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Jeanette's Vocal Standards and
Female Singers of Today
Music is always
changing, and between the era of Jeanette MacDonald and 2006, the female
vocal style have modified in many different ways. To understand the
difference, one needs to know Jeanette’s vocal style and how it was ideally
suited for the 1920s theater and later the 1930s and 1940s cinema—and even
Voice has much to do with the facial structure, body
built, flexibility of the tongue and lips, and most importantly, the vocal
bands. In Jeanette’s case, she came from an era where the voice was treated
lightly, allowing the vocal bands to vibrate smoothly and evenly. Her vocal
bands were neither top nor bottom heavy. They were perfect in size
development as she began her vocal studies in the early 1920s. She trained
in New York under the best vocal style for the human voice, the Bel Canto
School (Beautiful Voice School). The Bel Canto voice was noted for its even
vibrato throughout the singer’s registers while producing a full rounded,
free flowing tone.
The key to this sound was the lightness of the voice.
It gave the singer the ability to produce the full spectrum of the human
vocal tone. Earlier German, French, and Italian opera of the 1700s and 1800s
all worked around the Bel Canto method. Gilbert and Sullivan and other
operetta composers expressly wrote for the Bel Canto voice because it gave
the best vocal production and clarity of the lyrics. The lighter the voice
the better the lyrics are understood—even to the back of the theater.
All of this is what Jeanette had: lightness,
full-rounded tones, even vibrato, and a beautiful ring to her voice.
Jeanette’s voice had all the qualities for both the theatrical and
opera/operetta worlds. It was her beautiful voice that critics raved about
when she was on the theatrical stage, and her voice was the golden key to
her ever growing success to stardom. This same voice was also being used in
both the opera and operetta worlds. Without doubt, if Jeanette had continued
to train longer, she would have built her vocal bands and body for the
rigors of the later two musical venues, and could easily had reigned supreme
in them too.
Many singers could move between opera and musical
theater because they were trained to sing lightly and speak clearly. This
was the direct opposite for singers who sang with a heavier tone, and a
fuller and larger voice. Their speaking capabilities were greatly reduced,
making it extremely difficult to star in musical theater. Ezio Pinza is a
good example of a singer coming directly from the opera stage to the musical
stage who had trouble. He had an immense singing voice, full of color and
splendid tonal quality; nevertheless, his vocal bands were not developed for
the rigors of speaking on the musical stage and developed soar throats
during the six years he performed in South Pacific.
There is a world of difference between a lovely
sounding singing voice which spoke clearly, and the blaring voice. Even in
Jeanette’s day, there were the blarers. Ethel Merman is a perfect example.
Her voice may have been the right type for the musicals she performed, but
she was never considered a beautiful singer. It was a brassy voice that
sounded like a human trumpet, blaring out notes and words.
Barbra Streisand is a prime example of a shrieking
voice. As a young singer her voice was shrilly and had little (if any)
vibrato or tonal color. And yet, like Merman, she made a name for herself in
both musical theater and movies. Nevertheless, just making a name doesn’t
mean one has a singing voice. Unlike Jeanette, who had all the proper vocal
settings to her singing voice, Streisand’s vocal bands were bottom heavy.
They were over developed from poor technique, causing her voice to be
unstable and wobbly in her upper register. This is the reason she had no
color or melodic tone; her vocal bands did not vibrate, thus producing a
flat straight sound, similar to a police siren. It wasn’t until her
mid-thirties that she began to tone down her voice, allowing for a softer
and mellower tone; but it still had the potential of going wild on her in
her upper register if she did not make a very strong, conscious effort to
keep it light. Again, light is the secret word.
With Streisand setting the standard for next generation
of female singers, the lovely sounding voices gave way to shrilly, blaring
voices, yelling or shrieking out sounds. Many of today’s musical stage and
pop singers truly believe that great singing is all about belting out loud
sounds—twisting them this way and that way. This belting out sounds also
goes for today’s operatic singers. Every singer wishes to be another Maria
Callas, who had an enormous voice. When Callas was young, her voice was
lovely to listen to. But with most singers who push for the big sounding
voice, trouble comes along with it. And this was case for Callas. She
eventually developed a huge wobble which eventually forced her to retire,
just when most singers are entering the best years of their careers.
There is, however, a new female voice being heard
today—that of the Irish pop singers. These singers seem to have gone back to
the days of Jeanette. They employ a light singing style, enabling their
voices to soar high, with even ringing vibrato and a lovely melodic tone.
Just like Jeanette, their voices seem to float on a bright, shining cloud.
Yes, Jeanette MacDonald possessed the perfect singing
voice, and set the trend for future singers to follow. Always a role model
and a person of strong convictions, she held to the high standards of
singing, thus proving to the world that a beautiful voice is always
fulfilling to one’s ear and heart.