As far back as I can remember there has always been the sound of a dramatic Melocchi tenor in my life. My father, the late Salvatore Lauro Li Vigni, studied in Pesaro with Arturo Melocchi in the latter’s last year of life. The anecdotes and stories about Melocchi are almost like bed time stories in my head.
The stories and commentaries about Melocchi and his method have multiplied over the years. Initially, it was in Italy that tenors sought to become the new Del Monaco and technical ideas like that of “affondo” became part of the well known technical lingo in teaching circles. Melocchi became a sort of quasi-mythological figure, the grand master of the dramatic tenor secret, the inventor of a new way of singing that made tenors into veritable forces of nature. As Del Monaco and Corelli took their seat in the pantheon of operatic divinities, Melocchi also became an important historic figure.
If anything comes out of this brief account of my memories and studies, I hope it is to show that Arturo Melocchi built his method on traditional Italian technical ideas, and that save a few, though significant, exaggerated departures from this tradition, his method can and should be viewed as a natural outcome of the revolution in tenor vocalism started in Caruso’s day by the legendary great tenore Napoletano, as well as of the profound changes in vocal aesthetics consequent to the emergence of the Verismo tenor.
Polls show that Franco Corelli is still one of the most popular tenors today. Many young tenors seek to understand how Corelli, Del Monaco and the great spinto tenors of decades ago approached vocal technique. Consequently, Melocchi, because of his role in their vocal development, has become a figure of great interest.
Interviews of Franco Corelli by Stefan Zucker, Jerome Hines, and others have become not only highly accessible, but almost a sort of authoritative and definitive word on the subject of Arturo Melocchi’s method, unfortunately. These interviews were never meant to give anything more than a superficial introduction into Melocchi’s ideas.
A quick search on the web will yield a connection between Arturo Melocchi and low-larynx technique. In fact, the two in the circle of technique talkers have become nigh inseparable, almost as if Melocchi invented the technique. Like many fallacies, if something is said long enough people start to believe it. This seems to be the case with Melocchi inventing the low larynx technical approach in singing. Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that Melocchi “pioneered” the low larynx technique.
I personally was taught by a tenor who had been exposed to many teachers, Melocchi being perhaps one of the most influential in his experience. My father, tenor Salvatore Lauro Li Vigni, was the source of much of my knowledge on this topic. I have, however, thoroughly compared the tradition of Italian singing and teaching to what I was taught about Melocchi to uncover the real degree of departure from the norm and tradition that Melocchi’s method represents, and have found that, in fact, Melocchi’s ideas weren’t at all as abrupt and exotic a change as many claim them to have been.
I hope to convey a clear view into my research on the topic. I will try to give a concise and informative picture of what Melocchi thought and taught; what he did in the studio, and what his ideas on vocal development were about.
I will also try to distinguish between what Melocchi actually taught and what Del Monaco did, especially Del Monaco post ’50s. I think this distinction is very important because what my research has shown me is that the two not always were in harmony.
“I will give you a voice” – Melocchi
Many Melocchi students were also fanatical Del Monaco imitators. Thus, in creating a clear picture of Melocchi’s ideas it becomes very important to identify the divergence between Melocchi’s instructions and Del Monaco’s vocalism. Clearly, Melocchi provided a technical framework that allowed tenors to make the leap into the realm of Del Monaco-type vocalism; but if pondered properly one will inevitably conclude that there is a difference between developing a powerful vocal instrument and the actual artistry in singing – in this case Del Monaco being the model. The aesthetic and artistic choices, and responsibility for these, lie mostly with the singer and not as much with the teacher. Teachers become famous because of their famous students, and it is natural for new students to interpret what the teacher says based on a vocal model – usually the famous protégé singer arising from that studio. It is safe to say that most tenors arriving at Melocchi’s door were compelled by their desire to follow in Del Monaco’s footsteps.
