Opera is a “performance” art. In fact, one that involves a lot of physicality, exemplary muscle control, and total body awareness. The singers in the photo are icons of modern operatic history, the great soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland, and one of the greatest tenors of all time, Luciano Pavarotti; their singing power and acumen was truly extraordinary. Let’s consider the challenge they faced when singing in an opera house: they project their voices such that they are heard clearly, without amplification, in the back seats, which might be 150 feet from the stage, and do so over the sound wall made by a full orchestra. Their lowest and highest notes must be heard clearly using their softest and loudest intensities. They must carry the melody with excellent diction. And they may need to sing in musical keys outside their comfort zones. They often must sing in languages not their own. Oh, and they must sound beautiful while exhibiting the emotion in the story. All of this is subject to evaluation by human judges, similar to many Olympic events that will begin this weekend. Young opera singers will often compete in voice competitions in developing their careers.
How hard is it? Think you can sing opera? In fact, most people can’t, and for those who can, it is not natural. Popular music singers have rarely received training. They sing in whatever fashion is effective for them, possible because they typically are singing into a microphone. Singing opera has to be learned, much like learning to play a musical instrument. The muscle control and body awareness that allow singers to project and control their voices in this way is both an art and science, and must be tweaked for individual bodies. The process is called technique. You may hear the phrase that a singer is working on their technique. It involves a number of terms that I don’t fully understand. For example, there is a throat voice, a chest voice, and a nose voice. Singers must be aware of and relax any tension in their bodies, because tension can affect voice sound and breathing. They must be aware of their body alignment, and perhaps most important, their breathing and how to control it. Good health through proper diet and fitness are high on the agendas of opera singers. They also must pursue their careers with awareness of what their voices can withstand. There are risks. The vocal folds, more commonly referred to as vocal cords, may not be fully developed until college age and attempting strenuous arias before their development is ready can cause permanent damage, as can overuse later in their careers. And voices change over time.
The San Diego Opera webpage has a sub-page titled “Music and Science Curriculum” that discusses the biology and physics of opera. Five lessons are offered in Biology Connections, four in Physics Connections, and two in Physical Science Connections (the second one appears to have a broken link). Some of the topics are the anatomy of the human voice, how singers use their body to produce sound, the physics of music, and emotional responses to music. One interesting tidbit I learned from Physics Lesson Two:
“Can a singer shatter a wine glass with the pitch and intensity in their voice? The answer is yes and modern physics prove it. This takes a combination of pitch and intensity. To find the frequency of the glass, run your fingers around the rim and listen for the sound it creates. Chances are good that this is a High C flat. Now the singer must be able to match that pitch, which is about 105 dB and 556 hertz, and hold that pitch and intensity for at least 3 seconds. If the pitch and intensity are correct, and constant and if the wine glass has any type of microscopic flaw in it, the glass will shatter.”
I thought it was just a cartoon cliché, but it could be an Olympic event by itself, though I doubt many serious opera singers would risk their voice to it, and according to the Myth Busters video the competition from heavy metal singers could be vibrant. For a more scientific discussion of how singers sing over the orchestra by focusing their power on a singing range above the orchestra and by use of vibrato, click here.
Why do we enjoy watching Olympic Events? For one thing, it is a competition, and that builds anticipation and excitement. For another, it is people who are the best in the world at what they do that are competing and have been preparing for this competition for many years, often their entire lives. We know that the performance level will be extraordinarily high. We expect that new world records will be set in some events. All of this makes the Olympics fun to watch. There is, however, another element to consider, our knowledge of the events. We know what the athletes are trying do and how they are going about it and the broadcast announcers go to great lengths to inform us of special preparations the athletes make and detailed explanation of what the athletes must do in their events. Our brains are ticking off accomplishment of these sub-aims as an event proceeds and we feel our excitement or disappointment wax and wane as the a performance progresses. The anticipation creates tension in our bodies and the results resolve that tension, and pleasure is released.
In performing, both opera singers and Olympic athletes come to know the thrill of victory (a standing ovation) and the agony of defeat (not hitting that High C). And we their fans, thrill and suffer with them. All of these things keep us coming back to the Olympics over and over every four years. Opera fans also keep coming back, but it is of course not going to become an Olympic event, even though I think its athleticism would qualify it. Opera’s ultimate purpose is different from athletics. First, the higher purpose of neither the Olympics nor Opera is to entertain us. I think that the Olympics’ purpose is to inspire us with human achievement and its potential. Opera’s is to touch our hearts, minds, and souls by re-connecting us to our humanity.
Still, most people do not realize the physicality involved in singing opera. Fans familiar with opera understand what the singers are trying to accomplish, but those not familiar with opera do not. I think if more people understood the Olympic-sized challenges of singing opera their appreciation for and interest in opera might increase.