A Lesson in Opera Singing


THE singer stands erect in an open posture, his head held high, chest raised, forehead, lips, and mouth relaxed. After a brief introduction by the orchestra, the tenor launches into a much-anticipated aria. The notes flow with apparent ease, while the voice seems to emanate from some source outside the singer’s body. A thunder of applause erupts at the end of the aria.

Opera is a theatrical drama presented by singing actors and accompanied by orchestral music. Do you enjoy opera? Have you ever had the chance to attend a performance in an opera house? What do you think is the secret to the opera singer’s beautiful voice?

 The Voice​—A Musical Instrument

The voice is a wonderful gift from God, and it has appropriately been called a musical instrument. Though few people can produce music like an opera singer, singing is for many a part of life that comes almost as naturally as eating or sleeping. Whether you sing well or not, no doubt you would be interested in taking a closer look at how this “instrument” works.

The larynx, located in the middle of your throat, is the organ that actually produces sound. It is formed by a cartilage shell surrounding a cavity that houses two tiny folds of muscle​—your vocal cords. How is sound produced? During normal breathing, the vocal cords are relaxed and form a triangular opening in the windpipe, known as the glottis. When you sing, the air being forced through the larynx increases, the glottis narrows, and the vocal cords vibrate, producing sound. The tighter the cords are stretched, the greater the number of vibrations and the higher the pitch of sounds produced. Decreasing the air pressure and relaxing the vocal cords, on the other hand, increases the opening of the glottis, causing vibrations to decrease and sounds to become deeper.

Technique and Physique

As a young man, Enrico Caruso had a splendid voice; yet, it was lacking in power. Training strengthened it. A beautiful voice is a natural endowment, but in opera singing, technique is also important. The singer needs to learn how to breathe in order to have an adequate air supply. Then he must learn how to control it. It is said that the famous 18th-century singer Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, could thus sing 150 notes in one breath.

Opera singers likewise need to learn to amplify their voice by using the body as a sound box. According to certain experts, the chest bones carry out this function for the deeper notes, whereas the jawbone and facial bone cavities do so for the higher notes.

Many think that singing is merely a function of the throat. Yet, it has rightly been noted that the whole body sings, in the sense that all the person’s energies are involved. Perfect balance has to be maintained in coordinating muscular tension in all parts of the body. Opera singing thus requires a considerable amount of physical exertion and energy, and this is perhaps why some opera singers have a stout build. Maria Callas was one of the most famous of all 20th-century opera singers, but many believe that her rapid weight loss resulting from a drastic diet contributed to the deterioration of her voice.

The Evolution of Opera Singing

During the course of time, opera singing has undergone an evolution in style and technique. Let us take just two examples. When the setting for operas changed from chapels or other confined spaces to opera houses, soft, delicate, and effortless singing gave way to singing strengthened by natural body resonators. This transition was accentuated by the shift from the rather modest orchestras used by Mozart to the much larger ones used, for example, by Verdi and Wagner. In the 17th and 18th centuries as well as part of the 19th century, opera music was entirely subordinated to the virtuosity, or technical skill, of the singer. The style that characterized the second half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th was quite different. In this period, the voice, while still an important part of the opera, became just one of its essential elements.

The potential of opera stimulated extensive musical production. Such composers as Paisiello, Cimarosa, Gluck, Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Meyerbeer, and Mascagni, to name some of the most famous, wrote unforgettable scores capable of stirring deep emotion.

 Excesses in the Name of Music

There have also been dark moments in the history of opera singing. Think of the castrati, who for more than a century dominated Italian opera. * Young boys were emasculated before puberty in order to preserve their high-pitched voices with exceptional range and power. “It was the Church,” says Guido Tartoni, “with its prohibition on women’s . . . singing in chapels,” that fostered such a practice.

Well-known opera singers have become stars, and some of their fans have worshipped them. The funeral for Luciano Pavarotti was an example of that adulation. Maria Callas was called La Divina (the Divine), and Joan Sutherland, La Stupenda (the Amazing). However, if opera singing has developed a certain popularity, it is the result of its ability to excite audiences.

Perhaps in the future you may hear a soprano singing some celebrated aria. If so, pause and think of the training and discipline required to produce that beautiful voice. It may stimulate you to begin thinking of opera singing as did one writer who called it a way “to join words to music and to give poetry . . . the wings of a melody.”


^ par. 16 For further information on the castrati, see Awake! of February 8, 1996, pages 11-14.

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Coloratura soprano: A female voice that easily handles rapid, high notes. The singer often plays a lively and witty character.

Lyric soprano: A richer female voice. The singer plays the role of a sentimental or a romantic character.

Dramatic soprano: An even deeper female voice. The singer is generally assigned the role of a dramatic character.

Mezzo-soprano: A female voice richer and deeper than the dramatic soprano. The singer often plays an elderly woman or the soprano’s antagonist.

Contralto: A rare female voice. The singer plays the same character roles as the mezzo-soprano.

Tenor: A male voice with characteristics similar to the soprano​—light, lyrical, dramatic. The singer often plays a lover or a hero.

Baritone: This voice falls between the tenor and the basso. The singer plays the role of a brother, a father, or a rival.

Basso: This deepest of male voices is divided into three categories: brilliant, cantante, and profundo. The first is suitable for lively, witty characters; the second for sentimental roles; and the third for characters expressing intense feeling.

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Opera stage

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Opera house

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Stage: Philip Groshong for The Cincinnati Opera; house: Courtesy of Tourism Office of Budapest