It is my privilege and honor to present an interview with a tenor who has exemplified great vocalism, skill, and superb vocal technique: Maestro Salvatore Fisichella.
One cannot help but think Bellini when hearing the name Fisichella. Maestro Fisichella made performing full-throated stratospheric repertoire sound easy. Many tenors have attempted to tackle Bellini the way Fisichella has, but very few have been able to approach the repertoire with the same virility, and accento drammatico without abandoning the mellifluous line Bellini requires. Surely, Fisichella stands at the helm when it comes to Italian tenors specializing in Bellini over the last fifty years.
It is a particular pleasure for me to have interviewed the Maestro because he is a fellow Sicilian. You have to understand that the small island of Sicily is particularly proud, and even fanatical about its Bellini! Singing Bellini in Sicily is like singing Verdi in Parma – you might want to rethink your engagement if you’re not up to the job…
Early in my vocal studies, I enjoyed going to see operas at the Politeama Theater in Palermo with my father; and I vividly recall seeing Salvatore Fisichella in Il Pirata. I had never heard a tenor sing that high in the theater. I can recall Salvatore Fisichella standing stage left facing the audience fearlessly in the Nel Furor delle Tempeste aria, and launching a Zeus-like-lightning-bolt high D into the house. I turned to my dad in bewilderment, and found him chuckling and nodding “yes” to me. That was his way of saying “that’s how it’s done, son!” We were proud of our Sicilian tenor! I was an instant fan.
Maestro Fisichella is a lyric tenor, with the ability to attack the high register with potent squillo – not fake ring, but rather seriously grounded in the chest voice. But he could also sing with a splendid mezzavoce that reminds instantly of another great Sicilian – Giuseppe Di Stefano.
Like Lauri Volpi, a great Belliniano of the past, Fisichella was not one to exaggerate the width of the center of the voice; and with this discipline he mastered Bellini and could do the repertoire justice. This carefully nurtured set of skills made him unlike others. Some heroic tenors could attack Gualtiero or Arturo with spectacular high voices, but were limited when it came to what Bellini actually wrote on the page. Not so for Salvatore Fisichella!
[Aside: I wanted to point out that the young voice you hear in the Norma is Maestro Fisichella at 61 years of age!]
Lest you were to think that Bellini is all Fisichella mastered, let me quickly introduce one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, and plain gorgeous-voiced Rodolfo’s! I love how Che Gelida Manina, performed at the Arena in Verona at a concert commemorating Beniamino Gigli, shows the incredible quality of the timbre of Fisichella’s voice. The sound is beautiful, and the high C is simply spectacular.
Without further ado, it is my pleasure and honor to present Maestro Salvatore Fisichella.
Jack Li Vigni and Salvatore Fisichella – Interview October 18, 2010
JL: Who was your teacher, or the person who more than any other taught you vocal technique?
SF: The only teacher I had was Maria Gentile, coloratura soprano, who together with Toti Dal Monte shared the stages of their time. Rivals and friends… Umberto Giordano chose M.me Gentile as the first soprano to interpret his opera “Il Re.”
JL: Do you feel a change in the way the voice works between center, passaggio, and high note? What are your sensations?
SF: The change consists exclusively in bringing higher the column of air coming from the lungs. In Chest for the first octave; in the Nasal Cavities (Sphenoid and Maxillary – mask) for the middle voice; and in the Frontal and Occipital cavities in the high and extreme high notes. But these cavities work simultaneously and in different proportions depending on the range.
[Aside: I would like to point out that I find it interesting that for the high notes Maestro Fisichella brings the column of air toward the back of the mask and toward the forehead cavities. This explains to me the ability to find space in the high note while also finding intense squillo – ring]
JL: What do you think of appoggio into the mask?
SF: As I explained before, appoggio (leaning) into the mask is imaginary, a matter of speech. The appoggio (leaning) of the voice is always global and simultaneous in the various resonance chambers. Depending on the height of the pitch one uses one chamber rather than another. As an example to understand better: in the first octave on uses 60% of chest, 25% Nasal (sphenoid and ethmoid sinuses) and Maxillary Cavities, and 15% Frontal and Occipital areas. In the middle voice one would use 60% of the Nasal-Maxillary, 20% Chest, and 20% Frontal and Occipital areas. In the high notes, 60% of the note would go to the Frontal and Occipital cavities, 30% to the Nasal-Maxillary spaces, and 10% to the Chest. The boundaries are not so exact as numbers may be, but all happens in proportions as directed by instinct and mechanism, and dependant on the skills and natural structure of the individual.
