The Pleasures of Soft Singing

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 10:16 AM

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.


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Comments [11]

Fred Plotkin from New York

Dear Julie, Thanks for the feedback. All the points are valid and open to discussion. I certainly agree that we do not know what singers in this (or most) competitions are told before coming out onstage. One point I will make is that, in my opinion, two of the most successful singers in terms of sounding right in the hall were Wagnerian sopranos. Both received and deserved $10,000 George London prizes. But this actually serves my point. One of these, Tracy Cox, I heard last year on the Met stage and thought she was excellent (and I would have given her one of the prizes for the National Council Finals). Her sound beautifully filled the Met but she also showed much more care for the dynamics at the London competition than most of her colleagues. Yes, she was quite loud, but was not distorted. I think that all singers have a lot to learn in this regard, but the most successful professionals are the ones who think about these things and make adjustments. A good conductor could play an essential part in helping a singer in this regard. Beyond that is the whole issue of markings, which is about interpretation. That is different from scaling volume to a room so you sound good.

Feb. 26 2014 03:54 PM
Julie from Atlanta

Fred, allow me to correct myself: 'suggestions' is perhaps too loose a term to use. But there tons of recordings of extremely wonderful artists, including artists who you listed for comparison in the article, that literally do the opposite of what's written on the page. Historically, certain composers were more open to the artists' individual interpretation than others, that would require delving into the time period and the research that supports what experts think the composer would have wanted. And, again, singers in a competition sing these arias as they are written in the FULL score, meaning with orchestra. A pianissimo in a Wagner piece is significantly different from a pianissimo written by Gounod. There's a HUGE difference between singing songs (or arias) in recital and singing arias in a competition. Any singer will tell you that. So the comparison between recitals you've seen in that hall before is again lacking. Yes, you mentioned that the hall is meant to seat 280, yes, a singer can make certain subtle adjustments knowing they're going into a hall of that size. But singers who have bigger voices and who are trained to sing in much larger houses are consistently encouraged not to change the way they sing for a space, it can be damaging to sing too loud, but singing too soft and coming off the voice can also be damaging; not to mention, what you hear of yourself while you're singing is inaccurate. The acoustics of the space are also really important. The fact that the judges sat very close to the front says to me that the acoustics are not good and distort the sound the further back you go. Perhaps the front gave a better idea of what the singers were actually doing. You also don't know what the singers were told before they went into that space. I have sung in small halls where the acoustics were terrible and I was instructed by the judges and competition monitors that the space was 'dead' so 'sing louder', or that the space was live, so 'sing quieter... If they all sounded too loud, that tells me something about the acoustics of the hall. Perhaps the stage was really dead and they couldn't hear themselves so they were trying to adjust in that way. You just never know. There are too many factors involved in something like that to make a blanket statement telling the teachers and coaches to change what they're telling their singers. Just my opinion.

Feb. 26 2014 03:17 PM
Fred Plotkin

Caroline: The smartphone was not pulled out in any visible way. It was discreetly used to check decibels. I also happen to have a decibel meter device that I sometimes use. Needless to say, my smartphone was not used for calling, texting, surfing or anything like that. You would be surprised (or perhaps not) how many people in that room and most others (including the Met last night) take out phones for photos, texting, e-mail and even calling. I would never do any of that, you can be certain.

Feb. 26 2014 01:13 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To Samuel H in Connecticut and Julie in Atlanta: Thanks for your comments. I think I made it very clear that this was a competition in a small room (280 seats) in which the judges actually sat quite close. At the intermission I chatted with several professional singers (some of them former London awardees) and all agreed that the volume of the singing was not doing anyone any good. There was a great deal of distortion as a result of the volume and therefore some of the performers (I would say ALL of the performers) did not sound their best. I was also very clear in the article that this was not their fault. This was a call to singing teachers to impart to all of their students the wisdom of scaling a voice to a room. Even if a singer does not get a chance to rehearse in a hall before an audition, he or she knows if the hall has 300 seats or 3000. If they do not, they are not doing necessary homework. Julie, with respect, I don't think that Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, Puccini and the others would concur with you that dynamic markings are "suggestions." These composers knew exactly what they were doing and what they wanted. Just take Desdemona's "Ave Maria/Willow Song" in Otello--do you think Verdi's markings are suggestions? Also, FYI, the apps on my smartphone are decibel meters. They do not measure the quality of sound--that is for us to do.

Feb. 26 2014 01:08 PM

The author here seems to have taste issues with the singers in question, but I think we should all have taste issues with the author. Pulling your iPhone out in the middle of the George London competition ? tasteless.

