Blackface or NOT Blackface…Tense question!

The following statement from the esteemed African-American soprano, Angel Blue (who I believe to be one of the most significant artists in the operatic world currently and a noble soul) in response to the use of “Blackface” in a production of Aida at Arena di Verona, one of Italy’s premiere opera festivals, inspired a response from the company itself and from another esteemed African-American artist, the legendary mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry (who I admire more than any other African-American operatic pioneer for her amazing talent and especially for her forthrightness).

Angel Blue’s Statement:

Dear Friends, Family, and Opera Lovers,

I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that I will not be singing La Traviata at Arena di Verona this summer as planned. As many of you know, Arena di Verona recently made the decision to utilize blackface makeup in a recent production of Aida. Let me be perfectly clear: the use of blackface under any circumstances, artistic or otherwise, is a deeply misguided practice based on archaic theatrical traditions which have no place in modern society. It is offensive, humiliating, and outright racist. Full stop. I was so looking forward to making my house debut at Arena di Verona singing one of my favorite operas, but I cannot in good conscience associate myself with an institution which continues this practice. Thank you for your understanding, and to all who have shown support and sensitivity to me and my fellow artists of color.

Grace Bumbry’s Response:

My dear Angel,

I read your publication and was thoroughly shocked by your point of view. For all my 50 years of opera singing I have always used white face, when necessary, and blackface when necessary, as well. Of course, my preference is to sing in blackface, but If I am to be perfectly honest, that preference goes against my artistic sense of credibility. My make-up cabinet runs the gamet (gambit) from Dark Egyptian to Chalk White for Turandot and everything between. If you do your historical studies, as one should, you get a clear picture as to the background of the characters, no matter what the opera. As an artist you may decide which roles you would prefer, but to limit yourself to only a few roles such as Aida, Selika (L’Africaine), and Bess or maybe one or two others which I can not recall at the moment, you are limiting your possibilities. Did you ever have the opportunity to see Sir Laurence Olivier, in the role of Shakespeare’s Otello? To my knowledge he was the first white person to perform in Blackface in classical theater. To be proud of your race is a noble thing, and one which should be honored all the time, but if you made the choice to perform in a medium of Opera you must first know the history, and the desire for credibility. I am sorry to have to be so stern with you, because you are one of my very favorite young singers, however, it is my job and my responsibility as a black pioneer in this profession, to correct you when you are out of line. I hope that you will take this correction with the love that I write it. I am sorry that you will not be singing the Traviata in Verona, because I heard you sing the role about three years ago and vocally you were wonderful. Is there no way that you could recall that decision? Your friend always, Grace B

Arena di Verona response (with my translation of the Italian):

Tutti i Paesi hanno radici diverse e la loro struttura culturale e sociale si è sviluppata attraverso percorsi storico-culturali differenti. Sullo stesso argomento la sensibilità e l’approccio possono essere molto diversi tra loro nei diversi angoli del mondo; spesso si arriva ad una idea condivisa solo dopo anni di dialogo e comprensione reciproca. Non abbiamo alcun motivo, né alcuna volontà, di offendere e disturbare la sensibilità di alcuno. Raggiungiamo con vive emozioni persone provenienti da diversi Paesi, da contesti religiosi differenti, ma per noi tutte le persone sono uguali. Crediamo nel dialogo, nello sforzo di comprendere il punto di vista altrui, nel rispetto degli impegni artistici presi.

Each country has specific roots and its cultural and social structure is developed through its specific historical-cultural path. Based on this same argument, sensibilities and approaches can be very diverse between countries in the different corners of the world; often we arrive at a shared idea only after years of dialogue and reciprocal understanding. We do not have neither motive nor desire to offend or disturb the sensibilities of anyone. We gather with vivid emotions people from different countries and different religious contexts, but for us all, they are all equal. We believe in dialogue, in the effort to understand the points of view of others, in the respect of the artistic responsibilities taken.

Angel, noi e il pubblico areniano ti aspettiamo fiduciosi, sarà l’occasione di dialogare in modo costruttivo e concreto partendo proprio dalle tue riflessioni. Il mondo digitale non crea la stessa empatia che solo il contatto diretto riesce a determinare: proprio come in Teatro. Le contrapposizioni, i giudizi, le categorizzazioni, la mancanza di dialogo non fanno altro che alimentare una cultura del conflitto che noi rifiutiamo totalmente. Ed auspichiamo che tutti lavorino per non alimentare divisioni.

