January 25, 2010

Edward Lankow: How to Breath Right

Handsome, tall and possessing a magnificent basso profundo, Edward Lankow (1883-1940) was one of the first American basses to appear at the Metropolitan during a time when European singers were held in higher esteem.  He made his debut as Sarastro with the Metropolitan Opera in 1912 after singing in Europe for a number of years.  Unfortunately, nervousness and memory slips meant that he was not offered another contract.  Lankow seems to have recovered, however, resuming his career in Europe where he was heard by Claude Debussy who said, "This is the first time I hear the quality of voice I thought of when I composed the music of Arkel in 'Pelleas and Mellisande'.  Mary Garden, who excelled as Mellisande, subsequently brought Lankow to the Chicago Lyric Opera for a series of performances. 

Born Edward Rosenberg, Lankow took the name of his mentor and voice teacher,  Anna Lankow (1846-1908), a founder of The New York Singing Teachers Association.  Her own teacher had been Adolf Brömme, who taught at the Dresden Conservatory and was himself a student of Manuel Garcia.

Lankow put his vocal training to use during the First World War, teaching officers to project their voices without strain.  He did this by teaching them how to breath.  This resulted in a book titled How to Breath Right (1918).

Lankow addresses Officers, Soldiers, Clergyman and Singers, recommending that the latter practice the following exercise (b) which he credited to Farinelli, the greatest castrato singer to have ever lived.   Whether this or true or not, it resembles one given by Manuel Garcia (1805-1906) in A complete treatises on the art of singing (1847), the difference being Garcia does not include a fricative sound.

The Slow Inhalation
In Condensed Form

(a) Exhale "s."
(b) Inhale slowly, drawing a thin air stream through lips and teeth.  "Hiss." Place hands on diaphragm.
(c) Hold breath two to four seconds.
(d) Exhale suddenly "Ha."
(e) Several cleansing breaths.  Pause.
In the beginning not to be done oftener than three of four times per day.

The Climax Breath
Explanation in detail

This exercise is the most difficult of all breathing gymnastics, and should not be attempted by children or the sick.  It requires great endurance.  Even an athlete should not attempt it, until the others are well in hand.

The first part is exactly like Exercise Number Six (a).  But in the second part, instead of expelling the air suddenly, you proceed to exhale very slowly (after holding the breath a few seconds).  Care should be taken to see that the upper chest is held high as long as possible while exhaling.  With the last atom of breath leaving the lungs, drop (relax) the shoulders and whole frame.  Take quickly two or three more cleansing breaths to quiet the heart and lungs.

When one is ready for this most strenuous exercise, it becomes a great force for building strength and depth to the chest, and new inner vitality.

During the first weeks one performance of this exercise is enough for the day.  After the second month two exercises per day, fifth month, three exercises per day, etc., very gradually increasing the number.

Looking back, one cannot help but wonder if Lankow's book -aside from its instructional content - also served as astute public relations.  He was, after all, a fine example of 'physical culture,' to use a term from his own time.  We are much less veiled about the physical beauty of male opera singers nowadays, considering that singers such as Nathan Gunn have appeared in the Wall Street Journal with training tips and websites like Barihunks.  Audiences and managements now put a premium on opera singers who look the part.  It's part of the 'package.'  In that regard, Edward Lankow might be considered ahead of his time. 

Edward Lankow in How to Breath Right


  1. Daniel! -- Great post. :-)
    - As a non-singer, I don't think I'll ever fathom the whole breathing thing, but it's fascinating to no end. (Joan Sutherland always had interesting things to say about breathing, among other things how Pavarotti would come up and grab her from behind to feel exactly what she was doing while breathing.
    - Regarding Edward Lankow's 'physical culture' (love those euphemisms back then): yes, there must have been some of that there. He was just ahead of his time in the Sex Sells department.
    - Thanks for the Barihunks tip. A guilty pleasure; why not? (I sure wish our Stuttgart Opera guys, ANY of them, looked like Nathan Dunn. (Although to be fair: I saw Jonas Kaufmann in Stuttgart long before he was a star. Gorgeous guy!
    - And of course I'm happy you've gone out and enjoyed Soave Classico. (At least, I hope it was enjoyable!) I had to smirk when you mentioned it with chowder -- that, along with pesto, is one of my favorite Soave pairings. Well, great minds think alike. :-)
    - And of course I'd LOVE to hear what you think of the vocal technique of the lady featured on my blog this week ...! Even if you're not a fan of her voice, I'd be so curious to know how she maintained the sheer technical quality of her voice singing such heavy roles so long...

  2. A colleague of mine sang with Sutherland and had time with her backstage at every performance. She showed him how she breathed, suggesting that abdomen was like a screen door with a spring- a feeling that has to be experienced to be understood.

  3. Daniel -- Thanks for your great comment over at Spice of Life. Tell your hubby that there's some serious envy factor going on over here on the other side of the Atlantic. (OK, I'm introduced to the occasional ballet dancer over here at the Stuttgart Ballet; but ZINKA MILANOV, live?! I'd trade the cuties in any day for a glimpse of Zinka in diamonds.) Well, there's living in New York for you, and living the life of culture-vultures.
    Take care,


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