Melocchi often told my dad, and like a ripple in water the idea was passed on to my father’s students: “Io ti do’ una voce. Poi se sai cantare sono cavoli tuoi.” – “I will give you a voice. Knowing how to sing is your business.” It seems to me that Melocchi did, in fact, follow this very philosophy, giving a technical framework to his tenors, but leaving these free to execute their singing as they saw fit.
Many of Melocchi’s students used the technical work to try to do what Del Monaco did, imitating him to the extent of causing successive generations of singers and pedagogues to assume that this Del Monaco imitation was in fact the Melocchi method itself. I will challenge that assumption. But I must concede that the simple fact that Melocchi allowed his tenors to make dubious artistic choices in the spirit of imitating their hero, Del Monaco, could be considered a flaw of his very approach. A teacher should help a student develop their technique with artistry in mind, and singing should not be a simple aim at decibels, the cult of a personality, or at least not focus on these things to the extent of the entire technical approach being conditioned by it. However, what Melocchi did should be viewed in the frame of the time. The aesthetics of the Verismo repertoire were often imbued in raw, primal, and unhindered emotion rather than in the elegant and controlled delivery of the Belcanto era.
Then again, it is very much possible that Melocchi was very vocal about his opposition to Del Monaco imitation. He was known for showing the door to students who were artistically sloppy, as my father recounted to me many times. This issue remains truly an unknown.
Having said all this I would direct attention at this point to the fact that early Del Monaco recordings from the 1940s display an extraordinary ease and flow in the singing, especially in the top voice, compared to later recordings. It is fascinating to observe a Del Monaco closer to the original imprinting by his teacher if we are to truly discover the teacher’s influence. Later Del Monaco must be viewed as a singer that has taken the technical framework of his teacher and made it his own. So I would submit that if we are to truly analyze the immediate impact of Melocchi’s method on Del Monaco in the attempt of drawing conclusions regarding the method, then we should listen to his earliest recordings.
There is no doubt that Del Monaco’s career, spanning over three decades is in and of itself testament of technical proficiency at the highest level, and facts silence the petty animosity often used in describing his abilities.
Del Monaco imitators were mostly imitators of the famous Del Monaco, from the 50s and 60s, at the height of his recording career. This too is important in assessing the divergence between Melocchi’s technical framework and the way individual singers’ applied this technique in their Del Monaco imitation.
Perhaps hearing is more immediate than words. Here is an early recording of Del Monaco singing “O Paradiso” from 1948. I leave it up to your talent as listeners to help you discover the differences between this recording and his post-Otello-debut singing of 1951 onward.
Of course, history is never a clear picture. I do not intend this article to be a definitive assessment on Melocchi’s method, but I do base my assumptions on the accounts my father passed on to me, on recordings of lessons from the Melocchi studio, and on the accounts of singers who studied with Melocchi given to me first hand, and those gathered in various written accounts.
Melocchi and the Traditional Italian School
The idea of singing with a low range larynx is certainly not something that originated with Arturo Melocchi. It is a very old tenet in the Italian tradition, and science has shown it to be an important aspect of learning to sing in a relaxed and resonant way. Certainly we should distinguish between a larynx that is forcibly held down and one that is not, as well as distinguishing between a low range larynx and one in its lowest possible position. The results in vocalism are profoundly different.
Traditionally, in the Italian school, singers were invited to sing “sulla posizione dello sbadiglio” – in the yawn position, which allows for the “gola aperta,” or “open throat,” which clearly involves a spontaneous lowering of the larynx and a widening of the pharynx:
…for a beginner it is as well to practice opening the mouth wide, being sure to lower the jaw at the back. Do this many times a day without emitting any sound merely to get the feeling of what an open throat is really like. You will presently begin to yawn after you have done the exercise a couple of times. In yawning, or in starting to drink a sip of water, the throat is widely open, and the sensation is a correct one which the singer must study to reproduce.
(Luisa Tetrazzini – The Art of Singing page 11)
Enrico Caruso said things that are very relevant for the discussion of Melocchi’s methodology:
To have the attack true and pure one must consciously try to open the throat not only in front, but from behind, for the throat is the door through which the voice must pass, and if it is not sufficiently open it is useless to attempt to get out a full, round one; also the throat is the outlet and inlet for the breath, and if it is closed the voice will seek other channels or return quenched within.
