GREAT VOICES ON GREAT SINGING
by JEROME HINES
Nicolai Gedda has had a long career as one of the premier tenors in the world. He mad his debut in 1952 in Stockholm, the city of his birth, in Adam’s POSTILLON DE LONGJUMEAU, but he had been singing in church long before his operatic beginning. Producer Walter Legge engaged him for what proved to be a long phonographic affiliation with EMI in England, and the series of recordings Gedda made beginning in the fifties introduces his pure, sweet voice to millions and hastened his rise to eminence. He is known as a superb stylist and for his outstanding diction. Every syllable he sings can be clearly heard and understood whether the language is Italian, French, German, Russian, or English. He mad his Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role of FAUST in 1957 and has been associated with the company for more than twenty years. Some of his roles have been Hoffmann in TALES OF HOFFMANN, Lensky in EUGENE ONEGIN, and Belmonte in DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL.
If any key word epitomizes the career of Nicolai Gedda, it is style. I was immediately aware of it that night in 1957 when the young tenor debuted at the Met in Gounod’s Faust. I was the Méphistophélès in that evening’s performance, and I was very impressed by Nicky’s rare combination of beautiful voice and clear enunciation, as well as profound sense of French style. This initial impression was strongly reinforced when I later heard his Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Again beautiful voice and impeccable enunciation, but this time in Italian, and a clean Mozartean style. Over the years I have sung with this talented man in everything from Verdi to Moussorgsky, and always it is the same satisfying experience. Nicky’s sense of style for each composer is well known and respected by all of his colleagues. And all of this has always been matched by a beautiful, polished technique. How much of this was molded into his life and how much was just his nature?
Nicky and I sat down in a Met dressing room where
we spent a very pleasant two and a half hours. Our tenor was born in Stockholm
of a Russian father and a Swedish mother. Undoubtedly, his extraordinary
linguistic ability had been stimulated by the experiences of his early
life. His native language was Swedish, but at the age of three he was taken
to live in Germany, only to return to the land of his birth at the age
of nine. To complicate the linguistic situation further, he sang in a Russian
choir while in Leipzig, where his father was the choir director and cantor
in the Russian Orthodox church. It was there that his father began teaching
him to sing as well as to play the harmonium.
Nicky attended college in Sweden, graduating with a degree in Latin and history in 1945. In addition to being trilingual from childhood, his college education added Latin, English, and French to his repertoire, giving him mastery (and I mean mastery) of six languages.
After his graduation he took a job in a bank, singing on the side, but only in church. He was looking for a singing teacher, and one of the clients at the bank took him to the Swedish tenor Carl Martin Oehman, who had discovered Jussi Björling when he was young.
"He taught me about support," Nicky began. "First
of all, he said, 'Your posture must always be erect. It is very important,
when you are on stage, to hold the chest as high as possible.' "
"How do you take a breath to sing?" I asked.
"The only muscles which should work are these ..." He indicated the area just under the ribs in the front. "That's my diaphragm. When you inhale you fill the lower parts of the lungs first, so automatically your ribs have a movement out. The support is the movement, with the help of your abdomen, under the sides of the rib cage."
"If you sing a high note," I asked, "what do you feel with regard do the diaphragm?"
"I think it's a double kind of movement ... of working of muscles ... even up a little. It's both."
"Like a pressure and counterpressure?"
"Yes. Of course you can't write it down, but it's like a bowel movement. [Who says I can't write it down?] If one could see through the body, I would say that the rib cage, through that muscle work, is expanding outward ... and something in between is holding it up. The outer muscles below the ribs have a tendency to go out. You use your chest also as a resonator ... as a support."
"Would the lower abdominal muscles be pushing up too?"
"I really don't have any concern about lower muscles. I don't feel any ..."
"What else did you learn from Oehman besides support?" I asked.
"He explained to me the mask ... the bone structures under the eyes. We have cavities behind the nose, under both eyes. The tone has to travel through the throat and be placed above the nose, and we play with the tone in all of those cavities. Of course, too many think that to sing in the mask means to sing nasal sounds. Very often older singers have very nasal tones, many also in the Russian school."
"Some people say the throat should feel as though it were nonexistent," I said.
"That I believe in, yes! My first teacher taught that the position of the throat, when singing, should be the same position you have when you are yawning: wide open without any muscles ... no tension whatsoever. So I think you should forget about the throat. By inhaling properly, as when you yawn, your Adam's apple automatiqually goes into a low position."
"Would you agree," I probed, "that we are only speaking of the beginning of the yawn?"
"Yes! Yes! Now, I don't just take a breath and exercise. I do a whole procedure. I have the mouth closed and I inhale ... not through the nostrils only ... but deeper, so I have a sensation behind the nose."
"Do you mean feeling the sensation also in the sinuses?"
"Yes. I have the impression that I open all those cavities." With that Nicky demonstrated.
"I hear a slight sighing sound," I said. "You try to produce a sinus resonance as you inhale?"
"Exactly," was his enthusiastic reply. "And that gives me the sensation that, when I start to sing, I already have the mask open."
"What else did Oehman contribute to your technique?"
