Think about some of the most famous opera singers of all time. What do they all have in common? What is the deciding factor that makes a singer not only a serviceable employee to an opera company but also helps them become FAMOUS?
Besides lots of hard work, talent, and luck, there’s a defining characteristic that all famous opera singers share to reach stardom.
I’ve thought about this issue for a long time (since I was a young artist) and I’m happy to finally give my humble opinion on this topic.
Okay, Here’s The Answer
I’m giving the answer to you right away because there’s nothing I hate more than articles that make me scroll forever just to find the answer they promised. Drumroll, please …
Famous opera singers only sound like themselves.
Their timbre is so unique that you could drop a pin anywhere in their recordings and recognize them instantly. A singer can have a strong technique and stage presence, but what sets the most famous opera singers apart from the others is their unique, individual sound.
We each have our own fingerprint, and with singing, I like to think each singer has their own vocal fingerprint. No one else on the planet has the same fingerprint as you. The same goes for your voice. You can easily recognize your mom’s voice or the voice of a friend — there’s a special, discernible quality that helps us pick their voices out from the crowd.
What does this mean?
It means that any time you “add” something to your voice (ex. holding, pushing, imitating, darkening), you take away from what makes you special in the first place.
The goal of singing (and in all of music) is to move audiences and to be original. That’s what will set you apart from the rest. Often, a unique timbre sets every successful opera singer apart from the rest.
This applies to all genres of singing, not just opera.
Think of some of the most famous singers of all time: Aretha Franklin, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé. Each one is definitively unique.
Now think opera: Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, Renee Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, Jussi Björling, Fritz Wunderlich, Franco Corelli, Bryn Terfel, Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
Today, for example, Lisette Oropesa and Nadine Sierra both sing similar repertoire but you can detect each of their unique sounds instantly. They’re both stars yet they’re both vocally recognizable as themselves.
I’ve heard lots of baritones. Some voices just don’t speak to me or say anything special, usually because they sound just like the next baritone. There isn’t a discerning, unique quality that sets their singing apart from the sea of other baritones out there.
Yet, some baritones produce their sound naturally and healthily, and once they make their sound and music their own, they stand out.
Listening back to golden age baritones, the technique was strong, but I have to say that today, vocal technique is even stronger. What’s lacking is individuality.
We’ve trained singers to be so accurate to the score and to honor the many, many traditions of opera, that we’ve lost that unique flair for interpretation and stage presence.
Don’t Imitate, Create.
Listening to recordings of opera can greatly help a young singer, but it’s a slippery slope.
Recordings are useful when learning interpretation, style, traditions, language … things outside the score. But they have the opposite effect if a singer is tempted to imitate another singer’s sound quality.
You can imitate a singer’s musicality but never their timbre.
A younger singer shouldn’t try to create an older, thicker, more mature, or louder sound by imitation, or at all for that matter. By imitating, you run the risk of taking away from your natural sound.
Once you change the color of your voice in an unnatural, contrived, fabricated way, it won’t last you very long in this marathon of a career and ultimately you’ll do yourself a huge disservice, vocally, artistically, and psychologically.
Your Unique Sound
I usually don’t talk about technique in my blog posts because it’s very difficult to write about singing and I don’t want to overcomplicate it. But, in the case of this topic, it helps to discuss technique.
So, how do you find your unique sound? Lots and lots of practice. And, never listen to yourself.
What does that mean?! We have to listen to ourselves sing to get the right pitch and sing together with the orchestra, right?? The point of “not listening to yourself” is to trust your sound.
Think about your voicemail, “Hi, this is Lucas Meachem. Leave a message at the beep.” (Does anyone leave voicemail anymore?)
Have you ever listened to yourself talk and thought, “Do I really sound like that?”
When you listen to yourself (from your lips to your ears), you are not hearing your actual sound.
This is similar to the fact that you’ll never see your real face during your lifetime — you just see it in a mirror or in a photo.
You don’t witness or experience yourself as others do and you can’t compare those experiences.
Anyways, back to singing.
Trust the technique. Memorize the correct sensations within your body. Let your teacher or coach do the listening for you. Let them be your outside ears since you’re not able to hear your true voice in real-time.
*If there’s any listening involved in learning vocal technique, it’s to the reverberation of the hall you’re singing in and for that “bounce back” or “echo” from the back of the hall. The “bounce back” you get in the room or hall is the true and honest representation of your sound.
Finding Your Voice
Once you are physically free (such as free from tongue or jaw tension), you can find your natural vibrato and timbre through a proper amount (or balance) of support.
It’s very complicated and I can’t explain it all in one blog post!
Essentially, the air should be mostly free from muscle contortion (chest up) to allow pressurized air to flow freely at a naturally sustainable rate. It varies as you go up and down through your vocal registers, but it’s something you find through lots and lots of instruction and years of experience and physical maturity.
A tell-tale way to determine whether you’re using your natural voice is after an hour-long lesson. Does your throat feel tight? Do you end your lesson feeling like you can’t sing another note? This is a huge red flag.
I once had a voice lesson with a prominent teacher and they had me over-darken and unnaturally cover my sound. Forty-five minutes into the lesson, my throat felt exhausted and sore … NOT a good sign.
On the flip side, I had one lesson with my former teacher, the late John Maloy, that I’ll never forget.
I was 23 years old and had just sung an aria. Right before the lesson, I listened to an older baritone sing it and I began to compare myself to him, becoming frustrated with my progress. John said to me, “Lucas, that was perfectly sung.” I rejected his feedback and said, “But, I don’t sound like Dmitri or Simon. My voice is like a pip-squeak.”
He then, very wisely, responded with, “You sang that perfectly for a 23-year-old baritone. You’re not pushing. You sound like yourself. You’re not adding anything as an attempt to sound like someone else. You’re on the right path.”
My teacher taught me an incredible lesson that day.
When you accept yourself, lots of doors can open up for you. Learning to accept your sound is the same as accepting yourself. You don’t know who you are until you know what your sound is and for a singer, their voice is their instrument, so it’s a deep psychological thing to dive into.
One More Thing
Famous opera singers also have the “it factor” — I don’t want to gloss over this. I’ve thought long and hard about what the “it factor” is: that seemingly unexplainable quality. These are my thoughts.
Someone who is honestly confident in themselves is an attractive thing. My eyes gravitate towards someone who is comfortable with their voice and with themselves.
They know who they are and they believe and trust in themselves.
It’s a rarer quality than we think and when we see that on a stage, coupled with talent and lots of hard work to back it up, their success is undeniable.
The sooner you accept who you are, the sooner you can find your truth, open up yourself to your true voice, and set yourself apart.
The destination is the journey and the journey is the lofty aspiration to achieve not just vocal, but personal freedom. You can use that freedom in your day-to-day, opera or not.
Fame or no fame, you’ll have it with you for the rest of your life.
If you watch my “Baritone Reactions” videos on YouTube, every one of the baritones I react to possesses this “it factor” — check out my YouTube channel here.