December 14, 2011

The Lustrous Voice of Emily Magee


Emily Magee

Spinto sopranos don't grow on trees. Some never even find their voices if they remain in the choir, which can stifle with the insistence on blending. But that fate did not await Emily Magee, an American who has had a career based largely in Europe. She found her way to Indiana University and into the voice studio of the great vocal pedagogue Margaret Harshaw after undergraduate studies at Westminster Choir College. Magee's voice is big, full, lustrous and beautiful, with a laser-like focus that echoes Ms. Harshaw's own singing.

You can hear Magee sing in the clip below (thanks to Paulo Faustini) in a concert performance of Salome, a work which demands that the singer be equipped to sing with declamatory production. This requires that the singer hold the vocal tube firmly in a lengthened position, not an easy thing to do by any means. It's also not a thing you start out doing at the beginning of your career, rather, it's reserved for your 40's when you have great stamina and strength. It's what Old School teachers taught their students: you start out singing lyrically and add dramatic roles as you progress- slowly of course. Say you start your career at 25: this means at least a decade of saying no to offers of roles that put you at risk, assuming, of course, that you have the kind of voice that evinces a dramatic arc. Obviously, Magee has the voice, training and smarts to run the gauntlet.

This lengthened position of the vocal tube? Manuel García called it Somber Timbre in A Complete Treatise on the art of Singing (First Part, Complete and Unabridged, The editions of 1841 and 1872 collated, edited and translated by Donald V. Paschke, Da Capo Press, 1984).

The tongue, the base of which is drawn by the lowering of the larynx, represents an elongated arch, and the sonorous body has received a long form, bent at a right angle and rather contracted. The column of air which rises vertically strikes against the palatal arch. The sound is heard round, full, and covered; it is what is called mixed voice, or sombre timbre. 
This enlargement becomes especially perceptible when the singer gives to the voice all the volume which it can allow, although the tones are otherwise very weak; this fact merits being recorded. This exaggeration of volume can take place only in the conditions of the sombre timbre and with violent efforts.  

The danger of singing with sombre timbre coupled with great volume is, of course, the extinguishing of the voice itself. This is why great teachers like Pauline Viardot-García maintained that modern music (c. 1900) was "almost always fatal to the voice."

This is seriously solid and handsome singing. The kind that displays decades of learning and skillful use of resources. You don't get to this stage in your career by hurrying. You have to know what you are doing, and it is clear that Emily Magee does.


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