This week, we’re listening to Puccini, who is well known for his operas. Instead of focusing on his output, however, we’re going to focus on opera itself.
Opera is not incredibly popular to a lot of people because of the big voices with thick vibrato and heavy vowels. This, however, is a misconception due to the fact that the different opera roles are no longer given out with respect to the types of voices they were written for.
There are two kinds of opera singers: Lyric opera singers and dramatic opera singers. The kind most people think of is a dramatic opera singer, like Diana Damrau and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. These singers literally have thicker vocal chords and are hired for their stamina and power. Their voices can take some getting used to, and if you find performers who are adept at acting as well as singing (opera is meant to be watched, not listened to!) you can learn to enjoy these voices.
Here is a dramatic coloratura soprano, Anna Netrebko, singing “O mio babbino caro”:
Lyric opera singers have lighter and more flexible voices. The music written for these singers is faster, requires a lot of nimble movement, and a fine vibrato. The finer the vibrato, the more clear the separate notes are, which is incredibly important when you’re singing a lot of ornaments and scales. The singer we’ve already listened to in this series is an example of this style of voice. These singers are easier to like, because they have voices we are more used to hearing. Lucia Popp and Teddy Tahu Rhodes are some excellent examples of this kind of voice.
Here is a lyric coloratura soprano, Sumi Jo, singing the same song:
Operas are often written for one type of voice or the other, and a lot of performers sing whatever they feel like without regard to what the composer was aiming for. Baroque music and a lot of Classical period, for example, are often composed for the lyric performers. When a more robust singer performs this music, it doesn’t have the effect it should. Although a lyric performer can sometimes get away with singing something composed for a lyric performer more easily, there are still some roles that aren’t built for that kind of voice. Listening to Puccini, what kind of voice do you think he was composing for?