Have a listen to these two examples of operatic singing, first Dimitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) and then Jussi Björling (tenor) and Robert Merrill (baritone) in the Pearl Fishers duet. Listen to the sound.
What can you hear?
The opera/classical sound is many things at the same time: it has a core, a “centre,” it’s sweet and it is both bright and dark at the same time. Much of choral rep (but not all!) works best with a somewhat classical sound, so finding your inner opera diva is a really handy skill if you’re singing in a group!
Here is one way of showing the different ingredients that together make a classical tone; it is based on the Estill recipe for a ringing opera sound:
Twang. This gives the sound a carrying edge with minimum effort.
Good contact between the vocal folds. Sweetness, thyroid tilt. This will help take the sound higher in the range.
Sob. A somewhat lowered larynx adds lower frequencies to the sound.
We need to engage head and neck muscles, as well as muscles in the torso, to stabilise this setup. The larynx is pulled in several directions at the same time:
1. twang pulls it upwards
2. sob pulls it down, and
3. the thyroid cartilage tilts forward.
This is a big ask compared to our normal speaking voices, therefore using Estill head, neck and torso anchoring is imperative to maintain the operatic tone whilst keeping it safe.
In choral singing we don’t want the full opera diva switched on all the time, but we need a balance of all these ingredients if we want a classical tone. Taking a look at opera gives you the extreme mix and then you can take that down to whatever level is right for the song.
It's interesting that the choir's work on twang in isolation earlier on in the term proved very useful for both country & western and opera. One couldn’t be convincing in either genre without an ability to use twang to some degree!
Have a listen to Resound singing a short section of the prisoners’ chorus form Fidelio:
After the opera workshop, I wanted to find out how the guys got on in finding their inner opera diva. Was there anything about the sound or style you found easy? Was there anything about the sound or style you found challenging?
Duncan (bass) said:
"Stefan eased us in by listening to and appreciating some professionals singing opera. He then shepherded us carefully through an ‘Estill figure’, which involves setting up our vocal instrument in the correct position in order to produce the desired sound without adding any strain or excess effort. Easier said than done!"
"Gradual adjustment step by step made the process manageable and I found remembering each step a really enjoyable challenge. Repetition really helped me although ‘anchoring’ the body was a challenge and made me realise opera singers are real athletes! Eventually I had an opportunity to sing a song to the group in an opera style and listen to what everyone had learned. What a treat!"
Chris (tenor 1) said:
"I found the opera diva segment particularly challenging. I think I have developed a very guarded way of singing the higher notes in particular, often incorporating a lot of thin fold to avoid strain. Getting the opera style correct really meant I could open up and sing out at the top of my range. I do think I need to work on it some more, though!"
Resound is a Brighton-based voice group with vocal development high on the agenda. As their MD I’m using Estill Voice training this term to see if we can learn to adapt our sound to all the different genres of music we tackle in a project called Vocal Chameleons.