Classical Voice vs. The Modern Theatre

Good classical singing doesn’t really translate all that well to electronic format, even though there have been recordings of opera singers since the dawn of acoustic recording.  We have recordings back from 1889, maybe before.  But you only really hear what a well-produced classical voice sounds like in the theatre.  The free voice produces overtones way above the actual note values, around 3KHz, which we hear as the “ring” in the voice.  Those high overtones are  what give the well-produced voice its penetrating quality, the power that carries it over the orchestra.  Those overtones aren’t captured all that well by even a condenser mic, relative to the frequencies in the speaking range, and not much at all by the standard dynamic mic that rockers and pop singers use onstage.  So, in the recording studio, and when mics are used onstage, the fundamental tones are amplified, but the ring is barely captured and the way the voice is balanced with the orchestra is with the mixing board, by raising the output of the voice and dialing down the orchestra.  That’s not what the composer expected — a duel of singer vs. orchestra — and it doesn’t sound like the same music as performed in the house.  The best composers left “holes” in the orchestration for the voice, and not always where you’d think.  Especially Puccini and Richard Strauss could have a “wall” of orchestral sound, often doubling the voice, so that the fundamental frequencies the voice is singing might look on paper like it would be drowned out by the orchestra.  But there is no competition for the voice at 2500-3200Hz, the “ring,” territory; the voice sails out over the orchestra and that’s what the audience actually hears.

I’m afraid younger people and younger singers are never going to know that vocal ideal and how beautiful it can be.  And a lot of modern teaching reflects that:  Lots of pressured singing that doesn’t ring, but, in a small room or on a mic, sounds impressive.  Some impresarios are even telling good singers they don’t like that kind of “effortless” singing; they want to see strain, which they equate with intensity.  Fine, if you’re going to mic the show; in which case, they can get young singer-actors with pretty faces and hot bodies to grunt and squeeze out tone, to be fixed in post.  That’s the Hollywood effect and it’s definitely changed mainstream opera in the U.S.

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