Tag: singers

Ungendered Voice Types for a New Century

Two singers clutching each other

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installments delved into how types are gendered and why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward. The previous article laid out my thoughts on how to create an ungendered system and this final installment will draw conclusions and provide practical advice for all those involved in creating new opera.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

Using the elements of type that I established in my last article (range, flexibility, and timbre), I’ve laid out a rudimentary map for creating new terms. I want these terms, especially the timbre-related ones, to be less binary and more open to personalization. I’ve only included a few that I think will give an idea of where this system could be headed.

If you’d like to skip ahead to practical ways to implement inclusivity within the current voice types, you can go straight to the end of the article. Otherwise, let’s dive in and put this new system to the test!

Ranges 1-12: A role’s general range will fall within one of these numbered ranges, which start at the lowest note and move up in range as the numbers go up (diagram below). While a role can only have one number designation (with optional upper or lower extension added as a modifier), a singer can occupy more than one numeral range. For example, a singer who previously identified as a contralto could now be a 7-8, or they could be just a 7. Both are equally valid and allow for a more personalized description of type. [Ed. Note: When this was initially published on NewMusicBox, there was an accidental notational error in ranges 5 and 6 which has subsequently been corrected here.]

The first six of Aiden Feltkamp's numerical range designations (1-6): singers designated as "1" can sing from E2 to G3; singers designated as "2" can sing from G2 to D4; singers designated as "3" can sing from A2 to E4; singers designated as "4" can sing from A2 to G4; singers designated as "5" can sing from B2 to B4; and singers designated as "6" can sing from C3 to C5.
The final six of Aiden Feltkamp's numerical range designations (7-12): singers designated as "7" can sing from F3 to C5; singers designated as "8" can sing from A3 to E5; singers designated as "9" can sing from B3 to G5; singers designated as "10" can sing from D4 to B5; singers designated as "11" can sing from G4 to C6; and singers designated as "12" can sing from B4 to F6.

I realize that numbers are a bit sterile, especially for something as artistic as opera and as unique as voice, but they could be replaced with words. The challenge is to find words that are descriptive but without the built-in prejudice from earlier voice type systems.

The challenge is to find words that are descriptive but without the built-in prejudice from earlier voice type systems.

Lyric/Flexible: This denotes the singer’s ability for fast movement. Singers who are flexible would be able to sing roles with moderate flexibility or high flexibility. Singers who sing roles labeled with “no flexibility” would take the adjective “lyric.” I realize that “lyric” is already part of the Fach system and has a slightly different meaning, but I’m at a loss for a better term for this aspect of the voice.

Dramatic/Light: These timbre descriptions relate directly to the size of the voice and what size orchestra/ensemble is best suited to it. While an established opera’s composition year/era would likely supply this information on its own, this designation could be helpful for new works and for singers themselves.

Steely/Warm/Bright/etc: These descriptors can be personalized to the singer and are more useful in singer descriptions than role descriptions. A producer or composer could prefer a particular timbre for a role, but this should only be used as a suggestion.

Let’s put this all to work in a few examples. Using this system, here are the types for the following roles:

  • Königin der Nacht (Mozart): flexible dramatic 12
  • Kate (Griffin Candey): lyric 10
  • The Rose (Rachel Portman): lyric 10 with lower extension
  • Cherubino (Mozart): lyric 9
  • Le Prince Charmant (Massenet): lyric dramatic 5 with lower extension OR lyric dramatic 10 with upper extension
  • Tonio (Donizetti): flexible light 12
  • Robert Oppenheimer (John Adams): lyric dramatic 4 with upper extension
  • Don Giovanni (Mozart): lyric 4

Each singer needs to classify themselves, but just for this sake of this example, I’ll use this system to classify a few living opera singers:

  • Diana Damrau: warm flexible dramatic 10-12
  • Angel Blue: flexible dramatic 9-11
  • Stephanie Blythe: warm lyric dramatic 8-10
  • Marijana Mijanovic: steely flexible light 7-9
  • Lawrence Brownlee: warm flexible light 5-6
  • Jonas Kaufmann: warm lyric dramatic 4-6
  • Samuel Ramey: flexible dramatic 1-4

I realize that this new system is just as prone to prejudice as any. I’m just hoping that with a clean slate, we’re able to eliminate some of the built-in gendering in the current types.

This article is more of a thought experiment than an industry change.

Since this article is more of a thought experiment than an industry change, I don’t want to end without lending some practical advice. So, how can you, a composer/producer/opera maker, create a more inclusive and expansive space for artists?

