Interview with great Sicilian tenor – Salvatore Fisichella

Salvatore Fisichella

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.

Salvatore Fisichella IL PIRATA excerpt

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!

Bellini compilation

[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.

 Salvatore Fisichella – Che gelida manina

Without further ado, it is my pleasure and honor to present Maestro Salvatore Fisichella.

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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.

Sinus Cavities

 [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.

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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

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10 responses to “Interview with great Sicilian tenor – Salvatore Fisichella

  1. “A liberating of a noble stream of voice; when everything expands with a mechanism that is both light and sweet.”

    Wonderfully put. Reminds me of the Michalangelo statue. And I love the “light and sweet.” Gives you an insight into the heart of the man.

    Thank you for this interview, Jack.

  2. This is a wonderful interview. There is so much to be learned from a master of voice like Mr Fisichella. Thank you so much for this blog Jack, and for this interview.

    – Ben.

  3. OMG WONDERFUL. “The passaggio notes F, F#, and G, should be sung open but covered” I first heard this from Dominic Cossa. Another Amazing post. I love this Blog

  4. Pingback: Appoggio and Low Larynx | Tenor Talk Blog

  5. 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.

    It is my understanding that the vibrating column of air in your pharynx cannot enter your sinuses unless you have your soft palate lowered–which no well-trained classical singer does unless intentionally singing a nasal consonant or a nasalized vowel. Certainly the air cannot reverse course above the glottis and re-enter the chest. You interject a comment on this (in blue), but instead of correcting the error you reaffirm it, writing that “Maestro Fisichella brings the column of air toward the back of the mask and toward the forehead cavities.” Surely not: if he did that, he would produce a weak, nasal sound, not the brilliant sound that we hear in those recordings. What Maestro Fisichella is talking about here must be the location of sensations of vibration, not the flow of air.

    • Hello there,

      These wonderful comments make me think that I really need to get this blog hosted elsewhere and plugin a forum where we can conduct discussions.

      To your great points:

      It is my understanding that the vibrating column of air in your pharynx cannot enter your sinuses unless you have your soft palate lowered–which no well-trained classical singer does unless intentionally singing a nasal consonant or a nasalized vowel.

      Is there any reason to assume that air vibrating cannot have simpathetic vibrations in the bones of the sinus cavities? I don’t think so, but really it doesn’t matter. One thing that I will not do on this blog is to get into the science of what is objectively happening. For example, as you correctly quoted, Fisichella makes specific statements about the column of air, and they seem to not really have any scientific objectivity behind them. Does that make Fisichella’s voice or technique inferior? Certainly not! You get my point. There is a reason why he feels what he does. What the objective reasons are does not matter to me. What matters is that he feels what he does, and that those feelings are linked to his method. So if by feeling a vibrating column going up the pharynx into the sinuses you get to sound like Fisichella, then by all means do seek that vibrating column!!

      I do appreciate your comment because it does clarify the fact that one should not be blowing air up into the nose. The path of the breath should be thought of as a path of vibration. Though I will say that the vibration does feel like air movement at times. This is why the Italian tradition speaks of “giro del fiato” – the turning or path of the breath.

      Also, one thing, the tradition does speak of lowering ever so slightly the soft palate in the passaggio.

      Thanks!
      JL

  6. Jack, thank you for your measured and appreciative response to my comment. In writing it, I tried to avoid any phrasing that might seem provocative, but I could not be sure that I had succeeded.

    I claim no competence as a voice teacher or a voice scientist, but it always disturbs me to read statements that confuse the description of subjective impressions with the description of what, as you put it, is objectively happening. To me, the use of such a term as “column of air” (after posting my comment, I found the version of this interview in the original language and confirmed that this was an accurate translation) in combination with reference to specific sinus cavities (and even a diagram!) implies an objective physical description. So if it is not meant as such a description, the statement is misleading. What is more, as your own observations imply, this is not a purely theoretical issue: singers, at least novices, sometimes make a practical confusion—a confusion in singing—between letting vibrations into the nasal cavities (a desired effect) and letting breath into them (an undesired effect).

    Obviously, if communications about singing were restricted to objectively correct physical descriptions, the teaching of singing would be impossible. We have to describe our sensations and imaginings in order to communicate to one another any idea that we can put to immediate practical use. (If you tell me, “Bend your arm,” I can immediately obey; if you tell me, “Contract your biceps while letting your triceps extend,” I have to think, “Oh, he wants me to bend my arm!” before I can comply. But if you tell me, “Contract your inter-arytenoids during phonation,” I have no idea what to do!) But such description has its limitations and its risks. We can only describe our subjective impressions in terms of objectively observable parts and regions of our bodies (or the surrounding spaces, if we happen to “feel” things out there). When we do this, no one can tell us that we are wrong—or, for that matter, that we are right. There is no question of correct or incorrect statement, only of whether some combination of words satisfies me as a description of what I am feeling—and perhaps whether it satisfies someone else as a description of what he or she feels. But if I am speaking or writing for the public, and I fail to make clear that I what I am describing is merely my subjective impression and not an objectively observable occurrence—or, worse still, if I mistake my subjective impression for an objectively observable occurrence (which is what I suspect Maestro Fisichella of doing in that interview)—then I am at least misleading my audience and potentially spreading confusion.

    It is only when we talk about physical occurrences that we have anything to be right or wrong about; so it is natural that, when we are trying not merely to describe our private impressions but to explain what it is to sing well (which I take to be the concern of this blog), we gravitate toward physical descriptions. But I think that it is always possible to do this without obscuring the difference between using physical terms to describe subjective impressions and using them to describe physical occurrences as such.

  7. Pingback: The Feeling of Giro di Fiato – Response to Miles | Tenor Talk Blog

  8. I, for one, appreciate Jack saying he won’t get into the science of the objective. After years of study, I hold suspect the analytical part of my brain that wants to “make sense” of all things. The more I want to make sense, the less I yield my spirit to singing’s mystery. There is truth in the maxim “Dumb Singer.” The more I think about things the less effective I am as a performing artist, becoming too self aware and too tempted to micromanage while on stage.

    That being said, there is a time and place for everything and your questions and points are very valid, Miles. Thank you for posting them and inciting Jack’s responses. I very much appreciate your final statement that we need to clarify when we are speaking subjectively. Studying singing CAN be confusing at times. A quick perusal of Great Singers on Singing gives such divergent viewpoints that a reader looking for definitive answers will only grow annoyed. What is ‘fact’ ought to be quantifiable. But in singing, imo, that road leads to perdition.

    One of my favorite things in the Fisichella interview was his not allowing Jack to ‘trap’ him on his question about the use of falsetto. He and Stephen O’Mara have long talked about it. And it turns out, both are right. A wise teacher takes into consideration his student’s needs. Not Science’s objective truths.

  9. In my younger years (long time ago) I had a teacher that spent most of the class explaining the function of the glotis, epliglotus naso this and naso that. I could never sing while studying with him because I was confused. Then I went with an old man that at 75 could sing a beautifull Nessu Dorma. The only thing he said was “you do this way and I do it this way” and gave me both examples, mine (wrong) and his (right) I inmediatley understood and began singing like I had never done before.

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