We can’t leave the subject of Lauri Volpi and Bel Canto without looking a little further at the man and his extraordinary art. Thanks to TrovadorManrique, there is an excellent video on Youtube of Franco Corelli talking about Lauri Volpi, with whom he studied. This is exactly the kind of first-hand information, from one distinguished professional to another, that has great historical value.
What a document this is! Corelli (whom I adore, incidentally) makes many points, but several strike me particularly. The first is when he reiterates, in a very clear way, something that I have always maintained; that Lauri Volpi’s was first and foremost a theatrical voice. This is much more important than might appear at first, because it explains things about his particular technique. His training was essentially bel canto—this we know. He was a lifelong exponent of the method, even though he rejected the falsetto as a voice appropriate for the stage in the 20th century. Gigli could use falsetto a lot (and he did) because he made so many recordings and films. It works perfectly there, because it does not have to fill a theater. Which brings me to the second thing that struck me in this video. Corelli relates a comment from another person, who said that L-V’s voice was the only one to ever make its vibrations felt in the furthest reaches of the upper balcony. And then he adds, “not the voice, but the vibrations of the voice.
Some viewers might find this confusing, but as an avocational harpsichord builder, I knew immediately what he was talking about! I had the sad experience, a few years back, of hearing the Academy of Ancient Music perform, using a harpsichord that I knew well, a unique Hubbard dual-manual built locally and rented for the evening. I had once contemplated buying this harpsichord, and had played a few scales and passages on it, so I knew exactly what it sounded like, and I can assure you that as a strumento da camera it was magnificent. On stage, however, it disappointed. The theater was not all that large—perhaps 700—but the poor harpsichord was lost in it. From where I sat, in the first balcony, it sounded like nothing quite so much as a sack of 10-penny nails being unceremoniously dumped on the stage floor. This is a common experience. The lovely and ancient harpsichord just doesn’t make it as a concert instrument in a large modern-day hall.
This, in the realm of the human voice, is what Corelli is talking about. You can hear many singers’ voices in the last row, but not the vibrations of their voice; which is to say not the overtones. And the uniqueness of L-V’s voice, according to Corelli, was that the overtones of his voice did reach the last row. Some sounds survive distance with the fullness of their amplitud, and some do not. I am reminded of something Lily Pons once said. A colleague, concerned that he could not hear her voice (she was a tiny creature, less than 5 feet tall) mentioned this fact to her. She replied, “don’t worry, you may not hear me on stage, but they will hear me in the audience.” And she was right. It is the higher frequencies of the voice that account for this. This is what served Lauri Volpi and his bel canto technique so well, and it also served Pons. Among those not well served by this phenomenon are heroic and dramatic singers who cover to the point of clamping down on their voices, and even though they may be booming at close range, they often do not carry as well in the theater as one might have expected, because many of the higher resonances are missing. Someone might ask why the higher resonances of a harpsichord don’t carry. The answer is that they do, but unfortunately the higher resonances of copper overlap with those of steel! Hence the metallic clang. We cannot compare metals with the soft human flesh of vocal chords.