Saturday, February 20, 2010

Perfectly Imperfect

I think it's interesting how we, as a culture, have somehow managed to come to a consensus on what constitutes a good singing voice. With so many people having so many different sounds, it's amazing how we seem to think that there are common traits that make a voice nice to listen to. Then again, we've done this with physical appearance too, and there's plenty of variety there, so I really shouldn't be surprised. And just how different physical attributes are viewed as beautiful by different cultures, so too, are ways of singing. In many Asian cultures, a woman's voice is supposed to ring in her head as she sings, creating a high-pitched and piercing sound. In certain African cultures, low, melodious, almost guttural styles of singing are the norm. There's really quite a bit of variety out there as far as styles, or methods of singing go, and it's kind of a shame that we aren't more accepting of them in this country.

Anyway, I recently read an article about an opera singer, Maria Callas, whose voice has been wow-ing people for ages, and this in large part, due to its unconventional nature. In the 1950s, Callas was performing as Brunhilde in Wagner's Die Walkure. It was a role which required a heavy voice, something that played to Callas' strengths. And then, on short notice, she was called in to play the part of Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani, perhaps the antithesis of Wagner. What's more is that many people thought she couldn't pull it off. Callas was a dramatic soprano, and this role called for an impressive high range and a fluid, fast delivery, which is usually difficult for more dramatic singers. But Callas pulled it off and did so with a voice no one had before heard.

Her rise in the opera world was controversial as most people couldn't yet fathom how this singer appeared to have two separate voices, a bewildering range that many had never before heard. And it's this uncommon ability that is believed to be the cause of her decline. As opera singers go, Callas's voice began to deteriorate while she was still pretty young and it's believed that this was due to her lack of technique essential to maintain her ambitious vocal endeavors. Critic and voice teacher Conrad Osbourne explained it as such: "It's very unusual to combine those two ways of singing and to extend the range over that wide of a compass. And if your structural technique -I'm talking about the way the voice is balanced and structured so that when you throw a lot of energy into it, the way an athlete does, the coordinations that respond are balanced and efficient- isn't true all the way up and down that very wide range, then you're inviting some trouble." But many feel that this recklessness and the imperfections it brought into her performance was what set Callas apart. It made her extremely distinctive and expressive, allowing her complexity and flexibility.

As many of her fans would say, her voice was perfectly imperfect.

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