The operatic voice is globally renowned and revered for its incredible soaring notes, vocal complexity and emotional allure. Operatic voices can be found globally, however, I was particularly captivated by the voice of one young Opera singer: Shafali Jalota. Shafali is a sophomore at UNC majoring in music with a voice concentration. Shafali has been singing for approximately 10 years and aspires to pursue a career in opera.
There are innumerable elements that make Shafali’s voice alluring. However, I can group what distinguishes her voice as captivating into four ‘categories’ so to speak: her accomplished operatic technique and skill, her age, her expression of emotion and her self-awareness.
Shafali is clearly talented, her voice is immediately distinguishable by its accomplished operatic technique and skill. Shafali has what she would define as a “light, adaptable, fast-moving and fairly high” voice. Her voice is pleasurable to listen to; recording with Shafali is akin to a private opera concert. She is able to hit incredible notes, incorporate effects such as vibrato or passaggio, move quickly between lyrics and pitches. She achieves a mature sound that reflects both her talent and intense music study and practice.
Associated with the remarkability of her talent is her age. Shafali, 20, is a very young opera singer and her talent is all the more remarkable for this. The clarity of her singing voice, the absence of age-induced strain or rasp, is a testament to her youth. You can also hear the youth in her spoken voice, though she is mature in speech. Though her youth makes her talent even more admirable, it also, according to Shafali, means that she is yet to master and perfect certain operatic techniques.
This, Shafali’s vocal self-awareness or critique, is also fascinating. Listening to Shafali describe her own voice and the vocal effects she is attempting to master provides insight into the depth of her technical training and knowledge. In listening to how Shafali understands her own voice and operatic style I am further drawn to and impressed by the complexity of her sound and Shafali’s commitment to perfection.
Though opera is renowned for its auditory beauty it is also known for its conveyance of emotion and storytelling in numerous languages. In many ways Shafali’s expression of emotion is an amalgamation and defiance of what has been previously mentioned about her captivating voice. Shafali’s technical skill and constant self-correction enables her to express through her voice a variety of different emotions that generate a response in the audience. However, in many ways this communication of sophisticated emotion defies the limitations of her age. Shafali is is yet to experience many of the situations and emotions that ground an opera. Despite this, she is able to vocalize the pain, joy or anger that each piece requires with authenticity and believability.
The following sound excerpts focus primarily on Shafali’s operatic technique and skill. She demonstrates several operatic techniques and explains the physiology and training that goes into perfecting these effects. Throughout the excerpts we are made privy to the depth of Shafali’s training and self-awareness and criticism. Shafali invites a critical ear into her performance and openly explores what skills she needs to improve and perfect as she matures as an opera singer. She workshops the whistle tone and an accompanying clip features a vocal coach explaining the physiological difficulty of this tone. In the other excerpts Shafali deconstructs and demonstrates fast-paced operatic sound, passaggio and vocalizing emotion. These excerpts provide a glimpse into the evolving, skillful and multifaceted nature of the operatic voice.
Here, Shafali explains and demonstrates what is arguably opera’s most distinctive trait, vibrato. Vibrato or oscillation of the tone enables the voice to achieve a controlled quivering quality. Shafali sings two notes; one with vibrato and one without, which accentuates the difference between the two. The vibrato tone is rich and colorful and pleasurable to listen to. The non-vibrato tone sounds flat and unpleasant by comparison, though in actuality it is likely a perfectly fine note. The fact that both examples are sung on the same note, for the same length of time, yet have a remarkably different sound and aesthetic appeal is fascinating. Moreover, listening to Shafali’s explanation is captivating in itself, as she cannot completely remove the vibrato quality from her voice, even when she tries. It is apparent that with operatic training can come a “vibrato default.” The fact that operatic technique is easier and more natural for an opera singer to achieve than a ‘normal’ singing voice is alluring and unique.
In this recording we hear Shafali demonstrating what a fast-moving operatic passage sounds like. She sings an excerpt from Bach's Cantata 51, a German piece. The note values are short and as such the rapidity of vocal movement is highly captivating. She starts on a lower pitch and swiftly moves between different pitches until she reaches the highest note and begins the passage back down. What makes this unique is that while she reaches high notes, Shafali is not merely moving steadily up in pitch but rather leaps up and then skips back down in a split second. An incredible amount of breath support and control over the larynx and vocal folds is required to achieve this effect. Underpinning this rapid movement is a vibrato that contributes to the sound’s overall modulated oscillating quality. Here, the notion of a slow, soaring opera is challenged by the dynamic complexity of operatic sound.
Opera is commonly known and revered for its amalgamation of different art forms. As renowned director of theatre and opera, Diane Paulus said,"Opera is the ultimate art form. It has singing and music and drama and dance and emotion and story." In this recording expression of emotion in opera is explored. The operatic voice is remarkable in that it, standing alone, is able to communicate the intense emotion that grounds the operatic plot. Acting, costuming and staging all play a role in communicating emotion in live opera but the voice does not depend upon these elements to tell a story. Changes in tone, rhythm, pitch and volume all contribute to creating an entirely different sound and therefore emotion. This clip compares the same operatic excerpt but sounding either sad or angry. The sad tone has much more vibrato and a cascading, legato movement between notes. Contrastingly the angry tone is staccato, the words are crisply cut off and the sound has a biting quality to it. The comparison between the two emotional sounds accentuates the versatility and expressiveness of the operatic voice.
This recording commences with a build up to a high passaggio or voice transition. The voice travels higher and higher until it reaches a point where it is incredibly high with a whistling quality, but a little strained. Shafali then workshops her own voice and provides an in-depth technical explanation as to why she couldn’t achieve the sound she was aiming for. This explanation is highly captivating as it brings to life the physiology of vocal production. The voice goes from being an abstract, intangible concept to a concrete system of physical relationships, in this case between the larynx and the tongue. However, it is not only the dissection of vocal production here that is captivating but also Shafali’s awareness of her sound and needs for improvement. She clearly demonstrates how directly slight physiological adjustments impact the voice. In this recording then, we hear both a transformation of sound, and the manner in which it is achieved.
In the previous recording a whistling quality, otherwise known as a whistle tone, was audible. This register so named for the airy, whistle-like sound the voice makes at very high pitches, is difficult to achieve. In this recording vocal coach Roger Burnley dissects the physiology of the whistle register and emphasizes the difficulty of mastering it. In the previous recording Shafali explored what would enable her to effectively reach incredibly high notes. However, here Burnley focuses specifically in on the whistle tone in intricate detail. He describes how the air moves and where it travels through in order to produce such a sound. Later on in the tutorial he highlights that a tiny gap in the vocal folds enables this small, whistling, passage of air. Listening to Burnley animatedly describe the voice purely physiologically with no vocal illustration is unique. The vocal world is transported into one of reason, logic and cause and effect. This is interesting because most often we don’t associate singing, particularly operatic singing, with pragmatism. Burnley’s voice itself is practical, educational and rhythmic. By discussing the voice in such technical, physiological detail Burnley’s voice makes us privy to the multi-faceted nature of opera. Opera is emotional, willful and sensational but also deliberate, trained and grounded in physiology.