Today we get told in the classical world that we should listen to tenor X or soprano Y because his or her voice is “unusually dark.”
Why such an emphasis on darkness? To match our strange times? Good singing tone always used to be a mixture of light and dark, a balance. Manuel Garcia, the famous nineteenth-century teacher, wrote that the two essential qualities of a voice were “éclat” and “rondeur”. Previous writers had often said that a voice should display both light and shade. The castrato Mancini in 1774 was the first to use a key word from the visual arts to describe this. The word was “chiaroscuro”, “so necessary”, Mancini added, “in every style of singing.”
It's taken the last thirty years for this darkness to dominate. Take for instance an opera encyclopedia of 1979, the Illustrated Encylopedia of Recorded Opera compiled by Peter Gammond. Its last section contained profiles of a hundred singers with international careers at that date. In each profile were comments on the singer's voice. Amongst the descriptions of these hundred singers, the word “dark” was used only three times! That was to describe just three of the bass singers.
But this bad idea spreads. I have been to singing competitions in Europe where there are young sopranos who can “rumble” in a way I thought only bad basses could manage. It's an extraordinary achievement but it hasn't got a musical use.
Why isn't it musical? Rumbly sounds communicate very little. Sounds that have ring and overtones to them by contrast can communicate a great deal. Ancient theatres, for example, appear to have been built to exploit this latter principle, and it's the same reason why you can be played music on a squeaky little wireless set and in your head hear it quite fully as sonorous music. Opera and concert administrators once knew this fact a great deal better than they do now.
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