The French are deservedly famous for their aggressive cultivation of high culture and high style, and I for one lament the fact that we do not hear more French opera today, and especially that we do not hear great French tenors such as Georges Thill. (Alagna deserves his own review, later.) Many myths exist about the difficulties of singing in French, and they are just that--myths. They come largely from Italian singers who cannot make the sounds properly ("le" always seems to come out "lay," etc.) or English-speaking singers who try too hard to make the sounds, and nearly choke in the process. In general, for some reason, English-speaking sopranos (e.g. Renée Fleming) do much better than the men. Listening to Georges Thill provides proof positive that French can be sung very beautifully indeed. Thill's training, like that of so many great tenors of the early 20th century, was founded upon bel canto techniques, in his case in the person of the great Italian tenor Fernando de Lucia, whom Thill greatly admired. Thill recalled, in an interview that can be seen on Youtube, that de Lucía insisted that “in order to sing well, one must open the mouth and PRO-NOUN-CE CLEAR-LY! Which he certainly did. The result was pure, easy, open phonation, only slightly covered across the passagio and into the upper register. He soared with consummate ease into the stratospheric reaches of the high Db, often (but not invariably) using mixed voice in the extreme upper register, when he felt that the tradition and the style not only permitted but required it. The following clip features him in rehearsal, and you have a chance to hear his high Db, an amazing, nearly open sound, very different from the heavily covered and dark Italian sounds so prevalent today. In the interview that follows, in French, he talks about his study with De Lucia, and the latter’s insistence on opening the mouth widely and pronouncing clearly. The section after that shows him singing----can you believe?—Wagner! Bel canto only refers to a vocal production technique—its application can be as universal as taste permits.
Thill’s voice is very much a French phenomenon. Some, accustomed only to Italian singing, will sometimes say that the color is too “white,” or that the voice is “shrill.” I do not accept these judgments. Singing styles and vocal coloration are, in the last analysis, national—in exactly the same way that balletic style or the determination of female beauty is national. Comparisons become odious. The style must fit the language, as well as the national taste and aesthetic tradition.