Can any tenor sing extreme high notes? I think the answer is yes, but we have to qualify what this means. It is one thing to be able to sing a high note in isolation or in a scale, and another to sing an aria from a Bellini opera, for example. I think this is pretty evident, right? Even baritones are known to be able to stand up in a party and sing a high C. Also, we need to figure out what the correct quality of an extreme high note is supposed to be. We don’t sing high Ds sounding like mezzos, we should sound like tenors! The difference between a respectable tenor high note and a voix mixte type high note is evident to the listener.
Personally, when I started my studies, my easiest and best high notes were my high C# and my high D. They were the notes that had the cleanest ring in my voice. So, it was clear from the start that my voice would live well in the higher rep. Singing Puritani, Pirata, Sonnambula, and similar rep was typical diet while I studied with my dad. So, my initial focus and understanding really centered around high tessitura. My skills in this repertoire progressively diminished as I arrived to NYC and then to AVA, probably simply because I was discovering the weightier aspects of my voice, that I had never had the time to dive into with my father as I only studied about 2 years with him while in my late teens and early twenties. So, in seeking for a more open throat and low larynx, I often pushed my voice to extremes, which I shouldn’t have, but I had no guide at that point.
The knowledge of singing the extreme high remains in me, and the ability. So, what is the key for the extreme top? The key for the top is to get out of its way as soon as possible. As fast as you can get to opening your mouth and singing the note, the better off you will be. What this simply means is that deviations in singing the extreme high are far less than singing a medium high note, like a Bflat. You either do it right, or it sounds really wrong.
The path to getting it right is: 1) not over-compressing the cords, and 2) finding a laser-like tone that strikes the mask, front and back. I specify that this is the path because it is not a guarantee of immediate success. This has much to do with tuning harmonics appropriately and finding the right “sonorous ray.”
Often tenors tend to compress these high notes. Some do so because their larynges rise, a natural reflex with rising pitch; the rising larynx triggering also the reflex of glottal closure as in swallowing. They perceive this phonation as very vibrant and so they continue to do “more of the same” in order to enhance this function. It is the wrong way to get bright. This type of tone will feel tight in the throat, even though it is bright; and though it may sound substantial in a room, it will be small in the opera house. Often this tone will feel like it is born in the mouth.
Now having said that, typically notes above the high C, even for those who sing them well, are not big in the opera house. There have been very few tenors who sounded big in the house on those notes, particularly if the orchestration is complex. The exceptions to this rule that stick out in my mind are Lauri Volpi, Filippeschi, Gedda, and Giordani. I am sure there are others, I just can’t think of them.
When you sing an extreme high note, you have to think of opening the sound, but you have to do so on the foundation of released focused sound. The narrowness in the voice is felt in the laryngeal area (for me directly above the cords), but not directly in the cords. This is an important distinction. If you slightly cough and feel that spot directly in the cords, if you feel the high note there you are doing it wrong. That is way too compressed. The correct sensation would be to feel a sigh-like feeling in that epicenter of sound, in that place of adduction. Directly above that spot is a sort of narrowing that the boyish sigh funnels into. Tough things to explain…
Most importantly, the power of the voice is not in that spot at all. That is just a throat set up, a vocal tract adjustment. The power of the voice is in the vocal ray produced that seems to strike directly in the mask, though clearly coming from below. The pressure of the voice is up, but the origination is low, even below the larynx. Because there is a feeling of release in the larynx, the sound feels like it originates lower, even tracheally. This is simply because the laryngeal pressure is bypassed. The narrowing above the cords acts as an amplifier and the power of the voice hooks up directly to the breath, or diaphragm.
The action of the diaphragm is very precise in these notes. If you sit on the breath or try to push down you can pretty much pack your bags and go home. At best you will get a pinched off sound, you don’t have enough breath pressure as you are not letting the diaphragm come back up. To sing these notes, the diaphragm must create sufficient breath pressure, and that pressure has to remain constant! In the very moment that you press down with the diaphragm, you have failed miserably. Stop winning!! Stop controlling your voice by paralyzing your diaphragm!
When the voice is very voix mixte the effort of the diaphragm will be normal, as it is around a middle D. But when you power up the voice with a low range larynx, you will need the diaphragm to move consistently upward, in a very slow but exact movement.
I don’t want to talk about diaphragm movement too much because then singers will try to get the sound by doing something with the diaphragm, and that will NEVER work. You have to let the voice call the diaphragm, because the diaphragm will NEVER call the voice. When the sound is right, the ribs will be expanded, and you will feel a very active impulse linked to your vibrato on that high note, even if it is nuanced, but it is there. If you are driving the voice, you will feel a noticeable shake in the diaphragm, almost pushing its way against the sternum at the interval of your vibrato. That’s too much. It can work, but its too much. The reason why its doing that is because your sound beam is not narrow. You are shooting with a cannon instead of a laser. You need to have a more exact cord position that brings out a focused squillo.
How does one get into this mode? The easiest way I find is to think as follows: in the middle voice there is a certain stiffness right in the cords, its nuanced, but its there… Its the effort of singing, kind of like speaking. When you go up to these notes, its as though that stiffness numbs away, and when that happens the tube of the sound implodes into the airstream (to borrow the phrase from a tenor I am following in his progress). Now here is the trick… don’t allow the implosion to crush the first layer… or don’t allow the implosion to stop the sigh, or the sense of release. The narrowing is above the cord rather than in it. By thinking this way you will balance the breath energy and cord energy so that the cord doesn’t crush the sound.
Finally, open your mouth, forget about puckering up your lips (never do that on these notes). Show some teeth and do not pull your upper lip down like a Corelli Bflat or you will loosen the cords, enhancing the lower harmonics. You need exact phonation centered around the narrow beam of the squillo. DO NOT push your chin forward. If you do, you are raising your larynx too much and the sound will be in the mouth. Do not think of covering at all. Think pretty naked sound. This is as pure a harmonic sound as you are going to get when it is right.
For me, when I get these notes right, I have cavita’ and my squillo drops off almost entirely after the 5th harmonic, as in the old school. That is because I carefully balance the squillo to not get just bright, but the right bright. This is an exact tuning of the squillo that comes when you have the right narrowing, and you don’t force your larynx. If you have to think about lowering your larynx on these notes, you are probably wrong because your breath is not engaged correctly.
The diaphragm should feel like it wants to tuck upwards, you have to make that slow by being exact with your vocal beam. Once your vocal beam is correctly in place, you will be able to hold the note for about half a second before it destabilizes unless you allow the diaphragm to move. If your diaphragm can continue to “pump” upwards (to borrow from my friend Eduardo Valdes), then your beam will not “flicker”, but if you don’t have an exact ascent of the diaphragm, the beam will move and the vibrato will bump around trying to find its “punto d’appoggio” – its leaning point. The guide is THE SOUND. The diaphragm will ascend if your mental intention is to continue the sound and not block the diaphragm.
Here are far greater examples than mine:
Lauri Volpi at 62 singing Una Vergine from Favorita. Notice the EXACTNESS of the harmonic tuning. This is a true vocal ray at its best!
A pretty incredible Alfredo Kraus performance of the same aria. He also tunes the harmonics masterfully in this high note.
Two LIONS, Rosanna Carteri and Mario Filippeschi singing Se Il Mio Giungere from William Tell, with a last Dflat in which Filippeschi’s power is outrageous for such a high note. A truly released sound that powers up through the compression of sound and breath.
And finally, Lauri Volpi exploding a Dflat at the end of the 1st act trio from Trovatore, annihilating singers, orchestra and the wig of the front row listener. This high note just makes me chuckle, it is so ridiculously amazing.