In the past you were a bass, now you are a baritone. Your CD Cieco Amor is about Giuseppe Maria Boschi. You sing music that was composed for him, but he was a bass and not a baritone. What kind of voice do you exactly have?
Yes, voices change when they mature. Some become lower, mine went a bit up. In the period of Bach and Händel there would have been no difference. All lower male voices were called basses. That could range from what we now call a deep bass (basso profondo) to a higher baritone. The division in several voice subcategories like the baritone is relatively new. My vocal range is about the same as Giuseppe Maria Boschi’s.
Up until late in the 19th century operatic roles were normally written for specific singers to suit their personal characteristics and strengths. For example, Polifemo in Händel’s ‘Aci, Galatea e Polifemo’ was probably written for Antonio Manna. He was known for his deep low notes and his great vocal extension. You can hear that in the aria ‘Fra l’ombre e gl‘orrori’. That aria is too low for me. Rossini’s Figaro in the ‘Barber of Seville’ would be too high for me to sing comfortably. My voice is more like Boschi who sang the first ‘Argante’ in Händel’s Rinaldo. So for the 18th century my voice is a bass. In more modern times it is a baritone, a bass-baritone if you will. It depends on the circumstances and on the color that fits the role best.
How do you determine what vocal color is best for an operatic role?
You can approach that in several ways. It strongly depends on taste. If you want to understand for what kind of voice an operatic role was originally intended, you look at who first sang it. The music was normally created for that specific singer. If you look at Bellini’s opera ‘Norma’, we now perceive Norma to be a role for a dramatic soprano. The original Norma was Giuditta Pasta. She was most probably a mezzo soprano with a wide vocal range. She sang Rossini’s Tancredi in the lower contralto range. She also sang Rossini’s Semiramide which is now considered to be a role for a soprano, because there is so much coloratura in the music. These are modern conventions. The first Adalgisa was Giulia Grisi. She was a soprano who also sang Elvira in ‘I Puritani’. Now Adalgisa is often thought to be a mezzosoprano role. The information about the original cast gives clear information about what the composer had in mind.
We are lucky to have recordings of some singers who performed roles for the first times. Francesco Tamagno was the first Otello. He worked with Verdi himself on the role. He knew exactly what the composer wanted. Even with the bad sound quality of the recording, you can hear that there is a lightness in his vocal approach. His legato is flawless, the singing flows. Verdi wanted Tamagno. That is a clear indication of how to approach the role. Otello does not necessarily need to be sung by a ‘big’ and heavy voice. We have the physical proof of the recording.
Listening to early recordings it is also interesting to note that singers sang what they wanted to sing. Amelita Galli-Curci was a high soprano. She sang light roles and also did Lucia di Lammermoor and La Traviata. Adelina Patti sang Violetta in La Traviata, Gilda in Rigoletto, Rossini’s Semiramide, and also light show pieces. In the tradition of opera it is not about the kind of voice you have. It is about what you do with it. What matters is expression.
Baroque music seems often best suited for lighter voices. Can a voice be too big for that repertoire?
Good question. If this were true, it would mean that there would not have been so-called bigger voices in the 17th and 18thcentury. This implies that the structure of the vocal tract has changed since those days. We have no proof of that and it is unlikely. There have always been bigger and smaller voices. Each voice is unique. What matters is how it is used.
What does happen is that when you sing fast, the individual notes produce less sound. This is a natural consequence of the speed. The voice needs space to develop a full sound. In coloratura the sound becomes lighter. Baroque music is not written for light voices. The music is often highly virtuosic in order to express an emotional state of the character. That was the convention at the time. As a consequence the sound is less full in the fast passages. It depends on the writing. When composers wanted a fuller sound they created different arias.
An expert musicologist once told me at a conference that we probably perform baroque music in different tempi than how it was done at the time. Sometimes it seems that faster means more brilliant. It sounds exciting. As a consequence the voice sounds smaller. I have a slightly different esthetic. I like the challenge and can do the gymnastics. At the same time I also like to make the notes heard. The composer wrote them for a reason. Equally important, the words need to be audible. Opera is always a text set on music. The words have meaning, they carry a concept, an idea behind it all. We tell a story. This is what moves an audience. Expression.
So in your opinion the size of a voice is irrelevant?
It depends on what kind of effect you look to create. You may prefer a certain color for a role, because that suits your esthetics. It also depends on how the music is written. If a role centers on low notes, you will think of a singer who has beautiful low notes instead of a singer who enjoys singing high notes more than anything else. Then again, I have heard many recordings and performances of Verdi’s La Traviata, some with darker voices, some with lighter voices. I enjoy different versions as long as the singer receives and takes the space to be expressive. In order to be expressive you need technique. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf once commented in an interview that it only makes sense to think about interpretation when you have the matching technique to perform your ideas. She had a point there.
