I am now and have always been an unapologetic bel canto enthusiast. Opera has lost a lot in the last century, but there are, mercifully, signs out there of a revival. If you follow the trajectory of classical singing, especially high-voice male singing, to start with a prominent example, it becomes immediately apparent that much has changed in 150 years. There is no question that in its beginnings, high-voice male singing was essentially the art of falsetto and developed falsetto, commonly called head voice. In Manuel Garcia’s L’Art du Chant (1856), possibly the greatest book on vocal training ever written, he states it clearly and unequivocally: the tenor voice is built upon the falsetto. Thence to the head voice, over time, but he makes it clear that the whole process is from the top down. While some might say, “Oh well, of course,” in fact many do not believe it, especially some teachers and voice coaches (we don’t need to mention names, you probably know them) who will have the hapless 21 year old student forcing his larynx down into his shoes, in an attempt to develop a kind of steely, dramatic sound with an artificially high (and very temporary) top. Rarely does the poor youngster have a future. His voice will sound enormous to him (largely via bone conduction) and often impressive to those standing close by, but nine times out of ten it will stagger over the footlights and die about twenty rows out. Worse, our young tenor will have set in motion a process of strain on the voice that will at first leave him sounding impressive on certain nights but curiously weak and winded on others, when the voice will not respond. Eventually, there will be a wobble, and it’s addio, career. This has happened too frequently.
Fortunately, the tradition was never completely lost. There were at least a few good tenors who studied in the early 20th century and internalized both the García method and the example of still living tenors from an earlier age, such as Fernando de Lucía, who was Georges Thill’s teacher. The most prominent 20th-century exponent of this glorious tradition is certainly Giacomo Lauri Volpi, a well-educated, intelligent, articulate (and, I would add, almost uniquely strong-willed) tenor who proceeded to set a very high standard for bel canto tenor singing; one not yet reached by another tenor. For any who do not know it, I offer the following. Please notice how the announcer refers to the fact that Toscanini said of Lauri Volpi that he possessed “la piu bella voce del mondo.”
If your ears have recovered yet from that D at the end, I’m sure you will see what I am talking about. This voice was not only beautiful, with its expressive range from pianissimo (“Dillo ancor…”) to that window-shattering high D, it was extraordinarialy powerful. This is important because there are many who equate bel canto singing with the tenore di grazia. While this may be the case, it is not necessarily the case, witness Lauri Volpi.
Now hear the master himself give a little singing lesson. Crank up the sound, this is a very old Italian Vitaphone recording:
Every aspiring tenor should be required to memorize this. The movement over the passagio is smooth as silk—the golden line through the entire upper register is unbroken. What magnificent singing!