Can opera singers shatter windows?

How does an opera singer reach and hold the high notes?
08 December 2014

Interview with 

Ms Nicole Frances-Galtié


Sydney Opera House


Nicole Frances-Galtié used to be an opera singer before turning her attention Sydney Opera Houseto science, including researching how drugs affect the body. But more recently she's returned to her first love and taken up professional opera...

Nicole -   I'm a professional opera singer, but I would actually say that I'm doing as much or if not, more science now that I'm singing even though I'm not in the lab.  it's interesting listening to my colleagues on the panel because almost everything they've talked about can be applied to the human voice.  I'm going to go on the record saying, I think that singing is the coolest science ever because you've got physics, physiology, neurology, neurobiology, biochemistry.  It's pretty exciting, so it's kind of all encompassing.  I think having become a scientist has made me more well-rounded singer.  Now, that's not a qualitative thing because we have a subjective ear in terms of listening.

Chris -   It's not quantitative either, because you're a normal shape.

Nicole -   That's a really interesting question.

Chris -   Because the stereotypical opera singer is quite... well, Pavarotti was Pavarotti...

Nicole -   That's right and there's the very famous saying, "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."  That of course means, something is not over until it's over.  But it was referencing one of Wagner's operas where Brunhilde sings at the very end of the ring cycle.  But fat actually is not an important aspect of a good voice or a functional voice.  In fact, it doesn't matter what size you are.  You can be fat and sing well.  You can be thin and sing well.  The technique and how you use the muscles involved is much more important and also, the bone structure that you were bone with.  Your natural acoustics is going to apply much more than how much adipose tissue you have on you.

Chris -   Breaking it down then, there are lots of different aspects to it.  there's actually how you physically control the breath coming out.  There's how you actually amplify the sounds in your mouth and then control the shape of that sound, and so on.  do you want to just talk us through?  When you're singing, what's actually going through your mind?  What are you concentrating on doing apart from getting the notes right?

Nicole -   At the end of the day when we're performing, nothing should be going through your mind.  That's why opera is extremely tricky.  It's a kind of vocal version of patting your head and rubbing your stomach because you are doing so many different coordinated things that actually oppose each other because you're going against your natural physiology.  One of the sort of ahah moments I had was - because I went back to opera after a long break, I decided to retrain and my teacher was going over breath control with me.  When we talk about breath control as singers, what we're really talking about is, the controlling of the exhalation and the speed at which we let the air leave the body.  And so, she was explaining this and of course, we want the most amount of space in the thoracic cavity, so in the torso, and we want to have the muscles very flexible.  All of a sudden, I shouted, "Oh my God!  Boyle's Law."  And that's exactly what singers are doing.  You're an applied physicist and so, when you have an extreme amount of volume in terms of being filled with air, you are resisting the external pressure of collapsing.  And so, the first thing you think about is, "Am I resisting that exhalation?"  Because what you don't want is air in the sound.  What you have with the vocal chords is, you have very much like Rob showed his ukulele.  We have the vocal chords that are a bit like strings and so, shape of the vocal cord will affect what kind of voice you have, the temper of the voice, etc.  And so, you want to think about letting the air through, but not letting the air upset the vibration of the vocal cord.  So, it's a very fine balance of how much air pressure you let out as you sing.

Chris -   Are you aiming for a sort of constant supply of air and is that that you're superimposing the opening and closing of the vocal chords?  It gives the vibrations that are the sound.

Nicole -   Absolutely and you can change the vibrato by how fast you push the air through.  So, one of the things you want to do as an opera singer is actually, make sure that it's very slow and very even, so you don't have big peaks and valleys in the voice that you have a nice even tone throughout.  And so, you're not making a breathy sound whereas if you were doing something maybe sort of jazz or torte song, you'd want to be breathier.

Chris -   How do you learn that?  is that someone sort of listening to you and going, "Nicole, you need to just do this a bit more"?

Nicole -   Yes, you do need external ears for sure.  One of the things you're trained as an opera singer to do is rely more on sensation in the body than listening to yourself because you can actually mislead yourself terribly.  And let's say, you were singing at a house like Houston Grand Opera which I believe is 5,000 seats - so, quite huge.  And let's say, you're singing Wagner over maybe 87 to 100 instruments.  You've got to have a lot of power.  What will happen in that situation is, because of that room and because of the instruments, there is a possible delay for the singer.  One of the reasons we actually need conductors and everyone of my colleagues is going to shoot me for this saying, "Yes, we do need conductors" I'm sorry, is, so they keep the tempo for you because if you rely on what you hear, you may actually be behind the music because of the echo that's coming back at you.  So, when you first learn, you need a trusted ear and you need someone that knows the physiology and knows what they're listening for to help you recreate that sound and to get you to rely on what you feel rather than what you hear.

Chris -   Following the sound on its journey to the outside world, so we've come airflow, we've got vocal chords which are opening and closing at a certain rate, that creates the vibrations or puffs of air that are the sound.  Those vibrations come into your throat, pharynx, mouth and the shape of that is acting as a sort of resonant cavity.  It amplifies certain sounds.  Tell us about how that works a bit.

Nicole -   One of the things you do when you sing in terms of operatic technique is you try to make sure that the head is as hollow as possible.

Chris -   That's easy in some people's cases.

Nicole -   Yeah, exactly.  The terrible joke is that tenors are so resonant because there's not much up here, but you know, that's not entirely true - I have to say as someone who's done neurobiology, that's not correct.  But what you do want to do is make sure that there's nothing in the way of the resonance so that you can use the entire head cavity in order to make sound.  You'll notice that singers that have quite large voices have quite large heads and very often, they have a large area, a very large jaw.  Joanne Sutherland is a fantastic example - Australian soprano who's no longer with us.  But she had a phenomenal jaw that just look like it detached itself.  And so, the more space you're able to make in your head, the more resonance you will get.

Chris -   So, when people say Mick Jagger, you know, stereotypical big mouthed Mick Jagger, that's really true.

Nicole -   I would say he goes a little bit too wide.  Opera singers actually go for a bit more height because one of the things that happens muscularly is the soft palate is actually muscularly related to the back of the tongue.  And so, when the tongue goes down, part of the soft palate lifts up.  And so, what you want is to create that maximum space.  So, Jagger goes a wee bit wide and that's great for the type of music he sings because we want a tone that spins as we say, a sort of resonance that just keeps ringing and ringing.  We go for a taller sound if that's...

Chris -   What distinguishes or what's the difference between when you make a quiet sound and when you want to sing really loud?  What are you doing to make more volume?

Nicole -   Well, what's interesting is, we talk about it in terms of energy and it's a combination of breath pressure and sort of muscular - it's a tension but a relaxation.  It's a very strange sensation and again, you're playing very finely with the breath pressure you're putting through the apparatus.

Chris -   Now, someone said to me that the best you'll ever hope for when you present radio programmes is to learn to tolerate the sound of your own voice.  Do you like the sound of your voice?

Nicole -   I do, yes.  I feel really narcissistic saying that.  I've had to listen to myself a lot because of retraining and my voice has actually changed tremendously because I discovered I could do different things with it.  and so, it's been quite exciting.  So yeah, it's not shabby.

Chris -   We'll find out, shall we?

Nicole -   We shall.

Chris -   Shall we make her do a bit?  Shall we make her sing a bit?

Audience -   Yes.

Nicole -   Excellent!  I'm actually going to - can I borrow Ginny for this as well?

Chris -   You're going to make Ginny sing?

Ginny -   No one wants to hear that.

Nicole -   I also need another volunteer.

Igor -   My name is Igor and I'm from Hungary.

Nicole -   When I sing, I'm going to show you where to put your hand so you can feel how I breath and I'm going to ask you after I sing if you can tell what's happening as I go up higher in pitch.  Is that okay?

Igor -   Yeah.

Nicole -   I'm going to take Igor's hands and where I'm placing his hand is about where my belly button is.  But what this corresponds to for muscles inside is the transverse abdominis and that's the most important abdominal muscle for an opera singer.  It's a bit like a girdle.  It's an internal girdle.  It's three layers deep, so it's not one of those superficial muscles that gives you fantastic six packs.  But it actually is a very important muscle and it relates to the ones that when you get older, will stop you needing diapers.  It's an important muscle to work and opera singers need it because we have to keep our abdominal cavity expanded.  So, even though I breath into my lungs, and I don't have lungs in my stomach or in my back, what I aim to do muscularly is expand the entire thoracic cavity so I can get as much volume of air as possible.  So, I'm going to sing a little bit of a piece called Porgi Amor from the Marriage of Figaro, Mozart as was requested by the audience.  So, I'm going to take a breath in....

Singing wav(singing)

Ginny -   A round of applause.  So, what did it feel like when she was singing those high notes?

Igor -   Well, her stomach was out when she was breathing and when the higher notes got longer and longer, her stomach went in.

Ginny -   Is that what you'd expect him to feel?

