Filatura – A Reader’s Response

June 27, 2008

The following is a reaction to my post on filatura. Its author, a very experienced operaphile, wishes to be anonymous. NK

Interesting essay on an arcane subject to be sure. The examples help

I’m reminded by your essay and the examples given that filatura along
with all the other vocal techniques remain secondary to the beauty (or
lack thereof) of the singer’s god given vocal timbre and individual instinctive artistic expression.

Some of the greatest technical singers with a full arsenal of impressive
vocal skills will dazzle and amaze the listener with their flawless
musicality and beautiful flowing lines, Kraus or Schipa are prime
examples. (they are like the woodwind section of the orchestra)

A pleasurable as they are they somehow fail to move the listener at a
deeply emotional visceral level. When I listen to Schipa for example I
am impressed with the subtly of delivery and beautiful line he produces, but after a while I am ready to go to sleep. The same for Kraus. I’m in awe of the high notes, the flowing, effortless, beautiful vocal production; but pretty soon it’s snooze time.

The stentorian virtuoso singers Corelli, Del Monaco or even Tucker
dazzle the listener with their power and squillo (the brass section?).
But after the they hit the aria out of the park, they usually return to
earth for rest of the performance.

The soothing and caressing singers: Milanov, Caballe and even Christoph (the string section, like the cello, violin/viola and bass?) give gorgeous pleasure like rich French food.

We’ ll categorize Birgit (stentorian brass?), multi-purpose Joan
Sutherland (flute to cello to trumpet?), and the baritones at some other time because we have now come to the heart of the matter.

Continuing the vocal/orchestral analogy, we do have that special
instrumental category that is not really a part of the orchestral
palette. This instrument like the voice, has a unique musical timbre
that when combined with dynamics and subtle colorization produces a
variety of musical emotions that are hard to achieve elsewhere. I’m
referring to the piano.

In the hands of virtuosi like Kapell or Benedetti or Rubenstein more
than other equally skilled technical masters we experience music in a
heightened and intensified state of emotional reaction. How they achieve this is for others to explain (if they can?).

The same is true for singing. It’s what sets my big three apart from the

1. Pippo
2. Schmidt
3. Björling

Pippo is the supreme example of this hard to define phenomenon which produces such a soulful emotional effect. His interpretations are so distinctive and involving. The Italian songs are a prime example. You hear things in his voice that stir and evoke feelings and images of sun
and atmosphere that raises these relatively mundane pieces to high art. You could say the same thing about Frank Sinatra.

One thing I hear in GDS that is virtually unique is his ability to use
subtle inflection in the middle of a phrase. The 3rd act of Boheme or the last act of Tosca. Di Stefano is the only singer who makes the connecting bits of dialogue more beautiful and affecting than even the big set pieces. The way he will purposely vary the pronunciation of
certain vowels such as the u in pura depending on the context is one of his distinctive interpretive touches. Its his vocal signature. He is the only singer I have ever heard who does this with such effect. I think this is what is really extraordinary about him, rather than whatever was meant when critics referred to his excellent diction.

It’s as if he somehow mysteriously combines a blend of modulating
dynamics inflective coloring, vocal techniques, a honeyed natural
timbre and expressive artistic interpretation to achieve effects that
heighten the impact and understanding of what he is feeling as he sings. This results in an almost miraculously beautiful sound that somehow transforms the listener with a wave of emotional rapport with the meaning of what is being sung. Frequently Schmidt and Björling would do this at a level approaching Di Stefano. But Di Stefano is unequaled.

He was truly special, one of a kind. Somehow I felt all of this when I
first heard him more than fifty years ago. I’m still having a hard time
explaining him, but I think you know what I mean.


The Vocal Art of Filatura

June 24, 2008

1.the act of forming into threads.
2.a reel for drawing off silk from cocoons.
3.the reeling of silk from cocoons. establishment for reeling silk.

The above definitions are those for filature in English. In singing the the related word, filatura (literally spinning), refers to bringing a vocal line down to a wisp of a sound, a thread, while retaining full vocal support, and then maintaining the sound. It is one of the hardest techniques to master, is the mark of a great artist (when done right and with taste), and is often absent in many of the greatest singers.

