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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gender Specific Voice Differences

 It is my pleasure today to introduce another in our series of distinguished guest commentators.

In his youth, Dr. Stephen Westmoreland’s favorite hobby was music.  He studied piano and voice, performing in a number of contests.  He gained  recognition and won various awards and scholarships to summer music programs.  He studied with concert pianist Lilli Kelleti and had the honor of playing for the eminent Hungarian pianist and composer Ernst von Dohnányi.  His university studies were both in the U.K. and the U.S.  After several years teaching, he opened  a private behavioral health clinic and was Program Director.  During this time, he maintained his interest in classical music and conducted research on Baroque vocal music and the male high voice, giving lectures on the subject.  His information has been utilized by various music professors and an opera company.  Now retired, he is able to devote more time to his musical interest.   He has continued his research, discussed the human singing voice with various singers such as male sopranos, sopranists, and countertenors, and shared many examples of exceptionally fine voices on his YouTube channel. It is a great pleasure to have such a distinguished authority.

In this short presentation, I suggest to the reader to reconsider any potential decision to lump together high-tessitura female and male voices as being about the same.  I hear and read this comment from time to time. 

Although I enjoy and have studied a wide spectrum of music, my preferred specialty for several years has been Baroque vocal music.  Over the last generation or two, singers, directors, and audiences gradually have shown an increased interest in the vocal works written for castrati.  Because the era of castrati is long gone, a frequent solution has been to cast such roles with women.  These efforts continue to be met with relative success or failure depending upon the quality of the voices and the training of the singers.Not surprisingly, the casual listener conveniently equates high voices with female and low voices with male.  If, for example, a male sings with a high tessitura, whether naturally or with falsetto, some listeners fail to analyze what they hear beyond their simple conclusion.  I recall during one of my lectures, a music professor and Julliard graduate exclaimed, “Why, he sounds just like a woman!”  One irritated response was, “No, he does not!”  I suggest that there are two major factors in one’s ability to discern male voices from female voices other than tessitura: musical experience and innate musical sensitivity. 

Other than through musical education and experience, the degree to which a listener is able to discern the difference between male and female singers also is determined by a genetic secondary-intelligence keyed toward musical perception.  Each of us possesses a variety of secondary intelligences, but to varying degrees.  This factor contributes to our uniqueness.  I have friends who are classical-music lovers and who have listened to the Met for many years but who admit to not being able to perceive the differences between voices of the same tessitura, or for that matter, any musical nuance.  One states that, to her, music is an unfathomable foreign language.  There are others of us, however, who have a very acute hearing and the ability to perceive fine nuances in sound.  I, for example, have surprised myself by hearing radio broadcasts of piano recitals and identifying the brand of the piano, such as Steinway, Baldwin, Bechstein, or Bösendorfer (the one I chose for myself because of its sound and touch.)   

 Yes, it is true that we also are aware that vocal timbre varies somewhat from individual to individual singer because of variations in physical structure as well as vocal training.  As a consequence, a few female voices, such a Maria Cristina Kiehr, may sound somewhat more “masculine,” and a male singer, such as natural male soprano Radu Marian, may sound somewhat more “feminine,” not exclusively because of his high tessitura, but also because of his timbre.  Regardless, the acute listener will detect general differences between male and female voices.  Recent studies, such as those by Christine Mecke and Johann Sundberg, have revealed that such differences exist even among young boys and girls, despite the fact that most people do not stop to consider the question because all children have undeveloped voices.  The history of boys choirs stems not exclusively from mere tradition or religious doctrine.  A generally unified sound results from boys’ choirs or girls’ choirs, but less so from mixed.   The sounds produced are discernibly different, even at an early age.  Such differences increase significantly as boys and girls approach puberty.  As a boy soprano grows, the sound of his voice changes, and not only from the beginning of the effect upon the physical voice-structure itself.  A larger body, larger chest and breath capacity, larger head, larger jaw and mouth, and larger resonating chambers, result in a fuller, richer, stronger sound.  Also as the voice begins to change, the deeper notes begin to take on a somewhat heavier sound, whereas the top notes have more force.  The boy may be singing soprano; however, the voice does not resemble that of a girl.

