The Wagnerian Method, or, The Soprano Problem

Wagner

When singing towards the higher end of their range, sopranos often run into problems with pronouncing certain morphemes properly. This is because at this higher pitch, they have to adjust their vocal tract to make their voice resonate, if they want to fill an opera house. This problem has been known of for a long time, at least since 1843, when French composer Hector Berlioz mentioned it in his Treatise on Instrumentation, suggesting that sopranos not sing too many words towards their higher end, where pronunciation is difficult or impossible.

New research shows that the composer Richard Wagner may have known about this and actually adjusted his music to account for this problem. Being the perfectionist that he was (Der Ring des Niebelungen took him over 30 years to complete!) he wouldn’t want any part of his piece to be compromised, even the pronounciation by sopranos at higher ranges. As such, he made sure that everything he wrote could be pronounced, and if not, it had to be changed. From the article:

“Wagner always said that he wanted to be Shakespeare and Beethoven in one. He wanted to write great plays and set those plays to great music,” says Michael Saffle, a musicologist at Virginia Tech. In pursuit of “total artwork,” Wagner allowed no artistic component of his operas to take precedence over any other; the plot was as important as the score and the design of the set as important as the poetry of the libretto. (He considered his librettos literature in their own right, even going so far as to publish them as independent works.) His operas contained subtle plot twists that required his audience to pay careful attention to the lyrics being sung. Wagner couldn’t—and wouldn’t—compromise the intelligibility of his lyrics during high soprano parts. “You weren’t supposed to go just to tap your toe to the tunes,” Saffle says. “He didn’t want that. He wanted you to take in everything, and everything had to play a crucial part.”

The Wagnerian Method [Seed Magazine]

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