The Acuto SfogatoBy Nicholas E. Limansky & John Carroll
Almost simultaneously, both John Carroll and I wrote articles on the acuto sfogato though for differing reasons and with differing emphasis. We thought it best to collaborate and offer you a combination of both. - N.E.L.
One of opera's great universal attractions is the ability of the human ear to be thrilled by the trained human voice at its highest frequencies -- in other words, high notes. The highest of the high is the realm of the coloratura soprano, and for this reason they are controversial -- either fanatically beloved or condescendingly disparaged.
High F has always been considered the Holy Grail of high notes for sopranos. A documentary made about the young German coloratura soprano Eva Lind was titled in all seriousness: "The Search for the High F." It is the highest note required in a role that is in the standard repertoire: the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflote. There are a total of five staccato high Fs in her two arias. Of course, it is always judicious to note that in Mozart's day the standard pitch was about a 1/2 step lower than it is now (over the years violinists have slowly raised it in order to provide a more brilliant sound to their instruments, much to the chagrin of vocalists of all fachs, so the Queen of the Night's high Fs in Mozart's day would be equivalent to our present day high Es. Even more confusing, the concert pitch in Europe is slightly higher than it is in America.)
Some legendary coloratura sopranos didn't have a reliable high F -- Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills to name just three superstars of the mid-20th Century. "How high is high F?" Sills ponders in her autobiography, "VERY high." Sills felt her batting average for the Queen of the Night, a role she didn't like but sang internationally for a few years, was four out of five, and she considered that pretty good. For a while there was a pointless debate as to whether Maria Callas sang a high F in public (Rossini's Armida ). An examination of the score of Armida , however, proves that the ensemble being discussed was composed in the key of E not F- major. Dame Joan Sutherland's Fs were extremely rare -- she took them for an indisposed Naida Labay in Der Schauspieldirektor at Glyndebourne -- and recorded high F just once-- in her early studio rendition of "O zittre nicht" (again, the Queen of the Night). When she sang the role on stage at Covent Garden, the two arias were lowered. Even mezzo sopranos obviously consider this an important note as witness comments made by dramatic mezzo Dolora Zajick in Opera News that she has a working range to the high F. High F has become some sort of be-all and end-all.
We are going to concentrate on sopranos who were able to not only sing high F, but notes above it in "altissimo" (commonly referred to as in alt.) The term "in alt." refers to the octave above the treble staff from the G just on top of it to the F a seventh higher -- the high G over that high F is altissimo. The voice type known as the soprano acuto sfogato , translated loosely as "extreme without constraints," is the voice that has an extension into the altissimo area. Some pedagogues refer to these extreme high notes as the female falsetto, whistle notes, pipe-tones or the third octave. Emma Calve learned a secret technique from the castrato Mustafa that she called her "fourth voice" (although this only took her to the E in alt). It seems most probable that this was basically a version of a "humming" technique that has also been used by such artists as Lily Pons and Yma Sumac. Even if produced by a healthy, legitimate technique, the cultivation of altissimo notes can throw a singer's registers out of balance so that the lower vocal compass becomes weak and often fullness of tone in the middle voice is also sacrificed. Generally, therefore, the acuto sfogati are confined to the soprano leggiero repertoire and only a few are capable of effectively singing lyric and soubrette roles. But it is a price many women have paid (or will pay) as there was a time when a soprano could build a career dazzling the public with these money notes.
What causes such unusual voices? Many believe that these extra top notes are left over from the pre-adolescent female child's voice before the vocal cords lengthen during puberty. This would account for the often child-like, or "little girl" timbre some of these singers exhibit in their middle and lower registers. Conversely, some, such as Natalie Dessay, have apparently no differentiation in sound between the lower and top registers. Even with this non-lengthening of the vocal cords, much cultivation and careful training is necessary to perfect altissimo emission and technique. Having such notes does not automatically guarantee their use in public. (Many sopranos can sing high G, A or B above high C while practicing but that does not mean they would exhibit such notes in public)
In truth, the acuto sfogato voice type has all but disappeared in modern times. This is partially due to the ever increasing size of performance halls and orchestras. Only large voices can project over all those instruments in our cavernous opera houses, so student voices are developed for size over agility and range; even small coloratura voices are encouraged to fatten up their sound. This has led to (or coincided with) a waning of the public's taste for bravura showpieces that were the specialty of the high coloratura soprano.
Another reason for recent decline of the acuto sfogato is the come scritto movement that treats a composer's score as a sacred text and demands it be sung only as written. With a few significant exceptions, most extreme high notes were not written by composers into their scores. Even so, because a composer did not write a high note into the vocal line does not mean that he didn't want or expect one there; certain baroque, classical and bel canto arias have a performance traditions that allow for and even encourage such departures. Most of these traditions stem from the time the works were being performed with the composer still alive and assuredly aware of what was being done to his score. But in the academic come scritto ethic, any interpolated high note or embellishment is condemned not just as bad taste but as profoundly disrespectful.
Critical distaste for extravagant altissimo wonders is not strictly a modern occurrence. In 1851, Henry Chorley wrote about these highest soprani:
"The feat, when it is done, is worth little and it may be counterfeited by adroit trickery. ... If the feat, however, be not elegantly mastered, the effect is more than worthless -- one to recall the pain of a surgical operation, howsoever it may strike the vulgar with surprise."
Before we continue with those artists who have left us recorded examples of these unusual notes, we should mention some of the earlier nightingales famed for their ease in the vocal stratosphere.
