September 12, 2011

Una Voce Poco Squeak


I was just listening to Beverly Sills sing Una Voce Poco Fa* as I cut up chicken for hellhound dinner** and thinking, actually, that’s not possible.  A Little Learning Is A Dangerous Thing, or, professionals get paid to do stuff for a reason.  I feel that even with my obsessive attitude I will be able to live comfortably without ever learning to sing a trill, but I would like to be able to sing turns and grace notes and accidentals and things.  Not this year however.*** 

Catlady:  I also used to sing baritone for a barbershop quartet. We won both competitions we were in, and after, the judges would come up and give us pointers (they were very invested in Cultivating A Love Of Barbershop in the Next Generation, so the pointers were all kind, encouraging ones) and I was told that I was good at what I did because they couldn’t pick out my voice at all. Which was good, I suppose, as far as it went… 

Wait, wait, when I think of barbershop quartets I think in multiples of four.  You mean you were the only baritone and they said they couldn’t pick you out?  Um.  No.  I don’t think that’s very encouraging.  But if you won both your competitions, why did you stop?

            The thing I’ve been thinking about, since there clearly are a lot of genuinely low-voiced women out there, is, why isn’t there a complementary groundswell of bass and baritone women to balance the huge burst of enthusiasm for countertenors and male sopranos?  Anyone else want to sing the Conte di Luna? 

Glanalaw:  You used to have FOUR octaves? You are a freak! But the kind I wish I was. On a good day I have three whole octaves (sometimes a tiny bit more) – F below middle C up to the “Queen of the Night F” above the staff. Usually a little bit less. And I’m a trained (partially) singer, and that’s considered to be impressive in the circles in which I run. 

I keep telling you:  they were not four octaves anyone would want to listen to.  If you’ve got three-plus octaves that people do want to listen to, than I am passionately jealous. 

            I could get down to the second A below middle C and up to the Queen of the Night F—so not quite four octaves.  On a very very very good day I think I had the bottom F too, but it wasn’t usable because I couldn’t rely on it.  Both ends were audible and on pitch . . . but that’s all you could say for them.  Or any of the notes in the middle, for that matter.  With Nadia nagging me about leaving space and relaxing and dropping and breathing and supporting and so on I’m hoping to become a member of the back row of a good choir, but that’s still the acme of my practical yearning:  I am just not solo material. 

As far as the breaks – I got out my vocal pedagogy book, which actually uses the analogy of shifting gears to describe changing registers! It also suggests that “normal” breaks happen more or less where you’re describing yours. I am probably also supposed to be able to inform people of these facts without looking them up first. 

Piffle.  If God had meant us to remember all this stuff, he wouldn’t have invented Wiki.† 

 (I just took my music history placement examination for the master of music degree and it left me feeling rather inadequate – I can’t wait until the theory one next week. *sarcasm*) 

WELL I AM VERY IMPRESSED.  You’ve aced your theory by now, right?  What does a master of music do with her degree? 

harpergray:  . . . part of the diva-ness is that sopranos’ voices are so much more exposed, which . . . means that soprano confidence problems are going to be more exposed too, I guess.

. . . I was coming at it from the alto side, where we just sort of watch it happen. 

Ah yes, the floor show.  No group of humans is complete without the floor show aspect of their particular brand of togetherness.  So far the Muddlehampton sopranos are rather well-mannered although there are potential gleeps elsewhere.  And unfortunately discretion will prevent me from telling you about any really good ones.  Feel free to dispense with discretion, since you’re anonymous. 

That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen among us as well, but if you have confidence problems as an alto it doesn’t stand out nearly as much. 

Yes.  The sheer physics of sound are just there.  They don’t care if you like them or not.

. . . if I’m singing alto principal I’m old, ugly, pathetic, and the butt of bad jokes. I love G&S but I don’t love Gilbert for his broad-mindedness.

True. In some cases, though, the alto principal is actually one of the most interesting characters in the piece. Iolanthe, for an obvious one, but if she’s played well then I’ve found Katisha to be a really excellent character. Old and the butt of jokes, yes, but she leaves quite a bit of room for creating the depth that many of his characters often lack. . . . I may have given this more thought than is particularly necessary…   

No, but I agree.  I loved G&S because they told stories and I used to listen . . . more raptly than is particularly necessary.  And I would rather play any of the ugly old altos—Buttercup, Ruth:  I really fancied Ruth:  I never believed for a minute that she wanted to marry Frederic, she so clearly had her own agenda—than any of those twittish soprano heroines.  With possible reference to the next comment. 

Judith:  Boring?!?! Oh, I beg to differ. I wouldn’t sing soprano, and therefore in almost all cases melody, for the world. 

I was being provocative again, you realise.  I write this frelling blog pretty well every frelling night:  I have to get some fun out of it somehow.  

Occasionally the sopranos get something interesting, like a descant, but it’s very rare. In mixed sex choirs the altos get to blend in the middle with fantastic harmonies that challenge you musically, and in single-sex choirs — oh, then the second altos get to shine, holding up the bottom and still weaving in and out of an intricate harmonic line with the totality being a purity of sound unknown in a mixed sex group. 

