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Encyclopedia of Great Singing
 Michael Trimble




Aesthetics (also spelled æsthetics or esthetics)
is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.  It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste.  More broadly, scholars in the field define aesthetics as "critical reflection on art, culture and nature".  Aesthetics is a subdiscipline of axiology, a branch of philosophy, and is closely associated with the philosophy of art.  Aesthetics studies new ways of seeing and of perceiving the world.


Not everyone appreciates beauty of tone.  Why, in modern times, do people become fans of singers who are small-voiced, have wobbles or tremolos, or whose voices are nasal, bleaty, or dark and throaty?  Some voices are so fantastic that a wobble is ignored.  The middle register can have a tremolo, but it is ignored or forgiven because the high notes are so beautiful.  Diction is often non-existent, but the coloratura of the singer is so gorgeous that all is forgiven.


The first time I heard Gerard Souzay sing was in New York, around 1960 .  The next day I told my teacher I had heard Monsieur Souzay sing a recital the night before.  I commented that it was a pity his voice was not beautiful, although his technique was wonderful.  My teacher, Madame Ryss, responded with: "My boy!  Without beauty of tone, there is no technique."


It took a long time for me to understand what she meant by such a statement.  In 1912, when Madame Ryss was being trained to be a singer at the conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, beauty of tone was everything.  The public would forgive faults in the singing if the basic color of the tone was beautiful.


The Italians use two words to describe one tone:  1) qualita (quality or basic color of the individual voice); and 2) timbro (timbre, meaning the color of the expression chosen at that moment i.e. happy, sad, angry, wistful, nostalgic, etc.).  Nellie Melba was famous for one thing--the quality of her sound.  It was ravishingly beautiful, considered to be one of the 'big five' most beautiful soprano voices of all time, along with Luisa Tetrazzini, Rosa Ponselle, Kirsten Flagstad and Adelina Patti.  Unfortunately, Melba was also known to be limited to only one timbro---icy coldness.   Her qualita was compared to a blue diamond or the color of blue ice.


Luisa Tetrazzini was criticized by W.A. Henderson, critic for the New York Sun, for having an infantile lower-middle register.  Of course, Mr. Henderson considered her voice to be the most beautiful in the world, comparable only to Caruso's in the chiaroscuro (clear-dark) color.


Rosa Ponselle was called a 'miracle' by the great Italian Conductor  Tullio Serafin.   He is quoted:
"I have encountered 3 miracles:  Enrico Caruso, Titto Ruffo and Rosa Ponselle."  Soprano Geraldine Ferrar, a Prima Donna of the first order at the Met, when asked how to get a voice like Ponselle, answered:  " special arrangement with God".  Ferrar went on to say:  "There are two singers you must put aside: One is Enrico Caruso, the other is Rosa Ponselle.  Then you may begin to discuss all the others!"


Rosa Ponselle's nervousness, however, before and during performances bordered, on the psychotic.  She retired at the age of 39 because she could no longer endure the suffering that went along with performing before the public.  Her voice remained in top condition as proven by the many recordings she made over the remainder of her lifetime in the safety of her home, called Villa Pace, in Baltimore. She died at the age of 81. Her voice was infused with the pitiful timbro of a singer literally sick with fear.  Her vomiting before each scene became the expected routine for the backstage crew of dressers and stagehands.  Most were sympathetic, recognizing that the fear was real if hard to understand.  Throwing open windows backstage during the performances on the coldest of winter nights to alleviate her feeling of suffocating she was experiencing would irritate colleagues and staff almost to distraction.  After all, she was an absolute vocal phenomenon, considered by some experts to have possessed the most beautiful soprano voice in history.


It should be remembered, before the invention of electronic amplification, voices were judged from a distance.  There were no microphones, no sound enhancement systems to make a singers voice sound more powerful than it really was.  When we read a review of famous singers of the past, we realize that the opinion of the critic was formed from a seat in the auditorium.  There was an orchestra between the ears of the critic (or the fan) and the throat of the singer.  

Those of us who heard Zinka Milanov's high pianissimo at the old Met, before the era of the sound enhancement system, will never forget the incredible resonance of the tone!  You could feel the air inside your body vibrating and a sensual pressure all over your body.  


Great singing can be physically stimulating and emotionally evocative for the listener.  This was especially true of Renata Tebaldi's middle voice when she sang softly and the declamation was sweetly lyric in nature.  "...Chi sara, chi sara..." from the aria, Un Bel di Vedremo, as sung by Tebaldi in a performance of Madame Butterfly at the Met, although sung very quietly, was an experience for me that remains unforgettable after nearly 50 years!  There were many other occasions when the sound of a great voice was among the most thrilling experiences of a lifetime. Mario Del Monaco's and Birgit Nilsson's high notes were indescribably enormous and would sometimes obliterate all competing sounds, including the full orchestra playing fortissimo.


 The question that comes to mind is, what are the criteria necessary in the biomechanical processes of such singers to develop such wondrous tones?  What were the actions/reactions of the throat, the breath, the phonation of the vowel, the posture and the aesthetic of such phenomenal singers?  How does a singer know which approach to the voice will produce the best sound?  How is it possible to know whether or not  a singer will end up with a fantastic sound when they first begin studying singing?  Jussi Bjoerling's voice was one of the most beautiful voices in the history of singing.  Did his father know how the voice would develop when Jussi began his voice lessons at the age of three?  Bjoerling could not teach singing at all.  When he tried to give a few tips to a young singer, his emphasis was on breathing and the freedom of the throat.  He sang with his throat totally free, but was unable to teach any one how to sing with such freedom. In his opinion, singing was a talent and could not be taught.  I believe a diligent student can learn the criteria of singing if he/she is under the tutelage of someone who understands that great singing is produced by the combination of the mind and the body.  In martial arts, there exists a maxim which is actually a quote of Buddha:  "Bring the body and the mind will follow".   Some singers have weak memorization skills, but they can sing wonderfully.  Robert Merrill and Leonard Warren had difficulty remembering their lines all through their careers.  However, it did not prevent them from becoming historical singers, famous for their magnificently beautiful voices and smooth, legato delivery of some of the most difficult music ever written for the baritone voice.  


The greatest danger a singer faces is Ego, either his/her own or the teacher's.


Copyright 2010 /Michael Trimble



Fundamentals of Great Vocal Technique

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