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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 9

The Voice that Charms

by Wah Keung Chan / June 1, 2002

Version française...


The First edition of the JMMIC

When the movement of air from the lungs is coordinated with the vocal cords, the resulting buzz is amplified by the space of the throat and head to produce a beautiful tone. The sequencing of one rich tone after another is what creates the magic of music and song. In the talented singer a message is born; the listener takes notice. This month, 51 young international singers from 21 countries demonstrate this wonder of music-making at the First Jeunesses Musicales Montreal International Competition in Voice. Audiences who hear it live or follow along on worldwide radio broadcasts and webcasts have a unique opportunity to experience 51 unique approaches to singing and bear witness to the discovery of the next cohort of master singers.

What makes a Great Singer?

A good singing competition is every bit as exciting as a figure skating meet; both competitions are judged on technical and artistic merit. "Voice, musicality and presence are the criteria," said André Bourbeau, president of the jury. Technically, the characteristics of a great voice are timbre (colour and ability to project in a large hall), legato, flexibility (coloratura), dynamic range, and diction. The hallmarks of a great singer are the ability to make a good voice communicate the message and emotion carried by the text and the music.

Training the voice

When a musician charms an audience, most listeners are oblivious to the technical work and challenges required to achieve a beautiful tone. This is as it should be. The voice, however, holds a particular fascination because it is an instrument everyone possesses and because it is at the mercy of the physical and emotional state of the singer. The element of language (and vowels) in voice further distinguishes it from other musical instruments in its capacity to vary colour or timbre according to the musical requirements of the text. The classical and operatic repertoires require a voice that can carry above an orchestra and be heard in a 3000-seat hall. Building that voice takes years of training under the guidance of a good teacher. Unlike athletes and instrumental musicians, singers generally mature after age 25 and can enjoy careers of at least 25 years.

Voice training is one of the most challenging of artistic endeavours because the mechanism is hidden from view. Part of the mystery was revealed in 1855 when Manuel Garcia invented the laryngoscope, and today we know much more about the mechanics of the voice. Although there are almost as many teaching methods and techniques as there are teachers, the criteria for judging the voice have remained the same since Verdi's time.


The terms small or large are often used to describe voice, but such generalizations fail to properly describe the beauty of the tone or the colour of the voice and its ability to project in a large hall. The shape and size of the throat and head space above the vocal cords determine the individual sound of each voice. As a rule of thumb, just as a trumpet or horn gives a different timbre than a flute or piccolo, a larger space allows for a richer sound. Tone is the combination of complex frequencies and harmonics. Higher frequencies (2 Khz-4 kHz range) are responsible for "projection," the voice's ability to be heard in an auditorium. Voices that sound "large" up close but are perceived as muffled from the balcony are missing energy in this frequency range.

Cultural differences (bone structure and spoken language) also play a role in producing the timbre of the voice. For instance, Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle and Jussi Bjorling all had moon-shaped faces. Italian is acknowledged to be the best language for singing because of its open spoken vowels. The dark Eastern European sound can probably be attributed to the inherent use of back space in the spoken language. Many voice professionals attribute France's poor output of great voices to the narrow forward spoken tones. English possesses its particular difficulties because of the variations in its vowel sounds. Nonetheless, North Americans of this generation continue to shine in Italian and German opera due to their rigorous training in languages.

Range and Evenness of Registers

Most amateur voices have a limited natural singing range surrounding the spoken range due to a lack of optimal coordination. It is not surprising then that the preoccupation of most students is the high notes. Classical repertoire and opera require a range of two or more octaves. Depending on the individual vocal technique, singers may have one, two, or three different ways (registers) for singing high notes, middle range (mezza voce), and low notes. A professional voice has an evenness throughout the entire range, in which changes in registers are not perceptible to the audience. Ideally, each note from top to bottom rings with the same quality of resonance and vibrato.


The ability to connect notes and vowels together in a smooth, natural, even line is another demonstration of the mastery of the vocal arts.


Handel, Rossini and Donizetti are composers who used coloratura runs as a dramatic device. Some singers are born with the ability to sing rapid notes; others master this ability through hard work. Marilyn Horne, Cecilia Bartoli and Ewa Podles are examples of singers who can bring a house down with fiery coloratura singing.