Angel, we and the audience of the Arena di Verona await you faithfully, in the hopes of constructive and concrete dialogue, issuing specifically from your thoughts. The digital world does not create the type of empathy that only direct contact could provide; just like in the theater. Antithetical positions, judgments, categorical positions, the lack of dialogue do nothing more than to feed a culture of conflict, which we oppose totally. It is our hope that everyone works to avoid fueling division.

I have spent a lot of my life in Italy and as an African-American of a generation between these two great icons, I am attempting to find some level of understanding between these different points of views. There are great points made by all three parties that I agree with. Finding common ground in good faith is crucial here. Yet in a world bent on division I am not sure I would succeed in finding common ground. My hope is to show how incredibly complex this issue is.

First, It is important to make a distinction between Blackface and black make-up.

This picture came from this web article on the history of black face. It’s a short article and a good introduction. The fundamental aim of Blackface was to ridicule African-Americans. In a racist environment, the practice brought money and fame to actors who practiced it. The practice began in the North of the United States in cities like New York and Boston, not the South as many would have wrongly guessed.


There are hundreds of stock pictures of the celebrated tenor, Placido Domingo, in what could be considered his signature role of Verdi’s Otello. The intent was to be faithful to the character and the show, not to ridicule people of color. It was theatrical practice both for the Shakespearean play and for Opera. Whatever may be said of Domingo in light of recent sexual assault issues, the man is not a racist. The practice of caucasian actors and singers darkening their skins to play black roles and that of Black singers lightening their face to play caucasian roles was common place and considered an artistic achievement when done with success (success meaning appearing credible and not ridiculous).

Yet when an African-American sees these two pictures, do they see the same thing? Blackface? It is possible, I will grant. Can we however have the ability, in the age of internet provocation to discern the difference? Intent is crucial!

Second, let us consider Angel Blue’s argument relative to Aida!

Iconography of Ancient Egyptians.

The article that this picture is from shows that ancient Egypt was a racially diverse place. Therefore, the enslavement of Ethiopian people would be a consequence of war not of racism. In other words, the enslavement of war prisoners is well documented in history across the globe and does not derive from racial hatred. The fantasy of Aida’s Ethiopian people being enslaved because of their race by White Egyptians is not based on reality and has more to do with more modern racism as a consequence of the enslavement of African peoples throughout the caucasian world beginning quickly after the conquest of Africa by Europeans.

By Europeans! This is important. Angel Blue has a point when it comes to Aida. If the producers of Aida had done their homework (it took me 5 minutes on the internet to confirm that Ancient Egypt was racially diverse. I knew that but wanted to verify), they would have also known that dividing the Egyptians and Ethiopians by race is not only historically wrong, but derived lazily from a copying of racist films in Hollywood and elsewhere promoting the idea of White Egypt, whether in The Ten Commandments or the more recent Gods of Egypt, thereby making plausible and acceptable the practicing of Black make-up for the Ethiopians to distinguish them from the false narrative of White Egyptians. The two groups could easily be distinguished by costume. Suspension of disbelief is central to Opera. But in the case of Aida, relative to race, there’s no disbelief to suspend. Making Aida a black slave to white Egyptians is inaccurate and plainly racist. I did not know these facts when I was a young singer seeing my first Aida with the iconic Leontyne Price, with Sherrill Milnes in Black make-up as Amonasro, the Ethiopian King.

Aprile Milo and Sherrill Milnes in Black make-up.

That Ethiopians are basically homogeneously Black is inconsequential to the plot of the opera, because Egyptians are also Black, in part. Race is not an issue in the plot of this opera. War is! The most important dramatic engine is the War, which makes Aida and Radamès star-crossed lovers by being on different sides of the war.