Nicholas Wiggins as Robert Schumann, Aumna Iqbal as Clara Schumann. Photo by Aiden Feltkamp (OperaRox Productions)

Nicholas Wiggins as Robert Schumann, Aumna Iqbal as Clara Schumann. Photo by Aiden Feltkamp (OperaRox Productions)

Accessible Auditions

If you want the most diverse pool of applicants, you need to eliminate barriers. Do you have an audition fee? If so, why? How could you find a way to eliminate or absorb this into your operating budget?

If you want the most diverse pool of applicants, you need to eliminate barriers.

Even better, do you need to have live auditions? If not, how can you set up remote auditions? I personally love casting from recordings and personal interviews. Just don’t require super HD recordings, because that also creates another barrier.

Diverse Audition Panel

Who is judging the auditionees? Do you have a panel that’s diverse in experience, demographic, and style? If not, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of unconscious bias. Build a panel from people you trust but who don’t always agree with you. Panelists should interrogate others’ reasons for liking one person over another. Is it a real issue, preference, or unconscious bias?

Confront Your Unconscious Biases

We all carry unconscious biases with us. The best way to counteract their less-helpful side is to spend time on self-reflection. Identify your unconscious biases and keep them in mind as you make decisions. You can learn the basics of unconscious bias in this article and you can test some of your own biases at Harvard’s Project Implicit.

Leave the Gender Police at Home

We all carry unconscious biases with us.

If you find yourself thinking or talking like a black-and-white character from Pleasantville, you’re probably being the gender police. We don’t need the 1950s and its outdated gender roles; leave them at the door when you’re judging auditions, if at no other time.

A screenshot of a Jan 27, 2019 9:06pm retweet by BAD WITH MONEY BOOK (@gabydunn) which reads: "Legit nothing in the script that says Roger isn't in a wheelchair!" plus the text of the original tweet from Alison Young (@Foreverayoung): "You wish you could see this version! @RENTonFox #RentLive"

Think Outside the Box

Have you ever seen a tomboy Zerlina? Or a goth Barbarina? (I have, actually, and I loved it.) How about a bisexual Tamino? If you can think outside the box about these characters, you can also think outside the box on the artists who play them. We don’t need cookie-cutter opera singers – we need artists. But they’ll only thrive and perform if they’re hired to do so. Don’t settle. Instead, imagine.

Start Trends Instead of Following Them

Create the future of opera that you want to see and stick to it. People will be drawn to good and inclusive art.

Thank you to everyone who made it this far! Let’s keep this conversation going and move toward a more inclusive and vibrant future for opera.


“Singers and Musicians” and Why Our Language Matters

A cohort of singers on outdoor steps

There it was yet again, this time in an article written by a living composer in October 2018.  It stuck out like a four-inch crease in a freshly ironed shirt. While it may first appear—like so many other biases—to be simply a polite substitution, it actually carries a condescension that comes from a long history of implied assumptions that communicate “separate and certainly not equal.”

Not even The New York Times is immune from this double standard. Quite to the contrary, you’ll come across the phrase hundreds of times if you spend just a few minutes scouring their archives. You’ll find it in headlines and reviews, in news articles, letters, and obituaries:

  • An article on the Bayreuth Festival from 2015 includes the line: “Plaques just outside the Festival Theater poignantly memorialize Bayreuth singers and musicians who were persecuted by the Third Reich.”
  • The headline from a 2001 obituary reads: “Alix Williamson, 85, Noted Publicist for Singers and Musicians.
  • A news article on the Metropolitan Opera’s union and management negotiations from 2014 includes this gem: “Outside the opera house on Friday, the day began with about 150 singers and musicians from the Met’s chorus and orchestra holding a demonstration, with a melodious score, in Dante Park, a small park opposite Lincoln Center.” (Aside: yes, I recognize that this is complicated by the names of the unions themselves—i.e. the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra players, and the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the chorus and the principal singers, as well as other professionals including the stage managers—but there is no good reason to use this language when referring directly to the artists themselves and not to their union representation.)
  • And there it was as recently as October 2018 when Nico Muhly was describing his new dramatic work: “My role, as I understand it now, is to be an editor and custodian of the document Nick and I created, and to guide — but not prescribe — the various options the singers and musicians have in expounding it.”

To be absolutely certain that no one misses my point: singers and musicians are not mutually exclusive categories. All singers are musicians, but not all musicians are singers (some are players, some are composers, etc.).

Language matters. When we use the phrase “singers and musicians” in one breath, we communicate—even if inadvertently—that they are mutually exclusive categories. In other words, singers are not musicians.

That’s a problem.

This subtle but false dichotomy reinforces many of the assumptions that singers are forced to confront in their careers: that they are not as musically literate, that they came to their career through a path of sub-par training, that they lack the ability to hear and understand the underpinnings of a musical score, that they have to hire a vocal coach to teach them their part, etc., etc.

