Kashu-do (歌手道): Understanding Di Stefano: Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bath-water!

There should be no dispute as to virtues that made the late tenor, Giuseppe di Stefano (lovingly called Pippo among opera fans and friends) one of the most memorable performers of any time and it is no wonder he was so loved by that unique musical actress, “the divine” Maria Callas.  As an Italian, Pippo was unusual in that his talent extended far beyond the power, purity and beauty of his voice.  He was linguistically refined and among Italians of the time, practically unique in his mastery of foreign languages, particularly French.  He was also a refined musician who was as much invested in the meaning of harmony as he was in the color of language.  His dramatic interpretations, like Callas, with whom he worked often, were direct, specfic, multi-dimensional…human!

The virtue I wish to discuss however is the one that most have counted as a deficit in Pippo’s arsenal: “The Open Voice!”  The same can be said of the great baritone, Cornell MacNeil (lovingly called Mac by his friends), who argued vehemently against the idea of covering the voice.

In this clip, at around 1:32, Mac sings an open Eb on the word “noi”.  It would have been more traditional to sing a rounder “o” and access F2-dominance (i.e. the cover).  The high G at the end is wide open.  Paradoxically, Mac, who advocates a pure vowel, avoids the open “O” of morte and “modifies” to [a] to keep F1-dominance (i.e. open sound).  So in practice, Mac is not singing a pure vowel at all.  He is simply more comfortable with the open sound.  The way singers use language is very personal.  Finding terminology that we all can understand is not always so simple.

Zancanaro, a more traditional Italian singer, has the same approach in most of the voice but at the comparable places, you will hear the Eb on “noi”, 1:18, decidedly covered but with some difficulty in coordination.  The awkwardness of this covered tone is why Mac argued against it.  The high G at 3:35 is ideal and traditional. Covered without losing clarity/efficiency.

I am certainly not advocating singing the top of the voice “open” as these two great singers did, even if they were successful for a long time.  However, many singers, if not most resort to very inefficient singing in pursuit of “covering,” of the illusive “giro” (turn of the voice).

Piero Cappuccilli (his performance is rushed here), considered one of the finest technicians among the great Italian baritones performs the appropriate “turn” on the Eb in question at 0:55 and a properly “turned” G at the end.

 First, the virtues of the open voice!  It is not possible to speak about the acoustics of the voice without observing the changes in the source tone.  Singing what seems like unmodified vowels (in the context of folds meeting completely without a medial squeeze) has the virtue of allowing the vocal folds to stretch more easily.  This stretch however does not mean that the vocal folds reduce their vertical mass.  Vocal substance can be kept even as the folds are stretched.  That is the virtue of muscular antagonism relative to phonation, and indeed what makes singers like Di Stefano and MacNeil different from the average “comprimario” (singer in a supporting role)–The great comprimari were exceptionally technically and dramatically proficient, but many sang smaller roles because they were technically deficient. Singing open and too thin was often a part of that deficiency, particularly among comprimario tenors.–

Another virtue of this open approach (again keep in mind that the voice remains substantial.  Stretched but not overly thinned out) is dynamic control.  The beautiful mezza voce at the beginning of the aria here is breathtakingly beautiful.  Other singers who had this “stretchy” (but not necessarily open) approach were Alfredo Kraus, Jussi Björling and Nicolai Gedda.

Kraus bordered on too thin, and his wonderful abilities aside, one can hear that there is a subtle tightness throughout in the passaggio and above.

Björling’s mastery is truly is quite unusual.  A freedom of breath emission without ever losing the clarity of the tone.  The difference between he and the the two previous examples is this combination of a stretchy (what Pavarotti often called “elastic”) voice, like the open-voiced singers, and a fully open resonance room.

The same is true of his colleague Nicolai Gedda.

It is difficult to find a better recording of this aria.  Again the difference between Gedda and di Stefano/Kraus is that he like Björling, is able to make use of a fully open resonance room (call it open throat, but that does not completely capture the idea) while making use of the stretchy sensation associated with the open voice.

