The Pleasures of Soft Singing

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There are many singers, especially young ones, who have big healthy voices and sing loud all the time. This is a problem for two reasons. The first is that it inevitably takes a toll on vocal health. The second—and just as important—is that this often means that the singer is disregarding the dynamic markings in the score. No composer, not even Wagner, Strauss in Elektra or Puccini in Turandot, asked singers to go full blast for an entire opera. That would be ugly and uninteresting, not to mention exhausting.

When I speak of soft singing, I don’t mean a falsetto or a whispery effect, although these too can be effective when used judiciously and rarely. Rather, I like a properly supported pianissimo where beautifully filigreed sound is spun out in a way that draws the listener in. From Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti to Kiri Te Kanawa and Jonas Kaufmann, there have always been singers who are masters of this ability, even though they are able to sing with more power. 

Singers are not supposed to be loud or soft all the time. Rather, it is how they blend the two that makes for interesting and heartbreaking performances. Listen to Pavarotti sing “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’Elisir d’Amore. He starts out quite forcefully, so we are taken aback when he reins in the volume later on, suggesting that Nemorino is suddenly more reflective and sad. This is gorgeous singing.

I was thinking about the value of soft passages in arias and songs on February 21 as a member of the audience at the finals of the 2014 George London Foundation awards. Named for the superb Canadian-American bass-baritone (1920-1985) who acted with his singing as well as his person and fostered education of young artists, these awards have, for more than four decades, identified some of the finest talents and helped them on their way to major careers. Here is London singing Wolfram's aria from Tannhäuser in a recording that is 60 years old.

For the record, the 2014 recipients of $10,000 George London Awards were sopranos Tracy Cox and Marina Harris; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano; countertenor Ray Chenez; baritones Norman Garrett and Cameron McPhail; and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green. Recipients of $1,000 Encouragement Awards were sopranos Rebecca Pedersen and Elizabeth Sutphen; mezzo-sopranos Julia Dawson and Catherine Martin; tenor Anthony Kalil; baritones Reginald Smith, Jr. and Brian Vu; and bass-baritone Gerard Michael D’Emilio.

Almost all of the 25 finalists showed promise and talent. However, all but one sang too loud for the space, the Gilder Lehrman Hall in New York’s Morgan Library. This room can hold up to 280 persons and is characterized by a steep decline from the entrance to the stage. There are, I would estimate, about 16 rows of seats. I have lectured there and my voice carried well, and without strain, with no need for amplification. I have heard excellent professional singers, many under the auspices of the George London Foundation, give gorgeous recitals here in which their voices sounded right in this space.

Every singer must be able to evaluate his or her voice in a space where it will be used. This is what rehearsals are about. Singers rely on pianists, conductors and others for input, but the best singers know how to scale their voices, providing healthy volume at times but never to the degree that it results in distortion or, in the case of the London competition, what I came to realize the term “ear-splitting” means. I am not faulting the singers—they were quite young and nervous—but I am asking teachers and coaches to instruct their students on how to sing properly in different spaces. This will augur well for longer careers and more gratifying performances.

Apart from my personal response to the volume, and those of people near me in row M, I used another means of measurement: there are two decibel meters installed on my smartphone. I often measure volume on streets, public transportation, restaurants and theaters as I want to document the effects of our too-noisy society.

Ongoing exposure to anything more than 70 decibels can do harm to the ears, raise the blood pressure and cause added stress. I have heard large orchestras play Beethoven in Carnegie Hall without ever exceeding 70 decibels and did not feel deprived. In contrast, the only singer at the London competition who did not exceed 70 decibels was soprano Courtney Johnson, who sang a lovely “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust. Most of the competitors hovered around 90 decibels, which my meter describes both as “loud singing” and the average sound of a subway. A couple of singers hit 110, which my meter says is the volume of a diesel truck.

I am sounding the alarm for all young singers and their coaches to emphasize the value of adjusting volume, especially in small rooms or those with odd configurations. The way to start this is by looking at the score. Where are the pianissimi? Where did the composer call for a decrescendo or a diminuendo?

Here are two more examples of singing whose range of volume and careful attention to dynamics make them treasurable: Caballé performs “Dove sono” from Le Nozze di Figaro and Kaufmann sings “La fleur que tu m'avais jetée” from Carmen.

A fine example of soft singing can be heard now at Brooklyn’s Loft Opera, which will give two more performances of La Bohème on February 28 and March 1. Liana Guberman, the Mimì, has clearly taken the measure of the unusual space (high ceilings, a somewhat cavernous width) she is singing in. Her voice carries effortlessly when Puccini asks for it, but she also knows how to scale it back to an intimate but perfectly audible hush. This attention to detail makes for many moving moments of drama that are achieved in musical terms. It reminds us that the most theatrical composers achieved their effects as musical dramatists, not playwrights. The most winning singers will learn to study scores to get closer to the theatrical elements of the music they have been asked to sing.