Some of the most accomplished tenors can’t hit a high C…think about singing one at the age of 70. Luciano Pavarotti had a career that lasted five decades until his last performance when he was 70-years-old. He accomplished this longevity by keeping his technique and vowel placement in supreme condition. Also, the author of Was Pavarotti Still a Good Singer, Michelle Tsai, said he only sang arias that felt comfortable for his voice and didn’t strain to sing something that didn’t fit right. After years of bel cantare (beautiful singing), the unfortunate, and inevitable wear down of the body brought Pavarotti to his downfall.
Tsai has a genuine and accurate understanding of what it takes to sing opera. She notes that, “The vocal folds—muscles that rapidly open and close as we speak or sing—get stronger, as do the muscles that support them in the chest, abdomen, neck, and back.” Most non-opera singers aren’t taught to utilize these muscles. In order to sing to the back corners of an opera house, support is crucial and technique is what decides if a singer’s career will last until they are 40 or 70-years-old.
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Pavarotti was a legend. His voice sounded bright, supported, powerful, and beautiful; he never strayed from his technique. When singing “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s opera Turandot, he hits high C’s so effortlessly, on the outside he seems sanguine…as if conversing with a neighborhood friend. What audience members don’t detect is his body always working, always supporting, and always thinking about how to produce the sound.
Opera singers are true athletes. Although on the outside, some seem incapable to run to the mailbox and back, their core strength is what matters. They need to have the inner strength of boxer, but the elegant, whimsical nature of a figure skater. The four main sections of the body are always engaged and thinking ahead to put the necessary embellishments on the voice: chest, back, abdomen, and neck. Both sexes need this training, but the differences between men and women’s vocal chords are immense.
The vocal technique between a woman and a man isn’t too different, but for a woman to hit the higher notes, they require more activity in the vocal chords. Tsai states, “During a tenor’s high C, his vocal folds close about 500 times a second; for a soprano’s high C, the rate is about 1,300 times each second.” The soprano more than doubles the vocal activity, which leads to more women needing to resign from opera and an earlier age. But, sopranos generally reach their prime about five to ten years before a tenor does.
In his 60’s, Pavarotti was a phenomenal singer, but he couldn’t compare to his younger self. “The vocal folds start to weaken eventually,” as Tsai points out which, Pavarotti had to succumb to. He was the prime example that strong support and vocal technique can lead an aspiring singer through a long career and keep the voice healthy. Pavarotti WAS still a good singer and truly mastered the art and technique of opera.
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