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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. 




Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Stephen, for a superb and most authoritative essay on this fascinating and often ill-understood music. Your article is going to cause many, including yours truly, to do some serious thinking. I have for years been one of those who felt that a high male soprano, like Radu Marian, would necessarily sound the same a woman singing the same piece in the same register. I'm doing to do some re-thinking!! Thanks again for a very fine piece!

Stephen said...

Yes, Radu Marian is a true, natural, male soprano; however, I am quite certain that his somewhat precious voice is not representative of the great opera-castrati such a Farinelli, Caffarelli, or Senesino. Their voices would have been far more powerful and, most likely, with a more “masculine” timbre, a sound heard even with some of the best boy sopranos who have reached ages fourteen through sixteen. I do believe, however, that his voice works very well with Carissimi.

Incidentally, I am unsure of Radu’s next recitals or recordings. I have yet to hear back from his manager (who also is his wife.) I was fortunate to produce and upload a few videos from unreleased recordings, such a Antonio Caldara’s “E qual cosa” and “The Rose” written by the great castrato Venanzio Rauzzini (for whom Mozart wrote “Exsultate Jubilate.”

To hear a truly rare and amazing male-soprano voice, I suggest that you listen to the Allegri “Miserere.” The particular recording is by the Colmar Boy’s Choir School (with adult males), along with Patrick Husson singing the high, solo line in the response of the echo choir. (I have uploaded a short video and a complete, fourteen-minute video.) The purity of his voice is angelic, and he is the only person whom I have heard who can sing that long, soaring line all in one breath and without breaking it.

An American professor (now deceased) reported that she heard Jorge Cano from Columbia sing and that he is a true male soprano. I emailed his voice teacher for information; however, he failed to reply. There have been rumors of Jorge Cano “soon releasing” a CD, but I have heard nothing of it. If anyone does hear further information, I would appreciate learning of it. Until then, we have no idea of what his voice really sounds like.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Westmoreland certainly writes with a lot of authority! This was really interesting !


Edmund St. Austell said...

He certainly does! Thank you, Martha. I always look forward to your comments.

Anonymous said...

Its not that I disagree with the author, but I have to say that I just can't tell the difference. l once tried an experiment by having my son stand in another room while I played two videos of the same aria, with David Daniels and Marilyn Horn and he couldn't tell the difference. Now I actually DO hear a difference there, because Horn sounds more like a man!! Maybe some people are just more sensitive to it.

Rob Williams

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha! Well, that tells us something, I guess. I think you're probably right about there being a difference in the sensitivity of one's hearing. The subtle differences Dr. Westmoreland speaks of probably register on the ears of some as qualities of an individual voice; something like darkness, intensity, emotions of various kinds, and so forth. Thanks for the comment.

Jing said...

Dr. Westmoreland's article is interesting and charming. Issues related to gender, drama, and music,if examined closely enough, can be as intriguing and seductive as a hall of mirrors. Here is a brief personal recollection. A dozen years ago a colleague and I attended a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a gathering a psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers, and various kinds of counselors. The theme was "Creativity and Madness." The conference was intentionally scheduled for a week during which the Santa Fe Opera performed Lucia, Falstaff and Wozzeck. In other words, lots of madness around! At the opening session the keynote speaker addressed several hundred attendees on the theme of how our pre-conceived ideas and prejudices actually shape how we perceive reality through our senses. He began by playing a recording of an alto voice singing "Dove sei?" from Rinaldo. After a few moments, he smiled and asked, "Does anyone know who is singing this?" Silence. Then, unable to contain my glee, I leaped out of my seat in the back row, and to the enormous embarrassment of my friend, shouted, "I do! It's David Daniels!" With both annoyance and, I think, some amusement, he said, "Damn. None of you were supposed to know that is a man singing." By the way, the conference also featured lecture on the life of Verdi in light of Erik Erikson's seven stages of human development, as well as one about Rachmaninoff's psychotherapist who rescued the composer from depression at the beginning of his career.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my dear friend, for an extremely interesting story. It's kind of fun to fool a bunch of people and then tell them that it was man singing! However, I also find it interesting that most or all seemingly did not think it was a man, or at least did not say so. The question is, when they realize that men can sing that high, will they start to be able to recognize it in the future? And now into the hall of mirrors:-)

Edmund St. Austell said...

My answer above it to Jing. To Prima Ragazza, I congratulate you on a knowledgeable and complex comment that I will leave to Dr. Westmoreland, to whom I defer. Impressive! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Given the expense of producing baroque operas and the relative scarcity of male singers, I wonder what Dr. Westmoreland sees as the (new)future for this antique form?


Stephen said...

Baroque Opera’s Future, Part 1 of 2.

In response to J.D. Hobbes’ excellent and important question posted on January 28 regarding the possible future of Baroque vocal performances:

The future of presenting operas or making recordings of Baroque vocal music is “good / bad / indifferent” depending upon where and with whom. Let me provide a few facts upon which you can draw your own conclusions.

