyone researching Gabriel Duprez (as I am) or Giuseppina Strepponi will find information here not in many (if any) English language resources. It will be worth any researcher’s time to translate the relevant paragraphs in order to obtain such information. That was certainly true in my case.

Alessandro Lanari was born in San Marcello on January 25, 1787. As a businessman he hired many relatives to work in his company, especially his son Antonio, who studied law and became a principal collaborator with his father. He also hired his brother and sister and many other relatives. In addition to theatrical management, he operated a successful costume business and that proved to be the most lasting and stable of his enterprises, supplying many of the costumes used in Italian theaters at the time. 

In addition to showing us how theatrical life in 19th century Italy was structured, we also see the many difficulties of life at the time. Travel between cities was long and treacherous. Before there were railroads it was necessary to travel by carriage on terrible roads. The passage across the Alps was especially treacherous. Thieves were common, and in one instance Lanari and his fellow travelers were accosted in an incident which left several of the robbers dead. Lanari, however, escaped unharmed. There is also some detail of the problems with the cholera outbreaks in Italy in the 1830s which made travel and even the shipping of scores and costumes impossible for months at a time. 

The final section is a detailed of the various troupes that Lanari sent to various opera companies for each season along with repertoire and casting. (Sadly, the singers are listed but not which roles they sang, although in most cases it is not difficult to determine who would have sung what.) For example: the 1831-32 Carnevale Season at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan consisted of the world premiere of Bellini’s Norma (!), along with Pacini’s Il corsaro, Rossini’s Otello, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, as well as the world premieres of Donizetti’s Ugo, conte di Parigi and Pugno’s La vendetta with a troupe that included Domenico Donzelli, Giulia Grisi, Negrini, and Giuditta Pasta. (Imagine looking forward to that as an opera season!) The benefit of this kind of programming was that if any of the productions proved unpopular, performances could be replaced with a more successful one. 

There is so much of interest in these documents and easily enough for several more books and articles (like Sandro Corti’s ”Gilbert-Louis Duprez: Le Lettere (1833-1850) nell’Archivio dell’Impresario Alessandro Lanari” (found in Ottocento e oltre: Scritti in onore di Raoul Meloncelli (Rome: Editoriale Pantheon, 1993: 277-318) that is made up of annotated transcriptions of 30 letters from Duprez to the Lanari. Many thanks to De Angelis (and Corti) for transcribing these letters. Having seen several examples of 19th century letters, reading the handwriting is challenging and virtually impossible for someone not fluent in the language. Obviously, it is a challenge to read research material in another language, but anyone studying opera is going to have to look beyond English language sources. The rewards are great for those who embrace the challenge.

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Bel Canto Bully

Eisenbeiss, Philip. Bel Canto Bully: The Life and Times of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja. Haus Publishing, 2013.

When we talk about the history of opera, we mostly discuss it in terms of composers. That makes sense in a way. They wrote the music that we study and perform. To a lesser extent (and not nearly as often as we should) we discuss the singers for whom the roles were written since for most of the history of opera roles were written specifically to showcase their particular talents and abilities. But one other group is also important and mostly neglected: the impresario. 

There is no post-modern equivalent to the 19th century opera impresario. Their roles varied over time (more on that next week) but in many cases they functioned as a combination agent, theater manager and in many cases “fixer.” They hired singers, commissioned operas, put together productions and in some cases (like Barbaja’s) even supervised the construction of a theater! For the most part they were people from a theatrical background, often former singers themselves, which is why Barbaja, who came from an impoverished background, is such an anomaly.

Domenico Barbaja was born Domenico Barbaglia in a small village outside Milan. He neither obtained nor desired much in the way of formal education. He never even learned standard Italian so the few extant letters in his own hand are written in a phonetic spelling of his native Milanese dialect. Even in an era in which rags-to-riches stories abound, Barbaja’s rise from street urchin to coffee house waiter to croupier to casino manager to the impresario in charge of all the theaters in Naples and then theaters in Milan and Vienna is astonishing. 

He arrived in Naples during the Napoleonic rule of that region. The French had taken the top singers (including the castrato Crescentini) and the top composer (Paisiello) back to Paris. This left a serious vacuum in Naples but huge opportunities for Barbaja to start fresh in the three Neapolitan theaters (including the Teatro San Carlo and the smaller Fondo) bringing in new singers, repertoire and most significantly, a young, but already much celebrated, young composer from northern Italy, Giacchino Rossini. Rossini’s contract was controversial as Naples had a history up to this point of engaging composers and singers trained at their own conservatory. Barbaja, ignored that tradition not only when engaging composers but also singers. Soon he had installed Isabella Colbran as the raining prima donna and hired several now-legendary tenors like Manuel Garcia I, Domenico Donzelli and G.B. Rubini. 

Barbaja’s plan to raise the artistic standards of the theater went beyond music. He also engaged top set designers, and later, when the San Carlo had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1816, he updated the entire theater (house, stage and backstage) to the latest standards. All of this made him quite wealthy, although much of that wealth was from the casino in the lobby that featured then-new roulette wheels. 

By 1820 Colbran’s voice was in noticeable decline and the political situation was becoming exhausting to navigate. Italian history is exceedingly complicated with various foreign countries, usually Spain, France or Austria-Hungary in charge at various times. Exhausted from constantly changing allegiances, Barbaja makes bids to run both La Scala in Milan and the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna. First, he wins the Vienna contract taking his top singers and of course his trump card Rossini with him. He took a year off from running the theaters in Naples, but that year was such a financial disaster that the Neapolitans begged him to return. 