Mrs. Billington, one of England's first great divas and a legendary virtuoso, is reported to have had a vocal compass of three octaves from A to A. Aloysia Weber Lange's range was also extensive: the arias Mozart composed for her frequently sail to high E and F. Indeed, Ignaz Umlauf wrote an aria for her in the now long forgotten opera Das Irrlicht which actually contains the A above high C. Josefa Hofer, Aloysia Lange's sister, was the singer for whom Mozart wrote the Queen of the Night, so clearly her upper extension was quite secure. The fabled florid specialist Lucrezia Agujari (1743-1783) was club-footed and a contemporary of Mozart's who apparently sang to the C above high C but of course there is no recorded evidence. Known as "la Bastardella" by the public, she was rumored have been illegitimate. We are allowed only a mere glance at Agujari in some ornamental embellishments which Mozart heard her perform in Parma, in 1770, and then wrote as a postscript in a letter to his father. Antonia Bernasconi was another contemporary of Mozart who is referred to as possessing a phenomenal four-octave range. Sybil Sanderson was a wealthy California beauty who bewitched Jules Massenet with more than her voice. He wrote Thais and Esclarmonde for her; the latter contains an infamous high G in Act III Evangeline Florence, who sang internationally in the early part of this century, was notorious for ending arias "in the skies" (G.B. Shaw). Although she made several recordings, the few sampled only take her to the high F, not beyond.
Carlotta Patti is one of the most interesting of these early divas. She was the lesser-known sister of the famous Adelina Patti and was born in 1840. For many years she was a leading female concert singer in America and Europe. In addition to being considered an excellent singer she was also a skilled pianist and painter. Carlotta studied voice with Henri Hertz, the first concert star of San Francisco (1850), and also under Signor Scola. Carlotta preferred the concert stage to opera largely due to a physical deformity acquired in her youth. After an accident one leg became slightly deformed and abnormal in its development, causing her to walk unevenly. Because of the Civil War, however, opera managers attempted to secure the best singers in order to attract audiences and despite her physical limitations, Carlotta was persuaded to appear in opera for a short period of time. According to reviews of the time she was a tremendous success, performing all her sister's roles with sensational flexibility. Carlotta had a more extensive range than Adelina, able to soar effortlessly to A-flat above high C.
Despite her obvious gifts Carlotta's success was overshadowed by Adelina's mainly because she returned to the concert platform refusing to act in opera anymore and at that time concert singers were not as popular with audiences as operatic singers. Also contributing to her lack of success was the fact that Carlotta, although possessed of a fine talent, was a stately woman with a rather sad, almost wistful charm; she had neither the vivacity nor sex appeal of her sister. Despite this, she toured extensively as a concert artist performing in such diverse places as China, Japan, Brazil, Burma, Chile, Australia, England, New Zealand, Paris and others.
Although no recordings of her voice exist, critics of the time were swept off their feet by the "Sweet, lark" like notes of her upper register, which seemed to descend from some ethereal region." Audiences swooned with delight at everything she sang -- whether it was the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor or the simple "Coming through the Rye."
Starting at the top and working our way down the scale in half step increments we begin with the C above high C (or C''''). Each dash indicates an octave jump above middle C (or C'). This note is also noted as C7 (the seventh C on the keyboard) or is sometimes called double high C. It is the highest note proven to have ever been sung by a classical soprano. (It has been rumored that during a concert in Vittel, Mado Robin sang a D above high D).
Erna Sack (1903-1972) is the only classical vocalist to have legitimately left us documentation of her encounters with this note. During the 1930s - 1950s Sack, originally a contralto who switched to soprano, created an international sensation with her stratospheric octave leaps to sustained Gs and As above high C and staccato peaks to the B and C above. Sack did sing in opera (she created the role of Isotta in Richard Strauss's Die Schweigsame Frauin 1935 and sang Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos) for Beecham at Covent Garden), but she acheived her greatest success as a concert singer. Her personality and technique were better suited the light music of such composers as Johann Strauss and Arditi. Sack's top register was quite attractive: sweet and whistle-pure. Unfortunately, she was fond of sustaining her highest notes for inordinate lengths of time, often destroying the rhythmical structure of the music. She liked to introduce a cadential volley of very high staccati (often to B above high C) at the end of the arrangements she used of the waltz literature, but when she did the same in operatic arias these cadential flourishes set up outrageous stylistic improprieties.
On recordings one gets the sense that Sack is merely getting through the aria -- biding her time until she reaches the spot where she has decided to interpolate one of her famous high notes. Although her staccato work was of a high level -- clean, clear, and pointed -- in general her coloratura technique was abysmal, marred by sloppy scales, aspirations, lumpy legato, and uneven registers. She was plagued with pitch problems in any passagio area (transition into high, middle, or low registers). Even at her best Erna Sack was an erratic and uneven performer, but later recordings can be excruciating. While still in her prime, she touches altissimo C7 in two early recordings: a bon-bon called "In Your Eyes" on one of her old Mercury LPs and the harder-to-find Taubert ditty "Die Vogel im Walde." There is a very recent Telefunken CD release that compiles several of her recordings, but neither of these selections is present. The French CD company LYS has also released 3 CDs of her work -- some of the selections are quite rare. A few of her best efforts can be found on the LYS releases: Strauss' "Fruhlingstimmen," a virtuostic aria from Flotow's Martha, a non-virtuostic aria from Weber's Freischutz, a campy version of "Glow Worm," and a surprisingly lovely "Nussbaum" by Schumann.
Little is known of the Spanish-born singer Maria Remola. Although not familiar to American audiences, she was obviously famous enough in Cuba to be referred to in a 1980s Cuban-made film Chocolate and Strawberries with Jorge Perugorria and Vladimir Cruz. During a scene in the movie while one character is playing a recording of Maria Callas, another remarks how nice it is to hear a singer besides Maria Remola.
Remola recorded a program of arias with the Sinfonia Orquesta Nacional de Cuba conducted by Guerrero (judging from the acoustics probably from the 1960s or 70s). Although her florid technique is considerable and the sheen of her purely floated top register has its own elegance, there is an odd provinciality to her work. Remola's penchant was to conclude arias a third above their traditional high tonic; Rosina's aria in the Barber of Seville (sung in F) ends on a sustained A above high C, and Lakmé's Bell Song ends on a sustained G-sharp above high C. Although recordings can be deceiving, her voice appears to have been a warm instrument and large enough to easily handle the thrust necessary for a successful "Sempre libera" from Verdi's La Traviata, which she elects to conclude with an excellent final, sustained A-flat above high C. The Latin vibrancy of her voice can turn hard on dime, but she is quite capable of a controlled high pianissimo -- the final phrase of "Caro nome" leaps to a hushed G-sharp in alt that travels through a remarkable diminuendo down to a mere wisp. Her best effort, however, is the Adam variations on "Ah vous dirai-je Maman." After an extraordinarily long and difficult cadenza with flute, Remola finishes with a dead-on, sustained B above high C, the highest sustained note yet to be recorded by a classical artist. (For more information, please be sure to visit "Maria Remola" under the Singer Appreciations in the Miscellaneous section of this site.)
