Opera: Evolution or Devolution? Ask the Squillo!

The first time I sat in the Metropolitan Opera audience and heard Margareth Price, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes and a host of other singers singing smaller parts,  was the day that any offer from Universities or from the military academies to pursue another career vanished from my thoughts.  It was a singular experience!  For all those voices to get to my ears in that balcony so far away from the stage through that rich orchestral sound was a miracle to me.  That it was accompanied with dramatic and musical excellence was another level of experience and then there is language besides.

I don’t remember that well how those singers looked onstage, whether it was Domingo’s leaner or plumper look, whether Milnes looked taller than him or not or whether Ms. M. Price could have fitted a size 0 dress.  But that they sounded so powerful, as if they were in front of my face in that huge expanse of space, will never leave my sensory memory.

Opera require so many skills that it becomes difficult for some to remember what it is that distinguishes the opera singer from other singers.  A pop singer can make a beautiful sound and even sing through operatic music. A jazz singer can sing in many languages.  A musical theater singer can be a wonderful actor.  A rock singer can be a great musician.

The only attribute that distinguishes the opera singer is the unique resonance that makes it possible to be heard easily in the presence of a symphonic orchestra.

Even Monteverdi’s orchestra was known to be very loud and even noisy, given the difficult of tuning natural instruments like sackbuts, crumhorns and trumpets.

It is not how loudly a singer sings or the size of the voice that determines audibility. It is the ability to generate strong acoustic energy in the region of 2000-3000 Hz, which coincides with the most sensitive acoustic range of human hearing. Most babies, barring deformity accomplish this when they cry or when they laugh.  However, most young people lose this ability as they become socialized.  Speaking loudly in the home or in small gathering spaces (where we spend most of our time in life) is not considered polite in most cultures. The coordination of breath, vocal folds and resonance that was instinctive to us as babies gets transformed with language, social norms and education to something more acceptable in confined spaces.

That special resonance, traditionally called Squillo (or the ring of the voice) and in science terms, The Singer’s Formant, is a possibility for any human being, barring deformity or some illness.  Some people have a pharyngeal structure that makes it easier to accomplish even when they produce their voice in less efficient ways. There is an acoustical theory that the pharynx must be at least 6 times the size of the epilaryngeal tube in order to produce this resonance.  The size of the pharynx is increased when the larynx is in a lower position.  The low larynx has been the traditional way of accomplishing the Squillo.  In more recent times, singers have been experimenting with the possibility of narrowing the size of the epilaryngeal tube to achieve that 6:1 ratio between the two spaces.  However, someone whose pharynx is naturally larger may be able to produce that resonance easily even with a high larynx.

The spaces are not the only factors.  The laryngeal vibration, also called the source tone must be efficient enough to produce a strong sound to begin with.  The science confirms that a so-called rectangular vibration is the most efficient manner to produce a source that that would be rich in harmonics (overtones) and set up in such a way to not necessitate a tight closure of the vocal folds.  That rectangular posture can be called full voice with a relatively fluid closure on the superficial, flexible layers of the folds.  Such a set up also reduces subglottal pressure and facilitates the natural decent of the larynx (as long as the laryngeal depressors are doing their job and are not overbalanced by the laryngeal levitators).  This kind of source tone also facilitates a more flexible breath emission, requiring less effort from the breathing musculature.

Other than a few singers (called gifted for good reason, both for acoustic advantages relative to the pharynx and speaking habits that foster a good source tone),

this coordination is not easy to accomplish.

I remember when I did not have a strong Squillo when I began to analyze my voice with a spectrogram. But now I have an ever present one.  In my case, it did not have to do with a low larynx because mine was always relatively low. But my source tone was out of balance because I was manufacturing a baritone sound (because I believe I was one).  The more my tenor voice became more balanced (between length and depth of the vocal folds) the more the squillo strengthened.  And breath management became much more flexible.

