DIVAS AND CHEST VOICE
By Stefan Zucker
Stefan Zucker and Leyla Gencer at La Scala, which had been the center of her career.
The film clips below are excepted from Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas, with Iris Adami Corradetti, Barbieri, Cerquetti, Cigna, Frazzoni, Gavazzi, Gencer, Olivero, Pobbe, Simionato; Zucker; Schmidt-Garre, dir. (1998) 93m. In English and in Italian with English subtitles. Color/B&W.
Why should opera lovers care about whether or not someone sings with chest voice? Because the affective consequences are very great. My viscera aren’t satisfied if chest isn’t used in certain passages, the phrase “un gel mi prende” (Norma), for example. Giuditta Pasta, who created Norma and became Bellini’s favorite soprano, was described by Stendhal as having a voice “not all molded from the same metallo, as they would say in Italy (i.e., it possesses more than one timbre); and this fundamental variety of tone produced by a single voice affords one of the richest veins of musical expression which the artistry of a great cantatrice is able to exploit….Madame Pasta’s incredible mastery of technique is revealed in the amazing facility with which she alternates head-notes with chest-notes.” Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) was a critic, essayist and poet, some of whose verses were set by Schubert. A great Pasta admirer, he described the effect of her chest tones in a performance of Norma in 1841: “Hoarse, savage sounds came out from her chest, scorn and bitterness seemed to shake the heart of the listener harshly.”
Chest voice is a means of communicating fear, rage, contempt, torment and suffering of the soul. Can you conceive of Callas without chest voice?
I. Chest Voice: Some History
Since WWI women for the most part have been afraid of chest resonance, fearing it would ruin their voices. But in the 19th century women used it as a matter of course, a practice they inherited from the castratos. Many women on early recordings sing all notes from F at the bottom of the treble staff on down in chest voice. But they do not sing higher than that in chest voice. Voice teacher Giovanni Battista Lamperti dissuaded his pupil Marcella Sembrich from undertaking Aïda on the grounds that she lacked the requisite chest resonance. (Records attest to Sembrich’s having used chest resonance below G-flat, so presumably Lamperti must have felt her chest voice was too light for the part.) He did maintain it was unhealthy for the voice for women to carry chest resonance higher than F.
Nineteenth-century Italian opera composers seemingly took for granted that women would employ chest voice. Verdi, in a letter to Ricordi, demanded that a singer being considered for Amneris, Antonietta Fricci, have “the G and A-flat in chest voice for her fourth-act melody. If she doesn’t, that would be more fatal than whether or not the high B-natural were powerful or weak.” Indeed, two Francesco Lamperti pupils, Teresa Stolz and Maria Waldmann, who respectively sang Aïda and Amneris at Aïda’s La Scala premiere, reputedly used ample amounts of chest. Consider Mascagni’s preference for Lina Bruna Rasa’s chest-voice-freighted Santuzza. The majority of roles cannot be communicated adequately without chest color at one point or another. Women often find that unless they abstain from chest resonance, the music at certain moments causes them to use it. A challenge for women with modern vocal techniques is how to fulfill the chest requirement without hurting themselves.
In the last 175 years, while women have used chest voice less and less, men have used it more and more. (Of course in popular music women have used chest extensively for decades.) For discussions of men, chest voice and head voice, see my “Last of a Breed: Giovanni Battista Rubini Ruled as the Paragon of Virtuoso Tenors, King of the High F’s” (Opera News, February 13, 1982) and “Seismic Shocker: Gilbert-Louis Duprez’s History-Making High C” (Opera News, January 1, 1983), also my “Different Kinds of High Notes and the Seismic Shock: Nineteenth-Century Tenors and the Meaning of ‘Falsetto’” (American Record Guide, March 1982). The Rubini and Duprez articles are reprinted in my The Origins of Modern Tenor Singing.
Giulietta Simionato and Stefan Zucker
II. Chest Voice: The Divas’ Dispute
Gavazzi and Gencer claim that not only did they themselves employ chest resonance but that the other divas—in particular, Olivero, Cigna, Adami Corradetti, Simionato and Barbieri—did as well. These latter deny having resonated in their chests. I asked Gavazzi to explain this. She claimed they employed chest unknowingly.
