In what I think must have been his last interview for BBC Radio, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was asked if he ever went to the opera. I sensed that the interviewer was hoping to goad the great man into a rant against 'modern' productions, but the response was much more interesting: "I don't go to the opera because nobody sings legato any more".
Cultivating an habitual legato is fundamental to good singing. To flood a phrase from beginning to end with beautiful and expressive sound is surely the ideal. It is also inextricably linked to the healthy production of tone. As voice is formed by air pressure vibrating the vocal folds, creating soundwaves which develop in the resonators, it follows that if you want a consistency of sound, you must have a consistency of air. Provided there is no tension, which is caused mostly by faulty tone production, this continuum of sound automatically connects to the breath supply. Breath control in singing should be totally instinctive as in talking, shouting and laughing. Yet in contemporary vocal pedagogy, it is inclined to be a function which needs to be developed separately. We have so much evidence that great singers of the past didn't give breath control a moment's preoccupation. Mattia Battistini was
A young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)
often asked how he acquired his immaculate breath control. His rather fed-up but polite response was always "I simply breathe naturally". Adelina Patti, towards the end of her career, once called on her erstwhile stage partner Jean de Reszke in his teaching studio in Paris. She asked him - "So, Jean. What is this thing, the diaphragm....?" John McCormack, whose breath control was legendary (he sings a phrase here in Handel's 'Sleep, why dost though leave me' which lasts for twenty seconds!), was interviewed in 1917 when he was 34. He talked at length about his training, his student days, his voice and career - everything to do with singing. It was transcribed onto four hundred pages and in all that material he mentioned absolutely nothing about breathing. No support, no abdomen muscles, no diaphragm, etc. And seemingly as Devil's advocate, Caruso famously stated that "Singing is 90% breathing". But what is really interesting is that he didn't go into any great detail about how that breath was managed. Because he knew that when you sing, (properly!) you get the sensation of a column of air which automatically controls the movement and amplitude of your instrument.
But, back to the present. Contemporary singing tends to be excessively concerned, even obsessed with the enunciation of text. Yes, we must be able to hear the words, but not at the sacrifice of tone. And of course text is important, but it is secondary to the music. Fritz Wunderlich (whose diction was perfect) hit the nail on the head when he said: "It is the singer's job to interpret the music - not the words. The composer has already done that." And the vowel carries the expression - not the consonant. If the singer becomes consonant-heavy it can result in singing syllables rather than phrases. Each syllable then invariably has an excessive impulse of air, causing exaggerated oscillations on the pitch, resulting in resonance dips between the syllables. These dips are caused by a sudden release of air pressure and when this happens, the singer, sensing that the voice is momentarily unsupported, is inclined to 'hold' the sound by gripping the muscles around the larynx. This, in my experience both as a singer and a teacher, along with register mismanagement, is the root cause for tension in singing. We're locked into - literally - a pattern of too much air, not enough air, too much air, not enough air, etc., without ever feeling in control of our breath. But a true legato is the solution as it results in a perfect equation of sound/breath balance for the entire phrase. Not just on the notes, but between them as well.
Another reason for avoiding choppy, syllabic singing is a very practical one. In these resonance gaps, the audience loses the continuous thread of sound which is the sonic, expressive, aesthetic and personal link between singer and audience. Orchestras and pianos produce continuous sounds. The only way a singer stands a chance of being fully heard is also by producing a continuous sound - legato. Ironically, the more we try to spit the words out and chop up the legato, the more difficult it is to hear us, and therefore the words. Perfect diction comes from singing on the line and placing short, crisp consonants just before the beat. Diction was rarely a concern for singers who sang legato as a matter of course such as Pavarotti, Gedda, Bastianini and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Even the sopranos, for whom diction - because of physiological reasons - is more difficult, had no trouble with enunciation. (Towards the top of the female voice the vowels start to merge, and as the back of the mouth and the lips are more open for the higher notes, it's more of a stretch to enunciate consonants.) However, none of their contemporary critics ever complained of poor diction from Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Ponselle or Nellie Melba.
In conclusion then, it is the vowel that has the beauty, the expression and the carrying power - not the consonant. And if all the above isn't persuasion enough for perfecting a legato, having mentioned that latter-day Orpheus, Fritz Wunderlich, just listen to him singing 'Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön'. That tone has such heartrending beauty, who would want to be short-changed by even a micro second?