Our discussion of singers who have recorded B-flat in altissimo begins in the early 1900s with the American soprano Ellen Beach Yaw (1869-1947). Known as "Lark Ellen" or "The California Lark," she was primarily a concert singer who occasionally performed on the operatic stage. Yaw was a student of the then famous Mathilde Marchesi (also the teacher of Nellie Melba) and had the typical Marchesi sound so admired at the time -- very frontal, brightly placed, and of little vibrato. Despite this legitimate vocal pedigree she was clearly an eccentric. Of her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1908 in Lucia di Lammermoor, a critic noted that at the conclusion of Lucia's entrance aria Yaw interpolated a final G above high C with only partial success, although another critic rhapsodized about this "extraordinary note -- a real note -- not a squeak -- not merely touched, but held [that made] the audience gape with open-mouth astonishment." Yaw was the first singer to record such altitudinous notes. She reportedly sang to highest E on the piano while strolling through the meadow one fine day, and rushed home to repeat the feat for her voice teacher, but this notes has never been aurally documented. On a compilation CD (Pearl GEMM 9239), however, she does ascend to a number of extreme notes including a G in the "Charmant Oiseau" from the Perle du Bresil, A-flat in the Eckert "Swiss Echo Song" and a short, "whipped" B-flat above high C in a song of her own composition called "Skylark." Partly out of necessity to display her extreme high notes Yaw wrote her own songs, which were typical of the Victorian parlor music of the time. She was also able to trill in thirds and fourths using an odd technique of oscillating register breaks. (This was a technique used by others as well including Adele Kern, Gwen Catley, Reri Grist, Ruth Welting, Beverly Hoch and even Yma Sumac.) In spite of the quality of the old recordings (Yaw made her first discs in 1899), her voice proved to be one of even scale and supple tone. One fault with her vocal production was a tendency to rely on glottal strokes to access her highest tones. Despite the dangerous percussive effects this technique can have on the vocal cords, Yaw had enough voice (so to speak) left to make a vanity recording of Ophelia's Mad Scene from Thomas' Hamlet when she was 80 years old.
Susanna Foster was a Hollywood songbird in the 1940s, a time when the general population was accustomed to the sound of trained high soprano voices in radio light operas and cinematic musicals. Jeannette MacDonald and Deanna Durbin were probably the most popular of Foster's contemporaries, although their lyric soprano voices rarely sang above high C. Because of her unusual gifts, film music was specifically composed for Foster's ability to endlessly rise chromatically, in altissimo -- as in the wonderful but silly movie-operas that were so popular at that time. In such films as The Great Victor Herbert and The Climax (with Boris Karloff), Foster would blithely warble through outrageous arrangements of such things as Chopin's "Minute Waltz," rising in a slow chromatic scale to the G and A above high C). During the "opera" scene in the Victor Herbert biopic Foster even ascends to a sustained B-flat. She also starred as Christine with Nelson Eddy in his film of Phantom of the Opera . That soundtrack has been released on LP on the small independent Mac-Eddy label but there do not seem to be any other CD reissues of her work.
Coinciding with Erna Sack's career was that of the French soprano Mado Robin (1918-1960), a charming, modest singer who sang to the C above high C altough she never commercially recorded the note. (A private tape from 1942 does exist, however, of her rehearsing "Una voce poco fa" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia in which she sustains the C above high C.) Robin's specialty was to interpolate a high B flat into her Lucia Mad Scene as well as Dell 'Acqua's "Chanson Provencale," Benedict's "Carnival of Venice" (the version conducted by Benedetti), and the "Romance Waltz" by Strauss. If you can't find these particular arias, rest assured that there was never an absence of altissimo excursions when Robin sang -- most of her many aria and birdsong recordings have high Gs and the like sprinkled liberally throughout. Robin was a singer of taste and elegance, however, usually only incorporating her high note excursions at suitable moments. Unlike Sack's whistling high notes, Robin's were full-bodied tones of great intensity completely integrated into the rest of her instrument, and her swiftly spun upper octave was rich with harmonics. As with Sack, Robin's coloratura facility was not notable for its absolute clarity, but her sweet, childish timbre was immediately appealing to the listener as was her gentle lyricism and smooth legato line. Robin's performance in the first full Western-made recording (1952) of Delibes' exotic opera Lakmé (Grand Prix du Disc) is still considered classic. (The first recording of Lakmé was actually made in 1946 in Russia.) Robin died tragically at the age of 41 of leukemia. A new compilation of Robin in live performance is due from INA in December of 2000. (For more information on Robin, please see the notes for that INA release under Singer Appreciations in this section of the site.)
Although Mina Foley was a New Zealand singer of local repute, there are now two CDs of her stratospheric meanderings mostly taken from live concerts. Active during the 1950s, she had an attractive voice and a sweet high register which was floated much like that of Erna Sack. But there is little personality in her singing, her florid technique is rudimentary, her grasp of romance languages is execrable, and her sensitivity to artistic nuances is non-existent. Her voice was not correctly supported on her breath so her vibrato was often erratic, her legato lumpy, and her coloratura skills (except staccati) inaccurate. Foley also did not have adequate control of performance adrenaline, which instead of adding an edge of excitement and intensity to her singing, renders much of it unsteady and inconsistent. A few of her tricks are impressive, but only initially. Stylistic objections aside, few would not be stunned by her finish to "Ernani Involami" where Foley trills on high F and then takes a final, sustained B-flat above high C. In "O luce di quest anima" from Linda di Chamonix most ornamentation is taken up the octave. "Casta Diva" from Norma finds her adding unstylish extreme high notes and ludicrous embellishments, then finishing the aria on a high F.