Though I haven’t used the term in previous posts, I have given examples of the technique by two of its greatest masters – Zinka Milanov and Giuseppe Di Stefano. Filatura and smorzando are sometimes used interchangeably, though the latter refers to the dying away of the sound which sometimes lead to filatura, but let’s not quibble.

Here are a few examples of the technique practiced by some of its most masterful exponents. The order of presentation is random. I just want to have one place where anyone interested in the technique can find examples.

Fernando De Lucia (1860 or 61-1925) is known as a bel canto master though he sang many verismo roles. Here he sings “Ton couer n’a pas compris” from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs De Perles. The soprano is Josefina Huguet. You may be put off a little by De Lucia’s rapid vibrato. That sound didn’t seem to bother people 100 years ago as it does today. But the tenor’s vocal line is outstanding.

Big voiced tenors can sometimes master this technique. Miguel Fleta (1897 to1938) was particularly good at spinning a long, soft, and fully supported phrase. The first Calaf in Puccini’s final opera, he had a dark voice. His main flaw seems to have been his tendency to go from very soft to very loud with a resulting gruff sound. Here he is in Spirto gentile from Donizetti’s La Favorita. The filatura is outstanding, but the end of the aria is less so.

Not many tenors had a bigger voice than Franco Corelli. The late tenor tended to belt out most of what he sang, but he was capable of singing softly when he felt like it, at least at the start of his career. This recording of E lucevan le stelle was made at his Covent Garden debut in 1957. His ability to go without breathing for a vocal eternity supports Birgit Nilsson’s contention that he would hold onto notes until the onset of advanced cyanosis.

Even a bass, albeit a very great one, can bring his sound down to a wisp. Boris Christoff (1914-1993) was one of the most impressive singing actors of the 20th century. In this 1950 recording of Ella gemai m’amo from Don Carlo he uses filatura to add extraordinary dramatic tension to Verdi’s greatest bass aria. It’s such a tour de force that I’ve put it here with its orchestral introduction intact.

Alfred Piccaver (1884 to 1958) was a dual citizen of both the US and the UK. Because he made most of his career in Vienna he’s not as well known among his compatriots as his talent deserves. For an unknown reason he turned down an offer to appear at the Met. He was never given a second chance and thus did not appear at the great New York house. Deserto in terra from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano shows the tenor at the top of his form.

No singer of recent memory used filatura as often or to greater effect than Montserrat Caballé. Her rendition of D’amor sull’ali rosee comes close to Milanov’s. This recording was made in performance in 1968.

Tito Schipa made a career out of filatura. His version of Federico’s lament is a virtual gold standard of this technique.

Finally, here’s Joseph Schmidt (1904-1942) singing Gluck, das mir verblieb from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. Perhaps it’s a little off topic, but Schmidt’s singing is so wonderful I can’t resist posting it. Schmidt had the most beautiful voice away from Italy that I ever heard. He also had the most complete technique. This is as good as it gets.

Skeptical Science

June 3, 2008

I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy. Richard Feynman

When I sit on a tropical beach I like to read a fat book. Therefore, while recently on vacation, I started a big book on the history of Western science. It’s a good popular account of science from the renaissance to the present. But its introduction offers a view of the universe and of life which though typical of many scientists is profoundly unscientific.

Its introduction declares that “The Earth is and ordinary planet, the Sun is an ordinary star…and the Milky Way itself is just an ordinary galaxy.” It continues, “[A]ll you need to make human beings out of amoebas is the process of evolution by natural selection, and plenty of time.” This view of things exemplifies the trouble otherwise good scientists often get themselves into when they allow their biases to get in the way of scientific thought.

While the Earth is not at the center of the universe it seems to be at the center of life. Our inability to find life anywhere else is enough to make the Earth, Solar System, and Milky Way each extraordinary. In fact the best hypothesis about life is that it exists nowhere else in the universe. Thus we should declare that our planet, star, and galaxy are each unique rather than that they are even less than ordinary. Nevertheless, many, perhaps most, scientists hypothesize that life exists all over the universe.

