While having lunch with a friend, out of the blue she started talking about how to sing the neutral vowel, especially in French. We don’t really agree about this and gradually progressed to an argument.
Can I explain to you what this is without resorting to references to the phonetic alphabet? In English there are two “uh” vowels: the one in “tub” (phonetic symbol like an upside down capital V) and the one in “the” (symbol like an upside down lower case e, usually called schwa.) I don’t actually think the first of these exists in French. So when I’m talking about the “uh” vowel I mean the second one and will call it the neutral vowel. OK?
The problem with French is that you frequently sing these even when you wouldn't say them and end up with a lot of “uhs”. So you can't make your decision based entirely on what people say. I used the phrase “la plume de ma tante” because it’s something that is said in French class. Roughly that’s “la pluem duh ma tant” when spoken. When sung it would be “la plem-uh duh ma tan-tuh.” We were discussing how the “uh” parts are pronounced when singing. Because there are so many of them, this will be crucial to how your French singing sounds.
Lots of voice teachers, including my friend, teach their students to sing this with a tight little tone and a bit of tongue, rather like the “u” in plume. She referred me to academic sources on how to sing in French. It has long seemed to me that one of the reasons French repertoire is done so little outside of France may have to do with how French is pronounced in singing. Sometimes you just don’t want to listen to it, and I was trying to discover why.
I try to form opinions based on empirical data. If I listen to Magdalena Kožená singing in French, she sings it like my friend suggests. So do a lot of non French singers.
The entire subject of how to pronounce things I assign to my panel of experts. To discover whether or not German singers use a glottal attack when words begin with vowels, as has been alternately recommended by some and forbidden by others, I listened to Brigitte Fassbaender, Hans Hotter and some other native born German singers to find out. The answer is not always but yes, occasionally.
So for my panel of experts on how to properly pronounce the neutral vowel in French I consulted with two recordings of the Berlioz Les Nuit d'été: Régine Crespin and Véronique Gens, both fine native born French sopranos. Régine Crespin’s recording of this piece made the Gramophone 100 greatest recordings list. If it is one of the 100 all time greatest recordings, I am assuming that whatever she’s doing must be correct.
With my attention directed toward this feature of the performances, I was surprised to hear how little either one of these great ladies worried about whether her singing sounded French. They were obviously worrying about whether or not their singing sounded beautiful and their tone consistent. They are French and don’t need to prove to anyone that they can sound French.
In particular I heard virtually no difference between the way they pronounced the schwa vowel in French and how I would sing “the” in English. Sometimes it's closer to the "oo" in "look" instead of the "uh" in "the."
In fact, it is striking how everything they sing sounds so completely normal, so completely beautiful.
Singing is an art and not a science. The proof is not in the test tubes, much as I enjoy CSI television, or in books on shelves; it is in the singing. I am trying as hard as I can to write about the world of singing that's out there. If you want me to hear your opinion, don't cite sources. Cite performances.
Here it is. Judge for yourself.
I promise not to bring this up again.
P.S. Ok, so I lied. Roberto Alagna was the only Frenchman in Carmen and pinched the neutral vowel less than anyone in the opera.