I would like to begin this blog post with one point that kind of marks the beginning of my story with Opera. I have wanted to sing Opera since I can remember but never thought I had the voice for it, and I had been told: “You have to have the voice for Opera,” otherwise it would never work. Stubborn as I am, here and there I found an Opera teacher near my place in Buenos Aires and gave it a go to develop this sound that I had always dreamed of achieving but never could. Undoubtedly I would fail when I found that my throat would hurt after a lesson with people that only cared about lowering the tongue and singing from the diaphragm — if that still means anything. Consequently, I came across this teacher who accidentally heard my falsetto and full of excitement told me: “You should sing as a countertenor with that falsetto!” He also said that there aren’t a lot of countertenors and I could make a successful career as one. However, it’s not that easy.
Unlocking my Countertenor Potential
Lately there have been more and more countertenors coming up, and it’s not such an exclusive thing anymore… like in the old days, when people still thought it was a Gods’ given thing. Nowadays, you can choose to do so because if you find the right teacher, who knows the anatomy of the vocal instrument, you can easily develop a countertenor sound and sing those wonderful pieces. Moreover, if you can access that sound naturally, there are more and more teachers understanding the science behind it to guide you.
Getting back to my revelation, I did start working as a countertenor, as this teacher was an honorable and respectable man, he also said: “You should look for a maestro countertenor, as I have no idea how this is done.” That was a good and humble thing that many wouldn’t have done. I did find myself a maestro countertenor:Sergio Pelacani, a graduate from New England University and a specialist in Early Music. He gave me plenty of understanding about the countertenor work with all his experience, not an Estill teacher, but as I have been working and been in touch with EMCI Alejandro Saorin Martinez since 2017, I always have him around to consult the scientific, technical stuff and try to make heads or tails from all this information coming from a professional performer and a genius of the baroque countertenor singing. So, I got to sing as a countertenor with an accomplished sound.
Diego Imperiale in “Jesucristo Superstar” (Buenos Aires, 2019)
Transitioning from Countertenor to Tenor
However, when I moved to the United States in 2021, I found that there are not a lot of people doing early baroque music and although it is something very special, there are no theaters or companies around that may want to hire these type of singers, or put on baroque Operas. So when the accomplished dramatic Tenor, EMT and Peter Gregg’s former student, Thomas Clark, reached out to me and suggested I transform into a tenor working with his research and approach, I accepted and started working towards such transformation.
Peter Gregg was Mario Del Monaco’s teacher, and Tom worked with him learning a variety of secrets of the dramatic voices that came straight from the master Mario himself. At the beginning, it felt very far from what I could understand, but then it started settling and helping me find that different type of ring that after all, is just moving from one sensation to another, one type of muscle work to another and somewhat a different energy onstage, but not that far as one could think.
I still do sessions now and then with Alejandro, planning his Estill official courses in Spanish for our Argentinean and Latin community and we also discuss these Opera things (him being a teacher in Italy to a lot of professional performers), so he can help me and monitor my growth vocally as well. One of the interesting things he has come up with is the idea of the tenor high notes not being much more than still a thin fold with narrow AES, because trying to get higher than B Flats with a thick fold would not sound as a turnover sound and basically wouldn’t sound Operatic.
Shaping the Resonance
We all agree that the Opera sound needs narrow AES to grow those harmonics that can be heard by the human ear above the orchestra, but countertenors, already have some of those frequencies in the higher notes they’re singing, plus, when they sing lower, they have lighter orchestras and sing in smaller theaters, so they don’t need as much narrow AES as we would need if we need to make a tenor sound for a bigger orchestra, bigger theater, and the style those type of listeners are used to receiving.
Basically, countertenor and tenor sounds are expected to be heard in a certain way, one has less narrowing of the AES than the other, but both use the same type of thin fold feeling. Therefore, we don’t need to push anything to grow our sound from a countertenor to a tenor, but we need to learn the different mechanics, which will eventually lead us to my next point: when we try to maintain lines in low to mid and mid high registers for Puccini, like I’m experiencing now, we will need to crank up the energy and get used to higher effort numbers in anchors and cricoid cartilage tilting. Does this mean it’s belting? No. It means it’s still “turn over” (let’s say thin folds, thyroid tilt, stable mid larynx and some narrowing of the AES) plus some glottal onsets to begin practicing it and then adding cricoid without letting what you have developed be lost in the way. If we listen carefully, when you watch the famous tenors do these bits, we can tell that they’re doing some type of cricoid movement along the phrases to keep that resonance going. After all, once we know what the figures and muscle movements are, it’s all about shaping the resonance so it can be heard as it’s supposed to, from the point of view of professional voice productions for these sorts of roles.
Fulfilling a Lifelong Dream: Performing as the Main Tenor
The story ends for now with me performing in Gianni Schicchi as the main tenor Rinuccio for the first time in my life and fulfilling a lifelong dream of being able to perform in an Opera powerfully and at ease as I have always wanted. I could never have done it without knowledge of the Estill foundations and the help of my proficient coaches, Tom who trains me regularly, looking for trial and error until we find and improve this so wonderfully done sound over decades, and Alejandro who is always there to do a follow-up on my thoughts as a singer and how to practice certain mechanics that get me to understand a lot of what Tom actually does with his vast experience in the Opera field, live performances and having trained with the great mind behind the great tenor Mario Del Monaco.
Click on the image to view highlights of Diego Imperiale’s performance as Rinuccio.
“Opera is passion,” Pavarotti once said. He also said the Opera sound is a beautiful yell, and it makes total sense since we yell a lot to find the cricoid and we have to end up using it to spice things up. It is a long journey of discovery. Meanwhile, as Estillians, we keep making progress and finding out new ways to approach this brilliant art to also share and help everyone overcome their obstacles.
Let’s keep working and using our voices for our art to honor those who also worked so hard to give us the tools, specially our dearest Jo Estill.