On Sopranos, Stereotyping, Sexism and Strain

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I have been mulling over an interesting blog post shared by a friend recently. The writer, Mari Valverde, has some very interesting things to say about the misogyny implicit in cultural stereotypes of the soprano voice and the practical consequences for how composers and arrangers tend to write for it. I think she is really onto something, and she has made me think about the question of voice-part stereotypes (which I explore in various ways in both my books) in some new ways. I also suspect there are some aspects of the question she is tangling up, so I wanted to spend a post teasing out how my own thoughts are developing in the light of her ideas.

So, the following are factors that feed into the phenomenon of exhaustingly high tessituras in soprano parts:

  1. The cultural connotations of timbre, specifically the association of vibrato with adulthood and/or sexuality. Or, possibly, the association of a straight tone with purity/spirituality. Both of these associations exist, indeed they are complementary meanings, but I wouldn’t like to guess which came first. You can argue it either way round, but the practical outcome is the classic tone of the men and boy’s choirs of the cathedral/collegiate tradition.
  2. The centrality of the cathedral/collegiate tradition in the training of professional musicians, particularly choral directors. It is an amazing grounding in musicianship, and so the products of that training go on to become musical leaders in our wider cultural life. They may not necessarily have the perspective however to see that their grounding is in quite a specific world, and that not everything generalises out into other areas of music-making.
  3. Hence, it is musicians brought up in that specific tradition who are most likely to propagate a taste for straight tone in sopranos in other choral genres
  4. Also, vibrato functions in choral culture as a signifier of ego - of inappropriately soloistic behaviour that goes against the spirit of the choral team effort. (There is a counter-argument that suppressing vibrato is a an imposition of the conductor’s ego on the natural voices of the singers, but this is a minority opinion in the choral literature as a whole.) It is safe to say the question remains vexed.

    But at this point it is worth pointing out that the debates I saw in the wake of Valverde’s article about whether vibrato is a natural or manufactured aspect of voice are probably chasing down a blind alley. There is rarely a valid either/or distinction to be made about nature vs culture when it comes to voice; all singing involves the interplay of the two.

  5. The stereotyping of voice parts, which like all stereotyping takes aspects considered specific to that group, and then amplifies it to subsume the group’s entire identity, to the exclusion of all the attributes shared with different groups. As I have documented elsewhere, this involves elements of character as well as of vocal behaviours, but the particular issue to highlight here is range. Or rather, conflating range with tessitura. Voice parts all too often get stuck in the register in which they specialise rather than using the full range available. Hence, the exhaustingly high parts for sopranos that Valverde writes about; also novice arrangers routinely write bass parts that growl around at the bottom of the bass range for far too much of the time.
  6. Misogyny. All voice parts get stereotyped, and often unflatteringly so (hooty, braying, muddy, etc). But the form of stereotyping sopranos are subject to involves a particular form of misogyny, akin to that in the blonde joke. They are cast as vain, air-heady types who like to show off, and then disgrace themselves by not doing it perfectly. You see this kind of vocal slut-shaming in the writings of people like ETA Hoffmann; here’s a taster:

    Oh blithely go on with your shrieking, squeaking, miaowing, gurgling, groaning, moaning, warbling, wobbling!... Oh Satan, Satan! Which of your hellish demons has taken possession of this larynx, which traps and twists and tears every musical sound?...How can every obscene sound that emanates from the screeching trumpets of market-criers have been charmed into this little throat? The strain is too much to bear.

    Here it is worth noting that I see stereotyping - both of range and character - as a distinct part of the equation, at least partly separate from the questions of the boy treble in the cathedral tradition. Valverde links up the historical origin of the word ‘soprano’ with the imposition of that vocal ideal on modern women. Whilst I agree that both aspects are implicated in the issues she identifies, my hunch is that the stereotyping that produced such exhausting tessituras is more implicated in the changes of gender construction around the turn of the C19th century. This cultural shift saw women no longer seen as imperfect versions of men (the ‘horse gone wonky’ model), but as radically different in essence. At this time you start seeing a divergence of vocal behaviours written into operatic roles, as well as an increasing fetishization of the upper end of the soprano range.

What is most interesting though is how all this adds up to the practical consequence of composers writing soprano lines that live in tiringly high parts of the range, which women are then asked to sing in a tone more suited to Tallis than to the romantic repertoire that first put sopranos up above the stave for more than passing visits. And these lines do not necessarily enjoy the kind of harmonic support that would facilitate them. It is one thing to reach high into your range when everyone around you is making a similar effort; you get both sonic and moral support from the joint endeavour. If everyone else sits happily in their comfortable ranges while you scale the heights, you feel much more exposed.

What this stereotyping produces is a kind of essentialising of vocal character that takes those soaring high notes as ‘natural’, and leaves them isolated so that everyone can appreciate their ‘beauty’. But a pedestal is a lonely and perilous place to stand, vocally as much as in the contexts of idealised virtue and domesticity that gave rise to the metaphor. And the essentialising view will then attribute the frequency of failure (seen in Hoffman’s slut-shaming, or that awful pointy finger with which conductors bully sopranos hanging off the bottom side of the note) to the rarity of feminine perfection rather than to the odds stacked against those objectified by the structures they are placed in.

Or, as Valverde put it in the paragraph about a particular singing experience that gave me the best penny-drop moment of her article:

Yes, it makes beautiful music, but it is what I call an “expensive piece.” It is demanding, to say the least. This model for vocal beauty has been popularized, and, much like society’s standards for feminine beauty, it is lofty, grossly impractical, and often, manufactured.

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