Wilfriede Luttgen appears as Olympia in a Tales of Hoffmann highlights LP on the German Eterna label from the 1960s and her Doll Song includes two high B-flats. In the second verse she takes both the "winding down" phrase and the very last phrase up an octave to hit (or rather approximate) that note. Luttgen began her career in 1957 in Koln under the name Yvonne Coubier and limited itto German radio and provincial opera houses.
A few singers left recorded documents of their travels to the A above high C.
The Egyptian-born (but Ukranian-based) soprano Goar Gasparyan first appeared in Russia in 1942 and her subsequent work on Soviet stages earned her the honorary title "Peoples' Artist." She was fond of interpolating high G-sharps into the Shadow and Bell Songs and like Remola ended nearly every one of her recordings of the standard leggiero arias with a swoop up to the highest tonic note in its key. Her recording of the The Sevilliana from Massenet's Don Cesar de Bazan , however, has clean execution and some brilliant staccati work (up to A above high C), if a rather nasal timbre. Gasparyan's voice was bright and thin with a saccharin-sweet flavor and like Korjus she used a straight, vibrato-less emission for the highest notes. This unsound method again took its toll and after a few years of high octave singing Gasparyan lost everything above high F. Her often shocking clumsiness in coloratura passages leaves little to recommend in her recordings other than perhaps the novelty of her ornaments and ubiquitous notes in altissimo. Her LP records from the 1940s and 50s are available on the old Melodiya label, but there do not seem to be any CD reissues.
Billed as the "Warsaw Nightingale," Bogna Sokorska (1926-2001) was born in Warsaw, Poland and was a pupil of the famous Polish coloratura soprano, Ada Sari. Sokorska was a popular artist in her native Poland as well as in Germany, Italy and France during the 1960s, but never travelled to the United States as far as we can tell. During the 1980s she began to concentrate on teaching and recital work with her husband, Jerry Sokorski. Her last public appearance was in 1996, in Warsaw. Sokorska recorded for the Muza label and sustains the high G in her highly decorated Blue Danube Waltz. (She was also able to offer staccati As above high C.) Although recordings can be deceptive, it seems to have been a rather large voice (esepcialy for its type) with strong Slavic tendencies. Because of this, her manner seems a bit on the heavy side at times but the basic timbre of her voice was one of great beauty. The entire recital record (which includes bravura renditions of Weber's Invitation to the Dance, Alabiev's The Nightingale, and Arditi waltzes) is quite a delight, a bountiful platter of coloratura treats -- deft scale work, pinging, chime-like staccati, and stellar high notes. It is not available on CD but does turn up occasionally on used record dealer lists. Although lacking in subtlety, it is a must for the high note fanatic's collection.
If we lower the ceiling to the high G-sharp in altissimo, there are many more singers who have left us recordings.
The glamorous Miliza Korjus (1912-1980) sings a top G-sharp in her wonderful (if chirpy recording) of the Shadow Song from Dinorah . This American-born soprano of Swedish extraction became world famous for her 1938 Hollywood film, The Great Waltz , based on the life of Johann Strauss. German audiences of the time, however, knew the soprano from her work at the Berlin Staatsoper and the series of remarkably accurate recordings she made of pyrotechnical arias and display pieces. Korjus was a very musical singer with a coloratura voice of great brilliance, as well as an exceptionally lovely middle register. Her technical abilities were prodigious; intricate scale work, arpeggios, and high staccati figures were tossed-off like a well-oiled machine with uncommon clarity and precision. Unfortunately, Korjus favored an unorthodox method for singing her high register: squeezing out her highest notes in a vibrato-less, straight tone. Her top register soon disappeared after a few years of this destructive manipulation so that by 1942, less that ten years after some of her most impressive altissimo recordings, Korjus barely had a high D.
Two singers from the Soviet Union also left recordings on Melodiya with notes in this otherworldly realm. Alla Solenkova made just a few records (probably in the late 1950s/early 60s) which are especially treasured by collectors. Born in 1928, she finished her studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1954, won first prize in the Warsaw Vocal Competition and was a soloist with the Moscow Philharmonic from 1956-1958. In addition to appearing at the Bolshoi, she sang at La Scala in 1961-1962. Her roles outside of Russia included Gilda (Rigoletto ) Konstanza (Entführung ) and Sophie (Werther ). Solenkova seems to have recorded only four operatic arias: Lakmé, Zauberflöte , Traviata and Linda di Chamonix . She also recorded about a dozen items from the song literature including an exquisite rendition of Dvorak's "Lullaby" -- a classic of its kind. Solenkova adopted many of Gasparyan's cadential patterns but was much more successful with them. Her Bell Song high G-sharp is crystalline. George Jellinek was fond of playing her version of Alabiev's "The Nightingale" on his radio program in New York City. Another classic performance, it shows an exquisite, sweetly floated voice, warm in timbre, without being cloying and also without the usual Slavic bite found in Russian sopranos. Phenomenal breath control allowed her legato line to be exceptionally smooth, and her use of pianissimo and coloristic effects showed her musicianship to be considerably above the norm. There do not seem to be any CD releases of this artist so if you see one of her rare 10" LP records, buy it.
In the early 1970s, Eugenia Miroschnichenko made some recordings for Melodiya of various coloratura arias and pieces showing off a pristine upper extension to high G sharp in both Lucia's Mad Scene and Benedict's Carnival of Venice Variations. Miroshnichenko studied at the Conservatory in Kiev with Professor M. Donets-Tesseyer and graduated in 1957, debuting at the State Opera and Ballet Theatre in Kiev. Although she never visited the United States, she did give a few recitals in Canada during the 1970s offering audiences such pieces as Lakmé's Bell Song, Lucia's Mad Scene, "Ernani Involami" (with an interpolated F) as well as unusual Ukranian opera arias and songs. In addition to her two recital discs, there was a soundtrack made in Kiev for a Russian film version of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor which was aired over German radio in 1986 and quickly pirated to America. Although obviously a small voice, the intelligence governing its use was considerable and the technique supporting it admirable. This was a very light voice, more French in timbre than Russian. Her excellent rendition of the difficult Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra by Gliere is now available on CD (Consonance 81-3002). Recorded in 1974 with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, it highlights her attributes well -- including an exceptional final top F.