We hear it in the subtext beneath the “Eureka!” stories about famous opera singers being discovered, endowed with a beautiful voice but lacking any formal training. (Woody Allen troped on this quite famously in his 2012 movie, To Rome with Love, where a mortician’s perfectly developed operatic tenor is only revealed when he’s singing in the shower.)

It is further reinforced by the history of choral-orchestral music performance, where an important tradition still flourishes: a professional (read: paid) orchestra of players and a non-professional (read: non-paid) chorus of singers combine to perform some of the great warhorses of Western art music (your Beethoven 9s, Mahler 2s, and the like). In this reading, musicians are trained professionals, while singers are those other people participating in the performance who could not have learned their part if it were not taught to them by a chorus master (which, it should be noted, is another problematic name for someone who can and should simply be called “conductor”… but that’s an issue for another article).

All stereotypes are grounded in some kernel of truth, and you may indeed encounter singers who conform to and confirm some of the worst stereotypes. But in my experience as a conductor-composer who has worked with literally thousands of singers, the vast majority of them are individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to studying the art of performance and the craft of music: i.e. musicians.

As a conducting faculty member at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, I lead NOTUS, a select vocal ensemble that is unique among collegiate choirs, as we have a singular mission to perform, commission, and record the works of living composers. As you might expect, we regularly perform contemporary music that is exceedingly challenging. We recently released our first commercial album, NOTUS: Of Radiance & Refraction, which features five world premiere recordings of works that we commissioned from IU faculty members. Listen here to a movement of John Gibson’s In Flight, for chorus and electronics, featuring soprano soloist Kellie Motter:

The thirty-or-so student singers that I work with each year are musicians in every sense of the word. These young people can sing pitches out of thin air from tuning forks. They can tune (and express!) 10-part chords. They can sing melodies with complex polyrhythms and syncopations. And they can do all of this while communicating a poetic text clearly and distinctly. (You might surmise that I’m quite proud of them. You’d be right.)

I prepare these students to be responsive to the musical gesture. I ask them to come to rehearsal already familiar with their musical part (no spoon-feeding their pitches with the piano). In short: I expect each one of them to be as professional a musician as the first oboist in an orchestra is expected to be.

I believe that we confront this bias head-on by making sure that we do everything we can to hold singers to the same musical expectations as our players, especially in our training institutions. I take comfort in knowing that I have many colleagues in this profession who believe the same, and who are also training their singers to be as responsive as the best orchestral players.

Excitingly, the choral repertoire has been expanding and transforming over the last fifty years as this artistic shift in our professional expectations of singers has led composers to imagine new choral musics that were never possible before.

In Sweden, Eric Ericson and his Chamber Choir redefined excellence in choral performance on an international scale with their recordings. They performed music more complex than any other choral repertoire then-written and helped establish careers for composers such as Sven-David Sandström and Lars Edlund. (Here’s the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir performing Sandström’s Agnus Dei consisting of gnarly tonal-ish clusters that float in and out of each other:

Today in the USA, Donald Nally and The Crossing are exhibiting new levels of choral artistry and technical mastery in the performances they give to works by composers such as Ted Hearne, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, David Lang, and Lansing McLoskey. (Here’s The Crossing performing Ted Hearne’s Animals:

Roomful of Teeth and Brad Wells have embraced the “choir as rock band” aesthetic, combining vocal traditions from across the globe to create stunningly otherworldly works by their singer-composers Eric Dudley, Avery Griffin, and Caroline Shaw. Listen to RoT sing Shaw’s “Allemande” from her Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 voices:

And for inspiration beyond measure, look no further than Francisco Núñez and the extraordinary Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Through their Transient Glory program, they have commissioned some of the most interesting, diverse, and eclectic contemporary music for youth chorus ever written, from the likes of Paquito D’Rivera, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Michael Torke. And these young people ages 9-18 sing as good as—and in some cases better than—any professional choir. Here they are singing Michael Gordon’s Every Stop on the F Train:

Yes, these groups are made of ‘singers.’ They are choirs, or vocal ensembles, or choruses, collections of people who make noise together with their vocal cords or whatever else you want to call them. But these ‘singers’ are making some of the most adventurous new music being written today, and you can be damned-sure that they are also musicians of the very highest caliber.

So enough. Let’s embrace some new language.

We could say “singers and players” or “vocalists and instrumentalists.” Or maybe call them all “performers” or “artists.”

Or how about just “musicians?”

Con vibrato ma non troppo: Rethinking Sopranos

boys chorus

boys chorus

“Keep it light.”

“Less wobble.”

“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.

A Misnomer

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?

Vocal Health

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.