You need a well-placed voice in order to sing well in every style. Some of Monteverdi’s compositions are written for the San Marco Cathedral in Venice. The space there is huge. You can only cover that space when you project the voice well. That is a matter of technique, it has nothing to do with how big or small a voice is. Elisabeth Schumann is an interesting example of this. She had a so-called light voice. She was famous for her interpretations of Lieder. Listen to her Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms songs. Her interpretations are one of my points of reference for how to sing German art song. She practiced a perfect trill to keep the voice flexible and smooth. She also sang in Strauss’ Rosenkavalier and was audible everywhere. If the voice is well placed, you can hear it everywhere in the hall.
Another important aspect is how the orchestra plays. The orchestra needs to support the voice and should not overplay it. I once attended a performance where a single singer needed to project the voice over an orchestra of 100 players on modern instruments. The conductor made them play so loud that it hurt my ears. I literally cupped them with my hands to protect them. My colleague had to push the voice to overcome a wall of sound. Pushing is against the rules of belcanto singing and it is dangerous for the voice. It means that you use the wrong muscles which can result in a strain on the vocal cords. In the long run this can damage the vocal cords and can create a wobble. I felt sorry for my colleague. Nobody likes to sing like that. Singing is an act of love. We look to create beauty. When it all comes together singing is an amazing experience for the performers as well as for the audience.
This is why it’s such a wonderful experience to work with the Abchordis Ensemble and Andrea Buccarella. We are all on the same page, looking to express what the composer wrote down. We exchange ideas. We appreciate each other as fellow musicians and we are honest with each other. It helps that we like each other. Andrea is a gifted musician. I think he will have a great career. He deserves it.
You teach baroque singing. Is there a specific baroque singing technique?
If you look at how the musical instruments developed over time, it would seem so. The instruments changed in shapes and use of materials. This changes the quality and the amount of sound they produce. Playing on historical instruments can require specific technical approaches. My Lieder-colleague Costantino Mastroprimiano is specialized in playing historical pianos. The instrument at hand determines what music can be played on it and sometimes even how slow or fast he can play a certain melody. This has to do with the mechanism of the instrument. For the voice this is not true. The human body is still the same as far as we know. It did not change drastically. The vocal system works the same as in the past. If you want to sing with a ‘placed voice’ there is only one singing technique. What you can sing depends on how well you control it.
Baroque is a style period to which you adapt how you sing. Since virtuosity is an important part of the musical language, your technique needs to be up to par. Technical control always comes first. You need to study how to apply ornamentation. You need a perfect trill, as this was at the time one of the most important criteria to indicate a singer’s quality. If you want to sing early baroque you also need to be able to trill on a single note. This you might call a specific baroque singing technique.
The baroque is the period that created the belcanto style of singing. Giulio Caccini mentions the term already in 1602 in his ‘Le nuove musiche’. This is in the same period that opera was invented. It is not as if Caccini woke up some day and then invented belcanto. He wrote down the word, most likely there was already some practice. Baroque vocal music is belcanto. This is important. Baroque opera is opera. The belcanto style stayed predominant up until well into the 19th century. Bellini and Rossini are much closer to Händel than you might think. Later, the most virtuosic aspects went out of fashion in favor of a so-thought realistic style, the verismo. The general approach to the voice was unchanged however. It is still the basis of our singing today.
To me this shows that the division between the various style periods is a bit artificial. There are different styles, but there are no clear cuts. The development of music is fluid. As an example, Beethoven was a pupil of Haydn who in his turn was a pupil of Porpora. Beethoven became a point of reference for the whole 19th century. They all influenced each other over time and over countries. This is the tradition of our art music. In addition, in all style periods you can find composers who were ahead of their time while others preferred to compose in the old style. When you listen to Porpora you can already hear the announcement of Mozart, although he came much later. The young Verdi still wrote some arias in the style of the castrati with big leaps and vocal acrobatics, especially for sopranos. Even the young Wagner wrote trills. In my perception it is all music of the past. Even Shostakovich. I love it all.
When we think of baroque vocal music there is often the issue of vibrato. Should the singing be with or without vibrato? What is your view on that subject?
This is a famous question indeed and it depends on what you mean with vibrato. It can mean different things. Vibrato can refer to the natural fluctuation in the voice that makes it sound alive and full. Vibrato can also be an ornamentation, an added embellishment to underline a certain word or to intensify an emotion.
For me, the first answer is that vibrato is part of the emission of the voice. The way we use the voice for classical music creates a natural fluctuation within the voice. It happens as a consequence of fully using the resonant spaces of the body. This was already well known in the past. You can find physical proof of this in the way historical organs are constructed. Organs have several registers that imitate various instruments. There is the flute, the cello, etc. The organ pipes are made in different ways to give different colors to their sound. They make the organ such a unique instrument. Already in the late 15th century there are organs that have a special register for the human voice. They are constructed differently. Instead of 1 pipe they have 2 pipes to create a fluctuating sound that imitates the vibrato in the voice. This is what the voice does, it vibrates.
So, vibrato is a necessary part of singing?
Personally, I would rephrase the question. What matters in my opinion is the kind of vibrato in the voice. In the old treatises there is mention that the voice should not sound like the singing of old people. This refers to an overly large vibrato, in other words a wobble. In Italian we say that the voice ‘dances’, ballare la voce. This needs to be avoided at all times. It is wrong in baroque music, it is also out of style in Puccini. We have the historical recordings to proof it. These go back about 120 years. Some of those singers still worked on the music with the composers themselves. I have not yet heard a recording from that period in which the singer wobbles. They had a different esthetic.