This kind of explanation is common among singers. Corelli and Hines cannot conceive of any tenor singing above the staff without routinely covering his tone. Yet Alfredo Kraus and I claim we do exactly that. Speaking on the radio program “Opera Fanatic,” Corelli and Hines insisted we cover automatically, without being aware of it—a view we reject.
Also speaking on “Opera Fanatic,” Kraus asserted that Chris Merritt sings his high notes in falsetto—a view he rejects.
Usually I favor giving the singer the benefit of the doubt: if he says he’s not covering, then he’s not.
The dispute over chest voice may be a special case, however. The anti-chest divas were raised in the belief that chest resonance is unhealthy vocally. They also were told it fractures continuity of musical line. Still, certain powerful emotions and coloristic demands sometimes flushed chest out of them. But they hate to admit it. Each diva views her vocal technique as having the sanctity of religion. Each is mortified if the world knows she sinned. Olivero maintained that Gavazzi had stolen the opportunity to broadcast and record Adriana Lecouvreur from her and was offended that in the film Gavazzi said that in performance she, Olivero, used chest voice. Barbieri insisted she wouldn’t attend the Bavarian State Opera’s world-premiere showing of Opera Fanatic if Gencer were there, on the grounds that Gencer had insulted her by saying in the film that she, Barbieri, used it. Barbieri declared, “She doesn’t know what she’s listening to.”
III. Musical Line vs. Dramatic Expression
Two Kinds of Diva
Simionato: My vocal color always was the same. I couldn’t change it like a painter who changes the color in his painting with his brush. The color is what it is.
Frazzoni: I try to adapt my sound to the situation. When I performed Butterfly I did only that part that year because I had to make my voice smaller and childlike for the first act. But in the second act I became a spinto and threw out all the voice I had.
The divas divide into two groups. The first group strove not to vary tone color for dramatic expression but to maintain consistency of tone color for the sake of musical line. Half the divas in the film—Barbieri, Cerquetti, Cigna, Pobbe and Simionato—belong to this group (as do virtually all singers today). From their point of view a change in tone color compromised musical line as much as a break in legato. That they didn’t vary tone color didn’t prevent them from being emotionally intense. They relied on good diction and musicianship to serve librettists and composers.
For the second group, varying tone color for dramatic expression was paramount. Adami Corradetti (as a performer but not as a teacher), Frazzoni, Gavazzi, Gencer and Olivero are in this group. To my ears, these performers succeeded in changing tone color without damaging the musical line and thereby heightened emotional impact. The singers in the first group acted with their faces and bodies. The singers in the second group also acted with their voices.
One can find counterexamples. Frazzoni and Gencer didn’t always come alive interpretively. Cerquetti sometimes inflected her tone, most notably on a live recording of Ballo. Cigna on some occasions colored hers as well.
Some of Today’s Singers Have Their Say
Jon Fredric West When I was in school in the 60s good girls didn’t use chest register. That Horne did caused consternation. Voice teachers including my own said Price would ruin her voice on account of it. Yet she sounded fine when she sang her final Carnegie Hall recital at age 64. She still was able to vary chest with the lighter sound with which she had graduated Juilliard. [I’m astonished that 100 percent of the commentators below favor using chest. In 1996, when Opera Fanatic was filmed, this would not have been so.—SZ]
JFW: I believe in making a register change on E, so that from E down chest can be used in accordance with the needs of the character. I don’t think it vocally healthy to use it higher, but if the singer is competing against a loud orchestra it can be brought higher on occasion. I teach my students accordingly. Jaime Barton in “O don fatale” overindulges in chest voice to the point that her chest register sounds like a different voice. Still, I find her ability jaw dropping.
Alexandra Deshorties I think as usual people are disposed to see the world in black or white and from their own set of shoes. I tend to agree with La Gencer. My philosophy is that each body being different, even based on the universal technique [only one singing technique?—SZ], there will be some variations from singer to singer, and it is foolish to say that one will never use it, just as it is foolish to say that one should always use it. It seems to me that a lot of this is an interpretive choice. Where most sopranos are constrained to chest, I myself work very hard at maintaining and experimenting with a mix, so as to have a choice to use my chest voice or not, should I feel it is inappropriate or ineffective.
I think chest voice, color and other interpretive devices of the human voice are at the service of expression, text and the general needs of the craft. It is overall an exploration and a delicate balance to strike. In the end it is a question of honesty and centering of a dialectic and ever-delicate balance between form and substance. I have to say, delivered honestly and not as a device, I strongly believe in the cathartic importance of a heightened emotional impact.
