Mr. J. Edmond Skiff, for a number of years associated with the Batavia State School of the Blind as musical director, has just concluded a year of study in Paris with that veteran maestro G. Sbriglia. Perhaps there is no teacher living at present more prominent in the public eye than this Italian-Frenchman, who has such unique, if not extreme views on tone-production. As I knew him in my student-days, he represented the very antithesis of the modern popular ideas on vocal technic, and my desire to ascertain the master's present attitude to the subject prompted me to ask Mr. Skiff for a short article. Mr. Skiff is not a stranger to the readers of the VOCAL DEPARMENT, and we welcome the following response to my request.—the EDITOR.
In an unpretentious, though every comfortable apartment in the Rue de Provence, Paris, lives Signor Sbriglia, one of the world's famous voiceal teachers, whose renown has been largely gained through his work with Mr. Jean de Reszke, the great Wagnerian tenor.
Sbriglia is a student of the Naples Conservatoire, form thence making his début in the opera "Brasseur de Preston," by Braci. After some time in Naples he toured Europe, singing in all the grand-opera houses, and in 1866 went to America, singing with the Italian and English Opera Company in the United States and Mexico.
About Twenty-five years ago, he settled in Paris, devoting himself entirely to teaching. His first pupil he brought out in Paris was Otello Nonvelli, an Italian who made his début in the tenor rôle in "Martha," at the Italian Opera, which is now extinct, with Edouard de Reszke. His success was so great the Jean de Reszke, who was at that time singing baritone parts without success, being, in fact, so despondent that he contemplated leaving the stage, went to Sbriglia requesting lessons. Sbriglia assured him that his voice was one of the true tenor quality, and that he should give up baritone work. His study with the maestro covered six years, and all the word can now testify to the accuracy of Sbriglia's diagnosis.
Shortly after, Josephine de Reszke, a sister of Jean and Edouard, came to him. She it was who created the principla rôle in Massenet's opera "Le Roi de Lahore," at the Grand Opera in Paris. From Paris she went to Spain, where she had immense success. She left the stage to be married to Baron de Kronenberg; unfortunately she died in Poland a few years after her marriage, leaving tow little children.
Among his other celebrated pupils have been Lillian Nordica, Sibyl Sanderson, Fanchon Thompson; Miss Phebe Strakosch, soprano, daughter of the impresario, Ferdinand Strakosch, and cousin to Adeline Patti, singing in Spain, Italy, London; Mr. Plançon; d'Aubign; M. Castleman, now first tenor in the Opera at Algiers; and Madame Aduing who sang at the Grand Opera, Paris, for five years, and also in Italy and London. After singing all the lyric operas, she devoted herself to Wagner. She enjoyed much favor as the soloist at the Colonne and Lamoureux concerts. Among his present pupils is a Miss Markham, who has recently gone to Bayreuth to study Wagner rôles with M. Sen, a Swedish tenor; Mr. William Hughs, of Washington, D. C., a possessor of a magnificent basso cantante voice; Mr. Whitefield Martin, of New York, a tenor of much promise, who has given up a fine clientele of pupils to devote his time to study for the opera.
Personally S. Sbriglia is very agreeable, a short man, with a very full chest, dark hair, and eyebrows, looking his nationality. In his teacher he sits at an upright piano with a large mirror on the wall back of him, while the pupil stands back of the piano, where he can complacently view himself in the mirror and also watch at the same time the various expressions of the maestro's face. He says very little during the lesson; his three great points being the extreme high chest, the voice placed entirely in the mask of the face, and the protruding of the lips. He places great stress on the very high, fully-developed chest, and the pupil's first lesson will in most cases consist partially in an admonition to at once procure a pair of dumb-bells, and an oft-repeated expression is: "Beauecoup de dumb-bells."
When asked how he teaches his pupils to breath, he replied: "I don't breath; I build the chest." He points with pride to some portraits of his pupils taken "before and after," showing great development, and their names are familiar ones to the opera-goer. If one wishes to know thoroughly all the resources of the master, one must be content to stay with him a long while, for he imparts his information very slowly, and even the pupil must gain it more by intuition than by word of mouth. He is not a musician, but he does make his pupils sing as far as the mechanism of the voice is concerned; for interpretation and the higher art, he is quite willing the pupil should go to some of his "confrères."
No article would be complete without a mention of Madame Sbriglia, who, by the way, is an American, for she is a very important part of the studio. She it is who arranges all the pupils' lesson-hours, attends to the financial part, and plays all the accompaniments except for the exercises at the beginning of the lesson, which he industriously plays (?) with one finger. Madame takes great interest in all the pupils, is always ready to help in any way possible, and in many cases smooths out the wrinkles that come from the master's presence. She is a busy woman, for she must be on call, as it were, during the entire teaching-hours, which, however, are not so long as in former years, as he now refuses to teach more than five hours each daily. These hours being from 9 to 11:30 and 3 to 5:30, and the pupil who has not engaged lessons early in the season must be willing to take a lesson when some regular pupil is unable to come, and there are always plenty of pupils waiting to fill in a vacancy.—J. Edmond Skiff.
The Etude, May, 1902: 181-182
Contributed to VoiceTalk by Vincent Pavesi. For more information on Giovanni Sbriglia's teaching, see Margaret Champman Byers: "Sbriglia's Method of Singing" in "Historical Vocal Pedagogy Classics" by Berton Coffin, Scarecrow Press, 1989: 16.
I want to say a word or two about Sbriglia's "high chest," which this writer posits could also be understood as an "open chest," though, of course, it is possible to raise the ribs mechanically without having inhaled at all! Mechanics aside, Sbriglai's teaching can be understood from a very different perspective, that being the observations of Alfred A. Tomatis, the Christopher Columbus of the ear.
It was Tomatis who observed that the chest expanded and lifted when the listening faculty was fully opened through the stimulation of high frequencies. He also observed that the face "opened" and the spine elongated. What is one to make of this? Well, for one thing, it should be clear that "listening" is an active matter which affects the whole body.
Does this mean that you can change the student's listening ability through raw manipulation of the spine, ribs or face? Experience says no, if only because the impetus must come from within the ear. This is, of course, the conundrum of the well-educated voice teacher who knows all about the "parts" of the vocal mechanism, and whose language is oriented towards "function," yet cannot find the key to make the parts function in the desired manner.
Singing is like running to meet your lover!
How's that for an organizing principle? It's one my own voice teacher impressed upon me—the clear expression of which reveals Tomatis' indicators: open face and ribs, with an elongated spine. That she also taught Sbriglia's singing in the mask and the discipline of the lips should surprise no one.