The marvelous German soprano Ingeborg Hallstein briefly touches high G-sharp in her recording of Strauss' "Voices of Spring." There is also a stunning variation during the opening vocalise of Lakmé's Bell Song in her recording that takes her to high G. Born in 1931 in Munich, she originally studied voice with her mother, Elisabeth, and made her stage debut in 1956 in Passau. Because she is especially known for her operetta performances her reputation has been pigeon-holed there and her considerable skills in more serious music are not widely acknowledged. With her sweetly spun, crystalline top register and superb musicianship Hallstein remains one of the most satisfying of the coloratura specialists of the mid-20th Century. She was an elegant artist whose inventive ornamentation always spoke of grace and eloquence. CDs of her work are available in Germany but have not been imported to the United States, so do not hesitate to grab any of her old LP recordings from used record bins, uncommon as they are.
Mady Mesple, considered by French audiences to be Mado Robin's legitimate successor, sang high A-flat in her recording of Strauss'Valses de Vienne. There are rare high Gs (Zemir et Azor) and F-sharps (La Gazza Ladra ) but generally she didn't travel above the top F. Mesple's narrow, balsamic vinegar timbre was never flattered by the recording process, and her uninventive coloratura work is surprising from one so gifted. She is, nonetheless, generally regarded as a consummate musician, perhaps due to her extraordinary success with premiering difficult modern, atonal works.
Although there is only one commercial recording of her sustained high F (Mignon), Ruth Welting(1948-1999) would often interpolate acuti during live performances in the early 1970s (tapes circulate of A-flats in her Proch Variations and Doll Songs, and high Gs in Die Fledermaus ). With a warm voice of much lyricism and distinctive timbre, Welting was capable of floating a pianissimo high D and E. She sang Lucia's Mad Scene in its original key in order to finish on the high F, as did Lily Pons and Maria Gyurkovics. Technically one of the most proficient of modern coloraturas, Welting had an excellent trill and was able to display it on high E-flat and E-natural -- as she did in her inventive and original cadenza in the Lucia Mad Scene.
During the 1980s, American and European concert-goers were introduced to the exquisite art of the Kansas-born Beverly Hoch. As if a throw-back to the earlier days of Galli-Curci and Tetrazzini, Hoch was an exemplary coloratura artist, free of mannerisms and original in her ornamental work. She also proudly continued the specialized tradition of interpolating extremely high notes into her arias and showpieces. Her 1986 CD recital for MCA includes Alabiev's "The Nightingale" and Proch's Variations where she sails up to exciting, fully sustained high G-sharps. Aside from this disc, a Carmina Burana, and a complete Die Zauberflote , Hoch is woefully underrepresented on commercial releases. Thankfully, private tapes exist documenting the full array of Hoch's unique gifts. In January of 1989, for example, Hoch amazed Arizona audiences with her singing of the Bell Song -- stunning listeners with her variation at the end of the first bell refrain where she darted back and forth between high E and G-sharp in staccati bell effects. During a 1986 concert in Marmö, Sweden, Hoch shocked listeners with her singing of Mozart's concert aria, "Popoli di Tessaglia" by throwing in a third sustained, penultimate G at its conclusion. During the same concert she sang the Proch Variations - with the high A-flat. Many divas mentioned here have recorded these notes in the safety of a studio but Hoch sang them live, all the time, with no fear.
Our torch carrier du jour , Natalie Dessay, includes a few of these mountaintop excursions in each of her recital CDs. During the earlier years of her career, Dessay often ended Lakmé's Bell Song by leaping easily to a final G sharp. One hears her G sharp as Olympia on the French video of a production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann from Lyons, in "Voices of Spring" on her Vocalise CD, and in the Shadow Song from Dinorah on her French Opera Arias CD for EMI. This last recital is a most invigorating program for mixing well-known classics with rare modern items; it is one of the most rewarding albums of the 1990s. Dessay has a remarkably full, rich voice that seems to be immune to the common acuto sfogato malaise of an undernourished middle register. Unfortunately, during 2001 and 2002 Dessay has been forced to cancel performnaces due to ill health.
Contemporary with Natalie Dessay is the French soprano, Elisabeth Vidal . A beautiful woman, her singing is best described as delicious. Cool-voiced and elegant in her emission, Vidal has primarily performed on European shores. Vidal entered the Music School of the Paris Opera at the age of 18. In 1985, she joined the Opera de Lyons and soon was singing throughout Europe. During the 1990s she made at least 30 television appearances. The magazine, Opera England wrote of Vidal's performance as Olympia in a Montpellier production of Le Contes d'Hoffmann (1/29/93):
One of the newest additions to this pantheon is Elena Mosuc. Mosuc began her studies at the Academy for Art and Song in Iasi, Moldavia, and in 1990 won First Prize at the International ARD Music Competition in Munich. Since 1991 she has been a leading artist in Zurich in the standard coloratura roles and more obscure bel canto pieces which she often takes over after Edita Gruberova has moved on to another engagement. A recent CD of arias titled Au Jardin de mon Coeur displays her G-sharp in the Bell Song. (Mosuc uses Mado Robin's variant, but unfortunately, she miscalculates and offers a note that, in truth, is closer to high G than G-sharp.) The recital is a rather auspicious debut and includes arias from Puritani, Ariadne, Rigoletto, Lucia, Romeo, Semiramide and Entfuhrung. In "Bel raggio" Mosuc uses the "Sutherland" ornamentation, but surprises the listener by ascending between the two verses of the cabaletta to not only an excellent top E, but also a lovely F-sharp. Pirated tapes fo her live Zurich performances reveal a vibrant and daring soprano not afraid to embellish her line -- to a high G in a wild and funny Doll Song.
Moving a half tone down brings us to the high G. This note has actually been written into scores by at least two composers.