Michael Chioldi There are absolutely healthy ways to sing with chest voice. In fact you need this resonance to help match the qualities of sound throughout the vocal range. Every single diva who sang in this interview used voce di petto [chest voice], in my opinion. And I absolutely agree with the later divas in the interview.
It seems to me that the problem lies with the definition of the phrase itself. As long as the voice is supported with the breath and the mask resonance stays present, there should be no problem. Which is in fact what the divas all seemed to agree on.
Maria Callas absolutely used chest voice and taught it in her famous master class at Juilliard.
The lack of chest resonance in a voice can leave the bottom without vibrancy and excitement. I believe there is a balance of how and when to use it, but to deny it altogether seems counterintuitive.
Franco Farina This seems to me to be a confusion of terminology. Voce di petto in a proper usage meant chest register. The fact is their demonstrations were excellent examples of the proper use of chest register. Placement is a separate vocal concept from registration. If you attempted to focus or place the voice in the chest that would be wrong and would produce an ingollata [throaty] sound.
Linda Roark-Strummer I think, after listening to the video, that what we all are dealing with is semantics, as Mr. Farina says. The chest voice can be a useful tool for training purposes and as a COLOR in some roles.
I trained it and I used it. Certainly, in roles like Abigaille, and the Lady and Herodias, I employed it for effect—a color. BUT I always kept it in a position that was in line with the rest of my voice and kept the space over it. I didn’t push it to the belting stage. THAT is something else and it is dangerous. Barbieri claimed she didn’t use it. When Peter [Strummer] and I listen to her, yes, she did. I don’t know why she didn’t admit it. The singers from the Golden Age trained it and used it. There is nothing wrong with it unless it is not trained properly and used intelligently. I have found that chest voice can help with problems in register changes (in women), when used properly and under the guidance of a teacher who understands it. I teach my students how to use it properly.
Kevin Short Bravo, Stefan!! This is an interesting and wonderful interview!
Rosa D’Imperio I love this film—great job! What I get from it is that they are referring to using a supported chest blend in the body, always mixing head voice on the breath, “sul fiato,” and NOT raw “belted” chest. This is the healthy chest. They all sang a well-developed integrated register-balanced healthy chest mix.
Drew Minter Was astonished that Barbieri and Simionato could sing so beautifully in chest voice (still), and yet they called it head voice. Yet they are talking about the primary resonators (still in the head just as they said) and not the vocal mechanism (which is indeed what you or I or Gencer in her amusing fashion call chest mode). I see what they mean.
But I can’t understand why they are so afraid of the term!!!!
Gilbert Den Broeder Not the shortest story. But very interesting and worthwhile to read.
Ricardo Tamura Dear Stefan, it is an honor to answer a question from you whom I consider to be a very knowledgeable person in vocal matters!
In my modest opinion, before one discusses whether chest voice should be used or not, it is essential to define what “chest voice” actually is! What many people call “chest voice” is actually a sound that is artificially produced by lowering the larynx.
The singers in the movie who said that chest voice should not be used apparently understood chest voice in this way.
My opinion is that the singing voice should be as natural as possible, and therefore I don’t agree with this way of singing. I do believe that it will damage the voice with time.
The voice should be produced “sul fiato [on the breath],” as Barbieri said in the movie. When this happens the larynx remains in its natural, “neutral” position, and singing happens “in the whole body,” which some people call “chest voice.”
In my view, that is the understanding of the other singers, who said they “approve” of chest voice.
I agree with all the opinions presented, and I don’t find that they contradict each other. I also totally agree with your comments.
Especially nowadays, there is a tendency to replace the “singing sul fiato” with the so-called “singing in the mask.” Again (in my modest opinion), “singing in the mask” is being misunderstood as meaning “throwing the air into the mask.” This also causes an artificial sound, because now the larynx tends to be in a raised position.
Voices that are produced in this way do lack the feeling that grasps our viscera, as you said. And this also probably damages the voice in the long run.
But the difference is not about singing in the chest or the head (or the mask) but about keeping the larynx in a neutral (natural) position or not!
Thank you very much for the opportunity to discuss this subject with you!
Raúl Melo If I may be so bold, my take on this question is a lack of precise terminology. Understanding singing is a mental game more than a physical one. In my case I have with age developed a kind of “chest voice.” Rather than a change in support (all your great divas said “Sul fiato; SEMPRE” [on the breath always]), it’s a change in feeling. I generally take a breath before I find the bottom of my voice. These lovely women just SANG. They accessed the bottom and top of their voices healthily. [Pobbe combined a mechanistic technique—a technique based on manipulating anatomy, the larynx, for example—with a sensation-governed one. The others placed in the mask and used their diaphragms as if they were bellows.—SZ]
It’s the same question as passaggio [the notes where chest voice meets head voice] and cover for tenors; always a big question. In my experience to cover is not to make the voice darker or covered, it’s simply a vowel modification. That’s why Maestro Kraus could honestly say, “I don’t cover”; completely true in my experience. M. Kraus simply went to a brighter E at the top, other tenors go to an AW. I go somewhere in between; to a French ã as in “enfant.” Is it covered? No, it is modified. The same is true with passaggio. Rather than a narrow corridor I imagine a great river making a bend; never narrowed. This is why singing great music is more a mental game than a physical one. Both are necessary (Sul fiato; SEMPRE), but language doesn’t capture the essence of what you are doing.
So watching those great divas sing those snippets (Oh my god how lovely, healthy, beautiful . . .) they were being as honest as Kraus was. They didn’t feel it in the chest; they just sang on the breath. At the top of their voices they didn’t feel it getting white, it just went into the mask. I had a good teacher who said to me: “Theory is what the rest of us do to figure out what geniuses are doing.” It’s we lesser mortals who try to understand. It’s our language that is not sufficient, not our love, not our understanding.
Roger Ohlsen I just loved your article on chest voice. I find it interesting that a lot of people equate chest voice with belting, but it’s different, so that’s the problem. It’s amazing and frightening that some of the greatest singers didn’t know what they were doing, but they could feel what they were doing, and they did it on feeling, not logic, because they could be singing in chest voice without realizing it. Amazing! It’s like some modern sopranos who believe they have a break around top F below high C, like tenors, and of course they don’t. I don’t think chest voice ever hurt anybody if they did it properly.
Anyway I thought it was a great article.
Ewa Płonka I think that divas love chest voice and would gladly use it; however, it is often being unadvised by coaches, conductors and teachers. So that’s that. I wonder if the public would care that much about the matter. I know I love to use it, that’s for sure.
Ida Faiella I disagree with what I think is an outdated theory about chest voice. I think it is a great asset to the voice and adds a great deal to range and dramatic ability.
The only one who speaks intelligently about it is Gencer; she knows what she is doing. So many singers are just on autopilot!
In my CD Poetry Into Song I use a good deal of blatant chest as a dramatic vehicle. While I agree with the thinking that it is not always beautiful, it is powerful dramatically.
I do continue singing, which amazes my singer friends. Did the Chausson piece “Chansons Perpetuelle” in March and a more pop concert last weekend of songs with lyrics by my old friend Sheldon Harnick and Dorothy Fields whose son played piano for me.
Lloyd W. Hanson The range of chest voice is simply a relaxation of the vocal folds such that they are able, in their entirety, to oscillate all the composite vocal folds, both their thyro-arytenoid muscle and their vocalis muscle. In short both of the muscle fibers of the vocal folds are in oscillation. This induces a substantial mass that is capable of producing a rich and exciting phonation.
The singer is capable of tightening the vocal folds somewhat in this process but that will produce a guttural or extremely rough phonation which is only used for dramatically forceful utterances.
In addition, the development of a relaxed and rich chest voice is a key element in the development of the singer’s extremely accessible high voice. Arpeggios from a yodel down into chest voice and then upward in a double-octave arpeggio into the high voice are an excellent vocalize to develop the high voice.
Peter Terrell The problem is terminology. The expression “chest voice” was used because in the lowest register you get a sensation of something happening lower down—in the chest, which some label as resonance (or an impression of resonance down there). “Chest voice” should not mean the forced pulling down of the normal voice, as one of the singers demonstrated, insisting this was the “chest voice.” All the singers were able to demonstrate correct “chest voice” notes. I would suggest the low sensation is an effect of singing with efficient production in that region, not a cause.
Robert James Miller Really fascinating!
Zoya Zharzhevsky It’s funny. They say that there is not such a thing as chest voice, and then they start to sing with what I’d describe as a perfect chest voice!
