The Singer’s Instrument

July 7, 2009

I have heard many, many times that the body is a singer’s instrument.  I can see some merit in that argument.  After all, the human voice is built much like a set of bagpipes, where two inflatible sacs of air are expanded, then used to apply pressure to the vocal folds, causing vibration, making sound.  This simplified explanation makes it all sound very much like an instrument.

For choral singers, this picture is fairly accurate.  Voices are joined together in a symphony of common expression, where each different timbre (usually) blends into the masses.  Individual expression is not an important aspect in choral singing unless a solo line is written.

Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove

This is where the analogy suffers.  The voice, the body, of an Opera Singer is not an instrument.  It is that person’s personality.  Their voice dictates what kind of characters they play.  Their timbre dictates what kind of roles they will recieve.

A coloratura soprano will either play a promiscuous woman, or one who has gone insane.  Sometimes, they play a cold, evil character.  The Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute comes to mind, as does the cold flight controller from Jonathan Dove‘s Flight

Basses, on the other hand, are almost always cast as either old men, priests, or villians.  These roles too can be found from opera’s origins.  Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, his last opera, has a wise, elderly character named Seneca.  In Blitzstein‘s Regina, the part of the sick and old Horace Giddens is played by a bass.  No one can forget the most frequently recalled bass role, Sarastro, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  Mozart seems to have assigned certain personalities to particular voice types.  A tradition that was already common in his time and one that is going strong today.

The body shape determines more than just what kind of voice comes out of it.  A larger soprano will find themselves relegated to that of a nursemaid, or a comedic role.  If their voice is large enough, however, they’ll go from comedy, to heavy drama (literally) on the Wagnerian stage.  A tenor who is too short to play the romantic lead might be considered a character tenor, simply because of his size.  After all, Rudolfo can not have a glandular disorder next to a beautiful Mimi.  The stage is about illusion, and thus certain shapes and heights are required.  Sometimes basses have to gain weight, sometimes sopranos have to lose weight.  Sometimes the costume department can only do so much.  It is the singer’s body that must deliver the illusion.

To say that a singer’s body is their instrument is naive.  A singer’s body, their voice, is much more than just an instrument.  It is their personality.  It is what determines their fate.  It dictates what they sing and when.  It is Tristan.  It is Isolde.  It is youthful, or it is old.  The singer’s body is not a set of internal bagpipes.  The singer’s body is everything.

L’incoronazione di Poppea


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