The voices of both di Stefano and MacNeil were substantial and very efficient.  In fact, as much as both singers actively pursued the principle of “cantare come si parla” (singing as one speaks) to a fault, in their early years, their voices would often spontaneously “turn”.  The term girare (turn) can be observed  in spectrograms as a spike in the areas of the “second formant” (F2) of the sung vowel.  But achieving the so-called F2-dominance is not merely a result of vowel modification but rather the combination of a source tone that creates strong enough power in the area of the second formant to begin with and a vocalic strategy that encourages the influence of the second formant.  Both di Stefano and MacNeil had powerful source tones capable of F2-dominance but instead chose a vocalic strategy that remained F1-dominant or speech/language driven.

As previously said, the desire for linguistic purity does have a positive effect on stretching the vocal folds, however maintaining linguistic purity also means that the larynx will climb when the natural limits of the first formant are reached.  Raising the larynx is one way to maintain F1-dominance (i.e. speech/language purity).  While this strategy may work for popular modes of singing which require text intelligibility above all else, it works less well operatically, an art, which up until the last few decades was based upon a criterion of vocal beauty related to a balance between high and low overtones (i.e. chiaroscuro).  The Italian singers of di Stefano’s time remarked often that he had a voice of exceptional beauty but that his technique was against the norm, dangerously “open”.  He was an “exception”, particularly among tenors.

Too often, in search of this “turn of the voice”, singers would abandon the efficiency that comes from true vocalic concepts and chose vowels that produce F2-dominance at the expense of efficiency and vocal elasticity.  An efficient mode of vibration has been shown by scientists to result from the longitudinal tension (tautness) on the folds rather than mere lengthening.  Like the strings of a guitar, higher pitches are much more easily achieved when the folds are appropriately taut  from resisted lengthening (i.e. vocalis-CT antagonism).

The error that some pedagogues make when thinking about vocal function is that lengthening of the folds necessitates thinning of the folds.  On a given note, lengthening and thickening may occur simultaneously creating a dynamic longitudinal tension that makes for more efficient fold oscillations.  In this mode, the folds have enough contact time during the closing phase, not to necessitate medial squeezing during the opening phase (both parts of the closed portion of the glottal cycle).  In this way flow phonation can be maintained and the larynx can float down to its natural low level.

In essence, both di Stefano and MacNeil had the perfect vocalis-CT antagonism to create very efficient vibration patterns.  Their folds where not only stretched nicely from their concept of pure vowels but also substantial (deep) from a vocal aesthetic influenced by operatic singing of the time.  If they sang both open and thin, they would sound like an average comprimario and might not succeed in lead roles.  
Their only problem was that they insisted on a vocalic strategy that did not take the height/depth of the larynx into account.

The solution is in fact simple and many old school teachers have said it thus:  “Think the vowel pure, but sing it modified”!  As most traditional axioms, this one too sounds contradictory, but it is not.  The singer must be able to identify the sensation of a low larynx in the range where pure vowel are possible.  In this way the singer will sense how the voice stretches with the thought of a pure vowel but the larynx maintains its depth and the breath continues to flow.  Maintaining all these elements results in a second antagonism between the source tone, which will be influenced positively by the thought of pure vowels and the vocal tract, which will be influenced positively by the idea of maintaining laryngeal depth.  These two ideas together create a dynamic relationship whereby vowels will be subtly modified without  negatively impacting the fold lengthening.  The same modification will act positively on the low larynx and a true balance will be accomplished.

In my personal approach to technique, I often advocate singing an open sound in order to develop a sense of the dynamic between vocalis and CT before resonance strategy is thrown into the mix.  The goal is a Double “AND” Strategy!  First a dynamic antagonism between vocalis and CT, then a dynamic interaction between phonation and resonance.  Pippo and Mac achieved the first dynamic to near perfection.   They did not understand the importance of the second aspect:  The crucial relationship between source and filter, between vibration and resonance.  We must not negate the extreme importance of the part they understood because they did not understand the other important part.

© 10/16/2012

2 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Understanding Di Stefano: Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bath-water!

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: