In the last few years there’s been an explosion of interest among the general population in learning how to sing operatically. That doesn’t mean that people want to sing OPERA but the trend is more towards singing pop music with a style that reflects great tone and vibrato but incorporate pop sensibilities. Some people call this ‘popera’. Sure, opera has been a popular art form since its inception but the pop and rock music takeover made the world forget about ‘pure’ opera for a while. Even in Europe, where opera singing is greatly admired by the majority of the population, pop and rock concerts sell out weeks in advance while opera houses struggle with ticket sales.
In some countries — most notably, the United States — the majority of folks tend to think of opera singing as some kind of weird, pompous activity that rich, old people go to the theatre to hear because it’s what rich, old people do. But this attitude is changing at light speed. In an ironic turn of events, opera has slipped into the mainstream of music. And not just in the US, but all across the globe.
Several famous opera vocalists such as Pavarotti began to sing pop sings and widely known folk tunes in massive concert halls and arenas and taped their performances to reach even more listeners. Whether they did it to reach more people with their music or because pop pays much better money, a lot of these operatic singers did renditions of popular songs in an operatic vocal style. That was kind of strange to the ears of opera devotees and equally unusual to the ears of pop lovers. The purists of each genre considered it a sell-out to mix two totally different styles together. Others responded by saying music is music is music, and if it sounds good, God bless.
In the last couple of years, opera singing and pop have begun to coexist thanks to stars that can do both almost equally well. Singers such as Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, The King’s Singers and many other talented folks regularly mix opera and pop songs into their set lists. And audiences that used to snicker and sneer at the classical music genre are now really warming up to the powerful, technical, and soulful sound.
But can just about anybody learn how to sing opera or is it only meant for the select few who are born with a special talent that the rest of us just don’t have? Ever since a British cell phone salesman named Paul Potts and a middle-aged homebody named Susan Boyle won Britain’s Got Talent with their operatic crooning, people have been wondering if they too could learn to use their voices in such a spectacular fashion.
So let’s settle the debate, shall we? Can ANYBODY learn how to sing opera? The answer is yes! First of all, who am I to say so? I’m a tone-deaf teenage turned opera singer and vocal coach who, like many people, thought singing operatically was a God-given gift until I simply began learning how it’s done. I won’t bore you with my story because I’d much rather just teach you the basics of opera singing so that you can apply them right away and begin to transform your voice!
You see, everybody is born with the same vocal equipment. We all have legs and we can all run, right? Likewise, we all have voice boxes and we can all learn to coordinate the muscles involved in singing to produce an operatic sound. Now it IS true that to become an elite opera singer such as Pavarotti or Renee Fleming, there’s a LOT of luck, talent and hard work involved. Especially that last one. But for the average lover of opera singing who wants to sing at home, for friends and family and maybe even on the local stage, the missing ingredient is simply learning the proper operatic technique and practicing it consistently!
Learning to sing opera starts with a few basic rules that all successful and competent opera singers follow. They’re like the ABC’s of classical singing and the form the foundation. The first and most important rule of opera singing is to keep the larynx in a neutral position. The larynx, which is another name for the voicebox or Adam’s apple, is the bump found on the front of the neck that moves up and down when you speak and when you swallow. Women, you have these as well. If you put your hand on your throat and swallow a few times, you’ll feel the larynx move very distinctly.
A huge part of that rich, operatic sound is the result of simply keeping the voicebox in a low-neutral position during singing. How do you accomplish this? Well, it might take some time to train your larynx to stay put but here’s an exercise you can use to begin training it right now!
Put your hand on your throat and yawn. You’ll notice that when you yawn, your larynx sinks easily and gently into a low position. Do it a few more times and now take notice of the role that your tongue is playing in lowering the larynx. Your tongue is actually moving back and down and nudging the larynx into this low position. Your job now is to monitor the voicebox whenever you’re singing.
As you sing higher notes, you’ll notice that your larynx has a tendency to want to rise. Gently ease it down and try again. It may take a few months to almost a year to master this across your entire singing range depending on how many bad vocal habits you’ve acquired in the past. But once you do, you’ll be able to produce an operatic sound on command!
The second crucial part of learning how to sing opera is something called “placement”. This refers to where you direct the sounds you produce inside your head. Your head is basically a resonating cavity. If you think of it as a house with several rooms, one room would be the throat, another would be the the nose, another is the mouth and so on. The idea is to “open” all the doors in the house and make sure the notes you sing ring equally in each of the rooms. Why equally? Because if you trap the sound in the nose and close all the other doors, your sound will be nasal and lacking in warmth.
So how do you achieve good vocal placement? It all begins with becoming aware of something called the mask, which is basically the front part of your face. If you close your mouth and hum at a normal volume, you’ll notice a buzz in the front part of your face. The area where you’re feeling the buzz is called the mask! Now practice getting the buzz going and slowly opening your mouth. As you open your mouth, keep the sound vibrating in that same front area. It should feel like your nose, teeth and even your eyes are buzzing.
Singing operatically requires you to sing into the mask at all times because it’s vital for singing in tune, singing fast runs, acquiring vibrato and gives the sound a clear, crisp that carries without the need for a microphone.
I’ve seen people from very different walks of life, with widely varying intelligence go a very long way thanks to good instruction, stubbornness and daily practice. I hope you realize that even though this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of operatic technique, just about can learn how to sing opera.