Esclarmonde contains a high G in Act III which was dubbed the "Eiffel Tower note" when Sybil Sanderson sang it at the world's fair (a New York critic called it a "squeak of heroic proportions.") Massenet provided a lower option of an E-flat and the two sopranos who have recorded the role (Joan Sutherland and Denia Mazzola) choose that much safer route. A private tape of Domenique Gless performing the opera in Turin in 1992 shows the power of the passage containing the high G, which she sang with surprising ease. Gless' voice is also large enough to carry the exotic Wagnerian influences in the score.
The most famous high G written into a vocal score (with no lower option) occurs twice at the end of Mozart's 12 minute concert aria K.316,"Popoli di Tessaglia," written to showcase the extraordinary vocal powers of Aloysia Weber Lange. Singers who have recorded K.316 in the studio with various degrees of success include the Canadian songbird Pierrette Alarie, Dessay, Gruberova, Hallstein, Elfriede Hobarth, Ilse Hollweg (twice), Jana Jonasova, Edda Moser (twice), and Annik Simon. Rita Streich's recording awkwardly omits the G's and Cyndia Sieden's recent recording of all the Aloysia concert arias is performed with original instruments pitched a half-step lower so the aria is capped with F-sharps. There are also transcriptions of broadcast performances by Dorriet Kavanaugh (New York), Roberta Peters (Salzburg), Erika Koth (Salzburg -- she misses the Gs badly), Mesple (French radio), Luciana Serra (Bologna), and Jonasova (Salzburg -- she struggles more than in her studio recording made only six years earlier). And of course the formerly mentioned Swedish performance by Beverly Hoch. [For more about this aria see the article in the Aria Section of this site.]
High G is written for the Lady with the Mirror in Dominck Argento's Postcards from Morocco, but it is in an ensemble and not exposed. The only recording of this work is on the Desto Label (reissued by Koch on CD) with Sarita Roche as the Lady with the Mirror. We have not been able to verify whether Roche sings the top G or not. Another G is apparently written into the little known opera La Contessa deiVampiri, a comic bel canto take on the Dracula story written in 1984 by David Clenny. Soprano Marianne Wells sang the high G for the character Lucia in its New York premiere.
Elizabeth Gero hits the high G in her old 78 rpm recording of Arditi's "Incantatrice Waltz." She is a marvelous hoch koloratur with a light, opal tone. She was born in Budapest as Erzsi Gyorgy, appearing first in Vienna in 1922. She premiered modern operas by Reznieck and Kriveneks and sang principal coloratura roles in Germany's state theaters before expanding her career to the rest of Europe. The war ended it too soon.
Dorothy Bond, a now forgotten artist, displayed her gently floated top G at the end of Olympia's exit in the early Decca recording of the Sadler Wells English verison of the Tales of Hoffmann conducted by Beecham. Bond was also the artist responsible for the soft and pure high D-flat at the end of Margherita Grandi's famous 1948 recording of the Sleepwalking Scene from Macbeth.
Kathryn Grayson, of Hollywood musical film fame, displayed the note in her "Voices of Spring" recording. In the tradition of Lily Pons, Miliza Korjus, and Susanna Foster, operatic arias such as the Bell Song, the Polonaise (Mignon), and the Mad Scene (Lucia) as well as a host of waltzes specifically arranged for her voice were interpolated into her movies. She had a very typical acuto sfogato voice -- thin, small, weak throughout the mid-range, but with a sweet, ingratiating timbre and a chiming top register above high C. Grayson virtually defined this voice type for the general public during the years of her cinematic prime. Grayson's pretty, cultivated sound and natural, figurine-like beauty insured her popularity with movie audiences of the 1940s and 50s, and still continues to exert a strong appeal for fans of cinematic nostalgia. As of this writing, a single CD of selections (some of them quite virtuostic) has been released by the London-based Flare (SPEC 1021)
Elisabeth Roon sings to high G in a marvelous old Vox LP recording of von Suppe's Die Schoene Galatee . Her fastly spun voice was not of the highest polish, but her enthuisiasm was unquestionable. The operetta is a delightfully light one-acter and this is the version to have (if you can find it) as Roon is charming and ornaments her line every chance she can. She also recorded an LP (Vox) of Strauss waltzes which can occasionally be found in second hand record shops.
Dorothy Dorow, internationally known for her interpretations of the contemporary concert literature, recorded an atypical recital of old-fashioned canary pieces for BIS in 1976 which has been reissued on CD. She qualifies for inclusion here as her Adam Variations ends on a somewhat bland high G. Often sopranos who specialize in modern works must cultivate extremely high notes for their demanding repertoire, but rarely do they cross over into such dog-eared classics as Dorow chooses here. There is no condescension to the material from Dorow or her assisting musicians, if anything the approach is too academic and lacks spontaneity. It is a very interesting program that mixes bravura 19th century voice/flute showpieces with a few modern selections in a similar vein, one of which Dorow wrote herself. Although the CD is recommended, be aware that it is uneven (some pieces like Benedict's "Lo, Here the Gentle Lark" are quite out of sorts).
From the Netherlands came the wonderful Marianne Blok, who primarily concentrated on radio and concert work because of her short stature of five feet. Very popular in her own country and in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, she thrilled audiences with her pure, sweet voice, sincere delivery, and command of G above high C. There are no commerical recordings available of Blok in America but broadcasts exist demonstrating her high G in the "Mireille Waltz" and the Desert Scene from the same opera, as well as an F-sharp at the conclusion of Ophelia' s Mad Scene from Thomas' Hamlet.
Italian diva Luciana Serra touches high G in her recording of "Tu del mio Carlo" from I Masnadieri and sustains the F-sharp as her Ophelia goes mad in a 1983 recital of arias recently reissued on CD by Fonit Cetra. She also sang the monstrous "Popoli di Tessaglia" in a Bologna concert in 1980, just managing to pipe out the top Gs as staccati. Serra's voice is larger than the typical acuto sfogato and is a distinctive and impressive one if captured in its prime. Her rather unorthodox method of singing when in the altissimo register is reminiscent of Miliza Korjus. Like Korjus, Serra's approach to the third octave verges on straight tone. Although admirably accurate in its clarity and instumental precision the basic "sound" of her top register can be unpleasant. When it comes to her top register Serra is most impressive in fleet music where her accuracy is often staggering.
