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Thread: The Flagstad Physical Mystery

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    Senior Member Seattleoperafan's Avatar
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    Default The Flagstad Physical Mystery

    I've been fascinated by singers who have the really big big voices for years and there is one common denominator they all seem to have: all have large faces from which to project their sound.
    1. Sutherland and Nilsson's huge jaws and wide faces are great examples.
    2. Callas had very wide cheekbones and a big mouth with a pointed cathedral like roof to the mouth, 3.Jessye Norman... everything in her face was very very big with a mouth like the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns
    4. L Price: abnormally wide cheekbones and HUGE mouth
    5. Dimitrova: cheekbones that stretch from Vienna to Budapest
    6. Tebaldi: huge jaw, wide features
    7. Ponselle: had a face that was a female version of Caruso with a very very wide mask
    8. Trauble: very tall with a gigantic face and no neck
    9. Gertrude Grob Prandl: face like a dinner plate
    10. Astrid Varnay: people mistook her for Nilsson at Bayreuth when they were there. Big jaw
    11.Stephanie Blythe: face as big as the Atlanta metro area
    12: Radvanovsky: long wide features similar to the also very tall Tebaldi
    13. Eileen Farrell: very wide cheekbones and a very protruding brow with no neck.
    14: Eva Turner. She looked fat because she had no neck and a very, very huge face. She was actually a normal sized woman.
    You get the picture. Of course other factors enter in but this seems to be a very common thread among many of the famous singers with huge voices. The one exception I can think of is Flagstad, who may have had the biggest voice of all. Other than being a tall woman, her face was very ordinary in size. They only unusual physical features I can single out is her unusual nose with its very high bridge and she did have a very large mouth. Also, like Sutherland she had a very long, very muscular neck.download (3).jpgAn interesting fact about her is she had a normal lyric soprano sound until she had a baby and after several months resting her voice after her baby was born her mother hear her first vocalizing and remarked on how her voice changed. Apparently she was one of these freaks like Christine Goerke who's' voice apparently tripled in size overnight. Also, Flagstad's chest grew something like 4" in her first year of singing Wagner. Things to ponder. I am doing a big speech on Flagstad for my Toastmasters Club soon so I am reflecting on these things. This has puzzled me for years.
    Last edited by Seattleoperafan; Oct-12-2019 at 16:18.

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    Senior Member Mollie John's Avatar
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    The New York Times - December 26, 2000 -

    VITAL SIGNS: PATTERNS; What a Big Mouth Means to Music
    By Eric Nagourney


    Bassos have the biggest mouths.
    No slur intended against bassos, whose deep-pitched tones usually make them instantly recognizable around an opera house.

    Still, it should also be noted that those bassos have the biggest vocal cords, as well.
    The findings come courtesy of Dr. Marco Di Girolamo, a radiologist and opera lover in Rome, who examined opera singers using a magnetic resonance imaging machine and presented his findings at a recent meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

    Dr. Girolamo, who practices at La Sapienza, the main campus of the University of Rome, said M.R.I. machines provided a better way to determine how to classify the vocal range of an opera student.
    The teachers and the coaches who make the determination whether a student is, for example, a soprano or a contralto, or a tenor or a bass, can sometimes get it wrong.

    Apart from the harm this can do to a singer's career, misclassification can also result in vocal cord nodes, a malady that causes hoarseness and that can force a singer to stop singing temporarily, Dr. Girolamo said.
    In some rare instances, surgery is needed.

    The study, which involved 12 men and 14 women, all professional opera singers, determined that the biggest factors influencing the range of a singer's voice were the size of the vocal cords and the shape and size of the vocal tract, which involves the mouth and the opening of the pharynx.

    Longer cords and wider tracts appear characteristic of singers with the low-
    pitched voices, like the baritones and bassos.

    The higher-pitched voices tend to occur among the people with short cords and narrow tracts.

    The performers were examined both at rest and while singing (no arias, just vowel sounds).

    The bassos' vocal tracts measured an average 32.3 square centimeters.

    And who has the smallest mouth?

    That distinction goes to the mezzo-soprano, who measured an average of just 14.6 square centimeters -- less than half that found among the bassos.

    If you pair each article you may find your answer...

    Why are opera singers fat?
    It ain't over till...
    By Dr Stephen Juan


    There are several theories attempting to explain why opera singers are often pleasingly plump. One holds that a large amount of fatty tissue surrounding the voice box (larynx) increases its resonance capability and thus produces a more pleasing sound. The amount of this fatty tissue varies from singer to singer. It is almost impossible to have a great deal of fatty tissue around the voice box without carrying a great deal of fatty tissue elsewhere on the body.