It must not be imagined that to open the mouth wide will do the same for the throat. If one is well versed in the art, one can open the throat perfectly without a perceptible opening of the mouth, merely by the power of respiration…
(Enrico Caruso – The Art of Singing, page 26)
It has been shown that the action of the laryngeal depressors activates in the beginning of a yawn (sbadiglio), and that deep inhalation can also trigger this action. When reading the accounts of past singers, and I might add also present ones, the low larynx is often reported as the result of proper breath support. Thanks to the power of the breath the throat remains relaxed, open, and passive, and the larynx lowers spontaneously.
Well trained singers learn to overcome the almost inevitable heightened antagonism between depressor and elevator muscles of the larynx beginners feel, coming to a feeling of relaxation of the larynx in a low range rather than a feeling of active “pushing down.” Thus, the singer does not perceive an active and energetic lowering but rather a low suspension of the larynx because of the balance in antagonism, a suspension that does not imply any fixed or lowest position, but rather a flexible and dynamic one.
The lower larynx actually aides the laryngeal tilting action of the Cricothyroid musculature essential in stretching the cords and allowing the tenor to ascend to the higher range with relative ease, but this process is negatively affected by tensions coming from heightened antagonisms. Also as documented by Sundberg, the lower larynx is an important condition for the tuning of Singer’s Formant energy – the traditional Italian “squillo,” “risonanza alta,” or “ring” in the voice.
I find this information to be essential in this context because it will allow the reader to truly examine objectively this aspect of the Melocchi method, and distinguish between fact and erroneous anecdote and speculation.
The results of singing with a forced low larynx, one riddled with antagonisms, are usually a decrease in resonance, overall vocal stiffness, and the lack of flow phonation, all consequent to the excessive muscular rigidity in the throat. Also the lack of flow phonation in this scenario leads to compensating through excessive medial compression, or pressed phonation, which decreases actual volume. The voice becomes muted and the top notes do not bloom. These vocal faults were never acceptable to Melocchi according to any account from his students. Corelli speaks of these very results in an interview with Zucker where he characterizes singers affected by this technical flaw as sounding like they had bronchitis, or overall lacking resonance.
With the laryngeal method you must know your vocal organ very well, what you can do and how far you can go. For example, I heard some who pushed their larynxes down to the point that they sounded as if they had bronchitis. With this technique, you can make your vocal cords suffer. Many who teach it cause their pupils to force their voices to the point of ruination.
(Stefan Zucker interview of Franco Corelli -www.belcantosociety.org/pages/corellipage3.html)
I would note that Corelli is not speaking of Melocchi in this context when he refers to “teachers” applying this method, but rather about those who apply it not knowing what they are doing.
Del Monaco in the ‘40s and early ‘50s is a voice in its prime, with extremely powerful resonance and flow. The vibrato is quick and the tone is typically unforced and un-manufactured, especially in early Del Monaco, closer to his original formation with Melocchi. Does this sound like a voice riddled with antagonisms typical of a larynx that is forced down?
It is true that many who claim to teach this method cause their students to force the larynx down, as Corelli states. My point is that this is not what Melocchi did. Corelli concurs.
Understanding Melocchi’s technical approach and its divergence from the tradition requires us to identify correctly the causes for the vocal faults so often attributed to Melocchi’s tenors, like lack of subtlety and inability to vary dynamics. Attributing these shortcomings simply to a forced low larynx is clearly a fallacious conclusion.
There are anecdotes of people who spoke to Del Monaco about his technique where he is understood as saying that his larynx was very low, and thus the conclusions are offered whereby Del Monaco forced his larynx down. This assumption whereby he forced the larynx down is no doubt aided by the fact that Del Monaco was a forceful singer, especially later in his career. But not only is this syllogism illogical given the resonant sound we hear, but it also says very little about Melocchi’s method. Certainly, Del Monaco’s larynx was low and the tenor would report it as such, but force is a whole different issue! There was certainly force in the singing at times, but it was not a consequence of forcing the larynx down. One can sing with force with a high larynx just as well; in fact, it is more likely.
