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Home Boxing La Voce; An excerpt from “Adventures In The Scream Trade – Anecdotes From the Life of An Opera Singer,” by Charles Long.
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La Voce; An excerpt from “Adventures In The Scream Trade – Anecdotes From the Life of An Opera Singer,” by Charles Long.

boxing_002A voice is a temperamental, idiosyncratic gift.  Each one is unique.  For this reason, singers have historically referred to their voices in the third person singular; "The voice isn't working today," or , "the voice of the great so-and-so…."  The voice is personified as though it has a mind of it's own, and often it does. As a barometer reacts to the slightest changes in air pressure, so do weather changes, humidity, diet, sleep, and air pollution affect the human voice. The slightest disturbance in a highly-tuned voice is blatantly noticeable to the owner. Therefore, elaborate rituals are often followed to maintain a perfect homeostasis. Rituals that rival those of sport stars.

Although it was an unpopular philosophy when I was a young singer, it has always been my contention that those who bloom early are probably the most fortunate. Like any extremely competitive business, the more youth one takes into the fray, the better. Show business requires an optimism and resiliency that is hard to muster beyond middle age. The rigorous schedule required to travel and perform all over the world requires enormous energy and physical strength.  Don't let the stereotype of the rotund, pudgy-looking singer fool you into thinking these are three-hundred-pound weaklings. Those who successfully maintain an international career over a span of years are true physical specimens, exuding robust health and great physical endurance.

Speaking of which … I’m frequently asked, “Why are opera singers such huge people?” Well, not all are. But great singers, like male porn stars, are well-endowed at birth, and this bequest is not without it’s benefits. The stereotypical, big-framed singer who can make a mountain of sound is consistent with the laws of acoustics. Petite coloratura sopranos usually have bell-like voices; bassos who stand like small trees generally make booming sounds to match; and full-throated tenors are regularly built like barrels with legs. All these stereotypes can be scientifically justified.

A good example would be to put a violin and a string bass in a hall and measure the decibels generated by each of their tones. The sheer magnitude of the resonance chamber of the string bass creates a greater volume of sound. This is one of the reasons you see twenty-eight to thirty violins in an orchestra, compared to eight or ten string basses. Bigger instruments of the same family generate more decibels. While there may be exceptions to this rule, it holds true most of the time.

I was one of those exceptions. Actually, I was often mistaken for a dancer, tipping the scales at hundred and forty-five pounds. While that was fine for boxing at welterweight, I was often perceived as too small for opera. But I had a large-bore throat and huge larynx which helped me compensate for a smaller chest cavity. Still, by operatic standards, I was considered to have only a medium-sized voice.

Bassos Sam Ramey, Justino Diaz, and Norman Treigle were other exceptions to the size rule. Weighing-in at far less than many of their gargantuan counterparts, they still had sufficient volume to compete on the International stage.

Acoustics also lend a hand in this phenomenon as does the octave in which an instrument plays. Small and high, compensates for large and low. High pitches penetrate more efficiently than lower tones so there is often a trade-off between size and pitch.

A personal example of this volume-to-frame equation happened during a production of IL MARITO DISPERATO in Spoleto, where I was cast opposite soprano Carol Vaness. Carol was a strapping young girl from the California in one of her early performances. We were equal in height, but she was twice as wide. That’s not to say she was overweight, but she was undeniably a “big-boned” gal, imposing in frame and stature. She could sing a light phrase, barely using any vocal energy, and yet the tone would slam out into the house. Singing the same phrase, an octave lower, I would have to crank-it-up to seventy percent volume just to match her. The fact that she had an enormous resonance chamber, and was singing at a higher pitch, allowed her to make more sound with less energy.

Another California-bred soprano, Carol Neblett, was another perfect example of this. Tall, statuesque, large-boned, and capable of tremendous power.

But getting back to lifespan. Many of the great singers of the past, from the mid-nineteenth century up through the early part of  the twentieth, made their debuts in leading roles at major opera houses while still quite young. Some in their teens. But there was another strongly-held conviction, much-espoused during my youth, that a singer who started performing too early would ruin their voice. I remember preposterous tales of singers who practiced nothing but scales and Lieder until the age of thirty, thereafter bursting magically upon the music scene fresh and unscathed. I never met such a singer, but the rumors were rampant.

I think the proponents of the "wait until you're middle aged philosophy" misinterpreted a natural demise of singers who sang early and hard. But I stress the term “natural demise.”  Other than for an exceptional few, a singer’s career, at the top of their game, is about twenty years. And that may be pushing it.

A singer is essentially an athlete who creates tone using a specialized set of muscles in the throat and body. And there are some interesting parallels in the world of sports where talent that blossomed early and faded quickly can give us insight into the life-cycle of a singer. 

A case in point is Wilfredo Benitez, the great Puerto Rican welterweight boxing champion.  He won his first crown at age seventeen. Remarkable in every way, he took world championships in three different divisions by the time he was in his late twenties. But then, to the astonishment of boxing fans, he started to slip. His speed, accuracy, and stamina began to wane seemingly overnight, and he resembled a much older fighter as he was trounced by a young Sugar Ray Leonard.

Sports commentators made disparaging remarks about the eroding skills of a man so young, and no one could rationalize this sudden deterioration.  Explanations that pointed to drugs, life-style, and brain damage were widespread. But investigations and medical tests provided no evidence for this. The boxing community was baffled.

Finally, an ex-fighter/commentator provided the most astute assessment.  He said, "Benitez is a young man - but he's an old fighter."  He went on to explain that Benitez had been a professional much longer than most of his elders, and had simply exhausted his physical prowess.  It was not that he had damaged what he had, but rather that he had used it all up.

Fans bemoaned the end of his championship reign and attributed tragic proportions to the event. I preferred to view it in a more positive light. At the age of thirty, with his fortune made and his financial security assured, he was free to pursue whatever path he chose. What could be better?  

Do I mean to insinuate that physical abilities have a limited and predestined life span?  Perhaps - in general terms. I once knew an Italian tenor who believed that he had a limited number of high C’s in his throat.  He never sang them in rehearsal, convinced that every one used would bring him one note closer to the end of his career. You might laugh as I did, but interestingly, recent research on honey bees indicates workers are born with the ability to beat their wings only a predetermined number of times. When they’ve beat them all - they die.   

There is no way to know if this has any relevance to human physiology. It might simply be that after a certain period of time involved in any single endeavor some people merely lose their competitive edge, representing a death of desire and determination more than anything else. But one thing is indisputable: the percentage of singers, dancers and athletes who have remarkably long careers is quite small. Those who manage to stay near the top of their game for decades are the exception, not the rule.  Specimens like Nolan Ryan, George Foreman, and Placido Domingo are icons of the superlative in their respective worlds.

My point is this: sing whenever and whatever you are capable of singing while the talent is upon you. Seize the moment. Don't leave it in dressing room, and don't leave it unsung. You never know if you’ll get another chance.


Charles Long
www.convictedartist.com

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Boxing is an opera done without audible music, but the fighters have their own personal rhythm in their heads and they sing with their fists and dance with their footwork. .Music, art and boxing are all rhythmic and mathematic.
 
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