The Natural : Technique & Talent

Deborah Voigt working with a student at the 2018 CS Music Convention and Competition

Is the concept of an untrained, natural opera singer an accurate one? A discussion on singing technique as well as the training of operatic superstars aims to answer this question.

 

 

Did a singer just awaken one day, open their mouth, and pure, wonderful vocal excellence emerged? Although ordinary, everyday singing may be a common and spontaneously inspired activity, operatic singing—since it is an art form in need of nurturing control—cannot embrace the same kind of instinctive spontaneity. Many beginning students may sing with some kind of reasonably agreeable vocalization, but there is always something that prevents them from being “natural.” Either their range and volume control is labored and incomplete, needing technical exploration, or their intonation and basic tone quality is insufficiently fine tuned and their language and diction are fatally unfocused and lacking in expression.  

If technique is not totally in line and has no unified connection from top to bottom, and the upper notes—although they may be capable of phonation—are artificially fabricated, intervention of instruction is required. This promptly nullifies the claim to be a “natural singer.” What is missing is the need to adopt a properly organized vocal consolidation. These students, typical of a genre of singers who may have good voices and display ability, are still in need of training to develop a good technique and are only at the beginning of their learning process. 

Their progress is mostly dependent upon good instruction. They need to be nurtured! Too often we are ready to define “natural” as the possession of an unusual voice or perhaps some reasonably good musical instincts. Here we get involved in the meaning of talent, which is not the same thing. 

If all the basic ingredients are not already naturally apparent and vocal instruction is required to harness all the elements into a winning technique, “natural” does not apply. We should be careful to distinguish between the definition of “talent” and what mistakenly may be processed as “natural.” Some of these talented students, under the right circumstances—including exceptionally good initial instruction, may be fortunate enough to progress efficiently. They could be characterized as diamonds in the rough who need to go through a period of learning how to more productively activate their talent. 

Yes, talent has to be cultivated! They need time and diligent supervision in order to display their ultimate abilities. Their talent often remains dormant until they discover how to approach some shortcomings with success. In going through a process of becoming more in touch with themselves, exploring the dimensions of their vocal instrument and also learning more about musical phrasing and expression, their true, innate—albeit, sometimes even latent—talent becomes more manifest. 

They can then hopefully emerge as successful operatic performers. Many singers say they could “always sing” and therefore offer their claim to be “natural.” The fact that they could always sing might be true of almost anyone or, more particularly, those who might want to become a singer. Must we then refer to singers who could prove to make some reasonable sounds as “naturals?” 

Most singers could always sing at an early age. Singing is an inherent birthright of any human being—like talking or even screaming. However, just because they are able to display some potential with a good enough voice, the notion that these singers qualify to be called “naturals” requires a fanciful imagination. Yet, there are a number of young singers who still refer to themselves as such. 

Oh, and what about the pop song singer’s claim to be natural? Both terms, “natural” and “discovered,” originated organically within the publicity exploitations of our reigning pop culture. To be sold (or promoted) as a “natural” or “discovered” obviously had to have some kind of popular marketing appeal. 

The terms “natural” and “discovered,” therefore, both appear to have their roots in the freewheeling terminology of publicity agents who excel in capturing the public imagination. Somehow, this also launched an invasion into the classical, operatic community. Hence, the advent of the “natural operatic singer.” For those who are serious crooners with a fair ability to sing on pitch, “natural” may be easy enough since they would only need no more than one octave—mostly whispering into a microphone. 

No need to successfully harness breath support into a controlled, full-throttled, yet free and emotionally expressive execution of operatic proportions. Some of the masters of the popular idiom can also be talented and can also produce some stylistically impressive singing. The enormous difference, however, is being able to project in a large theater without a microphone over a sizable symphony orchestra. A truly “natural” singer would have to natively display an unusual, almost complete, vocal ability—a keen sense of intonation together with a full-volumed, even range so formidable that it breeds immediate success. Somewhat like the mythological goddess of wisdom, Minerva, hatching from the head of her father Zeus. 

In early 20th century Europe, most singers usually had to study vocal technique in a class of 8 to 10 students. This included some of the finest singers of what we refer to as the Golden Age.  

These superstars had great voices and emerged as wonderful performers. They were not, however, “natural singers.” The amazing Maria Callas had good early instruction with her teacher in Greece. Dame Joan Sutherland started out as a mezzo-soprano until she met her husband and teacher, Richard Bonynge, and began her flight into the Bel Canto repertoire. 

Superstars Renée Fleming and Anna Netrebko are both results of good instruction. Netrebko is a product of the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, and Fleming had the advantage of growing up with both parents working as singers and voice teachers. She also studied at the Juilliard School for five years. Kiri Te Kanawa makes it seem so easy—but, as can be witnessed by her autobiography, she also had many early failures in her attempt to find good instruction. 

Mirella Freni is quoted as saying, “Keep me away from any voice teachers.” But despite her claims of not studying anymore, later in her career, she also had considerable early voice training. Another example is the exceptional bass-baritone Simon Estes, who became internationally famous after learning how to maneuver his golden voice both in opera as well as concert. The great baritones Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill and the wonderful soprano Anna Moffo also had to learn how to adopt a solid technique and were all clearly products of good instruction in order to become part of operatic history. They all had wonderful, world-class voices and all were obviously talented, but they were not what we can truly call “naturals.” 

I remember having heard a fireman named Jake a very long time ago. He was musically illiterate with no training and no idea whatsoever about anything operatic. The only music he was aware of was popular. Yet his complete, full-ranged, and hugely powerful dramatic tenor voice afforded some highly desirable technical facility. However, after a fair period of advantaged involvement, having been given the very best of opportunities, his seemingly almost natural abilities unfortunately didn’t match the requirements. 

He couldn’t prove to have the requisite vocal, artistic, or dramatic ability to actively pursue a career as an opera singer. Like a great athlete, whose primary skills stem from instinct and unusually fast reflexes, this quasi-natural singer was almost an extremely unusual anomaly, yet unfortunately incomplete. 

In our modern operatic environment today, there seems to have evolved a strong dedication to the total performance. There must be an intelligent coordination between all elements involved in a successful operatic undertaking: a complete, unencumbered vocal range with balanced volume capability, finely tuned musicianship, innovative theatrical involvement, keen language capacity, inspired musical expression, gracefulness of movement, and a certain amount of charisma. A true natural would have had to display an early native ability embracing most of these qualities.

Every generation produces some great talents. There are undoubtedly many on the horizon, including other anomalies like Jake, who we don’t even know about. A truly “natural operatic singer,” however, despite the possible marketing of some unfounded egotistic claims, I believe to be an extremely rare phenomenon. 

Charles Kellis

Charles Kellis is a former professor of voice at the University of Iowa and Southern Illinois University and former voice faculty at the Juilliard School, including the Met Opera Lindemann Young Artis Development Program. His students have performed in most opera houses and won many vocal competitions around the world. He is currently teaching privately at his studio in New York City. To learn more, visit charleskellis.com.