Ethnography of Opera

The formation of a classically trained opera virtuoso goes far beneath the apparent surface: it takes talent, dedication, and extreme work ethic in order to master the craft. Classical vocalists are some of the most talented individuals on the planet as they are able to harness the power of the voice in ways most could not begin to fathom. In addition, opera singers are some of the most determined professionals, spending countless hours refining, improving, and developing their voice and their soul. This seemingly antiquated practice is interesting as a result of the unique relationship that opera singers cultivate with their voices.  Although training is rigorous for the classical singer, the outcome is spectacular: the ability to invoke power and emotion to an audience through the human voice. 

My knowledge about the culture of opera singing was accumulated through two separate episodes: an informed talk with a classical vocalist as well as a simulated lesson and performance by a singer. In my first encounter with opera singing, I focused a lot on listening to tangible qualities such as the words and experiences that the vocalist was speaking of. My listening was quite representative of the vocal features of opera in that I paid attention to what was said by the singer. However, in the second lecture I abandoned the frame of reference of the quote on quote “traditional” listener. Instead, I felt the emotion transmitted by the opera singer and listened to the non-distinct qualities such as the tone, power, emotional invocation of her voice. This switched perspective I took allowed me to grasp the non-verbal aspect of classical singing: the individuality and soul behind the voice.

I believe that the most valuable takeaway from my experiences with the opera singers was gaining a holistic knowledge of the culture and ability of the classical singer. I was able to hear them sing and I was given the opportunity to understand what goes into making such powerful voices. Words that stuck out to me were from the opera teacher who spoke of how half of voice is a component of “soul” and how classical vocalists are a conduit of emotion. In this sense, the singer is able to instill compelling emotions to an audience through the use of their voice, a phenomenon that strongly relates to the themes of our class. Furthermore, I learned that although voice is a physical entity, its ability to become a conduit of emotion is dependent on soul: the nonverbal, yet engrained component of voice. I also gained a perspective on the scrupulous nature of opera singing, and the dedication required to progress as a vocalist. In addition to refining their tones, qualities, and notes, singers must cultivate their soul by translating operas from Latin, Italian, etc., in order to understand the emotion and embrace it within themselves. This element of opera was foreign to me, but I now comprehend its importance and how determined a vocalist must be to complete this work. In effect, this allows the opera to train their soul in accordance with their voice. A deeper study into the operas is very rewarding and necessary since the singer must perform it to an audience who more often than not does not understand the language of the songs. The singer is thus additionally tasked with using their voice to convey language, emotion, and story to an audience. The importance of voice is thereby revealed by this responsibility of the singer. A vocalist’s tool to captivate an audience and overcome them with emotion, not to mention be successful, is their voice; therefore, it must be protected at all costs and treated carefully. This was touched on in the first lecture when the singer spoke of dealing with colds and other problems that might compromise your voice. We all take for granted the importance of our voice’s health since our existence typically does not depend on it. However, the vocalists illuminated the significance of protecting our voices at all costs. Voice is a means of power, emotion, and expression and should be treated as such, a powerful lesson I learned from the classical vocalists.

The study of voice within classical singing expanded my knowledge of opera singing as well as reaffirmed the power which our voices hold. The singers proved that voices are a medium of emotion, strength, and communication and thus possess great value. The only challenge I encountered through these lessons was attempting to shift my perspective from listening to feeling and absorbing. This allowed me to experience the emotion and soul of the singers rather than strictly the palpable qualities of their voices. Moreover, this granted me the ability to understand and experience voice as not just a verbal ordeal but instead as a channel of expression and emotion. 

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