I offer as anecdotal evidence the fact that my father did not recall Melocchi ever talking to him about actively lowering the larynx. Why the larynx was low had all to do with the type of vocalism – breath support and sound – typical of Melocchi’s method.
The Melocchi Credo
Inquiries with former Melocchi students reveal recollections of a few almost dogmatic ideas about technique that seem to stand as hallmarks of Melocchian thought, and benchmarks in vocal achievement to be achieved.
La Posizione dello sbadiglio: the throat should be open and relaxed as in a yawn position (sbadiglio), or better as some would say “the beginning of a yawn.” The deep OO vowel conditions the pharynx to remain in a position whereby the voice will find maximum space so it can open correctly in the higher range. The opening of the throat must remain “morbido,” which means “supple” or unforced. I wish to specify that the opening of the pharynx should not be confused with an opening of the epi-larynx, as I will explain later.
No placing of the voice in the mask: the voice does not originate in the mask, but rather in the laryngeal area and appoggio is found there. The voice is perceived as “staying down” as one ascends in range, “appoggiandosi” or leaning on a pressurized column of air beneath the vocal folds. Maintaining a feeling of connection between voice and breath deep in the laryngeal area, with the pharynx at its maximum relaxed opening – opens the voice up to greater volumes. The maintaining of this phonatory mode passively keeps the larynx down.
The low larynx was the result of the breath support, as well as the direct result of the sound sought for. One didn’t lower the larynx to automatically find the sound. The positioning of the larynx through energetic inhalation was not sufficient to produce an “open throat sound.”
Melocchi insisted on the yawn as one of the conditions that lead to an open throat sound (emphasis on the word “sound”). Open throat sound is nothing more than the feeling of a specific type of sound production – a proprioceptive experience of the singer whereby the full voice feels free and flowing in the expanded pharyngeal cavity, and unimpeded in its flow.
Singing in the yawn position was a factor in achieving an open throat sound, but just as important was the concept of the voice originating low in the laryngeal area, the one was worthless without the other in this view, perfectly in line with Italian tradition.
According to Melocchi the breath should not be felt as stopped by the muscles in the larynx but rather opposed by the sound in the laryngeal area. The first sensation described is the feeling of pressed phonation, while the latter is the feeling of correctly focused flow phonation. The sound is felt as originating in the laryngeal area and there it leans on the column of breath beneath the larynx causing the vocal folds to close and produce intense resonance effortlessly. Melocchi did not believe in stopping the breath with the muscles, but rather the feeling of compressing the sound energetically against the upward moving breath – the narrow sound in a throat of maximum opening, which means that the sound expands in the lower throat, especially between B3 and F4. The divergence from tradition was in the exaggeration of this process. Melocchi’s way was a stepped-up overdrive version of this process. Nonetheless, the muscles were viewed as having to be morbidi, or un-pushed.
Up to now Melocchi sounds very much like a traditional Italian school pedagogue, save the exaggerations of increased chest mechanism mentioned. Singing on the breath beneath the larynx is fundamental Italian technique. We can read the words of Beniamino Gigli as gathered by Herbert Caesari in an interview used as an introduction to the book The Voice of the Mind. Gigli is quoted verbatim according to Caesari:
As soon as I commence to sing I forget all about the diaphragm and ribs, all about the breathing machinery and its action, and sing on the air accumulated right underneath the larynx.
(H. Caesari, The Voice of the Mind – Introductory Lesson – page 27)
Lauri Volpi in his book Voci Parallele, in the section dealing with Antonio Cotogni speaks of the latter’s teaching method as focusing on the development of the “eco sonora”, or the “sound echo” resonance. This was achieved by inserting the “tubo risonatore” (resonance tube) into the “tubo pneumatic” (pneumatic tube, or trachea) and connecting the two to produce the correct sound. The sound leaned against a constant column of pressurized air.
