April 10, 2011

Flagstad's Twitch

Have you heard it? That is, the radio address Kirsten Flagstad made in 1950 on singing Wagner? It popped up on a friend's Facebook status line this past week, and in listening to it, I found myself remembering the teaching of Margaret Harshaw who sang with the Norwegian soprano as a mezzo before ascending to dramatic soprano territory herself. The essence of their advice? The low range must be produced in the correct way before the high range is attempted, you really shouldn't be singing Wagner before your mid to late thirties, and you have to have great strength to sing vocal lines that are declamatory in nature. Acquiring this strength? The process is like that of the weight lifter who slowly adds pounds over a long period of time.

The idea of slowly adding weight reminded me of a sports physiology article on fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers that, as a matter of course, had me wondering if declamatory singing entailed a greater number of slow twitch fibers in the singer's body. Why slow and not fast twitch fibers? The former are associated with endurance activities, and singing Wagner, as Birgit Nilsson remarked, entails having a good pair of shoes! (I should note that while Flagstad uses weight lifting as a metaphor for heavy singing, the weight lifter is actually training fast twitch muscle fibers.) Endurance extends to the vocal tract, which is lengthened in declamatory singing (Manuel Garcia called this disposition 'voix sombre'), a conformation that can be as difficult to sustain as it is easily abused. At least the old pedagogues thought so. (They also thought only certain voices were fitted for Wagner.) Assuming this is true, do forty-five year old Wagnerian singers have more slow twitch fibers than thirty year olds? Are they born with them? And can singers acquire slow fibers like the marathon runner, who slowly adds miles to his training? (Lilli Lehmann's vocal metamorphosis comes to mind in this regard.)

All this pondering leaves me with one last question: what kind of twitch did Flagstad have? 

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