Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Why Opera Singers Are So Large

NEW SCIENTIST - New Scientist's picture of Montserrat Caballe set me thinking. Why are opera singers often large? What benefit does it convey? Surely it's no coincidence that they are all so well built. - John Lapthorne , Le Vigan, France

Answers: The depth and ability of a person's singing voice are qualities which take a lot of training and which must subsequently be practised repeatedly. Only then can a singer obtain the vocal control and power of a world-class opera performer. However, the ability to sing well at all is a largely predetermined characteristic that can be inherited. This boils down to the qualities of your larynx, better known as the voice box. It is generally believed that the more fatty tissue surrounds the larynx, the better its resonance and the more aesthetically pleasing the note it produces. The amount of this fatty tissue varies from person to person. Therefore, in operatics, the majority of people would seem to be of larger proportions because this extra tissue surrounding their larynx boosts the quality of their singing voice. Furthermore, a person's size also affects the power of their diaphragm and lungs and their corresponding ability to reach, hold and control notes. - Peter Galek , University of Durham

Opera singers need a powerful diaphragm to be able to project their voice above the sound of a big orchestra in a cavernous opera house, so a large chest cavity and good control of the lungs will provide a suitable mass to drive the diaphragm. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, opera was an expanding medium. Successive generations sought larger and more dramatic effects, and larger audiences drawn in required bigger theatres. This produced new technology for wind instruments and the reconstruction of older baroque string instruments. Of course, singers could not be re-engineered, so they developed vocal techniques to cope with this steady rise in volume, hence the advantage of a large chest. - Ian Gammie , Corda Music Publications St Albans, Hertfordshire

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