When it comes to the question of how best to cast male roles in Baroque operas or for other similar works such as oratorios, motets, and cantate, a male sound is preferable if possible to acquire.  With the relatively recent rediscovery and renewal of interest in Baroque vocal music, such considerations are important, especially considering that 80% of operas were written before the year 1800, and 70% of the roles were for alto or soprano castrati.  Of course, we no longer are producing artificially more than 4,000 potential singers per year, as was the custom during the Baroque golden age.  We have only a handful of natural male sopranos and altos whose voices result from a variety of causes, such as Kallmann’s Syndrome.  The music world has developed, however, improved methods of training the growing number of singers who choose to be countertenors. 

 As a  fortunate consequence, adult men who sing high tessitura (be they natural male altos or sopranos, countertenors, or sopranists), who have been trained in the Baroque style, will sing with a noticeably male timbre, power, and breath capacity.  Then there is the additional advantage with on-stage performances where the physical appearance of men playing men’s roles may be preferable.  With the growing number of countertenors, I have heard some superb singers, many average ones, and a few unfortunate ones.  Despite the fact that producing and financing Baroque operas is difficult and often avoided, the best countertenors can not fill all the roles available.  If carefully chosen, a female singer can do well.  One director told me that he had attempted to hire a rare male soprano for a lead role, but he was already booked-up.  The director then offered the role to a countertenor who had sung the role before; however, he found the tessitura too high for comfort.  The director then was fortunate enough to find a female singer whose voice and acting, as well as her understanding of Baroque opera, were so successful that the director hired her two years later for the role of Rinaldo.  Despite her not having a truly male timbre, she was good enough for my suspension of disbelief to be relatively easy.  I do wonder, however, how much more fascinating the performances would have been with the male soprano.  I have heard him live before.   His soprano tessitura does have a male timbre, and his masculine form on stage works well. 



Sunday, January 6, 2013

Farinelli: The Great Castrato


The great castrato Farinelli, one of the most famous opera singers of all time, was born Carlo Broschi, in 1705, in present day Apulia.  His family was aristocratic and well to do.  Further, they were largely a family of musicians.  Farinelli's social class and "connectedness," therefore, were an important factor in a great career.  The social and economic realities of the day did not at all favor those of the lower strata of society as far as any kind of musical career was concerned, or for that matter any kind of career at all. Society at that time was still largely medieval in its structure, which is to say a tri-part division into clergy, aristocracy, and laborers.  While exceptional talent did make it possible for some promising artists to rise above their birth, it was rare.  This is important to bear in mind in Farinelli's case, because the whole vexed issue of castration has cast something like a pall of titillation, awe, and, to be blunt, just plain silliness over the biography of this great artist, whose success owed essentially to fortuitous birth, remarkable talent, early inspiration from a musically gifted family, and social and political connections.  There were  many castrati; most had only slight talent.  In discussing such singers, one needs always to be guided by a sense of dignity and decorum, and to hold rigorously to the sensible and the obvious.

Little Carlo, who was precocious, demonstrated real talent for singing at a young age, and was introduced in 1715, when he was a mere 10 years of age, to the famous teacher Nicola Porpora, who had important connections in Naples. The major turning point in young Carlo's life came unexpectedly in 1717 when his father Salvatore Broschi died unexpectedly.  Largely because of potential economic problems for the family— and probably great talent on the part of Carlo— his family (likely his older brother Riccardo) made the essential decision that was to determine 12-year old Carlo's future life.  While it might be tempting to want to blame his family for so drastic a decision, one needs also to remember that it made possible his extraordinary achievement, which is recognized even today, over 200 years later. 

