“Some Strangeness in the Proportion” — Vocal Beauty and Opinion

Maria Callas
Maria Callas
Titta Ruffo
Titta Ruffo
Steve Perry
Steve Perry
Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson

“There is no excellent beauty,” said Francis Bacon, “that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” This is often said of physical beauty, and computer modeling of human faces has shown that exaggerating some features within limits (the size or tilt of the eyes or mouth for example) produces faces judged more beautiful by observers. Many famously beautiful people were once mocked or considered ugly for the very feature later praised as making them uniquely beautiful, be it height or thinness, a long nose, very full lips, or an oddly shaped mouth. Humans seem to dislike exaggerated difference as well as finding it fascinating, and this goes for all senses. Distinctiveness both attracts and repels.

Music is no different. What one person considers flaws in a voice (Maria Callas’s blatant changes in timbre, Ruffo’s metallic lower register and diamondlike upper, Perry’s extremely flat open vowels, Anderson’s woodwind-like baritone) another will consider a mark of individuality or even a “beauty blemish,” a small blot making the rest of the voice seem more beautiful by comparison. Where the small blot stops being a blemish on beauty and instead dominates the impression made by the voice is a matter of judgment, but most judgments do tend to cluster; there are certainly voices that are judged by large numbers of people to be extraordinarily beautiful, even if those groups of people don’t always or often overlap.

For example, I find Callas “interesting” like a single-malt scotch, but equally undrinkable; many, many illustrious others disagree with me and vehemently, calling her “La Divina.” Others consider Perry’s uniquely expressive vowels fodder for caricature, whereas I consider him, along with Ruffo and Anderson, one of the 20th century’s three miracles.

Even the concept of a “beauty blemish” can be argued. It seems to assume that there is one perfect, Platonic ideal voice against which all voices are compared, or perhaps more generously a Platonic ideal for each singer’s voice for which they must strive individually. Forgotten is the fact that voices live within human bodies and are part of them, that the body itself is the instrument. I’ve called it a soft, wet piece of meat, and that’s precisely what it is. Independent of the meaty, sinewed, fluid-filled body that is the voice, a voice does not exist. “Beauty blemishes” are not spots on voices but as much a part of the voices themselves as any other feature. (The only sin universally judged as unforgivable is the sin of being off-key.)

Maria Callas
Maria Callas
Titta Ruffo
Titta Ruffo
Steve Perry
Steve Perry
Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson

Cleansed of her blatant changes in color, Maria Callas’s voice would not exist, and among other qualities, it’s those changes in color that create her voice separate from anyone else’s, granted I have no taste for it. Freed of the huskiness that “marred” his lower register and the hard sparkle of his upper, Ruffo’s voice would no longer be identifiable as his — and one of the most damning things that can be said about any performer is that the listener can’t tell who they are from hearing them. Trained into a proper Italian vowel system, Perry may well have become a very serviceable — and equally forgettable — choral high tenor, though a useful one as he could have handled mezzo without recourse to falsetto. Trained out of her lower register, Marian Anderson would have disappeared as merely one more not very distinguishable mezzo soprano. (Trained into contralto-only, she would have disappeared as well, into the “witches, bitches, and britches” roles that are the staple of the contralto to this day, assuming that the color-based social tensions of the time would have permitted her that much success.)

To use another point of comparison, no one would ever have heard of Cindy Crawford had she had that mole removed. One must look or sound beautiful, but a bit of individuality gives the viewer or listener something to remember, particularly in highly competitive disciplines where just keeping on day after day winnows away all but the most tenacious. Callas began singing at the age of 5, and was thwarted repeatedly by people who were unwilling to tolerate her unique sound. Ruffo was born into both a relatively non-musical family and substantial poverty as the son of an ironworker, and spent years travelling Italy before apprenticing as one himself; he discovered his voice and found his training entirely on his own. Musical from a very young age, Perry labored for almost the entirety of his twenties in unrelieved obscurity before finding success, spending a portion of that time building turkey coops and most of it sleeping on other people’s couches. Anderson was stymied continually by social injustice to the point where she had to abandon the country of her birth to move her career forward.

Many thousands of others were similarly challenged both by circumstance and by the monumental challenge of sticking out above the crowd; it was the strangeness of their proportions that made the four voices listed above unforgettable and suited to success — as well as the bullheaded insistence on the part of the vocalists on putting one foot in front of the other despite the universe repeatedly putting its boot in their faces and insisting that they find something else to do with their lives.

Clips illustrating the vocal “flaws” of the above voices:

Casta Diva” — Maria Callas. Note the substantial shifts in vocal color as she moves around in her range, relatively smooth in the middle (beginning), flatter and a bit hollow in the low end, and piercing in the high end (1:04 and 1:08). A bit like a downhill skier, she gives the impression of singing by the seat of her pants.

Gioconda Duet” — Titta Ruffo eclipsed by tenor Beniamino Gigli in 1924. There’s still a good deal of power left but it’s unremarkable, and the glittering sparkle in his upper register had hardened, turning dull. Contrast with:

Credo” — Ruffo earlier on in 1914, where his upper register is merely clear as a bell and absolutely precise, with his signature surgical vibrato (2:39-3:00). The bland weakness in the lower notes (ordinary at 1:01-1:27) is still there but has not yet begun to creep upward, and the diamonds in the upper end haven’t yet turned into shrapnel.

Lovin’ You Is Easy” — Steve Perry, with very wide /a/’s and /ae/’s, and razorlike /s/’s and /t/’s that are still occasionally parodied. A scatlike succession of flat vowels at 0:49 identifies his voice as unambiguously as a thumbprint and would likely have been demolished by any well-meaning vocal trainer. (Ignore the video quality; codec problems make it unwatchable.)

Hear de Lam’s a-Cryin’” — Linked to already, Anderson’s version demonstrates a very oboe-like quality, to be contrasted with male baritone Roland Hayes‘s comparatively silky and feathery baritone as he sings the same piece in exactly the same key and register.

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