Those who while singing stiffen the veins of their neck and become red in the face, continuously forcing the emission of every note, demonstrate that they don’t know how to breathe, measure the emission of breath, nor harmonize the various parts of the organism cooperating in the phenomenon of sung phonation. That is, they do not know how to insert in the moment of emission, the pneumatic tube onto the resonance tube. These, remaining separate impede the propagation of the air flow and the sound rays produced by the vibrator, and do not allow an enrichment of the harmonics.
(Giacomo Lauri Volpi – Voci Parallele page 200-201)
In analyzing the technical ideas of these two vocal giants from the glorious history of Italian vocalism, we find that Melocchi’s ideas on “sound opposing breath” are not new.
Jerome Hines mused and wrote much about Melocchi. He interviewed Corelli many times and sought to understand Melocchi’s method. It seems to me that he often misunderstood things in this regard. In fact, when he encounters ideas on appoggio (or the voice leaning against the breath beneath the cords) in other singers like Pavarotti or Tucker, or in Caruso’s writings, he makes a leap and calls these ideas Melocchian, concluding that Pavarotti and Tucker were Melocchi-type singers, seemingly unaware of the fact that the idea of appoggio was a traditional Italian school concept around well before Melocchi was even born. I think this has caused confusion.
Melocchi: the arrival, not the starting point
Melocchi insisted on keeping the heavier Chest Register mechanism to its maximum of functionality (often testing functionality) in order to confer greater power to the voice, and desirable Verismo-type qualities. This produced a strong, wide, while extremely focused sound in the upper middle voice. This middle voice did not lose its low position as one ascended, but rather the core of the sound at the larynx focused into squillo. In essence, the 2nd layer became very strong inside the very wide 3rd layer. Without the squillo of the 2nd layer thinning the core, one would simply have wide sound – chest. Instead, Melocchi singers found thin edge… like the eye of a hurricane, the squillo offsetting the weight of this massive voice expanding in the lower throat.
This beefy sound was not new in Melocchi’s day. This technical evolution of the tenor voice started in the early 1900s with the greatest and most influential tenor of all times: Enrico Caruso. Lauri Volpi describes the widening of the middle voice and the increase in Chest Register dominance that occurred thanks to Caruso, and that became characteristic of Verismo tenors, and how this was contrary to the instruction of former days.
With the advent of the “tragic voice” – not dramatic, nor heroic; neither lyric, nor leggero – of Enrico Caruso, unclassifiable voice, defying imitation, unforgettable, the series of authentic tenors was interrupted, trained in the extended range of the scale in which the arduous operas of the 19th Century were crafted, requiring virtuosity (coloratura), filature (diminuendo to pp), mixed voice, high notes and extreme extension, which had as a norm the “alleggerimento” (lightening up) of the upper middle voice so as to not invade the range of the baritone, and expansion [of the voice] starting in the upper range. “One sings in the middle voice and expands and resolves in the high note” – the old maestri would say, whom also admonished singers to not over open the notes in the passaggio, and to abstain from falsetto – the leprosy of the voice – to maintain constant the pressure of the column of air, and to carefully tend to the homogeneity of the entire vocal emission. In essence, a perfect tenor instrument was required, different in nature from the soprano, baritone, and bass.
Blinded by the popularity of Caruso… tenors forgot the glories of the past. Tenors became… dramatics a la Caruso, beautiful and expressive voices, limited in range and alien to the refined technique of the past…
(Lauri Volpi – Voci Parallele page 205)
The baritonal type width and darkness of the tenor upper Chest Register (B3-F4) may have started with Caruso, but Melocchi advanced this idea to unheard of levels extending the color of this mode to the higher register methodically, while Caruso did this only occasionally, and mostly in the B3-F4 range of the voice – the upper middle voice; and only occasionally extending this power to the upper register later in his career. His Rachel quand du Seigneur high notes were very much something Melocchi would have approved of.