Feb. 26 2014 01:08 PM
Julie from Atlanta

UGH this article! First: opera singers are trained to sing in venues that seat thousands of people without amplification. That is literally part of the job description. 2: NEVER assume that a singer has had the luxury of rehearsing in the space before a competition; or even a performance for that matter. I have been on stage before with NO rehearsal in the space and NO rehearsal with the orchestra before going on for a main stage production in an international house. 3: What I hear in my ears as I'm singing is NOT what everyone else hears, thus the reason even the most experienced and beautiful singers in the world still check in with their trusted teachers and coaches every so often. 4: dynamics and other musical markings are suggestions and are meant to create a mood. When a great singer is singing pianissimo, the sound should still be focused and will still carry even in the largest of places, an app on a phone is not exactly an accurate way to decide the 'loudness' of a human voice. I doubt said app is equipped to handle overtones of a highly trained human voice. These dynamics and markings are also written for a singer who is usually singing over an orchestra. Again, enter the overtones of a human singer, this is what is unique about our instrument. 5: The recordings referenced in this article are a terrible choice of comparison. These recordings were done in many different times, in all kinds of spaces, how do you know that the person recording wasn't in the last row of the 5th balcony, therefore changing and diluting the entire recording?? I can guarantee if Pavoratti, Kaufmann or Caballe sang in that same room meant to seat 280 people, it would also be 'ear-splitting.' 6: I personally know more than half of the singers who walked away from that competition with prizes and with the exception of 1 or 2, none are in the habit of constantly blowing their voices out by giving 100% of their sound all the time. We are all warned against that and the negative long term effects it can have.

Feb. 26 2014 12:35 PM
Samuel H from Connecticut

Try to understand that the George London Competition Finals is not really a performance. It is a competition, and the majority of singers may be written off for other criteria before the judges even weigh their artistic and musical merit. I.e., the opera houses in this country are ENORMOUS. In New York City especially, the Metropolitan Opera is an extremely daunting space to have to fill with a voice. As a result, many young singers feel that they must prove to judges (many of whom may be directly involved with the Met or other large houses) that "Yes, I am an opera singer and yes I am capable of cutting over an orchestra and filling a 3,800 seat opera house." Remember that, while you are at a competition to hear lovely singing, the young singers are there to prove themselves, and no one wants to be written off as "underdeveloped" because they risked singing a line pianissimo. It may seem silly, but in the cattle call that is being a young opera singer in New York City, risks like that are hard to take.

Feb. 26 2014 11:17 AM
Howard from Florida

One of my favorite women singers who sings beautifully when soft is appropriate is Victoria de los Angeles. Her recording of "Bai"le`ro" from Canteloube's "Songs of the Auvergne" sweeps you away. The complete cycle is with the Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra conducted by Jean-Pierre Jacquillat and was originally released on Angel Records.

Feb. 26 2014 08:41 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I'd like to invoke the names of three masters of singing from the past who display examplary examples of soft singing. The first is Tito Schipa in his 1934 recording of "Ah! non mi ridestar" ("Pourquoi me re'veiller" from "Werther" with the La Scala Orchestra conducted by Franco Ghione. If this isn't a dreamy poet and a performance for the ages, I don't know one. The second is Giuseppe di Stefano's singing of "Salut, demeure chaste e pure" from "Faust" at the Met in the early '50s that Rudolf Bing wrote about in his autobiography "5,000 Nights at the Opera" because he attached the high C fortissimo and then sang a diminuendo, one of his specialties. The last picks up from Mr. Rothenberg's mention of the aria "Magiche To"ne" from Goldmark's "The Queen of Sheba", but my selection is that of Caruso's recording of it. For me, the entire aria is hauntingly beautiful to the point of prompting tears, but the last note is an astounding one sung even more softly and held onto.

Feb. 26 2014 07:00 AM
Gev Sweeney from The Jersey Shore

So glad somebody said something about this! Society has long equated "belting" with talent and good singing, when talent and good singing are really in the phrasing and dynamics, no matter how strong the voice. A loud, strong voice without attention to either the dynamics or even the words is the human version of a broken car muffler.

Feb. 25 2014 07:26 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

This is a valid point,but there was tasteless,overly loud singing,and just plain bellowing long before this most current crop of singers.Caballe,like Milanov before her,was noted for her superb pianissimi(and also for audibly instructing a tenor,"Canta piano!").When discussing soft singing,special mention should be made of Nicolai Gedda,and his unsurpassed use of the "voix mixte".His rendition of "Magische Tone" is the embodiment of singing softly.

Feb. 25 2014 01:17 AM

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