Kammersängerin Grace Bumbry’s response comes from a place of love, as she explains. Her argument that one should be a bit more concerned about historical accuracy relative to the score has value. That La Bohème was produced In Space was the justification offered by one of the commentators on Angel Blue’s Instagram page for not being concerned with make-up relative to the character’s race. I could not think of a more stupid form of reasoning, given that the Bohème in Space project was an abject failure in terms of production values. This is where this gets complex:

The idea of blanket race-neutral casting implied (not explicit)in Angel Blue’s post, though noble in spirit can be naïve. I’m watching the broadway play, Hamilton again as I write this article to try to understand, in the current context, why this play bothered me so much when I saw it months ago on Disney Plus. The revisionist fantasy of a multi-racial America against White England is a photo-negative of the White Egypt in Aida and dangerous in its condescending placation. By contrast, the Netflix fantasy, Cursed, featuring Devon Terrell as a black King Arthur is entertaining because it does not crossover into history. It’s obviously a fantasy. Opera is often fantasy. But there are other moments when historical accuracy bears significantly upon our perception of the present.

As a native Haitian, the idea of a Black Founding Father in the American Revolutionary period is insulting. One generation later, John Quincy Adams (the son of Founding Father, John Adams) supported the French Armada that demanded by threat of violence a tax of over USD 105 Billion (in current value) from the nascent first black republic in exchange for maintaining their hard-fought emancipation from French slavery by defeating Napoleon (leading to the Louisiana Purchase and eliminating French threat in the New World). It took from 1825 until 1947 for Haiti to pay the forced debt. That’s 122 years of paying one half of its yearly national product. Generational wealth is the foundation of power. When people ask why my native country became the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, that is the answer in a nutshell. The same reason why African-Americans have been kept poor: denying generational building of wealth, through slavery, Jim Crow laws and beyond.

The Thomas Payne quote that symbolizes the play’s first act, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” is understood in an 18th century context that all men meant White Men against monarchical rule: the same men who felt that the Haitian Emancipation was too dangerous when uprisings began in Richmond, Virginia and other places. The American Government that originally supported the Haitian Revolution as an extension of its own decided to feed the Haitians to the French wolves in order not to have its slave culture threatened. Haiti was not recognized as a sovereign nation by the United States for almost 60 years.

This cute play, with its modern, Hiphop-inspired beat is actually historical revisionism, its only virtue being a hollow attempt at forging interracial peace in a country that is on the verge of racial civil war. This type of casting can lead into a whitewashing of history. How many of the young people who watch this play have been taught about American slavery and the hypocrisy of the American Declaration of Independence and its constitution? In the age of disinformation, how long will it take for the Kelly Conways of the world to declare that American slavery never happened. Books are already being outlawed in the United States under the pretext of a fantasy called Critical Race Theory.

The current generation might find Ms. Bumbry’s argument out of step with the current mainstream, but the fundamental wisdom there is the following: color-blindness is a fantasy. It is ok to live peacefully and celebrate our diversity. The goal is fairness and opportunities for all relative to casting. In my early incarnation as a baritone, I played Mozart’s Count Almaviva often. I have played the count both with the black wig that suggests I am a caucasian Spanish Count and I have played him with my natural African hair.

The thesis, relative to Ms. Bumbry’s response is this: If the production is set in the 18th century, it is worth wearing the caucasian wig. Why? I can imagine a child watching the opera, ask me afterwards: “why did you wear the wig, Dr. LaFond?” I would like to say to him or her or them that I wore the wig because in the 18th century, a man of African decent would not be allowed to hold a noble title. “Why is that?” Because people of African decent were enslaved by Europeans from the 16th century until late in the 19th century and beyond. And I would probably do my make-up the way George Shirley (another pioneer African-American in opera) helped me do it the night I sang the role in school for the first time:

Jean-Ronald LaFond, Conte di Almaviva 1989.

The fantasy of a Black European Count in the 18th century can be taken for granted in a world that more and more despises facts. Did the Jewish Holocaust happen? White Supremacists have been trying for decades to deny it. Did the enslavement of African peoples happen? White Supremacists in the United States and around the world are trying, even as i write these words, to deny it. How can there have been enslavement of an entire race of people for centuries when there was the possibility of a Black nobleman in the 18th Century? Hmmm…

Many plays do not require make up to simulate race because the dramatic engine has nothing to do with race. Aida is case and point, despite the fact that it is most often produced with race in mind. On that count Angel Blue’s actions are on point. But there are instances where historical context is important because it reminds us of our journey to the current conditions in the precarious world we live in. On that count, Ms. Bumbry’s concerns are to be considered. We are not in a post-racial world. Far from it! There is much to lose if we cannot make nuance distinctions between the intentions of Blackface as in minstrelsy and make-up that simulate race in a context where the storytelling can actually be enhanced and educate us about the very history we must not forget!

