There is an ineffable quality about a fine voice, apart from any other instrument. Other instruments can be pointed to, tuned, cared for like fine machines, but not a voice. A soft, wet piece of meat, what it achieves for the listener is impossible to define, transporting, beyond the realm of description. We are a social species, and the voices of others of our kind are arresting, even in conversation. A fine speaking voice can bring people to a halt, and a fine singing voice can create a religious ecstasy.
A fine instrument is also nothing to treat lightly; specialists still study the minutest details of every Stradivari or Guarneri to determine the qualities that create such a surpassingly beautiful tone in the devices made in these two craftsmen’s studios. Pianos are also studied in detail — hammers, dampers, strings, harps, and wooden bodies, to determine what makes one suited for Debussy, one for Chopin, and another for Scott Joplin.
However, these are all machines, which can be studied using the full arsenal of scientific and medical devices — x-rays, MRIs, CAT scanning, material science studies, etc. A similar study of a fine human voice would require the full examination of a body as a musical instrument, not merely the larynx. The head, the shape of the mouth, sinuses, throat, lungs, chest, posture … all of these things plus the artistry and instinct of the singer combine to create a fine voice. The number of variables required to settle why one human body can create heavenly sound while another cannot is simply too great and depends on too many other variables. Compared to the tortuous shape of human sinuses and nasal cavities, the shape of a violin body is kindergarten acoustics. Vocal quality is an emergent property, impossible to predict or quantify in any but the roughest terms. (And the one thing such an analysis can never measure and never will is ambition and the willingness to work hard.)
Most bittersweet of all, voices are transient. An instrumentalist can find a new instrument should they need to do so, even as much as they may love their favorite. A broken instrument can be replaced. And while playing an instrument incorrectly can result in injury (carpal tunnel syndrome is the bane of any musician), playing one correctly usually results in greater strength. The more one plays properly, the more one is capable of playing, health issues like arthritis aside.
This is not the case for the voice, where damage can only be mitigated and never entirely avoided. Some styles of singing damage the voice more than others, but there is no way to sing without damage, at all. Every note a singer hits is a note they will never hit again in quite the same way. Instrumentalists use their hands, but vocalists do not use their voices. They use them up.
This makes performing as a high-powered vocalist nerve-wracking for the singer, and it makes mentoring the singer and conserving the voice of primary importance. This is often the downfall of unmentored, self-taught singers with natural gifts, “miracles” as they are sometimes called, and the chief reason why such miraculous voices have characteristically short careers.
One such tragically short career belonged to the legendary Italian baritone of a century ago, Titta Ruffo, “Voce del Leone” or “Voice of the Lion.” Born in 1877 in Pisa as Ruffo Cafiero Titta, he was renowned for his magnificent, hall-filling power and dramatic presence. Ruffo threw absolutely everything he had into every performance, achieving the operatic equivalent of stage-diving. He thrilled audiences at every chance who could barely believe the sparkling power in his higher register or the energy of him. He was the only other male operatic vocalist who could command fees on the order of the great Caruso, and as a result, the two men rarely sang together as most opera houses could not afford to pay both of them at the same time.
They were known to have recorded two duets, one of which survives, the magnificent “Si Pel Ciel” from Verdi’s Otello, a duet between Otello (Caruso) and Iago (Ruffo). Each man was clearly looking to raise the bar for the other, and given the nature of the subject matter, the competitiveness brought the recording to amazing heights even with the poor fidelity of the technology use to record it. Caruso is recognized as brilliant, but the lesser-known Ruffo’s voice is breathtaking, with a richness and penetrating clarity uncommon in a baritone, awesome power, and a tingling vibrato nimble enough for any mezzo-soprano.
Ruffo was, however, self-taught and as a result, had no good idea how to safeguard his voice. The fact that his voice had already begun to decline by the time modern recording technology had moved from acoustic to electrical recording has a great deal to do with the fact that he is not today as well known as his countryman Caruso. When asked why he did not teach after retiring, he stated famously that, “I never knew how to sing, that is why my voice went by the time I was fifty. I have no right to capitalize on my former name and reputation and try to teach youngsters something I never knew how to do myself.” As his career declined, his voice retained its power but lost its richness and beauty, with his lower register growing thinner and more metallic. By the time technology had made it possible for Ruffo’s voice to be shared with those who had never heard it live and would never have the chance with much greater fidelity, the lion’s voice was a pale shadow of its former glory. That glory can still be heard in the acoustic recordings made earlier in his career.
The also legendary Italian baritone Giuseppe De Luca famously said of Ruffo, “His was not a voice but a miracle.” An untrained miracle, it was also sacrificed to hard, untutored use, and burned with a heavenly brightness before finally burning out.
Titta Ruffo — Wikipedia article
Clips illustrating his singing voice:
“Si Pel Ciel” — Duet with famed tenor Enrico Caruso from Otello, the only one of two duets to survive with Ruffo and Caruso. Brilliant, piercing power in the high end. Considered to be one of the most perfect voice recordings ever made, and with good reason. Vibratos at 0:46 and 2:30 beyond what is normally heard in baritones.
“Largo al factotum” — Well-known aria from “The Barber of Seville” wherein said barber brags about how famous and in-demand he is, including the plea, “One at a time, for pity’s sake!” Bless Rossini for writing comedies!
“O vin, discaccia la tristezza” — From “Hamlet,” a signature role for Ruffo.
“Di Provenza” — An abbreviated version. The vibrato will raise the hair on the back of your neck.