"He was very severe about the pronunciation of the consonants, especially in the beginning of the word, so every consonant would be heard clearly. In bel canto, energetic pronunciation of these consonants should not ruin the line. They should come at the very last moment after a vowel."
"Some people stay too much on the first consonant, like mmmmee, and they tense everything because of it," I said.
"True. He had that fault, my first teacher–yes. I had to moderate that. But, for instance, the Italian word tremo ... trrr ... trremo... you can take your time there. The m is more dangerous. He sometimes overdid it and the vowel was not proper.
"Another rule is, whatever you sing, in whatever position, or key, the consonant with which you start a word should be on the same height as your vowel. If you sing, for example mio on a high note ..." He demonstrated.
"Ha," I said, "m is a sounding consonant, and its sound must be on the same pitch as the vowel you are about to sing."
"You've obviously thought a lot about proper use of consonants. No wonder you are well known for your excellent diction in all languages."
"I can thank this man for that," he added.
"Going back to this rule," I said, "s is not a sounded consonant. Should it, just the same, be pitched correctly in the mind?"
"Yes. The consonants should help you produce the beautiful vowels."
"How many years did you study with Oehman before you debuted in opera?"
"Did you use a regular system of scales?"
"I don't think my first teacher had any routine. My second one, Novicova, did. Her system was scales, first with rather small intervals, like:
"These are usually fast-moving scales?" I asked.
"Yes. Then she would do arpeggios":
"What vowels did you use?"
"First ah, and then the other vowels. Then she would finish it off with:
And every exercise I do this ..." He domonstrated again
the slow breathing through the nose.
"She also taught me the sorriso [smile] position of the mouth ... a slight smile."
"Now tell me," I said, "what do head voice and chest voice mean to you?"
"Head voice to me means the falsetto. That is a tone that is absolutely unsupported. I have learned to sing a very high mezza voce, and I always support it. I can't sing falsetto anymore."
"What is the difference between an unsupported falsetto for a tenor and a supported pinissimo?" I asked.
"Falsetto ... it's very high-pitched, but a tone I cannot do anything with. Pianissimo ... I support it and I can make a crescendo on it."
"Did you always have a high pianissimo?"
"How did you acquire it?"
"It can only be acquired by working on the placement of the voice. The higher the voice is placed the more you can play with it."
"You mean high in the mask?"
"Yes. The more the voice is égalisée ... equalized ... there are absolutely no breaks in the voice from the low to the high ... no registers."
"Then the first step is to eliminate register changes as you go up," I said
"Absolutely! And that takes time. We tenors have those difficult notes in the passagio – F sharp, G – that have to be overcome."
"What would you recommend for smoothing out that passage?"
"As a tenor, for the position in the throat around F sharp and G, one must think of yawning even more. The ah should be covered. I was taught that one should think more an oh. It can't be an open ah, as in the lower register."
"You say you use more of the yawning position in the passage. Does that mean you think of holding the larynx down even more?"
"No! I think of it in terms of the working of the muscles of the diaphragm."
"More tension in the diaphragm as you go up?"
Do you think a little deeper as you go up?"
"A little deeper would be the right expression."
"Along with more spacing in the throat?"
"By that we mean in the larynx area, right?"
"Yes, It's very hard to explain."
"Of course, no student will be able to learn to sing solely from reading this book," I said.
"Definitely," was his firm reply. "You cannot overcome problems that come in different passages and pitches by listening to yourself. You need another ear."
"Back to the passagio for a moment," I said. "Some people say they can smooth it out by thinking a bit nasal in that critical range."
"I would say yes ... it means exactly that. The tone has to be as much forward as possible ... not nasal ... but really in the mask. The thought is forward. You take a point somewhere there..." He indicated a point a foot or more in front of his face. "And you sing to that point."
"When you say forward you mean ... ?"
"It's all up here," he said, indicating the mask."
"And you don't think in terms of using the throat?"
"I was taught to sing the vowels."
"In other words, if you sing the correct vowels, you sing properly," I prompted.
"If you hear the great singers of the past there are always pure vowels. If I teach, I will stress very much that young people learn the languages and pronunciation."
"The French say that the non-French singers who speak the language sing French better than the French, because the French are exaggerating the nasals too much. They're closing and they lose the line."
"French should be slightly Italianized," I offered.
"Exactly! Of course, we should say sans ..." He demonstrated the French nasal vowel. "But the French are overdoing it. I was lucky to work with people who were very, very strict with legato, expression, line, and style. The fact that I was brought up with Mozart is very important ... as for instance, you have a gruppetto ..."
"What's a gruppetto?" I asked.
as in La Calunnia," he said, giving me an example
from the bass repertoire. "If you have something like that in Donizetti,
or in Italian opera, you always have an aspirated h in between.
That's a crime in Mozart. Also in Schubert Songs. And also, the more you
speak and pronounce the language, the more help you get. You find the essence
of the style."
It was most appropriate that the interview ended with the word "style". Of course, there are some famous singers who have had great style which they used effectively to disguise their shameful lack of technique. But Nickey's style has nothing do hide: it is more than matched by the masterful use of his voice.