"Big" Voices

What, exactly, is a big voice? Is it just one that’s loud? Is it loud and unusual in some way? Is it “hefty”? What’s that? How do you know if a voice is big?

Today, especially in opera, there is a predominance of “big” voices in the USA like never before. I don’t mean to say that other kinds of voices that are not considered big don’t show up in major houses, but the more the voice is substantial, the more likely it is that it will be noticed.

Even the lightest voices, generally called lyric coloratura sopranos (a slightly erroneous description since any voice can do “coloratura” passages) aren’t so light as they once were. Since Dame Joan Sutherland arrived on the stages of the world 50 years ago with a voice that was both very big and very high, that category hasn’t ever been the same. Even the woman who dominate that category now, like Diana Damrau, Elizabeth Futral and Natalie Dessay, bear little vocal resemblance to Lili Pons, Mado Robin or Mady Mesplé.

There are myriad reasons why this trend might have emerged. Certainly, the size of the Met, opened in the mid-60s, is a factor, as is the idea that conductors let 80+ piece orchestras play at full volume and force a single human voice to compete with the musical instruments to fill a 4,000 seat house. Certainly the fact that we are into our fourth and fifth generations of people who grew up hearing loud amplified rock music as a norm has bearing on this situation. Repertoire has contributed its influences to expectations and categorizations, too. Some pieces ask for powerful, intense communication which doesn’t lend itself to soft, gentle production.

There are all sorts of theories about voice “size” (EX, S, M, L, XL, Plus?). Big voices take longer to develop, big voices are difficult to train, big voices are born rather than made, big voices are most commonly found in big people. We don’t really know if these things are always true, never true or true once in a while. We don’t know why some voices can be very loud more easily than others and we don’t really know for sure if a voice can develop “bigness” through training alone. Voices can be “too heavy” (another thing that is nearly impossible to define) which causes problems.

None of this applies in a straight forward manner, at least as far as I have encountered, to CCM voices. We don’t think of CCM singers this way, but we could. Surely, a voice that can belt away singing gospel songs at full tilt for hours at a time, filling a big church easily, even without amplification, is a big voice. Ethel Merman’s voice was not only brassy, it was very loud, and easily so. Would you consider Bruce Springsteen or Tina Turner big voices? They don’t seem to suffer from their rough, noisy singing and shouty delivery. Would you put Tom Jones, the 70s vocalist from Wales, there? I would. Kate Smith absolutely had a big voice. What about Susan Boyle?

It’s odd that the two worlds, CCM and classical, use such different descriptors for vocalists. As I frequently say, we all have only one larynx and two vocal folds, one throat and a mouth. The divergence reflects the vast difference between these two environments and the people who inhabit them.

In classical singing it isn’t a complement to be told, “You’re voice is quite small.” Several spectacular vocalists have not been “able” to have an operatic career because the general consensus by the powers that be was that they had voices that were too small to fill an opera house…..Elly Ameling, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Arlene Auger, Robert White (the tenor). I’ve never heard anyone in CCM say that X singer failed because his voice was “too small” to sing jazz or folk music. It CCM styles, does anyone really care about what size your voice is or do they just care how you sing?

This is another one of those curious “oddities” about singing that you only encounter when you are in the field for a while. It is one of many many things that you only learn about through exposure, as it is rarely written about in a serious manner, although many years ago I heard an excellent lecture about it by the late Craig Timberlake. Craig was a true scholar and pedagogue, someone who was both an excellent opera singer and concert artist and a music theater performer. He was faculty chair at Columbia for many years. He explained that the idea of “bigness” in a voice was strictly a 20th century construct. I never forgot that lecture.

If you are a vocalist who wants to sing CCM in any of its many styles, be grateful that you will not be judged by this somewhat arbitrary evaluation of your voice as if it were a pair of shoes or a coat that was the wrong size to be of any use. Be appreciative of the fact that you can sing and have a career with whatever kind of voice you have. It’s a much better situation for your overall mental health!

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One thought on “"Big" Voices”

  1. I’ve been told lately that my voice is ‘too heavy’ and I need to lighten up and have been confused by it. Does it essentially mean I have to make a tone that is not my natural singing voice?

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