Dynamic Range

To fulfill the expectations of both composers and audiences, singers must be able to float high notes and sing loudly without changing the quality of the tone, i.e., the audience should not sense that the singer is about to blow a gasket. One of the most difficult skills is the mezza di voce, the ability to swell a note to fortissimo and then bring it down to pianissimo. The result must sound seamless and effortless. When executed on a high note, the result is the "money note," one of the most thrilling and moving experiences in singing.


Good diction is required if the message of the text is to be transmitted. Singers not possessing good diction must work until they master this skill. Joan Sutherland was one of the very few great singers who got away with mushy singing.

The Jeunesses Musicales Montreal International Competition

The list of semifinalists and the statistics of the JMMIC reveals some interesting trends in the current state of singing. Of the 281 applicants, 21% were invited to the semi-finals. Of countries with 5 or more applicants, Romania achieved the most success with 3 out of 7 applicants. France had a dismal rate of 7%. The 21 countries represented show that the operatic singing voice has now achieved global reach. The 30 applications from Korea demonstrate the internationalization of the Western singing tradition. Of the five Korean semifinalists, three finished their studies in Europe and the other two are products of the American system. Only 100 years ago, North Americans flocked to European capitals for the best vocal training. Since the 1960s, however, the American university system of master's and doctoral programs have produced extremely well-trained musicians.

The last time Montreal hosted an international vocal competition nine years ago, 26 singers participated. American mezzo Phyllis Pancella, who had the most refined voice, took home the first prize. Mezzo Wendy Hoffmann was awarded second prize. Both now have respectable careers. Canadians placed well: Romanian-Canadian mezzo Annamaria Popescu won sixth place and has since launched a promising international career.

Since the last international voice competition Canada has emerged as a powerhouse in voice, taking firsts in major international competitions in the past two years. Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux won the grand prize in the Queen Elisabeth International Competition in June 2000; soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian took first in Placido Domingo's Operalia in August 2000; and soprano Gillian Kieth and mezzo Stephanie Marshall won the Kathleen Ferrier Competition in successive years. With 16 Canadian singers in the semifinals, the competition has an element of Canada vs. The World; in truth, based on the numbers, it would be Canada vs. Eastern European, Korea and the United States.

Canadians to watch

  • Measha Brueggergrosman
    With by far the most publicly recognized name in English Canada, 25-year-old soprano Measha Brueggergosman's inconsistent technique has marred her last two Montreal appearances. If she musters her natural form, she should be considered a favourite.
  • Krisztina Szabó
    Krisztina Szabó's clear, well-projected mezzo has scored critical success in leading roles with Opera Atelier and the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio. Her experience and poise should set her apart.
  • Melanie Krueger
    Vocally, B.C. coloratura soprano Melanie Krueger's Olympia aria from Les contes d'Hoffman was the highlight of the Young Lyric Ambassadors's December 9 Gala in Montreal. The voice simply soared over the orchestra. If she pays more attention to the interpretive line, she may make the finals.
  • Kimy McLaren
    Soprano Kimy McLaren was remarkable in the role of the composer in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Orford student opera atelier's production last summer. At age 25, her lack of experience may work against her, but she may surprise us.

Find me a tenor

The world-wide drought in good tenors continues even though Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu was a controversial double winner in last year's Cardiff Singer of the World competition. The JMMIC will feature only one tenor, 24-year-old American John Matz. In all, 28 sopranos, 9 mezzos, 1 tenor, and 13 basses and baritones will compete, including many winner of other competitions. An example is Korean baritone Daesan No, winner of the lieder prize at the 1999 Cardiff Singer of the World and former student of Louis Quilico.


The jury is composed of six legendary singers (Teresa Berganza, Grace Bumbry, Marilyn Horne, Joseph Rouleau, Cesare Siepi and Jon Vickers) and one musicologist (Gilles Cantagrel). It is likely to put emphasis on voice and musicality. Contestants are graded on a scale of 0–100 with no consultation amongst the judges. Results from the semi-finals will not carry over to the finals.


La Scena Musicale will cover the competition in its entirety; visit <http://en.scena.org > for reviews following each day's events on May 30 and 31 and June 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7. Visit www.jeunessesmusicales.com for ticket information. La Chaîne Culturelle and CBC Radio 2 will broadcast the finals live on the radio. The entire competition is available on the Internet at .

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