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Does one's native language make one a better (opera) singer?

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(@dinah)
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I've been listening to this episode on BBC radio :

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b018gpds

A delightful and insightful interview with four wonderful classical singers.

In an answer to the presenter's question whether there's a sort of geographical bias when we regard "the tenor voice"? Why are most of the hugely successful tenors (like Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, and their proposed successors) of a certain blood, i. e. Italians or Spanish and so on?, tenor Mark Padmore points out that there's a certain temperament, that "the way we naturally speak informs how the vocal sung part [of our voices] works".

This reminded me of a brief conversation we had earlier, that there might be a certain inherent lyricism or melodiousness to some languages more than others. Can that inherent "natural music" of a certain language make its native speakers more successful vocal performers?

 


   
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 Hugh
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I'm interested that you are able to listen to BBC Sounds. When I recommended on our old forum listening to Building A Library podcasts someone (who was in the USA I think) said that he wasn't able to access them. Are you restricted in what you can hear?


   
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 Jen
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That’s a very interesting question, @Dinah, and I’m looking forward to hearing what others think.

I have no answers except to note as an aside that some languages seem easier than others for many singers regardless of their native language.  

That’s probably down to ways in which the vocal system deals with the particular consonants and vowel sounds that are prevalent in a language.  For myself (I’m the most amateur of singers), I find German easier to sing than English, and both much easier than French.  I speak no German but the consonants are wonderful to bounce the voice off.  And a soprano may have to modify vowel sounds at the top of their register to be able to produce a good sound, and that seems especially tricky to do in French.

I’d be so interested to hear what anyone with a knowledge of the technical aspects of voice production and linguistics has to say on this.

 


   
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 Hugh
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Posted by: @dinah

hugely successful tenors (like Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, and their proposed successors) of a certain blood, i. e. Italians or Spanish and so on?

Not all. Most great Wagnerian tenors have come from a North European background. (Although I suppose none have been hugely successful in the same way as Caruso or the Three Tenors.)

Perhaps the environment in which singers develop their skills is important. Many British singers, for example, will have risen through a church (or college) choral background.

By no means all British singers of course. I don't think this applied to Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker, for example.


   
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(@dinah)
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@hugh I honestly don't know! I listen via their Android app, but my guess is that there might be region restricted content?!

I also resort to their website sometimes, as I find the app a little bit complicated at times, especially when I want to listen to older programs/ episodes?!

 

(If you could post a link, we might test this regional restriction issue?!)


   
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(@dinah)
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Does one's native language (or national lineage) make one a "better" singer?🤔

I don't think so, not exactly any way.

A good (opera or classical) singer would depend, first and foremost, on vocal (in a musical sense) technique. Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, for example, does not involve any "human" language whatsoever, it has no words, it's sung using only one vowel, of the singer's choice, with accompaniment. Yet, one have to be a superb vocalist to achieve the desired effect of the beautiful piece!

However, being a native speaker of a certain language might make it "easier" to reproduce sounds of other languages in a more natural, comprehensible, and dare I say "attractive", manner! And singers do need to sound as natural as possible when singing in a foreign language.

 


   
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(@dinah)
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Posted by: @jen

That’s probably down to ways in which the vocal system deals with the particular consonants and vowel sounds that are prevalent in a language.

Indeed, @Jen.

Languages that share vocally resemblant phonological units/ acoustic properties might prove easier to reproduce for speakers of other similar languages.

This is due to the phonation of the vocal components of a language (diphthongs, consonant clusters... etc). It's mechanical in nature, it depends on the speech apparatus, and as with any mechanical movement, overtime, it leads to subtle "habitual alterations" to parts of that speech apparatus: the sound producing articulators (the lips, the tongue muscles, the pharynx that controls the tongue... etc). And because we are creatures of habit, these "alterations" become second nature and might prove a hindrance to vocally reproducing a different language fluently, especially if one is exposed to that language for the first time at a later stage in one's life. Some might find it more difficult than others to deliberately train their articulators to produce new, unfamiliar sound patterns. Hence, accents!

 


   
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(@dinah)
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Posted by: @hugh

Perhaps the environment in which singers develop their skills is important.

I agree completely. There seems to be certain cultures or societies or environments in which the creative arts in general flourish and thrive.

You aptly mentioned the example of British choirs. I think there's something very special about them, they sound bright and clear, uniform in their vocalisation, very disciplined, and I get the impression the members are very well educated and informed.

(I'll happily listen to Westminster Abby, King's College or St. John's Cambridge choirs for hours in a row!)


   
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 Jen
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Posted by: @dinah

Some might find it more difficult than others to deliberately train their articulators to produce new, unfamiliar sound patterns. Hence, accents!

That’s very interesting, thank you Dinah.  Your comment about accent is fascinating; I’m aware of singers who always speak with a pronounced accent, but when they sing in their native language, the accent vanishes. 

That seems to imply, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the vocal processes used for speech and singing might be quite different to each other, and therefore that a singer’s native language is less relevant than we might expect.  (Although as you say, it will usually be a challenge to sing a phoneme that does not exist in the singer’s own language).  What do you think?

Furthermore, if the vocal processes are quite different in singing and in speech, perhaps that’s why there are some languages that seem to be almost universally difficult to sing, regardless of a singer’s native language?


   
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(@dinah)
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Posted by: @jen

That seems to imply, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the vocal processes used for speech and singing might be quite different to each other, and therefore that a singer’s native language is less relevant than we might expect.  (Although as you say, it will usually be a challenge to sing a phoneme that does not exist in the singer’s own language).  What do you think?

I'm not very knowledgeable about the vocal processes involved in singing (I double majored in linguistics, though), so I'm talking from a (rather boring) linguistic viewpoint.

I once watched an interview of Renée Fleming, and in an answer to the question "how does she effortlessly sing the role of Rusalka when she doesn't speak Czech", she said that signing in a language one doesn't know involves imitation or mimicking. In essence she's mimicking the Czech sounds she'd learned" (I assume from a vocal/ language coach), sort of "learning by heart". (A "fake it till you make it" situation, if you will! 😂)

Indeed you might find some people who are so good at this "mimicking " skill they can reproduce the sounds/ words of almost any language, while some are so limited in their ability to pronounce vocal patterns they're not used to. It's part skill, part natural talent, I guess?


   
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 Jen
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I’d imagined you might be a linguist… and it’s a fascinating subject I wish I knew more about!


   
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