The obvious answer is: “in such situations hire a person of that race!” Then the counter-response would be: “shall we do the same if the character is caucasian?” In an art-form that was (until relatively recently) written by Caucasians for Caucasians, that would be a nasty can of worms to open, isn’t it? Hence Ms. Bumbry’s respoonse!

As for the response provided by the administration of Arena di Verona, it rings hollow on many levels. As I wrote above, it took no time at all to understand historical accuracy relative to race in the context of Egyptian society and by extension, Aida. Therefore, Angel Blue’s concerns are not limited to her cultural conditioning as an African-American as the response suggests. If the administration considers all of its participants equal in terms of their particular contexts, it is easy to say that they did not take Angel Blue’s context seriously or at very least, they were lazy and not having a dramaturg do the appropriate historical research. Again to Ms. Bumbry’s point!

However, I do not know the facts as to whether Angel Blue made her decision without first having contact with the administration about her concerns. The response suggests that Angel Blue decided not to perform Traviata and posted her reasons online without any dialogue with Arena di Verona. If that is the case then I believe Arena di Verona has a point. A post on social media is not the way to resolve an issue. Besides wide-ranging support from friends, colleagues and friends, Angel Blue’s post generated more responses from provocateurs, expressing very racist sentiments in some cases, than intelligent debate, as is the case with the internet these days, where clickbaiting short answers are the norm. Trolls exist everywhere to add fuel to the fire of controversy, the only point of which is to divide us further.

The special case of Otello

Finally, the same argument I made for Aida yields different thoughts for Otello. Aida’s dramatic engine is not racial. Otello’s is! There is something to be said for Otello being a Black man in a Caucasian context. Jago’s racism is explicit (and by extension Rodrigo’s. at least in the Verdi version). Otello himself speaks about whether his dark hue is why Desdemona is unfaithful (in fact she is not). At least in Verdi’s 19th century context, race is a major factor. Experiencing the character as the single outsider in a foreign world works upon his experiences as a character and visual visceral for the audience. I think not having Black make-up (I personally make a distinction between that and Blackface) for Otello, when the character is played by a non-black actor is an opportunity missed. Yes, an audience can make the leap and believe a person of a different race is playing a Black man (in the case of a non-black man playing the part, which unfortunately tends to be the case), but the visual is supremely important in this case, in my opinion. It is naturally not an issue when a Black man plays the role. The great actor, Patrick Stewart understood this when instead of putting on Black make-up, he found an ingenious solution: he played the part as a white man in a Black context. For the classical theater that is ok, because many actors of color have played Shakespeare’s Othello. For my part, I would like to see more Black men play the role.

And thus, I leave you with this:

Tenor Limmie Pulliam as Otello 2017.

© 16 July 2022

Vocal Technique and Interpretation Intensive in Valencia

My dear colleagues, Anna Maria Niedbala, soprano and Kanako Kanagawa, pianist, and I are thrilled to offer a new Vocal Technique and Interpretation Intensive in Valencia, Spain, 24-30 October 2021. It’s a joy to share our experiences, in part trough the great vocal writing of Franz Schubert. Few composers understood the human voice as expertly as Schubert, who was a singer and often accompanied himself on the guitar. The three of us, like so many singers, have fallen in love with at least a few of Schubert’s more than 600 songs. There is something for every voice type, every musical personality, every emotional state of being. Schubert deeply admired Rossini, who was in Vienna at the same time as he. Schubert wrote songs in Italian including to the poetry of the great Italian wordsmith and librettist, Pietro Metastasio. This is a composer steeped in the Bel Canto to such an extent that it is difficult not to find his influence in Bellini and Verdi and beyond.

Listen to the beginning of the song Kriegers Ahnung from Schubert’s last songs and compare to the beginning of Lucia’s Mad Scene:

I am equally excited to share the city of Valencia, which has become my home. During the week of the course, Singer’s will have the option to visit the beautiful opera house to see Handel’s Partenope presented by Le Jardin des voix, led by William Christie, the baroque ensemble based in the Palace of Versailles. Incidentally several of my students graduated from the ensemble. Also, mezzosoprano Joyce Didonato will be in town to present a recital at the opera house as well, on the last day of the course.