Progress was rapid, as the talent was great, and the young singer made his debut three years later, at age 15.  Success was near instantaneous,  and the boy undertook the portrayal of many roles, often female.  To come to a quick biographical close, Carlo Broschi rose to became the most famous singer in Europe, and was written about, painted, adulated and generally admired by a huge audience.  He became wealthy.  It was a stunning success story that is still celebrated today. His biography is very easily found, and there is a fairly recent movie that  dramatizes (and sensationalizes) his life and career. 

So, the question becomes, what did he sound like?  And that is tricky indeed.  He was often painted, and very well, so we know what he looked like.  He was quite tall; that was demonstrated by a fairly recent disinterment.  Male growth in the absence of testosterone tends to exaggerated skeletal development.  In his case, this meant height and lung over-development, and, likely, the effecting of some laryngeal structures.  People of his day often mentioned  his ability to sing very long phrases at considerable volume.  Music that was written for him indicates that he had the ability to sing very florid and complex musical lines.  Let me try to give some idea, according to my own modest understanding, of what the voice might have sounded like, and why.  This is simple and short, and merely suggestive, as I have not the expertise to go on at any length on this highly specialized subject.

We can hear what one castrato sounded like by listening for a moment to the only castrato who was ever (knowingly) recorded, Alessandro Moreschi.  He was not a talented singer; in fact, he was a poor singer.  But we can at least hear what one known castrato sounded like:

This makes the point fairly clearly that once we dispense with all other matters, it all comes down to artistry, talent and musicianship; exactly the same factors that determine what constitutes a fine singer today.  The fact that he was a castrato is essentially irrelevant.  This is not the sound or the singing that would inspire one to lay down his or her hard-earned  money for a concert ticket.   So why was it ever recorded?  Well, because he was a castrato.  I stress this for one reason only:  de-mystification.

There are some modern singers who probably come close to being a natural castrato—although the word "castrato" would be not be appropriate.  I speak of those males who because of one endocrinologic disorder or another never produced testosterone.  Such a singer, it is said, is the male soprano Radu Marian.  In his case, we move to a man who is a gifted soprano; very musical, well educated, and with what I feel safe in calling a lovely voice.  This may move us significantly closer to the goal of discovering the "authentic" castrato voice:

Now that, to my way of thinking, is a legitimate  voice, and a very beautiful one at that.  This is the kind of voice that one would pay to listen to, and people in fact do. It is not based on falsetto.  This is Radu Marian's real voice.  He normally speaks in the high "female" register.  Marian is enjoying a respectable career, and has earned the respect of serious musicians.  The beauty of his voice is also spoken of and appreciated.  I will go to bat, as it were, for this voice.  Of the increasingly larger number of male sopranos and altos singing today, Marian is my own personal favorite.  This is a fine voice, very beautiful, and authentically soprano.  The last note in "Lascia ch'io pianga" is a soprano B natural, and it is well within his range.

But there is another way to approach trying to imagine an 18th-century castrato voice, and that is through a female singer.  It is, after all, largely a "female" sound that we are dealing with here, even if hypothetically.  What about an intense, powerful, flexible female voice, essentially soprano, but with a kind of heft that at least suggests, albeit slightly, another kind of almost-male voice?  How about Ann Hallenberg?  I freely admit that this is not my idea, although I agree with it.  It was suggested to me by a gentleman I have come to respect as probably the ultimate authority on this subject.  Here she is, in suggestive garb, singing a song that was actually written for Farinelli by his own brother.  (It is the first song she sings, "Son qual Nave..." ) Clearly, she is trying to give a "Farinelli impression," evidence that the potential for comparison  has occurred both to her and to others.  If you close your eyes as you listen, I think you may hear it—I believe I do:

Isn't that something!   The fact that she is singing a song written for the great castrato by his own brother, who certainly knew his abilities,  gives us an excellent idea of what he was capable of.  I can do no more than suggest that there is a significant likelihood  of  this being reasonably close to the Farinelli sound!