Lily Melendez

Mini Ethnography: The Culture of Opera

During the 17th century in Western Europe, the arts experienced an unprecedented way of engineering stories, communicating the human experience, and cultivating a community of professional vocalists–all through the development of opera. This intense artistic performance challenged conventional notions of voice, forcing artists to confront their bodily restrictions to convey power, volume, and depth. However, assessing the genre of storytelling in the 21st century, there seems to be a lack of knowledge surrounding the ingenuity and technical practice of the operatic culture. In order to grasp the culture as well as understand the lives of these vocal performers, I am intrigued to reconsider the practice and examine the applications and techniques that sustain the art form. I believe it is important to acknowledge opera not only for its influence on vocal technique and the creation of a solo singer professionalism but also as a means of conveying cultural values, including gender roles, social assumptions of voice, mediated voice, and vocal authenticity to name a few. 

In considering this particular culture, I engaged in various methods to gain insight on the practice. Specifically, I observed an interview of Naomi Merer, a soprano graduate student specialized in voice, in which I was able to learn the technique and categorizations of voice based on gender and pitch. I also collected notes by watching opera performances and understanding its historical reception through lectures and readings. Finally, I observed the live vocal lesson of professional singer, Isabel Bayrakdarian and undergraduate mezzo-soprano, Terra Giddens. This method was especially useful in appreciating the discipline and how the diaphragm, vocal cords, tongue, and body movements coalesce to create vocal timbre, volume, and range. 

After conducting this research, I acknowledged individual perspectives and realized the amount of discipline and training needed to fully establish the operatic voice. Naomi Merer, in describing her experiences, helped me understand ‘affect,’ the overwhelming emotional response granted through a highly mediated voice. Merer reveals the practice is not so defined in the specific words being said, despite opera being sung in Italian, German, Russian, and several other languages. In reality, singers are required only to translate the content with an emphasis on diction, the pronunciation of words, for the sole purpose of connecting with their audience. Essentially, they are the conduits of information. Even if the audience has no familiarity with the language, they can fully conceive the story through the artist’s distinct vocal manipulation. Merer notes how she emphasizes certain connotative words like “fire” and “love,” while using her body to accompany her voice, creating readable facial expressions and contorting her torso to denote anguish or strength. The goal of these extreme vocal demands, the active resistance against one’s body to create fluid sounds, is to manifest empathy from the audience. 

With this interview as well as lecture, I was able to note the ‘recitative’ style of speaking in song was as much facilitated through vocal pitch as convinced through bodily gestures of nonverbal communication. This idea was furthered by watching the live performance of Terra Giddens as the instructor, Bayrakdarian discusses how opera is mediated through a duality of embodiment and disembodiment simultaneously. While the singer takes full ownership of her voice and the narrative, the voice also becomes a character in itself. In a sense, the voice, as mediated by the singer’s physiological rendering, seemingly floats above the rigidity of the body and becomes a material we can visualize. The instructor adds to this element of voice being mediated as one that allows her to ‘elevate from the mundane.’ At first, Giddens was focused on the technical apparatus of her voice, attending to the position of her tongue, her facial muscles, her breathing shifts, and tension of her diaphragm in producing the correct notes and rhythms required by the song from La bohème. Yet, when the pianist began playing the chords, the singer’s voice and character were completely magnified. Giddens was singing with feeling; I could see the character she was embodying and note her emotions as the voice shifted with breaks and lifts. The mechanical technique became automatic as her soul was involved, and the authenticity of the story was fully realized. 

Overall, in exploring these ideas of voice as a mediated form of expression and authenticity, I was able to delineate differing values and expectations required for the performers to participate in this culture. Particularly, both Merer and Giddens unfolded how voice is extremely categorized and dissected based on one’s vocal range, timbre, and even gender. Women are commonly divided into groups like soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto which are higher in pitch; whereas, men are diverted into lower tones including tenor, baritone, and bass. Voice is both aesthetically and culturally tied to the binary conventions of gender and the curation of voices that perpetuate prejudiced behaviors. Reading on opera singer, Juliana Snapper’s experiences, I perceived how much of the female roles encapsulate stereotypes of hysteria and a sense of powerlessness. Historically, women were disenfranchised to perform, with men often being castrated to feign and mediate the ‘female’ soprano voice.  It was challenging for me to ascertain how opera functioned in this way that suppressed women and other minorities to perform and express their voices. Nonetheless, through researching the lives and history of these vocalists, my conceptions of voice have changed. I have more appreciation for operatic singers for they must actively resist their bodies to give us a fully-realized depiction of the human experience. It is hoped that opera as a culture continues to challenge the conventions of voice by also granting new voices a chance to express their authentic narratives.

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