The voce faringea: Reconstruction of a Forgotten Art

Gilbert Louis Duprez als Arnold in Guillaume Tell
Gilbert Louis Duprez als Arnold in Guillaume Tell

According to historical accounts, the French tenor Gilbert Louis Duprez was the first singer to sing a high C – in Rossini’s Guillaume Tellin the fashion typical today for Western classical opera singing. Rossini himself, less than happy over Duprez’s high notes, was said to have compared them to the cry of a capon having its throat slit. Nevertheless, the new variety of vocal style represented by Duprez – with loud, dramatic high notes, conveying an exciting aura of danger and risk – would, during the remainder of the 19th century, come to prevail over the finely nuanced vocal art of the tenori di grazia.

In accordance with formerly prevalent vocal ideals, these tenori di grazia did not produce their voices with dramatic force, but rather with elegance and suppleness up through their highest range. And yet the special vocal technique they employed to produce high notes considerably beyond high C with absolute security and facility – as well as gradations between pianissimo and fortissimo throughout their entire range – fell gradually into obscurity. The basis for their high notes was a falsetto-dominant register mix, as well as a resonance strategy that enabled them to blend the vocal timbre of falsetto with that of their modal register.

With the tenor, we come across yet another register (…) For many tenors, the “mixed vocal quality” cannot be attained even through the most diligent studies, whereby for some natural talents it appears to be inborn. The tenors that possess this sing often to B-flat, B, even to C with the greatest ease and considerable strength, and their sound has so little falsetto quality that this leads to the false opinion that one or the other great tenor has sung to high B or C in chest voice!”

(Sieber, Ferdinand (1851). Das ABC der Gesangskunst. Ein Kurzer Leitfaden beim Studium des Gesanges von Ferdinand Sieber in Dresden, p. 118 f. )

Voice diagnostic course ÖGLPP, Vienna 2015
Presentation – voice diagnostics course of the ÖGLPP, Vienna 2015.

 The goal of my artistic research has been the artistic and scientific reconstruction of this long-forgotten type of singing, known at that time as voce faringea. Other terms for this vocal function were voix sur-laryngienne, voix pharyngienne, voix mixte, voix de tête, voce mezzana, mezzo falso, as well as voce mista, Rachenstimme, Mundstime, Halststimme, Schlundkopfregister, Mittelstimme, middle falsetto, pharyngeal voice, feigned voice, throat-voice, or faucet.

My central goal has been to rediscover these specific qualities of vocal sound, as well as to open new perspectives on historical performance practice in vocal literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.

“(…) balancing between registers, the singer gains a beautiful, marrowish, mixed tone, seeming to retain the strength of chest voice and yet protect the voice as in falsetto, without the feminine sound of falsetto.”

(Schmidt, Friedrich (1854), Grosse Gesangschule für Deutschland. München: self-published, p. 180)

Isthmus Faucium
The mouth cavity (A: soprano at rest, A’: in chest voice, A”: in head voice. B: tenor at rest, B’: in chest voice. B”: in voix pharyingienne. C: baritone at rest, C’: in chest voice, C”: in voix pharyingienne. Table made from studies by Francesco Bennati. (Lepelletier de la Sarthe, 1833, appendix)

Alexander Mayr mit dem VoceVista Equipment
Studies about the voce faringea using the VoceVista System (electroglottography, spectrogram)

The artistic and aesthetic development in my thesis is based on an interdisciplinary coordination between artistic (experimental) practice and music-historical, acoustic and physiological research. Here, my own voice served both as a link between disciplines as well as object for research, tool for experimentation, and objectifying instrument. I was ultimately able to employ and document my research results both on the academic plane in physiological/acoustical studies – for instance, in cooperation with the internationally renowned voice researcher Johan Sundberg – as well as on the artistic plane, with my interpretation of the extremely high-lying role of Arkenholz in Aribert Reimann’s opera “Ghost Sonata”, which I sang at the Frankfurt Opera.