There will be time to experience the world’s best paella, at Casa Carmela, in the city that invented the paella. Casa Carmela has been delivering Valencia’s foremost paella for more than 90 years. It’s an institution. But order in advance if you are coming. They are very popular!

Furthermore, at the end of October, the sea is still warm and it would be a shame not to take a dip in the Mediterranean before leaving.

Kanako, Anna and I often speak about the masterclasses that provided us room for unforgettable experiences. We want to provide such a space for our students to find those moments for themselves.

Come discover with us!

Click on the following link for more information! Bienvenid@s a Valencia!

TUNDI OPERA: An Oasis in the Desert

On the banks of the Connecticut River near the New Hampshire border is found a beautiful little city called Brattleboro. I was invited by the artistic team of TUNDI Opera, based in that city, to participate in a little Wagner concert. Incidentally, I have a connection to Brattleboro. More than 30 years ago, Glenn Parker, the teacher (pianist/conductor) who influenced me more profoundly than any other, ran an opera program in Brattleboro until his untimely passing in 1995. I remember spending a day there so long ago. Glenn Parker imbued singers with a sense of possibility and optimism. He had an implacable conviction to musicianship and beautiful singing. Going into the world with this deep optimism and commitment to musicianship and beautiful singing, I found myself too often disappointed by people who make great pronouncements about great singing and music making (mutually compatible and beneficial) only to prove that the words have no connection to actions.

The artistic team of TUNDI, conductor Hugh Keelan and dramatic soprano Jenna Rae were introduced to me by a student who worked with them and thought we should know each other. We spent more than half a year of the pandemic sharing technical and musical ideas online over zoom and I felt an unusual connection to them. After so much disappointment in the field, it is unusual for me to feel “disarmed” so easily by people I only worked with online. So when they invited me to come to Brattleboro, I accepted immediately. I figured at very least it would be good to meet face-to-face these people who have had a beautiful impact on me during the darkness of the pandemic. My expectations were beyond satisfied…

What I had hoped to find:

  1. at least two people who are as open and honest as they were online. Expectations met!
  2. two people who were fun to share with musically and personally. Expectations met!
  3. hopefully the people they surround themselves with are equally honest and personable. More than met!

What I did not expect:

  1. An open working environment in which participants are invited to be vulnerable. What do I mean by vulnerable? Honest, no posturing, doing your best and hoping to grow in the process.

That environment was one the most inspiring I’ve experienced in my 40 years of vocal study. Hugh and Jenna believe that we can have revolutionary experiences technically and musically by being open within a supportive community of colleagues. That belief proved very fruitful! I had a number of “Aha” moments!

I was never forced to do anything! I was simply invited into an environment in which I may chose to shed my security blankets when I sing to see if I could discover more freeing solutions. I decided to play fully and benefited greatly from it. I felt the walls open and my own thoughts and ideas amplified not diminished.

Jenna Rae is an impressive dramatic soprano and teacher who lives the philosophy mentioned above. We could share ideas and suggestions with each other without expectations of what the results would be. Ultimately the results came precisely because it wasn’t about any finite results but rather about opening ourselves beyond our own self-imposed limits.

Hugh Keelan is a first class conductor/pianist, constantly making an orchestra of his piano in our Wagner adventures. Here is a conductor with a powerful tenor voice, who could have made “technical” suggestions but rather made qualitative observations and left it to me to figure out what I would do technically to implement his suggestions. The most effortless coachings I have experienced in quite some time. This is not an easy achievement. Hugh trusts his singers! Asks their opinion about interpretative choices. Everyone can contribute!

No judgment: Jenna and Hugh trusted me enough to share their students and their own voices with me. Very humbling. Just the same, I felt free and comfortable and safe to open and share my own voice and artistry with them.

At the end, I am a better teacher and singer because of that experience!

No competitive Ego: When It came up that I studied orchestral conducting and composition for 6 years (I tend to avoid this because coaches and conductors, almost invariably, feel a threat to their authority in those situations) Hugh responded by sharing his orchestral reduction of Wagner’s Ring with me.

If your goal is to just add another experience to your résumé, you’ll get that too, but you would have missed the point. What I believe that these two artists and their community do better than anyone I’ve seen out there is that they provide an environment where life-changing experiences are possible if you dare to play for real! This has been the goal of my pedagogy forever. But this cannot be done alone! It requires a community that is open to the idea of GROWTH!