The reason the first hypothesis (life is no where but on Earth) is superior to the view that life is spread throughout the universe is that is can be easily disproved while its opposite can never be dismissed. As soon as life is found somewhere else the hypothesis is finished. If you posit that life exists elsewhere in the universe not finding it today, next year, or next millennium doesn’t preclude it showing up the day after.

Enrico Fermi’s withering response to the suggestion that intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe – to the effect of “Well where are they?” – illustrates the view that life, at least intelligent life, is unique to Earth. He was saying, in effect, that if the universe is 13 billion or so years old and if life has existed on earth for less than a billion years it should have arisen earlier than on Earth all over the universe if the development of life were a frequent event. There should be civilizations far more developed than ours all over the universe and their presence should be easily discernable because of their far advanced technologies. Since there’s no sign of them the likelihood is that they don’t exist. Thus “Where are they?”

According to my fat book on science and its ilk life is just a “complicated form of chemistry”. The best scientific thought states that life spontaneously arose about 850 million years ago. As far as we know this “complicated form of chemistry” happened just once. Yet with a sample size of one many scientists feel comfortable generalizing that it should happen any time similar or favorable conditions occur anywhere in the universe. While this is possible the odds against life spontaneously arising may be so great that if the experiment were repeated a 100 trillion or more times it would fail. Life may be a gigantic sport – an outlier so far from the norm that it is essentially a one time event. Rather than be blasé about a “complicated form of chemistry” a scientist should wonder how it ever happened. It’s a phenomenon that we understand only a little better than did Aristotle and which we have little hope of duplicating in a lab in the foreseeable future.

The three essential questions in science are how did the universe start? How did life begin? And how did human consciousness arise? To state that the transition from amoebas to humans requires nothing more than time renders the last of the three seminal problems fatuous. That it happened once does not make the jump inevitable

Again this is another experiment (the development of intelligent life) with an n of one. Anyone who has ever worked in a lab knows how easy it is to get almost any result one time. The odds against a one celled organism evolving into an animal that uses symbolic logic, builds intricate tools, and asks about its place in the cosmos may be even greater than those against the development of life itself. And to get intelligent life you first have to get life. Thus the two long shots become a sequence that may be rarer than anything else in the universe.

Scientists, who rightly declare the spontaneous generation of life to be impossible, except for the one time we know it happened, often have no trouble hypothesizing that it must be happening willy-nilly all over the universe.

The eagerness with which many scientists downgrade the Earth and Solar System to the status of a cosmic backwater seems to stem from an animus towards religion, obviously the result of the overt hostility of the altar to the lab that typifies much of the past relationship between the two. It’s as though many scientists still haven’t recovered from the shock of Galileo’s trial. The aggressive hostility expressed by many scientists to religion is distinctly antiscientific. How can science say anything about the existence of a God who exists outside of time? Yet the vast majority of scientists are vigorous, almost religious, atheists. But religion has no bearing on the statistical likelihood of life’s frequency or its uniqueness, nor is it necessary to get the universe up and running. Though science has just as much trouble getting the universe started as it does with life and consciousness. It is likely that a single satisfactory theory for the origin of the universe will never emerge. Ironically, science is as faith based as religion. At some time a scientist has to accept a starting point from which all his work derives. He takes it as a given that his starting conditions are as he assumes.

A few conclusions about life seem scientifically justifiable. The odds against life arising from inanimate matter are great – so great that it might have happened just once. Evolution follows no plan. Once a species arises its possibilities are infinite and impossible to predict. Life, once begun, does not necessarily have to evolve to intelligent life. Thus the trip from amoeba to human requires more than natural selection and time. An extraordinary amount of luck is needed. Humans are quite likely the only source of abstract thought anywhere in the cosmos. The Earth certainly occupies a special celestial place not because of its location, but because it teems with life in an otherwise outwardly dead universe. Therefore while magic is not needed to explain the universe its existence is certainly a magical metaphor.