Discovering the "Open Throat" With the Help of Enrico Caruso (Part 3)
March 20, 2013
In the 1930s, Italian singing master Arturo Melocchi became famous for making the lowered larynx technique the foundation of his “controversial method,” and taught it most famously to both Mario Del Monico and Franco Corelli (indirectly) who popularized his method just past the mid-half of the 20th century.
The idea of the lowered larynx, however, easily invites confusion. One might honestly ask: “How low must a singer drop his larynx in order to be understood as singing with a lowered larynx?” It’s not simply the case that each throat has different capabilities with respect to lowering the larynx. The larynx continually moves up and down during singing, which is to say, the larynx sometimes assumes a lower position naturally. What the lowered larynx controversy really involves is the question: Should a singer always—or ever—lower his larynx maximally (as much as possible) during singing?
Using this new clarification of the lowered larynx and regarding Melocchi, the question is whether he taught a maximally lowered larynx only as a strategy for training his students or encouraged them to try to sing with this throat configuration always in place; the latter seems highly unlikely because of the artistic limitations that always singing with a lowered larynx imposes. For his part, Corelli has openly admitted that he let his larynx “float” when he sang.
Be that as it may, despite the widely held rumor that Melocchi invented, or at least made popular, a maximally lowered larynx technique, the Nobel Prize here really goes to our favorite tenor Enrico Caruso. How do we know that Caruso sometimes employed a maximally lowered larynx in his singing? The easiest answer is that there is no other way to explain a signature facet of Caruso’s singing—namely, his capacity of producing huge, deep, highly compressed, open, piercing, and darkly resonant sounds.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, Caruso’s muscular voice created a new kind of tenor that came to redefine some elements of the aesthetics of Bel Canto singing generally: not only was his voice highly flexible, his massive sound could easily reverberate through the thick orchestras of Verismo operas. On the level of voice biomechanics, we could say that in Caruso there came together in one throat strong, well-coordinated, and flexible vocal fold muscles, a powerfully elastic pharyngeal cavity, and an athletic larynx with the agility to move to any vertical position in his throat for different vocal challenges—e.g., singing with “half-voice,” and particularly, one with the ability to remain comfortably low in his throat when he sang out with full force.
It is, nonetheless, misleading to characterize Caruso’s singing style as exclusively based on maximally lowering his larynx. Even the more dramatic singers of the verismo school did not always sing with the larynx in this lowered position, but rather used it when the music required it. Caruso’s singing should be understood in the same way. He dropped his larynx to lower positions when he was performing the more dramatic operas like Pagliacci and La Juive, where singing with exceptional volume, intensity, and resonance was called for. Otherwise, like Corelli, his larynx assumed a variety of vertical positions when he sang.
Caruso introduced maximally lowered laryngeal singing into the modern Bel Canto style as an artistic answer to the demands of the dramatic operatic roles that were being composed by Verdi and the verismo composers. That being said, we must admit that Caruso began to feel more and more artistically inclined to sing more dramatically. That his voice deepened and became more and more resonant can only mean that his “bigger” singing resulted in building more depth, power, and resonance into his voice. We can hear this especially in his later career. As he sang more dramatic roles (with his lowered larynx leading the way), his voice became more and more baritonal, and even his lighter singing had a darker sound to it.
After Caruso, a number of successful singers tried to emulate his muscular, resonant tone with varying degrees of success. Just in terms of the particular kind of tenor sound that emanated from Caruso’s throat, there could be little doubt that he created the classic tenor sound that ALL subsequent Italian-style tenors ever since have emulated to varying degrees, including Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.