Renee Fleming isn't a coloratura soprano, let alone an acuto sfogato, yet she pops out a clear staccato high G in an intense cadenza inserted into the showy "Lieve son" from Il sogno di Scipione on her 1996 Mozart arias disc. During performances of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia in 1998 and 1999 she startled listeners in Milan and New York with an interpolated high F during the final cabaletta. And in theVespri Bolero (from the album pictured above) she adds an easy and beautiful top E. Fleming's versatility and gifts seem endless.
The newest addition to the group of artists who can call upon the G above high C is the petite Armenian soprano, Aline Kutan. Born in Istanbul, she studied in British Columbia and the Universite Laval in Quebec. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions in 1995, she made her US debut the next year as Lakme with the Arizona Opera company. Since that time she has sung Lakme (and other roles) internationally. She created a sensation during May of 2002 with her singing of the role in Detroit: during Lakme's opening vocalise Kutan interpolated a sustained G above high C, causing audiences to gasp out loud. A lovely singer with a full, well equalized instrument and an excellent florid technique, Kutan is quickly emerging as one of the best of the current "new" crop of florid specialists. Not one to shirk from a challenge, during the run of Detroit Lakmes, Kutan sang the role on three consecutive days. A concert given in 1995 with the Montreal Symphony shows typical programming daring for this singer: Zerbinetta's aria, Queen of the Night Vengeance aria, the Gliere Concerto for Coloratura, (with a spectacular high F at its conclusion) as well as Mozart's concert aria, Vorrei spiegarvi, and Adele's Laughing Song from Fledermaus.
Our last half-step down brings us to a famous set of F-sharps written by Richard Strauss for the first version (1912) of Zerbinetta's grand aria "Grossmachtige Prinzessin." [See related article in the Aria Section of this site for more on this aria and its recordings].
During the revision of the opera in 1916, Zerbinetta's aria was shortened, simplified, and lowered so that the highest notes became two high Es -- this is the version that has become the standard today. Thankfully, there have been adventurous sopranos who have been seduced by the challenge and novelty of the original 1912 version. Rare early recordings by Hermine Bosetti, Hedwig Francillo-Kauffmann, Adelaide von Skildonz, and Ilse Hollweg are supplemented with rare live renditions by Hollweg, Virginia MacWatters, Elizabeth Harwood, Beverly Hoch, and Risa Ranae Harman. Sumi Jo was chosen to sing this version for the first recording of the 1912 Ariadne auf Naxos, released by Virgin Records in 1997, and she handles the F-sharps satisfactorily. Most desirable and definitive is the 1983 recording by Edita Gruberova on the Orfeo label -- truly a miraculous marriage of aria and singer. The dubs of Beverly Sills' two different live performances (Boston & New York) from 1969 show her omitting the high F-sharps (although she implies in her autobiography that she sang them). Margarethe Siems who originated the role in 1912 and Frieda Hempel for whom it was composed should be mentioned, although no recordings exist of their performances. Hempel did leave recorded evidence of the high F-sharp, however, in her singing of a remarkably virtuostic arrangement of Adam's Theme and Variations and the Bell Song where she adds that note to the final staccato flourish. The Adam has been released on CD by Nimbus in their Hempel collection, but the Bell Song has yet to appear on CD.
Other singers not previously mentioned who interpolated the high F-sharp in various studio recordings or recorded performances include Laura Aiken (Ophelia's Mad Scene), Maria Gerhart, Lea Piltti and Ada Sari [sort of] in Adam's Theme & Variations (Hempel's arrangement), Elisabeth Reichelt (Tarantella from Gasparone and "Ich bin die Cristel von der Post" fromDer Vogelhandler), Caryn Hartglass ("Le Rossignol et le Empereur" by Federico Longas, a recital piece originally written for Lily Pons), Adele Kern ("Saper vorreste," who also trills a high D), Petia Ivanova ("Caro nome"), Eva Marie Siefert (Tyrollean Waltz adapted from a La Fille du Regiment theme), Anna Shumate (Bell Song), and Rita Shane ("O beau pays" and Ophelia's Mad Scene).
Of course, unusual range is not limited to the classical field. Several pop and jazz singers sing quite high and deserve discussion, although by no means are they considered legitimate acuto sfogato.
Jazz enthusiasts are well acquainted with the name Cleo Laine. Since the 1960s audiences have applauded her virtuoso and inventive scatting to sustained G-sharps, as well as powerful lunges into the contralto register. Much of her most intricate scatting was done as a duet with saxophone, played by her husband and arranger, John Dankworth. Laine is also known for her interpretation of the theater music of Kurt Weill, Schönberg, and Sondheim, but it is in her jazz work that she best demonstrates her vast range and pyrotechnical abilities, actually touching high B-flat in one version of the song "Music."
A less famous jazz singer of tremendous range is Rachelle Farrell, a well-kept secret in the international jazz club and festival circuit. She has made only three CDs: her self-titled album from 1992 and her newest releases are strictly sophisticated rhythm and blues, but her 1990 CD for Blue Note entitled First Instrument is a wonderful collection of jazz standards and original songs. Her wild reworking of "Inchworm" by Frank Loesser has a scat break where she squeezes out a double high D. Like Laine, these are approached instrumentally with a completely different aesthetic from that used by operatic singers. And also like Laine, Farrell contrasts these highs with startling plunges into the smoky lower depths.
During the 1980s Maureen McGovern firmly established herself as a vocal phenomenon. With a range to A-flat above high C, McGovern offered audiences of the early 1980s her own brand of concert fireworks like Cy Coleman's "I'm a Brass Band" (Sweet Charity) in which she imitates various instruments of the band in their own octave, or a vocalise interpretation of Conrad Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" in which she sings the piccolo part -- bouncing-off top Fs and Gs in brilliant staccati work. (This last was once a warm-up used by Beverly Sills' famous teacher, Estelle Liebling.) McGovern also has legit musical theater credentials having sung the soprano roles in The Pirates of Penzance and The Threepenny Opera on Broadway, as well as recording Bernstein's bravura "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide and haunting vocalises by Chopin and Ravel (the latter to a high F). Another unusual song sung in public but never recorded was "Demented Diva," an amusing "fight" between the classical and jazz aspects of her personality.
