Stefan Zucker has done an interesting research about the function of the chest in vocal operation. He does some discussion about it with divas of the past.
I. Chest Voice: Some History
Since W.W. I women for the most part have been afraid of chest resonance, fearing it would ruin their voices. But in the 19th century women used it as a matter of course, a practice they inherited from the castratos. Most women on early recordings sing all notes from F at the bottom of the treble staff on down in chest voice. But they do not sing higher than that in chest voice. Voice teacher Giovanni Battista Lamperti dissuaded his pupil Marcella Sembrich from undertaking Aïda on the grounds that she lacked the requisite chest resonance. (Records attest to Sembrich’s having used chest resonance below G-flat, so presumably Lamperti must have felt her chest voice was too light for the part.) Lamperti did maintain it was unhealthy for the voice for women to carry chest resonance higher than F.
Nineteenth-century Italian opera composers seemingly took for granted that women would employ chest voice. (Consider Mascagni’s preference for Lina Bruna Rasa’s chest-voice-heavy Santuzza.) The majority of roles cannot be communicated adequately without chest color at one point or another. Women often find that unless they abstain from chest resonance, the music at certain moments causes them to use it. A challenge for women with modern vocal techniques is how to fulfill the chest requirement without hurting themselves.
In the last 160 years, while women have used chest voice less and less, men have used it more and more. For discussions of men, chest voice and head voice, see my “Last of a Breed: Giovanni Battista Rubini Ruled as the Paragon of Virtuoso Tenors, King of the High F’s” (Opera News, February 13, 1982) and “Seismic Shocker: Gilbert-Louis Duprez’s History-Making High C” (Opera News, January 1, 1983), also my “Different Kinds of High Notes and the Seismic Shock: Nineteenth-Century Tenors and the Meaning of ‘Falsetto’” (American Record Guide, March 1982). The Rubini and Duprez articles are reprinted in my The Origins of Modern Tenor Singing; see our full catalog.
II. Chest Voice: The Divas’ Dispute
Gavazzi and Gencer claim that not only did they themselves employ chest resonance but that the other divas—in particular, Olivero, Cigna, Adami Corradetti, Simionato and Barbieri—did as well. (Frazzoni made some seemingly inconsistent statements about whether or not she herself used it.) These latter deny having resonated in their chests. I asked Gavazzi to explain this. She claimed they employed chest unknowingly.
This kind of explanation is common among singers. Corelli and Hines cannot conceive of any tenor singing above the staff without routinely covering his tone. Yet Alfredo Kraus and I claim we do exactly that. Speaking on the radio program “Opera Fanatic,” Corelli and Hines insisted we cover automatically, without being aware of it—a view we reject.
Also speaking on “Opera Fanatic,” Kraus asserted that Chris Merritt sings his high notes in falsetto—a view he rejects.
Usually I favor giving the singer the benefit of the doubt: if he says he’s not covering, then he’s not.
The dispute over chest voice may be a special case, however. The anti-chest divas were raised in the belief that chest resonance is vocally unhealthy. They also were told it fractures continuity of musical line. Still, certain powerful emotions and coloristic demands sometimes flushed chest out of them. But they hate to admit it. Each diva views her vocal technique as having the sanctity of religion. Each is mortified if the world knows she sinned. Barbieri insisted she wouldn’t attend The Bavarian State Opera’s showing of Opera Fanatic if Gencer were there, on the grounds that Gencer had insulted her by saying in the film that she—Barbieri—used chest voice.
Why should opera lovers care about whether or not someone sings with chest voice? Because the affective consequences are very great. My viscera aren’t satisfied if chest isn’t used in certain passages, the phrase “un gel mi prende” (Norma), for example.
III. Vocal Technique
With the exception of Adami Corradetti, who at least from the 50s onward didn’t have a placement-based method, the divas in the film used a technique of resonation called “masque placement” (“placement” of the tone at the front of the face, anywhere between the forehead and the lower teeth). Masque placement prevailed in the period in which they sang.
For much of the19th century many singers placed their voices at the top of the head, at a point between but above the ears. Gemma Bellincioni, the first Santuzza, used this placement.
Today masque placement is being edged aside by mechanistic approaches, which do not involve placement at all. Instead, they require manipulation of the lips, mouth, tongue, soft palate, nostrils, jaw, position of the head or of the larynx.
With the exception of Adami Corradetti, who did not think about breathing, the divas used a breathing method involving pressing in at the diaphragm. Before, during and after the divas’ period a variety of other breathing techniques have been in use.
The divas all subscribe to the view that there is one god, one country and one singing technique—their own. (Olivero concurs that this is her stand.)
For more detailed information about these and six other fundamentally different kinds of vocal technique, see Opera Fanatic magazine, issue 2. (See our full catalog)
Musical Line vs. Dramatic ExpressionTwo Kinds of Diva
The divas divide into two groups. The first group strove not to vary tone color for dramatic expression but to maintain consistency of tone color for the sake of musical line. Half the divas in the film—Barbieri, Cerquetti, Cigna, Pobbe and Simionato—belong to this group (as do virtually all singers today). From their point of view, a change in tone color compromised musical line as much as a break in legato. That they didn’t vary tone color didn’t prevent them from being emotionally intense. They relied on good diction and musicianship to serve librettists and composers.
For the second group, varying tone color for dramatic expression was paramount. Adami Corradetti (as a performer but not as a teacher), Frazzoni, Gavazzi, Gencer and Olivero are in this group. To my ears, these performers succeeded in changing tone color without damaging the musical line and thereby heightened emotional impact. The singers in the first group acted with their faces and bodies. The singers in the second group also acted with their voices.
One can find counterexamples. Frazzoni and Gencer didn’t always come alive interpretively. Cerquetti sometimes inflected her tone, most notably on a live recording of Ballo. Cigna on some occasions colored hers as well.
IV. Intuition vs. Analysis
During the interviews it became clear that the divas respond to words and to the music’s emotions but don’t analyze its structure. They never think about clarifying a vocal line by showing through emphasis which notes are melody, which mere ornamentation. The notion of each piece containing a hierarchy of notes is foreign to them.
Unlike the majority of singers (Italians in particular), most of the divas in the film turned out to have studied instruments. Perhaps that contributed to their musical intuitions. Simionato had no such background, yet her musicianship was no less expressive.
Stefan Zucker about chest voice-discussion with Marcella Pobbe, Giulietta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, Leyla Gencer, Carla Gavazzi.