What a strange instrument (5).

It occurs to me that, while I’ve found several violists that I admire and love to listen to, all of my inspirations for picking up the viola are singers. All of them. Even the two violists I’ve attached myself to were people that I only found after I decided to study it.

Given the preponderance of voice articles on this blog, that’s not a surprise, but it just struck me recently how thoroughly true it is. When I was vacillating between viola and violin briefly, I went to Wikipedia to look up the ranges for both instruments and saw that the viola encompassed the tenor, contralto, and alto ranges (as well as mezzo-soprano although that’s how it’s identified). That decided me. If the violin is a soprano and the cello a baritone, then the viola is where my favorite voice types lie: low female voices and high male ones. Marian Anderson, Russell Oberlin, and Andreas Scholl are on the viola, as are Aretha Franklin and Steve Perry. The instrument can go low but, like a contralto, always has a light shimmer that keeps it from being muddy. And it can go high but, like a natural male alto, always has a stripe of darkness beneath it that keeps it from being shrill.

All of my inspirations for studying viola are singers. Every last one.

Aretha Franklin and “Nessun Dorma”

Aretha Franklin singing “Nessun Dorma”

Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma”

Yes, there is some very unoperatic ornamentation at the end, but that’s what a cadenza is meant for. This music isn’t meant to be mummified. It’s music. It’s meant to be alive, to quiver and thrill, to push the boundaries and bleed when you cut it.

Note that it’s on pitch as well, and thus the classification of “alto,” “contralto,” and “tenor” are as mixed between opera and popular music as that of “tenor” and “countertenor” are in male voices. Note also that the skepticism and melodramatic astonishment over the “chest voices” of “rare” operatic contraltos speaks of an ignorance of popular voice on the part of far too many opera intellectuals, exactly equal to that of the (false) conviction that natural male altos do not exist. Too many voice lovers appear to plug up their ears when they hear Neil Sedaka or Gladys Knight. I keep thinking of Maria Callas’s conviction that a singer had no business saying that they “can’t” sing a certain type of music, and Andreas Scholl’s eagerness to show respect for Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto. I’m also reminded of the times I’ve listened to the gigue from “Giulio Cesare” and wondered how it would sound if covered by a good four-piece rock band.

If only I could have heard Steve Perry or Art Garfunkel sing “Con rauco mormorio.” I would pay dearly to hear Aretha Franklin sing any other tenor arias. How magnificent.

And how lovely to hear opera treated as living music. It’s so often fossilized as music of the indolent wealthy that hasn’t changed in 200 years, and coming from a family of immigrant stonemasons all of whom considered the quartet from “Rigoletto” to be the most perfect piece of music ever written, that’s never sat well with me.

Opera is popular music, music of the people — specifically, music of my people. It’s the music of people with machine oil in their thumbprints, of people who work at blue- and pink-collar jobs, people who carry lunchpails to work and have toolchests in their dining rooms. Opera is alive, and it’s not owned by people who use it to elevate themselves above the common “rabble” and who would fight to keep it covered in dust. Opera must live, or it’s going to die, and in that case it will deserve to.

If you love something, why on Earth would you wish to see it embalmed?

Call me foolish.

I’ll deserve it. I only just now heard Ewa Podles.

*shocked amazement*

Looks like I’ve got another one to start chasing down on Amazon.com. My debit card may never forgive me.

Oh, well. One more order will get me all of the early Lyrichord recordings of Russell Oberlin that have just been rereleased on CD, so I supposed I’m due to start chasing down someone else.

A bit of gender parity

It occurs to me that I’ve been posting about male voices rather a lot. This post is an attempt to rectify that by linking to several performances by my favorite female voices — four contraltos and four sopranos.

Beverly Sills
Beverly Sills
Inger Dam-Jensen
Inger Dam-Jensen
Tuva Semmingsen
Tuva Semmingsen
Cass Elliot
Cass Elliot
Beverly Sills: Una voce poco fa — what else? This aria showcases everything wonderful about her, as a coloratura soprano without a trace of shrillness, whose voice was always sweet and gentle on the ear, but still possessed of enormous power.
Inger Dam-Jensen: Piangero la solte mia — from “Giulio Cesare.” Yes, she’s wearing black leather, fur, and a skullcap. Ignore it, or better yet, buy the opera on DVD and watch the whole thing. Her voice is perfection, as nimble as a gymnast and clear as a bell.
Tuva Semmingsen: Non piu mesta from “La Cenerentola.” She specializes in pants roles and indeed possesses a very gamine beauty, but this is a woman’s part. Her voice is the clearest, best mezzo I’ve ever heard.
Cass Elliot: New World Coming — the best woman’s high voice in pop, absolutely effortless-sounding and smooth as glass.

Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson
Annie Lennox
Annie Lennox
Carly Simon
Carly Simon
Marian Anderson: Ave Maria — German lyrics, far more moving than the Latin prayer or the Italian ones. Not of this Earth.
Annie Lennox: Stay By Me — another magnificent voice, one of the most revered voices in pop, and unsurprisingly, a contralto.
Cher: I Found Someone — Yes, it’s 80s. Another smooth, rich and dark contralto, with none of the muddiness of the low male voice — a low voice with the vibrato of a female one.
Carly Simon: That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be — another of the most effortlessly perfect voices in pop, and a brilliant songwriter.

Tuva Semmingsen (mezzo) and Randi Stene (occasional contralto): Son nata a lagrimar — also from “Giulio Cesare.” Magnificent. A mother and son mourn their murdered husband and father.
Semmingsen and Dam-Jensen: Sous le dôme épais — from “Lakmé.” A recognizable duet, sampled frequently. A more beautiful version you won’t find.

Again, I understand the difficulties involved in using (specialized) classical labels instead of the standard four choral labels (soprano, alto, tenor, basso) to define popular singers, but there really isn’t any other way to define the last three women other than as contraltos. The relative popularity of counter-tenors and contr-altos in popular music compared to classical/operatic indicates (in my opinion) that these terms cannot be avoided, and that they should indeed be used to highlight the very clear difference between the types of voices preferred in the genres.

In other words, there is such a predictable and marked difference, well outside of just pure chance, of the types of voices that are highly praised in both genres. With limited exceptions (Barry White and Luther Vandross being two, and some various bubble-gum female popstars being more), the most prized male voices in popular music are uniformly higher than the most prized voices in classical and operatic music, and considerably so. Prized female voices are similarly lower in almost all cases, with limited exceptions (Pat Benatar being the one that springs to mind). Classifying all of the men as “tenor” and all of the women as “alto” would miss this predictable, near-uniform distinction.

Marian Anderson — Contralto (but honestly everything)

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson’s voice is another that often defies categorization according to the standard voice register definitions. She classified herself as a contralto, or a woman who sings in the lowest register possible for women. In fact, in some of her recordings and performances, she dropped well into baritone and even basso territory (and soared into mezzo), although voice enthusiasts debate whether or not the words should be used to refer to a woman’s voice.

Anderson was born in or near Philadelphia at the turn of the last century, into a country that did not easily recognize such awesome talent and ambition in a black person of either gender. Anderson was unable to perform in American opera companies, which did not accept black performers, and even audiences were not permitted to be integrated. As a result, she performed as a concert vocalist before finding astonishing success in Europe, freer of color-based tensions than America at the time.

The two European musicians most closely associated with Anderson were the Finn Jean Sibelius, who wrote specifically for her and stated that her voice had revealed the Nordic soul, and the renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, who famously stated that Anderson had a voice “heard once in a hundred years.” Such lauds communicated themselves back to the United States, where she finally found the fame and recognition that her voice and work merited.

She is best known for the free, open-air concert given by her in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial, arranged by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission to her to sing in Constitution Hall because of her color, and because the audience would also be mixed color. (This resulted in some women resigning their memberships in the DAR, including Mrs. Roosevelt.) Later, in 1943, she was able to perform to a mixed audience at the Hall by invitation of the DAR.

Anderson died in 1993 at the age of 96 and is most remembered, as is fitting, for the beauty, power, and mindblowing range of her voice, as well as for her dignified persistence in the face of unjust obstacles.

Classified as a contralto, Anderson dropped into baritone and even basso more than once without vocal fry but could also sustain mezzo-soprano without strain, truly a once-in-a-century voice as Toscanini claimed. She began singing at the age of six in a choir and beyond that was trained privately, as black people were not welcomed into the vocal academies and schools of the time. The standard belief among voice enthusiasts is that a woman cannot or should not sing baritone or anything lower without risking damage to the voice; the length of Anderson’s career belies this, but it is true that most vocalists could probably not manage her astonishing range. However, as with men who sing countertenor, it is likely that many women are capable of it within the operatic world but are not trained to do so. Anderson’s training outside of the operatic mainstream may well have permitted her to exercise her full voice free of the perceived constraints of that world.

Marian Anderson — Wikipedia entry

Clips illustrating her amazing range:

Casta Diva” — picks up well into mezzo territory. Contrasting the magnificence of 2:00-2:30 with the following link makes clear just how immortal this woman’s voice was.

Deep River” — excellent contralto, very smooth and confident.

Ave Maria” — Truly the most perfect version ever recorded.

Death and the Maiden” — an amazing range, perfectly clear through her entire range. Contrast with the clip below, where she drops into baritone, with the general tonal quality one expects from a woman’s voice. Drops into basso at 2:21.

Hear de Lam’s a Cryin’ — well and firmly into baritone. Contrast with Roland Hayes, who sings it exactly in the same key and register, if Anderson’s voice is a bit woodier in the same range while Hayes’s features a contrasting lightness.

Clip illustrating her speaking voice:

Interview in 1990 — discussing Roland Hayes. Again, a very unremarkable speaking voice, lower than some but she was also quite old here.