Dr. Randall Wong (who sings soprano because of an unusually wide range, rather than being a soprano exclusively) was invited to Europe in past years to sing soprano roles in Baroque operas. Hasse’s “Cleofide” is available on CDs, both complete and in excerpts; however, I also have uploaded some of his performances in other operas that were not released to the public. Dr. Wong explained to me that he had to rely upon Europe’s invitations because the U.S. provides very limited opportunities, and that wealthy sponsors generally wish to make names for themselves by sponsoring works by current, new composers.

I referred earlier to one opera director whom I admire for, among other attributes, his extraordinary efforts to find the most appropriate voices for Baroque operas as well as hiring musicians who play Baroque instruments. The first Baroque opera that he presented was a musical success; however, the music critics from both local newspapers wrote sadly uninformed critiques, in one case even using that silly phrase, “men who sing like women.” I had a relaxed conversation with one of the critics; but when the topic of “Baroque operas” arose, he seemed to panic. I suspect that the topic may have been slighted in his formal music education, assuming that he had some, or he neglected that genre in his own listening history. He had little if any knowledge of the topic.

For the director’s second Baroque opera, he was obliged to have fewer Baroque instruments because of the expense. Again, the opera was a musical success; however, too few people purchased tickets, and the opera company lost money. They have not scheduled a Baroque opera since.

Andreas Scholl is a premier countertenor of extraordinary talent. Had I booked him, I would have preferred that he appear in the large concert hall, and I would have heavily advertised his appearance. The reality was that many people who would have enjoyed hearing him were unaware of his arrival because it was so poorly advertised, and he was booked in a smaller university hall. Before the concert and during intermission, some audience members near me asked me some questions about countertenors and the male high voice. To my surprise, there shortly was a group about me because these veteran concert-goers were so unfamiliar with the subject and wished to hear more. One man expressed his surprise that “the man on stage sang so high.”

Stephen said...

Baroque Opera’s Future, Part 2 of 2.
Then there are the too often bizarre presentations of Baroque operas that detract terribly from the composers’ intentions. I wrote a critique and have posted numerous references to a ridiculous performance of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” where the part was sung by an extremely large woman wearing a red general’s uniform, and she arrived on stage in a cardboard army tank. The setting for Handel’s opera was “1930s Hollywood.” One so-called countertenor sang the role of Ptolemy so poorly that the other local critic remarked that “he did not have to sing well because the character is unattractive.” One week later and as a desperate attempt for an antidote to that experience, I attended a graduate-school presentation of another Handel opera. Their choice of setting was, again, “1930’s Hollywood.” They chose to portray the one countertenor as an effeminate buffoon because he sang high. They transposed the lead castrato role to tenor. The saving grace was that I was extremely impressed with his vocal beauty and technical skills. I predicted that he soon would go to New York, which he did.

The Met, to its credit, continues to present Baroque operas, but they have greater resources than many opera houses. Also, they tend to select better known operas rather than new and different ones, simply for ticket sales. They occasionally, in the past, have hired accomplished women singers with beautiful voices for castrato roles, but their voices were distinctly feminine, and their 20th-century technique was looser than required for Baroque opera. They also have hired a favorite, David Daniels. Unlike many countertenors, he has greater vocal power sufficient for the stage, although his vibrato does make his voice somewhat more feminine than some other countertenors. (Incidentally, congratulations to Jing for his clever identification of David Daniel’s voice during that lecture.) The Met’s delightful creation and presentation of “The Enchanted Island” worked well with Daniels, and the female singer in the role of Ariel had the clarity and vocal agility to sing the male role well.

Europe, along with a few houses such as the Met, continues to be the more likely opportunity to see Baroque operas. Also, some opera houses continue to present more traditional performances than here. Patient Baroque-lovers will find DVDs released approximately one year after a stage presentation, such as with Andreas Scholl in Handel’s “Rodelinda.”

CD and DVD recordings now appear to be a major hope for Baroque vocal music. A number of younger countertenors such as Jaroussky and Cencic, along with Cecilia Bartoli (her efforts are admirable, although her voice is extremely feminine), have made admirable efforts in researching and presenting works that, otherwise, might never be heard on the stage.

Occasionally although rarely, a listener may encounter a singer who describes himself as a “countertenor” (which, technically, fits the original definition), who, in reality, is a natural alto or mezzo-soprano. I have uploaded a few recordings which fit that description.

In conclusion, the future of Baroque opera is multifactorial. Much depends upon audience support. Unfortunately, much of it depends upon economics.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Dr. Westmoreland for the most interesting article. As it seems to me , Baroque composers meant truly ‘angelic’ sound, when they gave leading roles to castrati. Otherwise it’s hard to explain the idea of very powerful, masculine characters being performed by singers with very high voices. Though angels don’t have gender, they often were depicted as young men, and most likely, castrati could create that 'angelic 'sound. Now it’s hard to say who among modern singers can create it. However, I don’t think about it when I listen to Cecilia Bartoli, for example. Her musicianship is so amazing, that I forget about her gender or about lack of resemblance to castrati’s sound.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a fine comment, Natalie. As always, you go right to the heart of the matter and make a solid point. Always a pleasure! Thanks again!