    A second theory holds that opera singers need a far more powerful diaphragm than normal to be able to project their voice above the sound of a large orchestra in a large opera house. A large chest cavity and good control of the lungs will provide a suitable mass to help drive the diaphragm to some extent. A large body mass and a large body frame to support it help even more, so there is a huge advantage in being huge.

    In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when opera was an expanding medium, successive generations of opera producers sought larger and more dramatic effects in operas, larger audiences, and larger theatres. Being human, singers could not be re-engineered, so better vocal techniques were developed to better cope with this steady rise in size and volume - in all things.

    Consistent with this, it was recognised that there was an advantage in having a large chest, rib cage, neck, mouth, everything. The desire for larger singers was not the only change. New technology for wind instruments and the reconstruction of older baroque string instruments also came about as the result of opera innovations.

    A third theory comes from Dr Peter Osin of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. Dr. Osin argues that opera singers "may be more predisposed to put on weight because exertions in the lungs act as a trigger for their appetite". He adds that "the mechanism of singing encourages the lung cells to release chemicals including leptin, a protein made by the body's fat cells that is involved in the regulation of appetite".

    A fourth theory holds that the act of opera singing itself expands the body, particularly the rib cage. After years of singing, the opera singer’s body may look fat, perhaps fatter than it really is. This is the implication of Australian research by Dr CW Thorpe and three colleagues from the National Voice Centre at the University of Sydney and published in the Journal of Voice 2001.
    No doubt other theories will emerge. None can so far claim to be proven. As they say: "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings".

    - Duncan
    Last edited by Mollie John; Oct-12-2019 at 18:08.

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    Hmmm. I have always had good breathing/support and a healthy diaphragm with which to do so. I suspect that came from being the Situp Champ of my high school where I actually did 1,000 situps in a day. It was about that same time I started singing (age 16), and I was 6'1" and 140 lbs. Terribly skinny. By age 38 or so I was 190 lbs and last winter due to emotional losses (my mom and sister scarcely two months apart) I topped out at 251. And I am 70 yrs old now, but weighed 220 this morning (with no popcorn). I have run about 200 miles this year for exercise and am watching the carbs. I definitely look smaller but I suspect even when I get back to my target weight of 190, I will still have that internal bellows that protrudes somewhat from what should be an otherwise svelte figure.

    So which came first? Did I become a professional (nearly so, at any rate) because I had good breathing/diaphragm? Or did I develop my diaphragm due to a long and still continuing career as a professional-quality singer? Some of both, I suspect. I was predisposed by coming from a musical family (several generations of singers that I know of), and we all tended to gain weight as we aged. Interesting article!

    Kind regards,

    George

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    While it's easy to observe that loud sounds tend to come out of large orqanisms, I'm inclined to think that beyond a frequent (but not precise or invariable) correlation of physical size with vocal volume a person's skeletal structure may have little to do with the perceived size of her voice. Flagstad was tall, so the correlation holds to some extent, but otherwise her build wasn't unusual. What we don't know is the internal structure of her vocal tube - the throat and mouth - and I suspect that that knowledge might provide much of the explanation for the power of her voice. We know that the other resonating cavities in the head contribute to a voice's timbre, but it's my impression that volume of sound has more to do with the size and shape of the immediate cavity of the vocal tract, which directly amplifies the sound waves set up by the vocal chords.

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    I love the feedback from differing perspectives. Thanks.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    While it's easy to observe that loud sounds tend to come out of large orqanisms, I'm inclined to think that beyond a frequent (but not precise or invariable) correlation of physical size with vocal volume a person's skeletal structure may have little to do with the perceived size of her voice. Flagstad was tall, so the correlation holds to some extent, but otherwise her build wasn't unusual. What we don't know is the internal structure of her vocal tube - the throat and mouth - and I suspect that that knowledge might provide much of the explanation for the power of her voice. We know that the other resonating cavities in the head contribute to a voice's timbre, but it's my impression that volume of sound has more to do with the size and shape of the immediate cavity of the vocal tract, which directly amplifies the sound waves set up by the vocal chords.
    I think you are much more familiar with those areas than me. I know Nilsson had her vocal chords looked at by a specialist and he said they were simply astonishing. He had never seen anything like it. He had also looked at Christa Ludwig, who also tried to be a dramatic soprano, and said her vocal chords were not nearly so robust. Kathleen Ferrier had such a large mouth and throat you could push an apple to the back with no difficulty. The great Ella Fitzgerald had her sinuses looked at by a curious physician and he said they were considerably larger than most people. My sister taught voice for 40 years and she agreed with me that both Sutherland's and Nilsson's very large, prutruding jaws could greatly amplify the vocal sound. My ideas are just based upon similarities I've noticed with no scientific backup.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Seattleoperafan View Post
    I think you are much more familiar with those areas than me. I know Nilsson had her vocal chords looked at by a specialist and he said they were simply astonishing. He had never seen anything like it. He had also looked at Christa Ludwig, who also tried to be a dramatic soprano, and said her vocal chords were not nearly so robust. Kathleen Ferrier had such a large mouth and throat you could push an apple to the back with no difficulty. The great Ella Fitzgerald had her sinuses looked at by a curious physician and he said they were considerably larger than most people. My sister taught voice for 40 years and she agreed with me that both Sutherland's and Nilsson's very large, prutruding jaws could greatly amplify the vocal sound. My ideas are just based upon similarities I've noticed with no scientific backup.
    Looks like we'll have to dig up Kirsten. Maybe she can be reconstructed from DNA in the lab.