Of course, in a category all her own is the 1950s diva, Yma Sumac, one of the most unique and innovative singers of the last century. This Peruvian singer of exotica performed a notorious array of vocal acrobatics mostly in the region of high F. The highest note she recorded was the C above high C in a jungle pastiche called "Chuncho".
Sumac is an acknowledged influence on several contemporary exponents of high range exploitation and vocal effects. In the New Wave music movement, Lena Lovich's bizarre singing occasionally took her quite high into the soprano register. In "Bird Song" (dedicated to Yma Sumac) on the album Flex, Lovich repeatedly rises to high E-flat and F, while in "Momentary Breakdown" (on the album Stateless) she sustains an A above high C and touches the B-flat. Lovich's singing in this area, however, is not pretty and because of the musical framework more resembles wailing. It is a singular effect rather than an integrated part of her usual musical expression.
The disco era had Cheryl Lynn, a funk and soul singer whose dance club hit "Star Love" has a siren-like rise to about the high G followed by some very Sumac-esque jungle imitations. Lynn made a few other albums, but never surpassed this initial splash.
Considered a performance artist, Diamanda Galas calls her music "intravenal, electro-acoustic voice work," which, as Stephen Holden of the New York Times commented, is a "fancy name for a pyrotechnical vocal approach, enhanced by electronics, that vacillates between a studied primitivism and a dramatic, highly polished bel canto style." (7/22/85) Born in Texas and said to have a three-and-a-half octave range, Galas' singing style is individual and not to everyone's taste. Galas sings such pieces as "Les Yeux Sans Sang" (Eyes without Blood), and "Tragouthia Apo to Aima Exoun Fuonos" (Song from the Blood of Those Murdered); each are about 25 minutes long and "extend the dramatic possibilities of singing by intermingling bel canto passages that use microtonal variances in pitch, with sibilant sounds, ritualized stuttering, cackling and gargling, and other noises made during intakes of breath." (ibid.) Galas remains an individual and colorful performer of aggressive concepts and solid musicianship. (Photo: Paula Court/IPA)
Since 1990, Mariah Carey has displayed her extensive vocal range on recordings and in concert. This young singer sings higher than anybody: in one track on her debut album Carey reaches the F above high F in an impossibly high staccato passage. Most of her singing centers in a high pop belt, but every once in a while she will take off to a whistle-pure B-flat above high C, or higher, with no effort. A multi-Grammy winner, Mariah is a stylish singer in her genre and a strong influence on an even younger set of new teen pop starlets. She has started to drop the higher notes from her recordings, however, because they are not in line with her newly cultivated tough urban image.
Special mention must be made of Minnie Ripperton. During the 1970's, until her early, tragic death of cancer in 1979, she astonished everyone with her sweet, extremely high coloratura-like warblings framed in soul music.
Born in 1947, Ripperton began singing with a group called the Gems, and later sang with the Rotary Connection. Come to My Garden, released in 1970, was her first of many solo discs. Minnie's signing with the Epic label in 1973 signaled her national prominence as a major popular recording artist and for that firm she made a number of excellent albums (Perfect Angel, Adventures in Paradise, Stay in Love ). These were later re-issued by Capitol. In 1978, she signed with Capitol Records, but made only a few albums with them before her untimely death.
One of the finest tributes paid to Ripperton was the obituary written by John Rockwell which appeared in the New York Times (7/13/79): "As a musician, Miss Ripperton was distinguished for a reputed five-and-a-half octave range, developed in part through her early operatic training. Yet, unlike many wide-ranging singers, she avoided gimickry in her performances. Using her voice instrumentally, she combined the forthrightness of pop and soul singing with the intricacy of jazz in a manner that managed to be both popular and intelligent." The recordings Ripperton left us show a high soprano register that was very soft and well-blended into a pop chest voice. The upper extension was practically limitless -- in the song "Reasons" (on the album Perfect Angel) she sustains a top F-sharp and A-natural with octave jumps that bristle with electricity. "Seeing You This Way" (Perfect Angel) and "Adventures in Paradise" (Adventures in Paradise) both show her uncanny ability to sustain almost indefinitely the B-flat above high C. In the former song she tops this by warbling over the double high C twice.
As with others of this voice type, Ripperton's best work was in songs composed for her particular voice, many of which she wrote with her husband, Dick Rudolph. Entrances in the upper extension are so well calculated that at first the listener cannot distinguish between her voice and the other instruments. Ripperton also had unfailing aesthetic taste in the use of her high notes; like Sumac and Laine, she incorporated them in a such way that made them an integral part of her musical creativity. The exactitude of her attack, her unfailing pitch, and the sweetness of her tone were merely added attractions in an already special and appealing singing style. Her death at the age of 31 robbed the popular music world of a most talented and distinctive performer.
In a special class are those few singers who have learned to sing even higher still. These notes, however, are pedagogical rather than suitable for public display. "...there have been one or two specialist teachers in vocal range, most notably Alfred Wolfsohn, who has trained Marita Gunther to sing the entire range of the piano, which means a culmination in C '''''' and Roy Hart, another Wolfsohn pupil, has reached notes beyond the range of the piano. Louis Lavelle and Tom King, both pupils of Sheer Pleeth, have also sung the entire range of the piano. But such altitudinous notes, must, by their very nature, be sinusoidal and thin on resonance." (Maurice Leonard, Records and Recording 11/79)
As you can see, despite the many artists who fall into this unusual category, the acuto sfogato remains controversial. Undoubtedly, despite the changes in taste and appreciation, practitioners of this rarefied art will continue to appear on the scene. And, typically, with varying degrees of success. For those of us who enjoy our music spiced with altitudinous excursions, they will be welcomed with open arms.
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