Zucker claims Melocchi learned his method in China or Russia, an anecdote I have found no verification for. It seems to me that Melocchi learned right where he was from – Italy; and like many others was highly influenced by the revolution in tenor voice aesthetics initiated by Caruso. Perhaps these claims of the technique being exotic were an attempt to increase the sense of ownership and uniqueness of the method.
Following are two excerpts from the great tenor Francesco Merli. In the first we hear a traditional Italian tenor, who studied in Milano with Negrini and Borghi. Milano was a fertile place for voice instruction with celebrated studios like those of Mandolini, Moretti, Bavagnoli, and Zannoni to mention some of the most fruitful of the early 20th century.
Merli sings Guardate, Pazzo Son! with the most spectacular of traditional vocal techniques, recorded in 1927.
Analysis of the later recording of Esultate from 1939, a little over a decade later, but already deep into the period of vocal revolution in Italian tenor singing that came about with Caruso-type Verismo, reveals a vocally beefier and darker Merli sound in the higher register and in the upper middle voice.
A careful listen will reveal similarities between Merli and a later great Otello – Giuseppe Giacomini, a modern Melocchi-line protégé. Giacomini may have had a good listen to the later Merli.
A comparison to Lauri Volpi is revealing. Lauri Volpi maintains the impostazione, or vocal set up, typical of the glorious 1800s, a focused, more leggero middle voice that opened in the higher register into powerful tones, rather than a dark and wide middle voice with little or no extension upwards into the “sovracuto” (range above C5), a limitation typical of Verismo tenors. Notice in this clip how the only real note Lauri Volpi widens in the “new mode” is the very last note of the word “l’uragano.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Aureliano Pertile. The impact of Pertile on Northern Italian schools in this period was enormous. Pertile was a new breed of dramatic tenor, very different from Caruso, or from the preceding Belcanto era tenors. In fact, one could argue, and I would, that Pertile is truly the first modern tenor. There is certainly more affinity between Melocchi singers and Pertile than there is between them and Caruso. In general, the top voice – or high register sound we hear in Pertile is truly more Chest oriented than any of his predecessors.
One must remember that from the mid 20s up to Del Monaco’s emergence, Pertile was The Dramatic Tenor at La Scala and in Italy. His fame and influence were enormous. Pertile is definitely the middle link between Caruso and Melocchi singers.
I present these clips to highlight the revolution in tenor singing and aesthetics in Italy in the 1930s and 40s. Consider that it was in this period that Melocchi began his tenure in Pesaro’s Conservatorio Rossini. Certainly the clips of Pertile, as well as the later Merli, sound like “Melocchi singers” at work, and yet these clips predate Melocchi’s emergence as a famous teacher by at least a decade. Melocchi has emerged today as the initiator of this tenor revolution when in reality this was a process in the making before Melocchi was on the map of famous teachers.
Example of Melocchi Lesson
Listen to an excerpt from a Melocchi lesson (BTW, this is Limarilli, not Del Monaco).
What we hear in this exercise is Melocchi’s development of the wider upper middle voice and the way it impacts the passaggio and high notes. You can hear that the voice sounds like it is still middle voice as this tenor ascends. It also sounds like it remains very deep in sound, baritonal in nature.
My voice nature is not for this method. Here is an example of my applying the method… brief… and never going back.
Lauri Volpi is on record as saying that Del Monaco’s technique was such that the voice seemed completely equal as he ascended with no variations in timbre. The Chest dominance in the sound made Melocchi singers sound like they were always singing in a form of middle voice. However, let no one be confused, Melocchi singers methodically switched registration at the passaggio, going toward an OO and increasing compression of the vowel, which equated to more forward resonance. They introduced thin edge right in the cords – a feeling of narrowing right in the larynx, while maintaining this width all around it. This is aided by the raising of the upper lip as we often see in these singers.
These voices were and are exciting because people would not expect them to be able to handle the tessitura and reach the high notes with the kind of power used, and when these tenors fearlessly and often with seeming effortlessness achieve their goal it is quite exciting. This technique well expresses the aggressive nature of much of the Verismo repertoire, which is also very emotional and immediate to audiences. It is no surprise that Melocchi type singers, that are good, are often a sort of “rock star” in the opera world, arousing great excitement in audiences.