It may be that the large vibrato is an esthetic of our period now, like the idea that a voice should be big. It can also be the result of using much muscle force to produce a larger sound. This is dangerous for the voice. The traditional way to project the voice over an orchestra is by concentrating the sound so that the voice envelops more harmonics or overtones. The voice becomes bigger because it becomes richer in sound. In the early vocal recordings you can hear that this is exactly what the singers do. Their sound is free and seems to come easy. Even in the Wagner recordings from before 1910 the singing sounds easy. They sing ‘on the breath’, without pushing. For them it mattered to sing beautiful lines fluidly. The great tenor Tito Schipa said about himself that the notes were already on his lips and he just blew them away.
What then is a good vibrato?
This is a bit difficult to explain and it also depends on personal preferences. A correct vibrato gives a sense of freedom to the voice. Technically, without that freedom it becomes more difficult to sing coloratura. Ludovico Zacconi already writes this in 1592 in his ‘Prattica di Musica’. Texts from that period talk about a firm voice, voce ferma. I think that this means that the vibrato needs to be confined in a space.
When you sing full voice you produce a flow of sound. You can compare it with a river. The voice is firm as long as the vibrato stays within the banks of that river. That I would call the natural vibrato. As long as it is controlled I personally find it beautiful. The bigger the space you use, the more you need to control your vibrato. When we get older, our vibratos naturally tend to get broader. It takes a lot of training and practice to keep it under control.
It is also possible to sing without vibrato. We call that a fixed voice, voce fissa. When you sing non-vibrato the flow of sound is a bit less broad. The river becomes narrower so to speak. If you then want to add a vibrato effect to it you have to stay within the confines of that smaller river. Otherwise to my ears it sounds like a wobble, even if it is a small one. So that too takes a lot of practice to do it well. It is a choice how you like to approach the voice, it’s a preference. All in all, in my view the question is not whether or not to sing with vibrato. It is about how to control the vibrato.
Historical sources say that the vibrato needs to be developed for longer notes. How do you see that?
Yes, in that case you talk about the other meaning of vibrato, as an ornamentation, an embellishment. The added vibrato creates a dramatic effect, it can create an intense moment. This comes on top of the normal fluctuation in the voice and it still needs to stay within the same space. In other words, within the banks of the river. It is an intensification of what is already there. In the same way singers can add non-vibrato for expressive reasons. In Schubert’s ‘Meeres Stille’ for example the first phrase says that ”Deep silence reigns over the water”. That would sound pompous with a heavy vibrato, so you try to create a sense of silence by this non-vibrato effect.
What are your plans for the future?
The pandemic has changed many plans. For everyone, also for me. I have used this unexpected extra time to research and prepare new repertoire. Some of it is still in the developing phase. I found Italian cantatas for my voice type. I particularly love this style of chamber music. Now, the chamber cantata is not so well known, but it has an interesting history. It was in fact popular in the 18th century.
The majority of them is written for sopranos, but I have discovered that there are many more cantatas for my voice than I thought. In reality, there is a wealth of beautiful chamber music: cantatas, duets, trios, even chamber operas. It deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed. The music can be a bit more complex than how we perceive baroque music today, more introverted. It is made to promote a philosophical idea or to make you reflect on something. You can compare it with drinking a glass of full bodied red wine. You take sips. It is the fine art of singing. We were lucky enough to be able to record in between lockdowns. All in safe circumstances of course. Hopefully we can start performing in concerts soon.
Next to teaching, I also can’t wait to rehearse Lieder programs with pianist friends. They are wonderful musicians and we have so many ideas we are working on. Among them is Costantino Mastroprimiano. He plays on period instruments. The use of period instruments brings a different balance between voice and piano. I find it fascinating. We are working on several programs, among them the musical world that Francesco Paolo Tosti was part of. With Costantino it is not just that we like each other, we find each other in the music. This gives a sense of freedom that is like how I imagine what a bird feels when it soars in the sky. With another pianist on modern instruments there are plans for a French program. I love the music of composers like Massenet, Fauré, and Hahn. There are also lesser known French composers who wrote beautifully, among them Cecile Chaminade. I would like to explore more on that path.
What will you record next?
Later this year, we will record again with the Abchordis Ensemble and Andrea Buccarella. I am excited about this. Andrea is such a good conductor and we have this nice musical and personal click. The group plays wonderful. They are good musicians who are happy to perform together. You can feel that happening. We enjoyed working together on ‘Cieco Amor’. The new program is still a secret, I can only tell you now that it is music of a composer I greatly admire. The music is beautiful. To record it in friendship, it doesn’t get better than that.
Singers mentioned in the interview:
Giuseppe Maria Boschi (1698-1744), Antonio Manna (1665-1728), Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865), Giulia Grisi (1811-1869), Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905), Amelita Galli-Curci (1882-1963), Adelina Patti (1843-1919), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006), Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952)