As I prepare my next masterclass, my teammates and I are discussing how to prepare our participants for an environment of growth and community support. I’m still growing! Always growing!

Thank you, Hugh and Jenna!

I recommend these two colleagues without any reservation. It is my great wish to continue working with them. Both Hugh and Jenna can be reached here for online coaching or live (if you find yourself near Brattleboro).

Vowels in the Female Classical Voice

Problems of registration in the female voice are sometimes tough to resolve because of preconceptions about one’s sound, ideas like “pure vowels” propagated without clarification, etc. Any classical female singer knows that attempting to sing a pure [i] vowel in the high range is at best uncomfortable. Vowels are based on specific resonances in the vocal tract and have acoustic limits. Same is true for male voices. However, because traditional male voices (basses, baritones and tenors) sing considerable lower frequencies, they only experience the need to modify vowels in the upper range (and minor alterations on some specific middle range notes where formants are going from one harmonic to another). The female voice, on the other hand, requires vowel alterations already as low as D4 (lower range).

Why so low?

It is important to address this question! It is counterintuitive for a female singer to consider not singing vowels as they are spoken around the lower passaggio. Yet, it is precisely in this range that the vowels begin to reach the limits of their first formant resonance. To continue tracking the first formant would require raising the larynx gradually, which in turn would weaken the strength of the Singer’s Formant (the resonance that makes the singer audible without a microphone). Tracking the first formant and keeping the normal speech level quality of the vowel can be used very healthily in genres that use electronic amplification. Once there is a microphone in play, the Singer’s Formant is no longer necessary for audibility.

In classical singing (without microphone), the Singer’s Formant (the so-called ‘ring’ of the voice) is necessary if the singer’s voice is to be easily heard and with intensity. The Singer’s Formant works when the larynx is at its optimum relaxed level, which can be achieved more easily in the lower range (Below D4) where vowel resonance is not so complicated. From a resonant lower voice, the singer needs to experience very subtle resonance changes with the rise of every half tone into the first passaggio. A good exercise is a chromatic third (ex: A, A#, B, C, C#) on different vowels in order to experience the need for subtle resonance changes. When the singer realizes that minor changes on every half tone results in a smooth transition, the concept of vowel modification no longer feels so radical. The issue is less obvious, if the singer takes a “static” vowel quality to its limits and then attempt to modify the vowel at that point. This tends to be less successful and feels very unnatural.

Another problem that makes the first passaggio difficult is pressed voice in the lower range (I purposefully avoid the term chest voice here because this is understood by different singers in different ways). If the lower voice is not flexible and resonant, the singer begins already with a deficiency that will be further destabilize the voice when the resonance changes become necessary. I will reiterate that a resonant, flexible lower voice is necessary in order to achieve an easy transition in the lower passaggio.

Yet another problem is the term “covering”! The term suggests a darkness that often guides the singer in the wrong direction. The idea that the voice needs to be “covered” often leads to darkness from excessive lip rounding and tongue depression. It is crucial to distinguish between the natural darkness of the voice, which should be maintained as the vowel migrates from 1st formant resonance to 2nd formant resonance in the lower passaggio of the female voice, and the artificial darkness that occurs with tongue depression and/or excessive rounding.

What is the solution then?

As explained above, the singer needs to develop a flexible, resonant low range. My female clients (even the high coloraturas) develop eventually a low range to C3, yes an octave below middle C. It is developed with flexibility not forcing. Then the singer needs to become sensitive to when a low note is resonant both in terms of the pharynx resonance (vowel resonance) and the Singer’s Formant resonance.

We singers must develop these resonance sensations. Without them, it’s like walking in the dark! You’re lucky if you find the door opening to the bathroom at night, if you’re walking in the dark. Singing should not be like walking in the dark.

From this flexible, resonant low range (consider the chromatic third exercise above) the subtle resonance/vowel modifications must occur relative to maintaining resonance of the vowel (felt in the chest) and the Singer’s Formant felt like a narrow tube through the mask not on the mask. The singer should monitor these resonances throughout the voice but especially through the passaggi where they are even more significant.