Melocchi’s ideas have lead to the concept of “affondo”, very much discussed in Italian singer circles today. Affondare means “to sink” or “to deepen.” It is the idea that as one goes higher in range the voice is envisioned as sinking deep into the throat. Where normally it would feel like the resonance is getting stronger in the head as one gets lighter in registration, or more head dominant, with Melocchi’s chest-strong phonatory mode the body of the voice continues to feel like its body stays between the soft palate and the larynx.
It seems that some of Marcello Del Monaco’s approach advocates sinking even more deeply into the throat with the sound as one ascends – affondo. I am not sure, but this is what I gather from his singers.
Melocchi insisted on a very precise vowel, in order to keep the approximation and the voice up on the soft palate. If the vowel compression is lost, and the voice over-darkens, as often it does in Marcello Del Monaco tenors, the voice will feel like it is sinking further into the wide pharynx. This will cause a weighing down of the voice, a mixing of the registers at the passaggio, and vocal deterioration over time.
Here is the key: Melocchi widened the sound in the upper middle (B3-F4) and kept that width and depth between soft palate and larynx as one ascended, but did not increase the depth as one ascended, he just invited the tenor to not loose it. It is possible to lose that depth as one introduces the squillo of the narrower cords. Melocchi wanted edge and width, not increased width.
Note how Del Monaco never developed a wobble. The reason is that his vowel compression in the Chest Register was in tact. He kept the voice up, even though it was deeply rooted. The resonance always struck the mask, and I think it has much to do with the fact that he didn’t lower the larynx with the tongue – a sure way to slow down and destabilize the vibrato.
Melocchi would have his students do scales like 1-2-3-2-1 or 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 on OH vowel in order to find the open upper middle voice (upper Chest Register), and then with the open throat go over the passaggio (Medium or Head Register) increasing squillo by insisting on the more narrow and deep OO vowel above the passaggio and keeping the voice moving against the breath.
He also had his students find the width in the lower throat by singing a deep OO with the lips rounded, with the mouth open about the width of a finger, and then move from an OO to an OH without opening the mouth or the lips, just opening the sound in the throat.
Science tells us today that the OO vowel significantly widens the lower pharynx and also allows for a lower larynx, while the narrow laryngeal opening sets the resonator tract for the production of Singer’s Formant, or squillo. Melocchi understood and maximized this relation, even though he didn’t have the science of it, he surely had the method to achieve it.
On a personal note, one of the first operas my father performed after coming out of Melocchi’s studio was Handel’s Giulio Caesare, as well as Lucia di Lammermoor, and Pagliacci.
The fact that many Melocchi tenors, including my father, sounded often like Del Monaco in their actual way of expressing and of producing phrases, has more to do with a cultish adoration of Del Monaco’s aesthetics rather than with Melocchi’s instructions.
It’s interesting to note that many Marcello Del Monaco tenors, coming from the 70s, were not as conditioned to imitate Del Monaco, and consequently express differently. Giacomini comes to mind. Anyone that has heard Giacomini can attest to the power, but also to the surprising dynamic flexibility in his singing, and his wonderful legato. He strives for artistry.
Franco Corelli did not study much with Melocchi. He may have visited a few times, but their mutual direct contact was limited. Corelli learned the Melocchi method initially from his friend Carlo Scaravelli, and was no doubt strongly influenced by Melocchi’s ideas. But Corelli is in many ways, like Del Monaco, a very unique singer. His technical ideas are often regarded as “Melocchi technique”, but this is not entirely correct.
We read that in the beginning of his career Corelli felt the voice very much in the mouth, and that the result was a darker, more baritonal voice, which extended up to a B4. He felt this voice was “wild” and limiting.
