By Jason B. Walker
(Mr. Walker was an early audio engineer, an innovator of the N.A.B. & R.I.A.A. audio standards)
Listen to Dario Vanni’s knock-out performances of Great Operatic Arias (DV-OP-900913-1) or his release of the fabulous The Great Neapolitan Folk Songs (DV-NP-80094-1) and you will hear the true acoustic singer. Even though these recordings were done well into the electronic era of ferrite tape heads, spring reverbs, tape speeds of 15 inches-per-second, electro-magnetic microphones, and vacuum tubes, the sound in many instances is nevertheless acoustic. Why? And what does this mean?
Just who is the acoustic singer?: (a) a singer trained to be heard without a microphone (b) a singer whose voice “drives” a dynamic uni-directional microphone and the resulting resonance of the singer’s voice sounds “acoustic” vs. “electrically amplified”. (c) a singer whose voice is resonantly edged to be sharply focused and, regardless of the volume level of the voice, is sufficiently intense to carry even at a low volume. The early recording artists of outstanding note were mostly the tenors of the acoustic age of recorded music, roughly from 1898 through about 1926, when the electric recording process came into being. The early wind-up phonographs were truly “acoustic” because there was nothing else. The well-trained operatic tenor just happened to have the most ideal resonance penetration for the old system of recording the music through a wooden horn onto a rotating disc of bee’s wax. A few sopranos did well, but most voices became “fogged out” in this process, especially most popular artists. However, early Al Jolson recordings, for example, attest to his viability as a good acoustic recording artist; the voice was focused, high and clean with lots of dynamic energy.
But it was tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) who popularized the Victor Talking Machine Company’s 78 r.p.m. acoustic records into coveted household possessions. His voice was unique inasmuch as the resonance produced by the dramatic-spinto voice was so focused that, upon playback, the family parlor-horn phonograph could reproduce his sound quite well – at least compared to most other tenors recording at the time. And there were many others: Bonci, Zanatello, Cortiz, Pertile, Gigli, McCormack, Chamlee, Schipa, etc. The phenomenal high-As, B-flats and Bs of Caruso’s focused, high-power vocal drive just couldn’t be beaten, however, and his recorded sound seemed to carry with it a sound from another world that drew one into it. One cannot easily describe that which tingles the spine, blows off the top of the head, and moves the emotions to tears. Caruso did all that—and more.
Now comes the mid-20th century and Dario Vanni. A young lyric tenor to begin with, Vanni studied with voice builder Dr. Poul Thompsen, who happened to be a devoted “Caruso-ite”. Thompsen proscribed himself to the much earlier school of Manual Garcia (1813-1884) who believed that the whole body was the voice and the more concentrated and focused it was (like a bird’s), the more easily it could be heard and would produce extremely pleasing yet powerful singing tones. So, as Vanni studies, he falls more and more in love with the Caruso sound that could also be heard to varying degrees in Gigli, Martinelli, Chamlee, Bjoerling, and other sharp-ringing tenors. The young tenor begins to condense his tone, “throw” his tone to focus the resonance at a point out of his body where it will reach a focal point. These “portals to other dimensions” cannot be reached on just any note, I must imply at this point. The driving energy from the diaphragm’s muscles must create air-as-pressure to activate the trained vocal cords to be so efficient as to “send” the laser-like tone energy up through the hard palate into and then out of the skull. These notes are usually high A-flat, A, B-flat, B and sometimes high-C or D-flat and above, although that sound is rare even on high-C since the tension on the body during full-voice execution is a balancing-act. Example, Vanni sings wonderful A-flats (Senza Nisciuno, Guinto Passo Estremo), As (Vaughissima Sembianza, Pec Che), B-flats (Donna non vidi mai or Flower Song) and Bs (Santa Lucia Luntana, Nessun Dorma), but his Cs take on a different characteristic, thicker with different body – witness his Che Gelida Manina of 1973. That said, however, he delivers an astounding high-D (Spirto Gentil) and defies gravity. Also, what fools one about Vanni is that he may begin an aria or song with what one surely expects to be a pleasant lyric tenor presentation, nothing more—then bang! his formidable technique and darker, more dramatic timbre kick in and we’re off to a whole new listening experience! This “changing of gears” is the acoustic voice in the hands of a true and intelligent singer, also genetically gifted with a fine instrument via his mother’s lineage.
We could also say with accuracy that Vanni represents the hybrid personification between the acoustic and electric singer. What I mean by that stems from the fact that the artist learned how to employ an electric-acoustic microphone (non-phantom powered), but in his classical voice modality sang with the technique of an acoustic singer. This bears evaluation, for in many of Vanni’s popular recordings, which truly require an “intimate” vocal sound (witness After You’ve Gone from his album The Last Crooner), he employs a microphone technique which depends on the electronic amplification of the voice. In that sense, you might say every voice starts out acoustically; but, then again, we’re talking apples and oranges, for the popular singer seldom has the focused penetration power to be heard in the back row of a theatre without the assist of a sound system. Not so with the acoustically trained singer, notwithstanding the size and dimensions of the singing instrument one is born with. If one listens to Vanni’s superb rendition of Gigi (Broadway’s Greatest Hits DV-BDY-7150917-1), we hear the blending of both techniques: he begins the song intimately, capturing the romance and warmth necessary, but, at the conclusion of the song, the artists jumps an entire octave up and there is no doubt the “big Broadway” dramatic sound is the “Garcia cry”, the pinging, ringing resonant acoustic tenor at work. Very early on, in his recording of Romberg’s Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, we hear the same incredible shifting of the gears in a much younger voice, from mp sotto voce (depending on the microphone to deliver the intimacy) to the power ascent to the high-As (independent of the need for a microphone). Yet, in the recording, they all fit, because Vanni is an artist who had to adjust to the oncoming 21st century. So, I rest my case.
As regards the death of the acoustic singer, one need only listen carefully to many of today’s contemporary opera singers to hear the breathiness, that “space” between the source of the voice and its resonance to know whereof I speak. It’s a far cry from DiStefano to Bob Dylan, but certain parallels do exist. Example, the early DiStefano voice was glorious (late 1940s, early 50s), but, via faulty technique and microphone dependence, the voice began early signs of deterioration around F#, the resulting breathiness being frustrating to the listener. Dylan (not really a singer per se) talk-sang his breathy way through the wonderful troubadour lyrics. Skip ahead to the current Metropolitan Opera’s series of world-wide simulcasts. Hearing Dessay and Juan de Flores in Daughter of the Regiment, for example, was a wonderful and fulfilling experience. But there were microphones everywhere. We have gotten used to these 21st century sounds—and it’s okay. This article is not lodging a complaint per se, but pointing out the difference between contemporary approaches to singing and a school of singing which is no more. Perhaps the last great tenors to demonstrate remnants of the acoustic technique were Del Monaco and Correlli, in that chronological order. I should not omit the marvelous Fritz Wunderlich, who left us so soon. Sopranos have faired better in later decades, especially the greats in their primes, whether it was Scotto, Moffo, Freni, Sutherland, Sills, Tebaldi, Callas, Caballe, Fleming, or even Dessay.
So even though one age has passed into another, there are some things that withstand all the tests of time. The “message sound” in the acoustic voices spoke of higher dimensions of musical and spiritual attainment, I suggest, and these voices are, to this day, a joy to listen to and experience, for, somehow, we are also participants in these experiences. So, now I suggest you take out a Dario Vanni disc of his operatic or Neapolitan recordings and listen, for the call you hear may be for you. J.B.W.