“Keep it light.”
“Check your vibrato.”
Choral singers, from adolescents to adults, are familiar with a conductor’s fussing over, specifically, the soprano section’s vocal production. Conductors, many of whom are not trained sopranos, hate to confess that they ask their sopranos to sing senza vibrato. To most, such instruction is anathema.
Even so, there are a variety of ways they tiptoe around asking sopranos for such “pure” tone production. And what is often perceived by their singers is that vibrato is bad, ugly, tasteless, or unnecessary, to the extent that vocal pedal tones and high pianissimi look daunting.
Soprano and composer Victoria Fraser, a friend of mine who makes a living as a choral musician, recently referenced her experience at a summer music festival in Germany. They prepared one movement from a new major work by James MacMillan, commissioned for the following summer, and she said it “killed” the sopranos. To which I responded, “Well, MacMillan is not a soprano.”
I fondly recall singing the popular Scottish composer’s The Gallant Weaver under Simon Carrington as a member of the Texas All-State Choir. It is a sublime example of a work for advanced adult mixed voices requiring vocal flexibility, endurance, and wide ranges. The alto, tenor, and bass parts remain low and the sopranos are high and exposed. In fact, there are three soprano parts, creating a melody that echoes in heterophony with many sustained highs and repeated leaps to A5.
Yes, it makes beautiful music, but it is what I call an “expensive piece.” It is demanding, to say the least. This model for vocal beauty has been popularized, and, much like society’s standards for feminine beauty, it is lofty, grossly impractical, and often, manufactured.
It is a suspicion of mine that this is the case because most of the choral repertory comes from male composers, who have no experience in the role of sopranos who are women.
It so happens that a significant amount of our choral literature draws from an historical context in which women were not able to participate. The SATB voicing, as we know it today, belonged to all-male choruses, consisting of both pre- and post-pubescent male voices.
Consider the language. Soprano is Latin and ends in “o.” Even in 2016, even when discussing female roles through centuries of opera and the highest voices in our vocal ensembles across the world, women are given the title of “boy.”
Early music is customary in choral markets and programming, from high school on, and we have become more than comfortable with the “o.” And now, we are composing, conducting, and teaching in a way that puts post-pubescent female voices into the role of pre-pubescent males’. That is, we expect our sopranos to sing thin, high, and without vibrato.
Victoria Fraser suggests there has indeed been an early music “revolution,” which is a factor in the increased desire for straight tone singing. She believes that the trend of early music has “bled” into contemporary choral music, and she laments that conductors often opt out of a more energized, colored vocalization from their sopranos.
So, why as professionals do we perpetuate, and why as composers do we imitate, the sound of a soprano section comprised of pre-pubescent boys? Why insist on the misunderstanding that adult female sopranos are able to or should sing strictly senza vibrato in the way children do?
Too often, conductors forsake healthy vocal production for easy tuning and clarity of tone. Then, we revisit the controversy between the proverbial choral director and their private vocal instructors.
The teacher in me would ask that we compose with the understanding that “straight tone” singing all the time is not only limiting to a soprano’s timbral capacity but also destructive to their instrument. Such strain can lead to vocal nodules and other health-related phonation problems.
Conversely, singing con vibrato is singing out, with energy, and it is conducive to efficient phonation for all voice types, especially on highs and fortes. Vibrato also helps with vocal endurance because it is only possible when the vocal mechanism is in a position to relax and allow for some vibration, which is an indication of steady breath flow.
That is to say, if the first sopranos are singing above the staff senza vibrato for longer than a couple of minutes with infrequent rests, you are going to have an exhausted soprano section for the remainder of your rehearsal or concert.
Composers would do well to prevent such a situation. We may think we can get away with sustained highs and louds senza vibrato because of that seductive playback function on our engraving software. Those sopranos do not have trouble sustaining and tuning when they are represented by a pre-recorded sound. But there are more reliable models.
As another expert in the vocal field, my brother Matthew Valverde, puts it: “Sopranos who can ‘straight tone’ beautifully all day do exist. But if you’re looking for the music to be done well and in diverse communities, it is best to allow women to just sing.”
Composers Are Responsible
One of the mundane but necessary parts of collegiate composition curricula is the study of what is idiomatic to compose for any given instrument. What are the different colors you get as you explore the clarinet’s registers? How difficult will it be to hear a flute at that dynamic level in that tessitura? What triple stops are feasible on the violin? How quickly can the harpist make these pedal changes?
Likewise, it behooves a composer to research the idiom of adult female voices. Unfortunately, recording after recording will suggest that sopranos have supernatural abilities of sustained tone production like sunbeams on a crisp winter morning. Such a sound comes at a cost, and we could stand to reimagine vocal beauty for the sake of the accessibility of our composition with sensitivity to the longevity of our collaborators’ livelihoods.