Elliot Matheny Bravo! Very thorough article, sir!
Michael Hardy “This from THEM!” Leyla nailed it with that immortal line! [Proprio loro.]
It’s not considered good taste, especially with Anglo-Saxon critics etc., and now the Latins have followed them…can you imagine Burzio getting a gig these days?
Tomas Magieras Auškalnis Is there any “voce di petto?” A very amusing argument. All of them could be Hollywood actresses of high calibre (no irony meant here). And Leyla Gencer with her sober charm, humour and assertiveness. Love her.
Jonathan Linton Good fun!
Susie Weinstock I really loved this video, Stefan. thx for ur posted commentary too.
David Uffer Does she, doesn’t she? Only the lightest lyrics and coloraturas disdain it. All others, whether they admit it or not, use it, some to galvanizing effect.
Patrick C. Byrne Astounding. I tried the yodel to chest technique. What an easy method.
You never cease to amaze me, Stefan. The Met needs you to hire singers and ditch whoever is in charge. There is so little excitement anymore.
Peter van der Waal Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your DVD of you visiting the great singers and talking about the use of chest! Amazing! I am 34 years old and have always been very interested in historical singers. In musicology I specialized in a Dutch singing teacher called Cornelie van Zanten who studied with the elder Lamperti [Francesco] and Stockhausen and who had many interesting pupils, such as Julia Culp and Jacques Urlus.
Patrick Mack At first I thought this read ‘Divas and Chest Hair’. Now that’s interesting.
Filippo Moratti Stefan, I cannot but agree with what you said about chest voice and resonance. I saw Opera Fanatic a few weeks ago, since I’m slowly approaching the study of singing, singing technique and interpretation, I thought I might want to know something more on how and why singing has changed so much over the years.
I find your work really interesting, especially because, in my opinion, it enlightens not only the preparation of roles but also the actual singing technique these divas had.
Opera Fanatic is a piece of history, since you had the chance of interviewing them in their latest years, as a witness to their “singing from the soul.”
Do you think interpretation and the correct use of voce infantile and chest voice are something that can be taught and used even today? [Yes.]
Thank you again for your work.
Peter Bonelli Nicely done, Stefan Zucker. Bravo!
Laura Lauretta E’ MOLTO IMPORTANTE PER ESEGUIRE UN BEL CANTO, LA TECNICA DELLA RESPIRAZIONE! BASATA SUL DIAFRAMMA !!!! For bel canto a breathing technique based on the diaphragm is very important! [I take this statement to mean that one should press in at the diaphragm. There is widespread disagreement about singing technique, and many would disagree with Laura Lauretta.—SZ]
Stimme Passion Sehr sehenswert. Very worthwhile to see—I love the Divas!
Basia Jaworski heb je de docu ooit gezien, Peter? Is echt fantastic! Have you ever seen the documentary, Peter? It’s really fantastic!
Peter van der Waal Zeker Basia!! Love it!!!
Stefan, just wanted to tell you I admire your work.
Basia Jaworski het is eigenlijk een must. Ik heb hem weet ik niet hoe vaak bekeken. Heerlijk! It’s actually a must. I got it. I don’t know how often I’ve viewed it. Delicious!
Gerrit Jan Fonk Geweldig Wat een ladies! What ladies!
Marcela Castano It’s fantastic!
A Comment from a Customer
What a wonderful video, Mr. Zucker! Thank you from the bottom of my heart! The clips with Madame Gencer alone are amazing! What a wonderful character! I can imagine the ruckus that would have ensued had all these divine been in one room together! What a phenomenal archive of our tradition as singers! Truly wonderful!
I LOVE this website! I have been a fan for some time. Thank you for your tireless work and obvious passion for our sacred art. Please accept my most heartfelt congratulations on such a tremendous accomplishment! I cannot express my gratitude enough for your efforts to preserve the history and tradition carried through the ages by our most treasured singers. This is truly a treasure trove for any up and coming singer who wishes to discover where their roots lie. What a miracle to hear first hand from artists like Cerquetti, Simionato, Gencer, Araiza, Hines, Corelli—and the list goes on! I have garnered so much important information here and I feel that my artistry has benefitted a great deal. Please keep up the tremendous work, which I hope will serve to inspire our current singers as they aspire to greatness.—Barbara Quintiliani, soprano