Because of my false baritone past, it’s taken me the last 38 years of active learning (since I started with voice lessons at age 16) to accomplish this coordination.  If I had given up, I would never have accomplished it and might have taught that it was simply not possible with my anatomy.  I my 30 years of teaching and searching, other than some abnormal vocal deformity, I do not see any reason why a singer should not be able to produce that resonance and become a viable opera singer.

It’s taken me a lot of words to say that:

most people can develop a voice capable of singing opera.  

But it takes physical training unless you are gifted, as explained above.  Then of course comes the additional skills to sing slow and fast without loss of air (No machine-gun colaratura please.  The fastest coloratura passages can be done legato)!

I can play tennis pretty well.  But I am not Roger Federer!

Why do we take for granted that athletes have to train but singers just have to be able to sing the notes? When I was in my teens, I once got my tennis serve clocked at 102 miles per hour.  But I could not serve that fast often and it did not go into the service box with any consistency.  The singer has to be able to maintain that squillo throughout the vocal range and while singing very difficult music.  The consistency of that coordination is dependent upon a fine balance of all the muscles in the body, supporting the laryngeal musculature in particular.

A singer can spin a beautiful phrase or very fast coloratura into a microphone and be very impressive.  But if it does not have that specific setup that makes it the most present sound in the presence of an orchestra, it’s not operatic in the true sense of the word.

What about chamber opera?  I wrote a 10 minute chamber opera for young singers who were just developing.  That’s part of studying opera in the beginning.  But what if I scored the piece for a symphonic orchestra instead of the piano? Would the young singers be able to be heard in the theater?  At that time, no!

In a discussion on my Facebook feed, a young singer suggests that opera should evolve to include singers using a microphone.  But then, that special resonance would no longer be necessary and we would not be able to distinguish between the singer who developed the skills to turn the natural un-amplified human voice into a miraculous instrument and those who make a lovely sound but without squillo.

There is the additional factor that the presence of squillo in the voice may invoke primal emotional responses from the listener that may not be as easily achieved without. The way we respond emotional when we hear a baby cry may very well be because of the squillo.  There is a theory that the squillo exists in our voices (matching the most sensitive range of the human ear) because in the wild, parents needed to hear their children in case of danger.  Therefore, the presence of squillo in the voice could have helped the propagation of our species.

Because of this specific acoustic phenomenon, I have heard singers sing very quiet sounds with large orchestras and are heard as if they were whispering directly to my ear.

So it is not about loudness in terms of decibels, but rather about the relationship between the primal human voice and the human ear.

It is an elite singer who works very hard to develop the ability to sing at all speeds, at all dynamics, in different linguistic configurations, in different musical vocabularies and maintain the primal, human resonance through all of it.

Acoustic singing of this nature is a very special skill!  The moment the microphone came into play, the squillo became a problem.  Recordings of opera after the late 1950s already includes editing that reduces the squillo, because it was considered distracting.  So in recordings, it is difficult to distinguish between singers who have squillo and those who do not.  That a singer is musically highly artistic on recordings unfortunately does not guarantee that the singer will be audible in a live operatic performance.

From Monteverdi to Menotti, nearly 500 years of operatic development did not necessitate a microphone.

Perhaps opera will evolve into an electronic art form the way musical theater has, but then we would lose the very essence of what makes it opera! It would have in fact devolved!

Pélé’s scissor kicks:


Michael Jordan flying


George London’s Squillo (Even in Speech)


The Greek word Apotheosis:

1. The highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax
2. The elevation of someone to divine status.
The word was often used in the early Olympic Games, to describe athletes who developed their skills to such a high level that they would seem godlike.  Likewise in opera, the term Diva was assigned to a female singer who had achieved the highest level of skill.  Unfortunately the term has taken on a pejorative meaning.
Squillo is not the only skill that an opera singer should have, but it is the one that distinguishes the opera singer from any other. Squillo amplifies all the good qualities. Without it in the opera house, it is the equivalent of turning off Martin Luther King’s microphone during the Dream speech.  Lots to say but no one can hear it!

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