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The Myth of the Natural Singer

Alum and former faculty member Charles Kellis observes that very few singers are true naturals and that training is paramount.

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Did a singer just awaken one day, open his or her mouth and pure wonderful vocal excellence emerged? Was it the product of some divine intervention? Or did a fairy godmother wave her wand over an anointed operatic sleeping beauty who woke up singing like a Puccini heroine or a Wagnerian deity?

The great Caruso struggled in his lessons to learn how to even sing a high “la”. Luciano Pavarotti was fortunate to have his father teaching him how to sing at an early age. Plácido Domingo started out as a baritone until he learned how to handle the tenor range. The amazing Maria Callas had good early instruction. Joan Sutherland started out as a mezzo until she worked with Richard Bonynge (later her husband) and began her flight into the bel-canto repertoire. The fabulous voices of superstars Renée Fleming (’85, voice) and Anna Netrebko were both the results of good instruction. Kiri Te Kanawa makes it seem easy but had many early failures in her attempt to find good instruction. The exceptional bass-baritone Simon Estes (’64, voice; faculty 1986-98) became internationally famous after intense study. The great baritones Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill or the wonderful Anna Moffo also had to learn how to adopt a solid technique. They all had great, beautiful world class voices and all were obviously very talented, but they were not what we can call natural singers. A true natural would have to display an early native ability embracing a complete, unobstructed vocal range while also exhibiting some innovative theatrical involvement, finely tuned musicianship, keen language ability, inspired musical expression, gracefulness of movement, and a certain amount of charisma.

Every generation produces some great talents and there are undoubtedly many on the horizon. A truly “natural operatic singer,” however, I believe to be a very rare phenomenon.

Charles Kellis (B.S. ’50, voice; faculty 1986-2001)
Submitted online

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