The Viennese audiences were no less vocal than the Neapolitans about what they liked and disliked but in the case of Vienna there was a longstanding debate about Italian vs German music. Barbaja commissioned a new opera from Carl Maria von Weber and his Euryanthe reignited that debate and sold many tickets as a result. 

Next, he had the impresa at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. He was now responsible for three of Europe’s most important opera houses and had the top composer (Rossini) and singers (Colbran, Rubini, Nozzari, David, et al.) under contract.  But soon after Rossini’s contract was up, and he left for Paris and much more money. Now Barbaja was faced with the task of finding the next great opera composer. He commissioned operas from a number of composers but the four that showed the most promise were Pacini, Bellini, Donizetti and Vaccai. (Pacini, is perhaps the least familiar to modern operagoers, but his opera L’Ultima giorno di Pompeii was a success and was revived many times at the San Carlo.)

Eventually his career went into decline and despite being lauded at his funeral, his name is now but a footnote in opera history. Eisenbeiss makes a good case for why he deserves to be remembered. He not only commissioned great works from great composers but cast them with the top singers of their era in first-rate productions. He did everything possible to ensure their success. In spite of an ill temper (there are many stories in the book about that!) and a quickly to take people to court over any slight, he had a significant influence on the era we now call bel canto.

Bel Canto Bully also provides a well-rounded view of the culture, politics and finances of the opera world at the time. So much is familiar and so much is strange to the current reader. It provides a necessary context for understanding singing and music in the bel canto era. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the opera world in Italy (and to a lesser extent in Vienna and Paris) in the early 19th century. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Before Binary: A History of Ideas about Sex and Gender

Thomas Laqueur. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, 1990.

This week’s book recommendation isn’t the usual book about singing or opera, but instead a look at the history of ideas about gender and sex. It’s easy (as far too many people do) to think that our current ideas about gender are the same ones people have always had. Laqueur provides ample examples to prove that this is just not the case. 

This is especially relevant to opera, not only because we currently have more people openly identifying as trans and non-binary, but because there is a long history in opera of castrati playing both men and women (and on occasion abstract concepts like “Music”), but also women playing boys and men (not just the commonly cited example of adolescents like Cherubino and Octavian, but also heroic male leads like Tancredi. In addition, there are traditions of men playing women, often for comic effect (the stepsisters in various incarnations of Cinderella, for example) but not always (as in the 17th century Venetian tradition of tenors playing nurses. 

This is, therefore, a relevant and timely topic for opera singers, directors and producers to consider. This is also the book I find myself recommending the most. (Especially to those who insist that gender is strictly binary.) Below are some quotes from the book and summaries of its contents. These are from notes I took for a still-unfinished research project.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed below are neither mine nor Laqueur’s but are interesting in terms of many sexist attitudes and concepts that persist into the post-modern world. 

It might seem perfectly obvious to us that men are different than women but the construction of how those differences are defined and described is not consistent across history. (p. vii)

Galen in the 2nd century AD described women as essentially men in whom a lack of vital heat resulted in “retention.  Their bodies were like men’s only with some organs on the inside rather than the outside.  This view persisted in western though for hundreds of years. (p. 4)

Doctors well into the Renaissance continued to believe in “the humors”.  The humors existed on axes of hot/cold and wet/dry.  Imbalances were believed to cause disease. (p. 112)

Stories of women spontaneously sprouting a penis and becoming men exist in the medical literature of the 16th century.  Note: none of these stories involve women becoming men. (p. 123)

In Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, he expresses anxiety that a man who spent too much time around women could become like them.  And vice versa.  Music according to Castiglione’s misogynist Lord Gasper is a hobby for women which is effeminizing for men. (p. 124)

Henrika Schuria in 17th century Holland was “a woman of masculine demeanor who had grown weary of her sex”. She dressed as a man, enlisted in the army, and successfully passed in the masculine role she was caught in the act of taking the man’s part in sexual intercourse. (p. 137)

Michel de Montaigne tells in his Travel Journal of a group of girls in Chaumont-en-Bassigni who dressed as males.  One of them came to Vitry where he worked and lived and even became engaged to a woman.  They fell out but he then married another woman.  Montaigne consistently uses to third person pronoun to refer to this person as the gender presented at that moment in the story.  (p. 139)

Paolo Zacchia in his Questionum medio-legalium, a major Renaissance medical-jurisprudential text, claims that women can turn into men but not vice versa because there is no room inside a man for a penis to invert into the female organs. He also argues that nature trends toward the more perfect (the perfect being male).  (p. 141)

These antiquated ideas about the single-sex model of the body as well as stories of women becoming men, women giving birth to rabbits and monsters and all sorts of nonsense persisted in popular lore long after those practicing medicine and science had moved on from them. Books like Aristotle’s Masterpiece and Nicholas Venette’s The Art of Conjugal Love perpetuated these myths and legends. (p. 151)

The concept of sex as fixed and polarizing only becomes popularized in the public sphere in the 18th century and especially in the post-revolutionary 19th century.  (Note: this is the era in which the last castrati retire from the stage and opera moves from opera seria to grand opera and character types become associated with specific voice types.) (p. 152)

There is much more, of course. It makes for fascinating reading, especially at a time when gender is such a hot topic. People insisting that their limited understanding of this topic has always been the standard model are simply wrong. (And the claim that their binary model is scientific is just laughable.) There’s much here worth discussing, since this is significant in every era of opera from travesti roles to castrati to 21st century trans singers cast in leading roles. None of this is as new as some would have us think. I would put this on the required reading list for everyone (whether they are involved in opera or not)!