Well, I just don’t agree with you here;  whatever floats your boat, however, and I suppose it’s also how you define ‘pure’.  Part of the reason I’m clinging to soprano with both hands at the moment is because the tune is easier to learn, and holding my own line while everyone around me may or may not be holding theirs is still pretty exciting, like going over Niagara in a barrel is exciting.  When I can do this choir thing a little better and when Nadia gets me sorted out a little more—I really don’t know what I’ll end up singing.  I might, if enough of my range comes back usably, revert to what I did when I was a teenager, and get plugged in where they need the numbers.  That was fun.  But I have not performed a lot of music in my life thus far because aside from my freak range I didn’t feel I had anything to offer—and an awful lot of the standard church choir music that I did sing alto to was incredibly boring.  And I wasn’t clever enough, or educated enough, or motivated enough to fool around with the harmony myself.  Aside from the fact that the choir director would probably have stomped me flat if I had.

When I’m in groups of people who are just singing for fun I find myself automatically finding a harmonic line and singing it instead of the melody because it’s just so much more interesting. 

I do know what you’re talking about here.  I will start feeling my way into the harmony of a song I know well—for fun, as you say.  But you and I are clearly talking across a gigantic chasm of knowledge, skill and experience.  I’m happy singing soprano at the moment.  Or I would be happy if I could hit the dranglefabbing notes a little more roundly. 

I will admit that true sopranos have a lovely, pure quality to their tone, but then so do true altos. A choir of sopranos singing their line alone is a beautiful thing to hear for its light, clear sound. A choir of altos singing their line alone is a beautiful thing to hear for its richness and depth. One is what one is and one is stuck with it. 

One is who one is and is stuck with it as soon as one finds out what that is.  Meanwhile, I think you’re selling sopranos short:  not every soprano is light.  And for that matter not every alto is rich and deep.  At which point I will pause to animadvert in the general direction of Fach again . . .  

* * * 

*  Although of course I’m listening to the entire Barber.  This one: which is apparently, amazingly, still in print.  It was out of print for a very long time over the period when (a) I moved to England and had to buy all my electronic kit all over again^ and (b) it was almost impossible to buy a turntable for your decrepit LPs if you were the type of saddo who had resisted throwing them all out and embracing the new CD technology with the whole-hearted vision of the future it deserved.

            I’ve probably told you this before but Beverly Sills almost single-handedly turned me into an opera junkie.  It’s not quite that simple—the first opera I bought for myself was the Franco Corelli Il Trovatore:  hey, the Sills La Traviata wasn’t out yet;  nor was her Barber—but it was Sills where it became immanent and imperative.  She’s also one of the reasons I’ve never got along with the Fach system of classifying singers:  I love her Rosina, for example, which is a mezzo part and Sills is a coloratura soprano—a coloratura soprano with kick:  ‘small voice’ my tin teapot—the usual smug put-down of someone who can sing F above high C—she could make your ears ring in the back row, as I know, because in those days I could never afford anything better than the back row.  Fach.  Feh.  Mind you, I’m aware that Sills is not universally adored and admired, but she’s on my LOTR list:  I feel sorry for people who don’t love her, like I feel sorry for people who can’t read LOTR.  She was also a revelation:  she was one of the singers who made the idea popular that opera did not have to be ‘stand on x, wave your arms and sing’.  She could act, and did.  You still get the I-am-a-Coke-machine approach to characterisation in opera, but you get it a whole lot less than you did forty years ago, and some of that is down to Beverly Sills. 

            Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

            Anyway.  When they finally reissued Sills’ Barber on CD—La Trav had been out for years for some reason—I did die and go to heaven, they just sent me back.  But I got to keep the CDs. 

^ Granted this did not include anything resembling a computer, but you just flick a switch on modern computers and they run off what’s available:  wimpy American electricity, homicidal British electricity, marsh gas, voles.  And I wasn’t too broken up about leaving my iron behind.+  But parting from my stereo system hurt.  Peter, bless his pointed little heart, had figured out by then++ that music is my methadone, and if I am deprived of it for any length of time I start biting people and drinking their blood.  So for my first birthday in England, barely a fortnight after I got here, Peter gave me a new stereo and tickets to The Huguenots+++ at the Royal Opera House. 

+ t shirts rule 

++ He came over and lived with me in Maine for most of the stretch between the end of July when Everything Happened and the end of October when I emigrated.  I had to finish DEERSKIN before I started packing.  

+++  Personally I think that even as grand opera goes, this one is silly.  But there is some very nice music, and it doesn’t get staged very often so I was totally psyched to see it.  I think it was probably a little hard on my future husband, and may indeed be the secret canker that over the twenty years since ruined him for opera.  

** Yes.  They ate.  But we are in fact not out of the dark scary woods where the menacing roast chicken and the hellhound-noshing kibble lurk, and I’m feeling more than a little crazy on the subject, not to mention short of sleep. 

*** This year we’re concentrating on a non-bat-like high A for Bruckner.  I now have my hopes pinned on what must be the fact that they won’t want all of us for this frelling wedding.  They’ll only want their best—which should let me off, thank you.    

† Which is of course desperately unreliable.  God’s little joke then.


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