Sensations in singing are tricky but they make sense once they are understood. Sensations of fold approximation and resonance radiate through the body by bone conduction. We do not sense the closure of the vocal folds directly in their location in the throat unless the voice is pressed and then we feel the tension associated with it. That is why some teachers recommend not feeling anything in the throat. When a singer becomes really sensitive, the two resonances begin to feel like a smaller tube leading toward and through the mask, inside a larger tube in the chest. That is actually the relationship between the larger pharyngeal space and the aryepiglottic fold (sometimes called the collar of the larynx). The sensations we have are much larger in size than the actual organs.

Our sensations are based on anatomy and I believe they are common to all singers. The problem is not so much that we feel things differently but that we ascribe arbitrary meanings to the sensations that do not reflect the anatomical functions associated with them.

Already in the female middle range, the vowels are a little less precise when compared to the specificity of vowel qualities below D4. From [a] to [o] or [i] to [e] feels much less extreme. By C5 the vowels feel even less distinguishable and by F5 in the second passaggio even distinguishing sensations between [a] from [i] can be difficult. Beyond the second passaggio, vowel distinction is extremely subtle. However, a skilled singer can be very clear with respect to consonants such that a word can be understood by the sequence of consonants around the vowels. The listener ends up understanding the words very well and not realizing that the singer is singing relatively neutral vowels. A female singer can develop extreme discomfort in the second passaggio by attempting to sing vowels in their spoken form as in the lower range.

The inexperienced singer can sometimes misconstrue text intelligibility with vocalic purity.

In summary, vowels become gradually less distinguishable from one another with a rise in pitch. The human ear makes up for these acoustic modifications. A singer should not be trying to sing pure vowels throughout the range but rather a concept of the text intelligibility and discovering how closely she can get to the spoken vowel while allowing the modifications that keep consistent resonance. I leave you with a beautiful example of this understanding:

©25 August 2021

Levine: The Manifest Destiny of Talent

After reflecting on this for days, reading both positive and negative comments about the Levine issue that has tainted a half century, I’ve concluded this: talent is evaluated often in terms of Manifest Destiny. Once upon a time, the idea that monarchs were chosen by God was accepted. The irony of that was always clear to those that were being ruled. The rise of monarchies was always related to the accumulation of wealth and influence. Nothing wrong with accumulating wealth until the need for more requires the subjugation of others: feudalism, slavery, classism, big business, Banks too big to fail, Auto Manufacturers too big to fail, Big Pharma, Big Tech…

What they all have in common is the importance of one person over another. The Manifest Destiny of talent is just a continuation of a dangerous idea that we’ve seen fail in politics and business over centuries.When we conclude that someone’s abilities make them Divine we consequently enable Levine! The divinization of any human being can and often lead to narcissistic and even predatory behavior. What could have stopped Henry VIII from decapitating his wife and start his own religion? A society of powerful English nobles enabled the Henry VIII murders because it suited their political/religious aims and their sense of self-importance. How is that different from predatory executives, athletes and artists that are shielded (and others who are innocent served up as sacrificial lambs) in the name of God and HIS chosen?

When I know that a soprano singing a high C vibrates her vocal folds more than 10 times faster than the wings of a hummingbird and that the operatic voice does not sound louder than an orchestra but rather developed specifically to excite the most sensitive frequency range of human hearing, I am inspired to believe that there is an intelligent design at work. It also suggests that such an intelligent being would be too advanced to put one human being above another.

The Greeks use of the term Apotheosis suggests that humans can develop skills that raise them to the status of Gods! How many human beings could achieve such heights if we didn’t consider it God-like but rather extraordinarily human? How many Barack Obamas and Kamala Harris if Whites were not considered Superior? How many Asian, Latino, LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, Women would we have as President of the United States?

Talent can be influenced by genetic and environmental variables, both nature and nurture! Reducing it to nature has only one goal: to elevate one person above another and thereby disenfranchising the other. It is fair to celebrate the achievements of a human being but the moment we make that person divine and indispensable we raise them above other human beings and make it ok to subjugate the weak, whether it is Big Tech buying off potential competition, or athletes and artists raping helpless young people with impunity!

Therefore, the question: how many great talents would rise if no one was considered Superior but rather more accomplished? A bunch of African American opera singers won Grammys last weekend. There’d be none if they had been considered “so much less than” by the establishment as during slavery and Jim Crow. How many great conductors might have come up if Levine was not considered Divine? If a Black lead tenor was not an anomaly? If a female conductor was not a Unicorn? If a minority person had access to a top lawyer?

What a dream worth dreaming!

©19 March 2021

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