Thanks to his exposure and lessons with Lauri Volpi, and no doubt also his experience on stage with other singers, he learned the “giro”, or the switch to a lighter phonatory mode, which he called “sweeter voice.” He discovered how the voice strikes the mask and how these sensations can help direct phonation toward greater balance by following the “path of the breath” – the sense of the voice’s resonance changes as one ascends going from 1st, to 2nd formant dominance and to greater squillo. He also discovered that he could extend the voice a whole tone higher, something he prized greatly and sought for, given his aspirations toward the higher spinto roles like Manrico, Poliuto, Calaf, etc. Clearly, he discovered the virtues of traditional vocalism.
This initial feeling of his voice very much in the mouth, or below the palate, is strong testament to the impact of Melocchi’s method on him, just as much as the discoveries of the “giro” can be linked to his exposure and lessons with Lauri Volpi. In a very real way, the evolution of spinto tenor singing found a new standard in Corelli as he found a way to increase power like a Melocchi singer while retaining many qualities of the old Belcantista style. Corelli is the powered up Belcantista tenor of the second half of the 1900s.
Corelli, is a step backward and forward: a step forward in correct vocalism compared to Melocchi without losing the advances in terms of power. But Corelli is a new breed of tenor compared to Lauri Volpi or Martinelli. His personal evolution came by his looking backwards in time to perfect the technical limitations of Melocchi’s approach, while retaining many of its achievements in terms of power. Del Monaco represented a loss of balance toward exaggeration, a sort of pushing the envelope toward power and heft at the expense of traditional vocal aesthetics. Corelli brought some balance back to Italian spinto tenor vocalism while retaining many of the new developments.
Arturo Melocchi was the natural result and perhaps an iconic representation of the process of mutation of Italian ideas on tenor vocalism as these were impacted by Caruso and the emergence of Verismo operatic aesthetics. He pushed tenors into territories that were truly unheard of, with results that were at times great and at times not so great.
His method can result in vocal impairment if the singer is not talented enough to understand how to apply it, and certainly is not for everyone. It would be truly absurd for a voice that is suited for leggero or lyric repertoire to adopt an approach that favors the kinds of vocal exaggerations typical of Melocchi’s model.
There is no doubt that many of the traditional ideas of Italian singing are embodied in Melocchi’s method, but there are significant variations – vocal exaggerations aimed at enhancing the power of the tenor voice, and which are potentially dangerous, if not disastrous if carelessly applied, or if contrary to one’s nature.
A tenor desiring to follow this vocal model would have to seriously weigh the pros and the cons of this way of singing, and most of all know themselves vocally very well to monitor the impact of this technique on their natural abilities.
My father would tell us how Melocchi was a good man but also a very proud one. One time during a lesson of my father’s, Gastone Limarilli rang the doorbell. Melocchi looked out on the balcony, saw him and didn’t let him in but rather told him to leave. My father, of course, knew Limarilli was an up-and-coming star, and was a bit shocked by all this. Melocchi explained that in his recent performance of Norma at La Scala, Limarilli had opted to omit the appoggiaturas toward the end of the cabaletta Me Protegge, which infuriated Melocchi, so he wasn’t teaching him at the moment, and perhaps never did again as Melocchi soon after died.
He helped my father overcome his fear of high notes by accompanying him at the piano, well I might add, with the arias transposed upwards a whole tone without telling. Upon successful completion of the piece, Melocchi would proceed to give him lectures into the psychology of singing and how a singer needed to find courage and balance. He attributes finding the top voice to Melocchi’s approach, as did Corelli and many others. I believe Melocchi helped many singers who studied with him in the short term because so many teachers at that time started teaching “mask placement” and ignored traditional appoggio. Melocchi’s insistence on the sound leaning downward on the breath could fix voices that lacked medial compression and appoggio, absolutely necessary for the correct tenor high voice. However, a long term relationship with Melocchi was not successful for all, and not all voices could successfully sing that way.
My father claimed Melocchi truly knew how to build a voice, but that he wasn’t for everyone.
If I were to remember one phrase that characterizes Melocchi it would be “I can give you a voice, and then if you can sing that is your business.”