January 22, 2011

Vocal Secrets of the Ancients

Some of the most interesting books I have come across have been all but forgotten. That is certainly the case with Evelyn Hagara's Vocal Secrets of the Ancients (1940). Hagara was a student of Giulia Valda (Julia Wheelock of Boston), a soprano with a near three-octave range who studied with Francesco Lamperti.

Valda had a flourishing career in Europe and America, making her debut in Milan in 1879 with Lamperti at her side (he also accompanied her to Paris and London). She subsequently sang lead roles in Verdi's Traviata, Ernani and Aida, along with forays into Wagner's Lohengin and Mozart's Don Giovanni, though considered her strongest role to be that of Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto. In 1886, she returned to New York to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi's Louisa Miller. After a twenty-year career, Valda opened the Lamperti-Valda School of Singing in Paris with Lamperti's widow in 1901. Hagara found Valda in the City of Lights when the latter was 90.* Despite her advanced age, Valda was able to impart to Hagara one of the essentials of Lamperti's School: the attack.



Giulia Valda (1850-1925) 


This grand old lady was truly an artist of the old school. Though ninety years of age, she possessed a vitality and magnetism of spirit seldom equalled. From her I learned the attack and the place of attack, the very fundamentals of vocal technique. Her age had created a vagueness in her own mind upon certain of the technicalities, but to her I owe the greatest gift which one person can give to another- in spite of her own limitations, she was able to open my mind to the intricacies of vocal production and create an awareness in me of those things which I needed to discover for perfection. It was her teachings which provided the clue to the knowledge that I had been seeking. (p. 16)

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There are two places of attack within the flute (larynx), one for chest voice and one for head voice. These two registers were taught by the ancients, and even by some of the more modern teachers. Jenny Lind, in a letter to one of her pupils, has stated, that she went to Berlin to study with Garcia expressly to learn the two places of attack, and it was not until after she learned this knowledge that she achieved her greatest success. 
After inhalation, the singer must prepare for the attack by pausing briefly so as to fill the flute with poised air which dilates the ventricles. Then, for the chest attack, a quick mental 'ah' is said at the base of the voice box. This releases the vocal lips and throws their entire lengths into vibration. When produced correctly, a remarkable vibration in the chest-box itself can be noticed. Lamperti said: "Open well the base of the flute, then attack the vowel 'ah'. The voice will soar out limpid, sonorous, and well 'appoggiata', in the pianissimo as well as in the forte. The is the most important to obtain, as the greatest part of one's career depends upon this knoweldge."
For this chest attack, the flute must be dilated horizontally and perpendicularly. The attacked "ah" must be sustained mentally for the duration of the note. When the vowel is attacked and sustained in this way, there will be no physical cramping or rigid holding of the vocal instrument, and it will be possible to move from note to note with a flexible ease which is felt by the singer and audience alike. The old Italian singing masters liked to refer to these evenly and freely produced notes which seem to spring instantaneously from one to another as "pearls on a string." This perfect joining of attacks produces the legato in singing. And Tosi, in 1723, lad down the axiom, 'He who cannot join his notes, cannot sing." (Chi non lega, non canta.)
The chest voice must emulate the organ, resounding and vibrating with great mellowness and depth of tone, and this can be produced only by rightly controlled breath. As explained before, this is the warmed breath, controlled by the trachea, and is sustained on the chest muscles. To "appoggio" (lean) is the term constantly stressed by the old masters. The chest tones are the foundation of the whole voice, both male and female, from basso to coloratura, and they support and impart strength to the entire vocal organ. 
The head voice differs in character from the chest voice. It is produced at the top of the flute.  Its tone possesses a flutey quality in the female voice and the so-called falsetto in the male voice. By this quality we know that the ventricle pockets at the top of the flute are dilating upward correctly. In a woman, this is the natural voice and easily regulated. In a man it is more difficult to attain mastery of these head muscles; but, once their correct manipulation has been acquired, tremendous power results. In the head-voice the cords shorten, thus increasing the number of vibrations. This gives a great carrying quality to the voice, permitting it to penetrate throughout the largest theatre and rise above the most powerful orchestra. At the same time the breath consumption is reduced, and it becomes possible to sustain these high flutey notes indefinitely. This ability to sustain the tone is one manner of determining if the tone is produced by the pure flute. These tones spring only from the top or head of the flute. The neck muscles must never hinder their production by contracting towards the larynx. On the contrary, these muscles must dilate from it perpendicularly and permit perfect freedom and flexibility of the vocal box. This is the mechanical production of tone. It represents only one-half of the final process and, in itself, does not result in beauty of quality. This only follows after the vibrating column of tone- tone, not breath- has been directed mentally to the very summit of the pharynx. Here it is amplified and reinforced as the many resonant cavities pick up the reverberations set into motion in the flute, and the phenomena of the head-tone, in all is aesthetic perfection and ethereal lyricism, result. (p. 36-40)


Notwithstanding the fact that Manuel Garcia did not teach Jenny Lind in Berlin, but rather, Paris, and the letter Hagara mentions remains to be found, I find it plausible that Valda's teaching on the attack is that of Francesco Lamperti (the reinforcement of tone at the top of the pharynx a 'Lamperti-ism'). Oral tradition, even when skewed, has a peculiar weight.

Of course, I've been curious about Hagara, but haven't as yet found any biographical information. A few fascinating things have been accounted for however: Hargara, with knowledge learned from Valda, was able to sustain a tone for three minutes, which was duly recorded in by Robert L. Ripley of Believe It Or Not fame. She also starred in the 1936 Western "Señor Jim".

I obtained a copy of Vocal Secrets of the Ancients at Abebooks.com (actually, I have two, which says something about my bibliomania, doesn't it?) which is signed - To a glorious voice, Jack Dennis, Sincerely, Hagara, Nov. 20 '40 Portland Oregon. The text is scribbled full with annotations, presumably by Mr. Dennis, which compliment and clarify the text. You can't do better than that.


*Since this post was written, I've learned Valda's birth and death date which indicate that Hagara misjudged her teacher's age: Valda died at the age of 70 and did not teach into her 90's. Of course, this leaves one with more questions than answers.

2 comments:

  1. I took a few lessons in 1969 or 1970 from a woman in Houston, TX, by the name Evelyn Hagara. She was 'up in years,' I would say 70's or 80's at that time. There were always many people milling about during the lessons & I had difficulty understanding her concept with the din. Could this be the Evelyn Hagara of which you write? She was a delightful and spirited lady whom I liked quite well. Her home/studio was near downtown on Westheimer Rd. Marilyn

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  2. Hi Marilyn,

    Thank you so much for your comment.

    Your teacher in Houston sounds like it could be the person in my post: the age, profession and name strongly suggest it. I'd love to find out more about her. It sounds like she was a very busy and successful teacher. The archive at a major Houston paper might tell one more, especially if it carried her obit. I'll have to look into that.

    Please do let me know if you remember any of her teaching.

    All best regards,

    Daniel

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I welcome your comments.