Operatic Voices

The performance and execution of the Operatic art form have existed in its current form since this morning. As an extension of an interaction between the “soul” and the body of the performer, the opera voice is unique and deeply personal to every performer, according to UCSB voice professor Dr. Isabel Bayrakdarian as observed through her voice lesson with Opera student Terra Giddens. In comparison to the previous and more abstract definition of the history of Opera, the formal history of Opera begins in late 16th century Italy. Amid a cultural renaissance, Opera developed as an extension of the theater that emphasized the human voice as an instrument and a pure form of expression. While the core thematic and performative elements of the Opera art form have remained mainly intact, the modernization of vocal discipline and contemporary cultural values have begun to influence the art form. For example, the recent Opera “As One” manipulates the rigidity of Opera’s voices to explore a trans storyline through two singers. (It should also be noted that modern Operas still invoke nonprogressive themes such as blackface and antiquated gender roles). Despite Opera’s fringe status as a contemporary art form, it deserves attention in the study voice due to the centrality voice has in influencing the performance and as the arena in which voice nature and voice as culture/discipline come into contact.

The bulk of the study and ethnography into Opera was sourced from observations made during a studio lesson led by professor Dr. Isabel Bayrakdarian in the direction of her student Terra Giddens. The lesson predominantly focused on vocal warmups and a rehearsal of Terra Giddens’ aria of Mimi. In conjunction with the performance, Dr. Bayrakdarian spoke to aspects of Opera performances, the mechanical voice, the artistic and spiritual voice, the emotional elements of Opera, and her views on being both a performer and a teacher of Opera. In addition to the performance by Giddens and Bayrakdarian, the interview between ethnographer Lauren Vanderlinden and singer Naomi Merer provided ample contextual and personal details about how Opera as a modern-day art form interacts with a modern-day singer. The in-person elements of the ethnography provide personal accounts by performers of how Opera and the operatic voice operates today. This information has been supplemented by lectures and additional reading about the cultural, social, historical context of Opera.

Statements made by Lauren Vanderlinden, Dr. Isabel Bayrakdarian, and Terra Giddens’ covered numerous aspects of their unique experiences as performers and despite their varying levels of training and onstage performances all three of them touched on the same element: there is more to Opera than just the voice. Dr. Bayrakdarian was the most upfront and direct arguer for the role of the “soul” in unlocking the full emotional characteristics of an aria. As observed through Dr. Bayrakdarian’s instructions to Giddens, the mechanical and physiological components of her voice were essential to performing an aria properly. Dr. Bayrakdarian was attentive to Giddens’ tongue slackness and check rigidity and repeatedly stopped Giddens to call attention to any issues she had with her singing mechanics. However, all three women cited it as equally important to translate and know the words and meaning of the words of their arias as crucial to unlocking the “soul.” The theme of emotions and the “soul” are responses to the cultural expectations of Opera; furthermore, this component of a voice is constructed by the audience and the culture the voice acts within and is a strong example supporting an accultured voice.

Although Dr. Bayrakdarian believes every person has a voice and that Opera is all about finding the golden segment, Vanderlinden counters this by recalling that her childhood vocal coach found the voice for her and nudged her in the direction of Opera. At the bare minimum, a voice is required to participate in the Opera culture. While Dr. Bayrakdarian has a more optimistic outlook on the commonness of an operatic voice, both performers (and teachers) agree that a voice must be trained and disciplined to fit the expectations of an Opera. Unlike other forms of singing and performance that have a more flexible approach towards the sonic qualities of a voice, Opera confines types of voices to types of characters and roles. For example, a female soprano is often confined to the female protagonist, while a tenor is often the male protagonist. Historically, young boys would be castrated in order to maintain their high voices in order to perform female characters.

Through all my observations, it became apparent that all performers, who often perform antiquated characters in a modern setting, must confront their personal values when interacting with an operatic voice. Giddens noted her struggle with singing Mimi’s aria and embodying the voice of a “boy drunk” female role that did not align with her personal feminist beliefs. By expressing this, Giddens connects her voice, the authentic voice of Mimi, and her beliefs and highlights the voice’s ability to be a conduit of expression that is interpreted personally and by the audience.

In the process of creating this ethnography, one challenge was encountering and then interpreting a type of voice and a sound I was unfamiliar with. I had previously never listened to Opera because of preconceived notions about its sonic qualities, so in order to complete this assignment, I had to reset my assumptions and expectations. After learning more about the history of Opera through this assignment, in addition to having an in-person experience, I am now looking forward to the next opportunity to listen.

Barbara Russano Hanning, and Herbert Weinstock. “Opera | History & Facts.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 21 Mar. 2019, www.britannica.com/art/opera-music.