December 31, 2012

Callas & Tomatis


I was listening to Mad About Music on New York City's local classical station WQXR on Sunday evening, and heard the subject of the program, Renée Fleming, remark that she once spent a year asking people why Maria Callas lost her voice. Fleming's conclusion at the end of that year? That Callas' weight loss affected her "core muscles," and ultimately, her voice. Fleming made this observation since she felt changes in "support" in her own voice when she was pregnant- the conclusion being that weight plus muscle makes for support. Without delving into the merits of Fleming's argument, I remembered a curious story told to me by my friend and colleague Roberta Prada, who translated Tomatis' work The Ear and the Voice from French into English with the good doctor's permission. Roberta obtained a letter regarding Callas' audio-vocal training (you can find Roberta Prada's full site here and more context on the letter here) which reveals one very curious thing: Callas, who knew little of Tomatis' method when she consulted him in 1955, was self-aware enough to know that there was something wrong with her right ear. 


I am coming because my right ear is unable to control my tune.  - Maria Callas 


Callas consulted with Tomatis three times, and underwent audio-vocal training twice - the first time in 1955. The first two times, Callas only needed two weeks of audio-vocal training to regain full function. The third time, however, her voice was in such disarray that Tomatis recommended she stay in Paris for three months. Because she was unwilling to change the rhythm of her life and her travel with  Onassis, she never underwent further audio-vocal training. 

What is one to make of this? If Tomatis is to believed, weight loss had little to do with the matter. Rather, the 'core muscles' that needed work were those of the ear. How curious it is that singers and singing teachers take these two muscles for granted. Unseen and unfelt, their inner workings are unknown but to the curious and observant. 

I have my own 10 cent theory of why Callas experienced vocal difficulties. It's a simple observation, one based on Tomatis' theories and my work in the studio. And it is this: emotion affects the ear and the voice.

A neighbor's mother loses her husband and experiences a sudden loss of hearing. A student arrives for his lesson after an intense week of stress at work, ring and high range seemingly unavailable, that is, until he is reminded what awe and wonder feel and look like. Another student finds that the 'editor' goes away when resonance is stereophonic and buzzy at the same time. What do I observe? Strong negative emotion closes the face, which limits the student's access to the right ear and its innate ability to process higher frequencies. This affects the singer's audio-vocal control and the ability of the right ear to 'lead.'

Our ears aren't merely passive agents. So, I wonder: what undercurrent compromised Callas right ear? Did the demands she placed on her artistry lead her astray? Repertoire choices? Did she go too far emotionally? Was it her personal life? The tentacles of a tortured childhood? Was her inner voice at odds with her much admired outer one? Was it none of these things, but rather a matter of genetics? Ear infections? Age related hearing loss? Something robbed her of audio-vocal control. Something more than weight loss. That alone would not account for Callas' self-observation. 

The question to ask is not why Callas lost her voice, but rather, but why she lost her ear. 

2 comments:

  1. That is very interesting. It seems Callas probably had a mix of a few elements which as a consequence led to the loss of her vocal abilities - from weight loss, to her personal life and emotional state, to later lack of practise (Onasis said she stopped practising and didn't enjoy singing anymore), to certain technical compensations at a later stage - like pulling too much into bright and constricting what just brings more trouble...plus of course the things we might never even know she went through...But her pre-weight loss recordings earlier than 1953, are abslutely stunning however.

    Back to topic...I always found it interesting how Sumi Jo always likes to place her hand near her right ear when singing, especially for high tones. And when you imitate that, you do hear yourself better. And her voice just keeps going with little change during the years, and is always of same quality and pitch perfect.

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  2. I think each person must be true to their own way of maximizing their awareness and ease of how they can sing best. We all have different kinds of tensions in our bodies. I know that my own emotional trauma and depression create tremendous psychic and physical blocks which I've struggled to overcome to free my voice.

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