Sunday, March 27, 2005

Technical talk

There’s a very nice discussion going on in Opera News over Leontyne Price’s vocal technique. The original writer, Leighton Kerner, was trying to say that he preferred the way she sang Aida in live performances he had seen to the way she sang on her two recordings of the opera. He threw around a lot of terminology in an imprecise way. For instance, he used the term spinto. I would have recommended to Kerner that he stay away from subjects he isn’t qualified to discuss and try to describe Price’s singing some other way.

The main elements of classification are weight and tessitura. How heavy is the voice and what pitch range is does it prefer? The same voice can have different weights in different parts of the voice. A true mezzo needs weight in the center.

Voices don’t always fit nicely into the invented classifications: coloratura soprano, lyric soprano, dramatic soprano, coloratura mezzo, lyric mezzo, dramatic mezzo. Spinto is a subcategory between lyric and dramatic and is applied to both tenors and sopranos. It’s supposed to describe the voice and not the technique applied to it. The technique is applied to the voice based on the teacher’s assessment of the classification.

Is the voice capable of sustaining a loud, heavy sound for up to three hours, particularly in the mid and high range? Or at least would it be once it reaches 40? Would it be suitable for Isolda, for instance? Or Turandot? Or Lady Macbeth? The answer to this question determines whether or not the voice in question is a dramatic soprano. Deborah Voidt is a dramatic soprano. So is Andrea Gruber. So is Jane Eaglen.

Is the voice capable of doing a good high E or F with flexibility? Could they sing Queen of the Night, or anything Ruth Ann Swenson sings? The answer to this question determines whether or not the voice in question is a coloratura soprano.

Is the voice too light for mezzo repertoire? Then you are a lyric soprano. Most women are lyric sopranos. So where does spinto come into it? If you are a lyric soprano who can add weight when the situation calls for it without being ready to move to dramatic, you may be a spinto. Mirela Freni is a lyric soprano with spinto possibilities. She has gotten more spinto as she has gotten older. The classification charts don’t actually include a category for spinto.

I think it would be correct to call Leontyne Price a spinto. Classification is never an exact science. The singer should be evaluated for the role as an individual and not as a classification. I am familiar with Price’s Aida both on the recordings and live in the opera house. Recordings can take the spontaneity out of things. She sang Aida in an unusual way, with lots of high pianissimo. Everyone can’t do this, but she did it with a fantastic mastery.

It is also true that Leontyne pushed her chest register and carried it up too high. At least that’s what I thought at the time. She wanted a fatter sound than she could get with regular mixed registration in the center. It became part of her sound. She is known to have gone through periods of technical difficulty and reemerge with spectacular success. We used to speculate about what caused this, pointing out the chest register problem.

Judgment of the quality of a performance is found in the heart. There was never a more moving performance in the opera house or on recording than her “O patria mia.”

She successfully sang Verdi for many years, a feat that must be celebrated and praised. She was one of the great sopranos of the twentieth century, both for her beautiful voice and for her great heart. She went the extra mile.

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