Nicole -   Yeah.  Go out first and then it'll start to come in.  so actually, with high notes, we need less air pressure.  So, we actually want less air to escape.  And so, when I go for a high note, I actually - it's a misnomer to say, I'm pressing out on the transverse abdominis, but I'm letting it relax out so that I can maintain a maximum amount of space.  And then as I start to go down, he's exactly right.  you can feel the stomach going in because I need more air for the lower notes and I'm also going to need to take a breath in for the next phrase.  We need to get rid of all that air before I inhale again.

Chris -   Does anyone have any questions about what it takes to be an opera singer?  One down here from Georgia.

Georgia -   Is it true that you sound better in the shower?

Chris -   I mean her, personally or...

Nicole -   I sound fabulous in the shower.  Well, the thing is, most showers are usually in a tile room.  And it's the voice hitting against the tile sound that's coming back at you, so it makes it more vibrant.  Room acoustic makes a big difference.  Because of the way I sing and the style I sing, listening to me in a small room can actually be quite awkward and painful.  But if I'm in a large room, my voice carries because I'm trained to use as much acoustic resonance of my body as I can.  So, the shower will be a nice, ringy resonant space.  So, that's why you'll think you'll sound better because it'll be quite bright and brassy.

Chris -   Nicole, do you sing in the shower?

Nicole -   I do warm up in the shower because the humidity is actually fantastic for a vocal cords, so sing in the shower - very healthy, very good for you.

Ginny -   Steve on Twitter wants to know whether it's really true that opera singers can break wine glasses with their voice.

Chris -   Ever cracked a tile or broken a window?

Nicole -   No, but I once in a talk tried to break a wine glass for an audience.  So, if you hit a glass with a tuning fork or even with anything to get a sound off of it, you can get the pitch and the resonant frequency of that glass.  So, whether it's a wine glass or it's a window, once you know the resonant frequency and you know the pitch or the note, if you will, in music terminology, that that object is ringing at, you as the singer have to match that pitch exactly and also match the resonant frequency.  That's the oscillation and the speed at which the sound travels.  So, your voice has to meet the object and it has to be exactly the same resonant frequency as the object.  But then you've got to hold it at a particular decibel for a really long time.  So, the thinner the glass, the smaller the object, the easier it is to break.  The larger the glass or the thicker, the more difficult or next to impossible and that's when you just step on it.

Boy -   What's the largest glass structure you can break with your voice?

Nicole -   Well, it depends on the voice and it depends on the glass structure.

Boy -   So, a greenhouse would be really hard to break.

Nicole -   A greenhouse would be - I mean, maybe if you got an entire company of opera singers together, all going at the same note at the same time at a particular window, you might be able to do it,  but that's a tough task.

Dave -   I have spent quite a lot of my life attempting to smash wine glasses using sound, but with a signal generator.  But there's a slightly expensive thing about this is that the really, really good quality wine glasses work a lot better.

Nicole -   Yes, the cheap Ikea ones don't.  It also helps if the glass has a flaw in it.

Dave -   The real trick is you want a glass which will ring for a really long time when you ping it and those are expensive which is unfortunate because you want to smash it.

Ailish -   Hi.  I'm Ailish from Cambridge.  I was just wondering, when you're practicing opera singing, do you use software or IT technology to help improve your voice?

Nicole -   The only thing I use is recording.  So, I do record myself when I have lessons.  But I don't necessarily use it to listen back. I'll quite often  have my teacher reiterate what I was doing physically when I made that sound that they went, "Yes, that's the right sound.  What were you doing during that?"  So, because we're trained to not listen in a way, in a strange way, no, I haven't experienced any technology for any practice, no.

Ginny -   Stephen on Facebook says, "Is it possible for a human to make a sound that other humans or themselves couldn't hear because it's out of their frequency range?"  So, could you sing so high that we couldn't hear it, Nicole?

Nicole -   I personally can't, although I have sent the neighbourhood dogs barking a couple of times.  There is something that females can do and quite possibly some men that's called accessing a flute register.  But what you're doing with that is you're not actually on the vocal chords.  You're not actually using a vibration of vocal cord.  So, it's a little bit of fake singing as it were.  And that can go much, much higher than a human voice can.  But you'd have to have extremely long and extremely thin vocal chords to make sounds that people couldn't hear.

Dave -   I guess, down at the low end, you can make sounds which are lower than you can hear.  I mean, if you wave your hand backwards and forwards, you make a vibration through the air which is far too low for you to hear and so, yes.


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