One must always have the sensation of wanting to eat the sound toward the back, send it backwards and upwards. The further up you go, and the more one should have the sense of diminishing the roundness of the larynx. [Aside: This reminds me of the technical concept of “layers of vowels” – which I will discuss in the future – another Cotogni tenet] One must create a large internal space without widening much the mouth, but opening it just enough to project the sound attacked “di punta” (on the squillo or on the point, laser sound). In other words one starts the high note narrow to reach maximum opening toward the end of the high note.
The passaggio notes F, F#, and G, should be sung open but covered, and the Belcanto tenor can extend this position upwards to about Ab. Careful to never cover too much the area around F! The high notes would become pushed and lacking in brilliance.
JL: What is the connection between voice, diaphragm, and larynx?
SF: The larynx is without doubt the most important organ of phonation. With ailing vocal folds (red, or swollen) one may be able to speak and sing. With laryngitis, even a mild case, one cannot produce good sounds and one can’t or shouldn’t sing.
The larynx gives color, strength, and a variety of dynamics to the voice, etc. The voice should always be set up in the larynx, in every moment of phonation. It is the diaphragm’s job to bring the voice into the various resonance chambers without producing a shift in the laryngeal position throughout the vocal spectrum. The more one is able to keep this laryngeal set up and a perfect breathing mechanism, then one can talk of homogeneous sound.
Breathing should be the so-called “diaframmatico-costale” (diaphragmatic-intercostal) – and that is belly in and chest out. After inhaling by bringing the abdomen forward, as one sings the stomach comes in and the chest goes up. The mouth should always be with a smile; and on the high notes, the upper lip should leave the tip of the teeth uncovered; just the tips of the teeth, and not the gums.
JL: Lauri Volpi stated that he learned from Cotogni (Corelli, Filippeschi, and Pavarotti have similarly declared) that the voice – the very resonance of the voice – leans on the air beneath the vocal folds in the larynx. They stated that this laryngeal leaning produces high, metallic resonance. You have abundance of squillo in your voice. I ask myself if you per chance also feel similar sensations, or if you have found this ringing quality in some other way. What is the sensation you feel in the larynx, or elsewhere when it come to squillo (e.g. Singer’s Formant).
SF: Exactly as I explained before. To find the exact spot in the larynx you just need to do a gentle cough pronouncing HA, HE, HI, etc… The sensation is as though I were leaning in a supple way on the muscles of the neck as I lower the larynx. [Aside: he speaks of both the sound leaning and the larynx descending together. Do not confuse the two]
JL: What do you think of exercises where the tenor practices in the studio with a voice like that of a mezzo-soprano – falsetto – in order to learn head voice? Some say that learning high notes requires starting with this falsetto, and then slowly learning how to close the cords by pronouncing the vowel. Others say the high voice should be built from the middle… from the Chest voice, and not from falsetto. What do you think of this?
SF: There is a bit of truth in both affirmations. A good teacher will use at times the one hypothesis, and at other times the other, depending on the nature of the student. If the student has a propensity for the high notes in falsetto, then that is where one should start. If the student arrives to the teacher without high notes, then one builds the voice from the middle voice.
JL: What is the mental and physical process you go through when you go for a high note in the theater?
SF: A liberating of a noble stream of voice; when everything expands with a mechanism that is both light and sweet.
JL: Singing in a studio and on stage is very different. How did you overcome the problems linked to acoustics of theaters, learning to refrain from pushing the sound when you can’t hear the voice as you would in the studio?
SF: Along the way you learn how to calibrate the voice in a variety of acoustic environments, always remembering to never force, but to find rather the natural resources of your voice.
JL: You have a beautiful control of dynamics. How do you pass, in the theater, from singing in mezza voce to full voice without losing the connection between voice and diaphragm? Sometimes we tenors are afraid to sing mezza voce because we are afraid that if we get “off the voice” we may not find quickly enough the right coordination between breath and full voice. How did you do it?
SF: It’s all a matter of practice. You control the voice through the mind, which regulates everything. One must own the breath which is calibrated based on the sound to be produced. In the case you mentioned especially, one’s breathing should avoid heaviness as much as possible.
JL: Last question – my father, Salvatore Li Vigni, taught me that when the legat is correct, the intention of the sung word helps one find the right technique. What do you think of this idea?
SF: Your Father was absolutely right. Singing should always be legato. Every sound should lean on the proceding one, creating one sound, one place, one vocal line.
Maestro Fisichella currently teaches voice in Sicily and is often a featured international celebrity guest at masterclasses. He can be reached through his website: http://www.salvatorefisichella.it