Ken Scicluna

The Operatic Voice Part 1

The following 3 weeks we shall take a short break from Mr. Vella Bondin's series on Maltese composers of opera by focusing on the operatic voice. Out of all the elements in an opera undoubtedly, the most conspicuous and talked about are the solo singers. In this short series of 3 blogs,  Ken Scicluna (a professional Baritone himself) shall give us some very interesting information about The Operatic Voice.

The singer’s voice is a very delicate instrument - and opera singers in particular are amongst the most complex of singers. First and foremost the Opera singer’s technique is directly related to stage-craft unlike say the pop or jazz singers whose performance space normally differs. Opera singing in its raw form is the ability to train a voice to sing effortlessly by projecting a large sound over the sound of an orchestra in a theatrical space. However complex and tasking the process of developing a voice from a mere strong voice which has potential to an opera singer’s voice, it has none of the mysticism attributed to it in recent years through the accademia, critics and the media - it remains merely a technique which transcends from one generation to the next as in any other craft - the problem arises when there is no tradition or that said tradition has been lost, which unfortunately is many a time the case in our age.

One of the most important aspects in any Opera singer’s voice which determines a healthy development and eventually how it fares when it reaches maturity is voice register - categorizing a voice as falling into a particular register which is crucial for proper development and more importantly not incurring any damage which might at times be irreversible on the vocal chords. It can be detrimental, to say the least, when a wrong categorization occurs, many a time due to ignorance and lack of knowledge, as many a singer including myself have experienced. This leads to losing time, sometimes years, incurring financial burden, damaging the instrument, besides being an overall traumatic experience when one finally understands why no development could take place, whilst trying to unlearn the wrong habits. Three main factors normally determine the voice register, which is never made up but is already set by nature:
- First is the natural voice tessitura, that is where the natural sound of the voice fares best.
- The second of equal importance is the passaggio - that is where the voice somehow breaks naturally to launch to the a higher or lower register
- The third is the vocal range (which again can differ hugely from a student in the initial years to a full fledged opera singer) - it takes a very experienced and expert ear to determine this.
Just these three factors take books and whole studies not a mere few lines so I am not going further into this.

A lot of what we know today have hardly changed from the time of Manuel Garcia (1805-1906) who possibly wrote one of the most comprehensive guides of the human voice in his A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1841,1847). Recent studies are showing, from the medical point of view , how an opera singer’s vocal chords and body function through sophisticated cameras whilst sound is even measured by an oscilloscope. This, though only gives us an idea of how the voice works and resonates and is not as beneficial to show us how to sing properly, though it can sometimes address wrong habits or a damaged voice.

In next week’s blog Ken Scicluna will go into the details of the different categories of operatic voices.