The jury is out about whether or not it is so that only “big, impressive” voices can have successful careers in opera in the USA. Do those with “lighter” voices have to sing “early music” or go to various concert or recital venues if they want to have a crack at viable work as classical singers? Or, as some have it, do lighter voices have a better chance now than in the past?
Some artists who have major careers, like Cecilia Bartoli, have very small and delicate voices. Ms. Bartoli wiggles and jiggles while she sings, which is hard to watch. Yes, she is very vocally agile, she can be very animated and she is musically very secure, but having seen Marilyn Horne do many of the same pieces standing stock still, lampooning those runs with a big fat tone, and expressing every bit of the music’s color and communication, I have to say Ms. Bartoli did not impress me much, yet, there she is, in a place as large as Carnegie (although the acoustics there are very good). She has sung at the Met, too, although I don’t know how she would ever have carried well enough to be heard without electronic help.
Singers like Bidu Sayao and Lili Pons, John McCormack, a young Gigli, and others including Roberta Peters might find it difficult to be famous if there were starting out now. On the other hand, Juan Diego Florez has done just fine and his voice isn’t big.
One reason why “heroic voices” might be so popular here might be that our opera houses are so big. Another might be that conductors let orchestras play as loudly as possible a good deal of the time. Another could be that we are so used to amplification that normal-sized voices don’t make it. After all, we can turn up the sound on the iPod as loudly as we want. And, the very popular emphasis on the “lowered larynx” style of vocal production does make for a heavier, darker sound, even though it makes high notes harder to do and takes out a good deal of the brilliance that used to be associated with opera singing, making those who can sing easily at the loudest volumes (rather than with the brightest tone) most able to survive an evening-long performance.
If you listen to Corelli or Pavarotti and then to Licitra you will hear the absence of this ringy brilliance. Without it, it is hard for a voice to carry over an orchestra unless that voice is really loud in terms of decibels (over 100 dB probably). Sopranos could maybe be heard above the staff just because of the pitch but lower pitches would get lost and lower voices in general would sound “woofy”, a quality that is unfortunately easy to find these days, even in very good singers. It shows up less often in those trained outside the USA, but even in people trained in Italy (such as Licitra) you can hear it. Big, but not brilliant.
Since we don’t ever hear CCM voices unamplified, it’s also a matter of comparison. We don’t have other kinds of styles to compare classical singing to in terms of vocal output. Perhaps years ago when everyone was unamplified, because there were no microphones, the contrast of being “just a little louder” as an opera singer was enough. We will probably never know.
There is a lot of distortion out there in the music marketplace now, in all styles. Between electronic manipulation and vocal production that can be very extreme, plain simple singing connected to actual human emotion can be hard to find. It’s not gone, but when it shows up and the voice is good, it can be startling.