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    Senior Member Seattleoperafan's Avatar
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    OMG... you are a funny boy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Seattleoperafan View Post
    OMG... you are a funny boy.
    Hey, no joke! If we can build another Flagstad, we could make another Melchior too and finally get to hear real Wagnerian singing for the first time in fifty years. Then we could move on to Caruso, Ponselle, and Ruffo and have us some real Verdi. We wouldn't have to sit around sighing while watching This Is Opera videos.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Seattleoperafan View Post
    My sister taught voice for 40 years and she agreed with me that both Sutherland's and Nilsson's very large, prutruding jaws could greatly amplify the vocal sound.
    I would be interested to find out if there is any truth to this. In my experience, the jaw should be completely uninvolved when singing. But I guess that doesn't mean it won't play a role in amplification...

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bonetan View Post
    I would be interested to find out if there is any truth to this. In my experience, the jaw should be completely uninvolved when singing. But I guess that doesn't mean it won't play a role in amplification...
    Only if the large jaw implies a large mouth cavity. It's the size of the air space, not the bones, that matters.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Only if the large jaw implies a large mouth cavity. It's the size of the air space, not the bones, that matters.
    Er, if those large jawbones are hollowed out (a common operatic practice?) it can make a real difference. Many hadrosaurs had such hollows in their skull protrubances, evidently to amplify the volume of their mating calls, which is, after all, what opera is all about.



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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    Er, if those large jawbones are hollowed out (a common operatic practice?) it can make a real difference. Many hadrosaurs had such hollows in their skull protrubances, evidently to amplify the volume of their mating calls, which is, after all, what opera is all about.

    Perhaps we could bring back the castrati and make them even more impressive by hollowing out their jawbones too. This would involve the removal of muscles and teeth, but since most opera is in languages that nobody understands we can do without the words. Sutherland fans wouldn't notice the difference.

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    Senior Member Seattleoperafan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Only if the large jaw implies a large mouth cavity. It's the size of the air space, not the bones, that matters.
    Still, at the big Met 25th Anniversary Gala, supposedly Nilsson and Sutherland had the biggest voices there out of all those singers from ear witnesses and they both had really prominent huge jaws. It makes me think. Ponselle felt her gigantic voice benefitted from having those very wide cheekbones like Caruso. I am no scientist, but there are a lot of overlapping of similar physical traits for me to overlook the coincidences. I don't see why bones and cavities couldn't aid in amplification. I am not a singer, though.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Seattleoperafan View Post
    14: Eva Turner. She looked fat because she had no neck and a very, very huge face. She was actually a normal sized woman.
    You get the picture. Of course other factors enter in but this seems to be a very common thread among many of the famous singers with huge voices. The one exception I can think of is Flagstad, who may have had the biggest voice of all. Other than being a tall woman, her face was very ordinary in size. They only unusual physical features I can single out is her unusual nose with its very high bridge and she did have a very large mouth. Also, like Sutherland she had a very long, very muscular neck.download (3).jpgAn interesting fact about her is she had a normal lyric soprano sound until she had a baby and after several months resting her voice after her baby was born her mother hear her first vocalizing and remarked on how her voice changed. Apparently she was one of these freaks like Christine Goerke who's' voice apparently tripled in size overnight. Also, Flagstad's chest grew something like 4" in her first year of singing Wagner. Things to ponder. I am doing a big speech on Flagstad for my Toastmasters Club soon so I am reflecting on these things. This has puzzled me for years.
    unpopular opinion: Flagstad's voice was always quite "lyrical" even when singing the most dramatic rep for the soprano voice. it doesn't surprise me at all that she started with lyric rep.

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