It is very hard to say what the most ancient expressive activities are. Whether dance preceded song, or whether they grew up together (the most likely thing) is hard to say. One thing is certain—there is a very wide and interesting range of human vocal activity, whether it be song, speech, or the imitation of sounds. Opera buffs are of course interested in the most refined and perhaps extreme forms of singing, and therefore tend to have a natural kind of curiosity about truly exotic voices, those which far exceed the normal usable ranges of even virtuoso singers. Two such individuals, who excited a lively interest in the last century because of the extraordinary range of their voices, were Yma Sumac and Ivan Rebroff. Most will know of Yma Sumac, who attained a rather extraordinary level of fame for her truly exotic singing and characterizations. Her voice covered an unheard of range of 5 octaves. She could sing from male baritone to a level of sound that was no longer truly human, and can only be compared to the characteristic sounds of birds. In her case, “songbird” was more a literal than a symbolic description. She was in fact a Peruvian soprano with a unique voice. What added to her fame—perhaps notoriety would be a better word—was a possibly ill-considered cultivation of the exotic, to the point of permitting herself to be depicted as descended from Inca royalty, or being a “girl of the jungle,” etc. It gave her an initial kind of fame, but it also raised eyebrows a bit. The following video shows her at her most characteristic, and the power to startle is certainly evident. I would call your attention especially to 2:50, when she is leaning against a tree. That sound is HER! I had to play it twice before I would believe it. Be sure to listen to the video all the way through. It is not long, but it is amazing:
I do not know of another like her. Less well known, at least in America, is the voice of Ivan Rebroff. In spite of his Russian name, he was born Hans Rolf Rippert,in Germany, and was what I would call a "stage" Russian, or a “professional” Russian. He claimed Russian ancestry, but his Russian is thickly accented and not very cultivated. He was, however, a fine folk entertainer and quite popular. He sang into his 70's and made a great deal of money. He was a very big man, and dressed in (again) exotic clothing, to accentuate his size, perhaps making him seem more “Russian.” It was a show business act, and a good one. Like Sumac, he approached the 5 octave spread also. He could sing a legitimate basso profundo, and I have heard his recording (I’m not kidding about this) of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor! In the following video, you will hear his range, as he sings from deep bass to coloratura soprano. Again, be sure to listen to the very end, because that’s where the vocal fireworks are:
Certainly a startling effect, verging on cognitive dissonance; in this case, because of the size and virility of the singer.
It may not be high art, but there is no law that says it has to be! It's musical entertainment, and very engaging. Both he and Sumac were very popular singers—their effect was mainly to startle and amaze, and in that they were successful. They both had good careers. While they both surprise with their astonishing voices, it may be that Yma Sumac’s voice was the more astonishing of the two. What detracted a bit from Sumac, at least in my opinion, was the somewhat bizarre persona cultivated for her by her husband, who had a band of his own, and toured with her. In a word, he overdid it, and she was sometimes ridiculed, which is sad because I sense a lot of talent there that was never developed. In Rebroff’s case, he simply imitated opera and choral traditions, to flesh out his persona, which was a bit of all things for all people. He was German, imitating a Russian, and lived in Greece. But with him it was all an act, and a remarkably good one. He and his audience were fond of each other, and he played it to the hilt, and more power to him! He was a fine entertainer. Yma Sumac’s case is more complicated. She evokes, at least in me, a kind of sadness, a kind of regret, tinged with emotion. I feel there was much more there than we were permitted to know about.