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Embodying Voice: Singing Verdi, singing Wagner

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Version 2 2023-09-22, 01:20
Version 1 2021-11-15, 16:57
posted on 2021-11-15, 16:57 authored by Margaret MedlynMargaret Medlyn

Writers from diverse disciplines have rhapsodised over the impact of the operatic voice on the listener, while musicologists such as Abbate, Duncan, and Risi have explored the effect that concepts of voice and bodily engagement have had on our critical readings of opera. Yet although perspectives on performance have become an increasingly vital aspect of operatic criticism, no one has laid out how opera singers experience performance in relation to the ideas of embodiment that scholars write about. The discourse on embodiment and voice is theoretical; most discussions of female voice can be mapped on to any historical period and on to any voice, so that all voices end up being treated the same; paradoxically, in addition it is a discourse that largely omits the body.  Indeed, the complexity of connecting many different layers of mind and bodily engagement, that is, the embodiment, is a task that requires detailed and specialised training. Without attempting to speak for all singers at all times, I propose that by acknowledging that different singers achieve and think about particular elements of embodiment in different ways, we can start to come to terms with an individual singer’s creative agency, as a co-creator of the composer’s music.  In this dissertation I outline key characteristics of the type of embodied voice that has become the basis of operatic singing today, how that operatic voice is produced in performance, and the importance of the singer’s own bodily engagement in making that sound and constituting the performance itself. By juxtaposing operatic criticism and readings of voice and vocality with an interrogation of my own physical engagement in singing a few particular roles (as a singer specialising in nineteenth and twentieth-century operatic repertoire), I demonstrate how a singer “creates” roles. My detailed analyses illustrate how a singer’s fully conscious bodily engagement, in and through the breath, is inextricably linked with musical and dramatic interpretation, and sets up the vocal spectacle and embodied agency so central to our modern experience of opera.  Moreover, in the context of specific readings of particular operatic roles, I argue that particular composers set up specific ways in which singers manipulate elements of body and mind – so that the score can influence and even control how a singer can or cannot breathe. As I will demonstrate in detailed studies of four roles by Verdi and Wagner (all of which I have sung in performance), some scores set up an almost physical collaboration between the singer herself and the way in which text, breath and music are shaped and moulded in performance by particular features of the vocal writing. While a large number of roles could be explored in those terms, the demands placed upon body and voice are individual and each role of every opera is always distinct; Verdi and Wagner roles provide particularly valuable examples because of the complex intersection between a rich psychological framework for interpretative engagement and a complex vocal and bodily collaboration. In addition, my focus on a particular timeframe in the historical development of vocal practice suggests fascinating correlations with the case studies I discuss from Il trovatore, Die Walküre and Parsifal. The new type of singer developing the skills and voice to sing these roles predicates today’s vocal and stage practices that in turn have influenced my own experience. Offering an in-depth examination of the complex tasks an opera singer undertakes, I also examine differences in the vocality in singing Wagner and Verdi roles, culminating in a detailed exposition of my chosen roles.  This dissertation, therefore, sets up a complex picture of the ways in which vocal performance is constructed and controlled by Verdi and Wagner, on the one hand, and how particular scores also set up the conditions that allow singers in these texts to unleash their voice to achieve “wildness” and expression that lies beyond the text. Through these case studies, I establish a discourse of vocality that allows detailed readings of aspects of vocal performance that seemingly bypass rational communication. In the end, I build a case for understanding how singers’ embodiment contributes to the creativity of the performance in ways hitherto intuited but not analysed. Thus I offer a counterbalance and reinterpretation of traditional perspectives on the reality of performance, addressing singers and scholars alike.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


van Rij, Inge; Hudson, Elizabeth