Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Brünnhilde Myth

Brünnhilde, the lead soprano character from Richard Wagner's opera The Ring Cycle, gave birth, over time, to the caricature that women in opera are big, buxom ladies with huge breasts over their huge lungs, able to shake the rafters and break glass with their massive voices.

It has led to perpetuating the myth that women who do not fit this stereotype won't have as impressive voices. A few days ago, I watched a video of Aretha Franklin knocking down the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., bringing President Obama to tears, and making Michelle Obama and Carole King nearly fall off the balcony with an incredibly powerful rendition of King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Aretha is, of course, of a certain age, and that age has brought a larger body type. She fits that stereotype of the big woman with the big voice. But she also had that roof-shaking voice when she was younger, and much more svelte.

And take the case of a personal favorite, Sara Bareilles. I could nitpick a few things about her performance in this video, but the fact remains that she supports just fine, and she is a pretty average body type. Or Idina Menzel--I'm known for criticizing her annoying habit of gasping for breath when she sings, but once she gets that air in, she can support like anyone else. "Defying Gravity," after all, is no easy song to sing. (But gah, that gasping. I can't un-hear it.)

This morning, on Twitter, a feminist blogger I follow Tweeted of her lifelong love of Celine Dion, and added a postscript:

The Celine-vs.-Adele debate is not why I'm here, and I'm also not here to discuss why I don't necessarily think Adele is as great as everyone else thinks she is. (I find most of her music either really boring, or sad to the point where I get anxious listening to it, so I avoid her. Otherwise, I think she's lovely.)

But I took immediate issue with the comment from @jurph, positing that "big girls" support and sustain better.

I am not offended by his statement. It is simply untrue.

Look, I've been at both ends of the spectrum, and I've been singing through the whole adventure. I suppose you could say I've been singing since I was old enough to vocalize, but for music nerd purposes, let's start when I was fifteen and had my first voice lesson. It was obvious from the start that I had a decent instrument to start with--a pleasing voice and a good ear, developed over eight previous years of piano lessons. To top that, I already knew something about breath control from four years of playing clarinet. The purpose of the singing lessons was to help me learn how to access all parts of my voice that I hadn't previously explored--namely, my head voice and soprano range--and how to navigate my way through the passagio in a healthy way. (Side note--my biggest beef with singers like Adele, Kelly Clarkson, and others is that they belt their way through the passagio and head voice--that is unhealthy. It's why many of these women end up postponing tour dates because the doctor told them, "vocal rest.")

At fifteen, sixteen years old, I looked like this (I was, as now, 5'2", and I was about a size 9-10, if I recall correctly):

I was not in any way, shape, or form a runner or athlete, but I was not as big as I would get about ten years later. I was able to sing well enough, to support, and to even sing loud. My biggest problems with volume came more with confidence--I was still learning how to make my voice work, and therefore, I tended to shrink back more than let go.

Let's fast-forward through college to my thirtieth birthday, when I was at my biggest (still 5'2", but now a size 18-20, weighing in at about 220 pounds).

My this point in my life, I had spent fifteen years singing--private lessons, several semester of choir at Chico, a community jazz choir, and a few semester of singing techniques at the local junior college. The year I turned thirty, I joined Stockton Chorale. I had my full adult vocal power, and could sustain, support, and channel my head voice as well as ever.

It had nothing to do with my weight.

It had everything to do with time, training, and practice.

If you read this blog, you know the story--that year, when I was thirty, I went on a big, new adventure. I started working with a trainer. The weight started to fall off. Through three-and-a-half years of weight loss, my voice did not change. My lung capacity did not change.

However, I did get even better at supporting. How?

Because I was in better shape.

I like to say that being a singer helped me learn how to breathe for running. I know how to get a lot of air into my lungs quickly, and how to support my rib cage for optimal breathing. I do this instinctively when I run and work out because I'd already been doing it for years when singing. This whole wild fitness adventure has only strengthened my ability to breathe, to support, to sustain.

I could also argue that being in better shape has made singing longer concerts easier, with all of the stand-up-sit-down a choir does in the average performance--and, in some, no sit-down time. My back starts to hurt, but everything else can handle it.

For the record, this is what I look like these days (...still 5'2", weight is about 150 pounds, mostly muscle):

As I started writing this post, I opened a new tab and went to YouTube to find a few samples to link to. Listening to Idina Menzel singing Defying Gravity led me to a video of her singing "Take Me For What I Am" from RENT and, as I do in these situations, singing along. A recent sinus infection has had me singing a lot less than usual, and two weeks off from school has left me feeling relaxed and well-rested. I've also got the house to myself this weekend, so vocally, it was All Systems Go.

And I nailed it. It doesn't matter if I'm a size 6 or a size 18--my lungs were always the same size. What matters is my training, and the practice I put into it. What makes me an excellent singer goes beyond being able to sing a loud, long note, too--it's singing in tune, and knowing how to manipulate my voice in a healthy way to sound good. The size of my bust has no bearing on that.

Brünnhilde is just a character. Real singers come in every glorious size and shape possible.

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