By Priti Gandhi
Portland Opera Artistic Director
Do you recall the first time you heard an opera singer’s voice? How radically different the sound was compared to anything you’d heard before? How it affected you physically? Hearing the power of the voice, unamplified, in a large theatre, supported by a 60-piece orchestra—it’s an experience that has the potential to move through our body in ways that can continually shock us. How can the tiny vocal cords in your throat— small pieces of cartilage that are vibrating on the flow of your own breath—create such massive sound?
The understanding of the mechanics of vocal pedagogy are not necessary
to kinesthetically feel that beauty and strength coming from another human’s voice. And for an opera singer who trains their voice rigorously for the stage over the course of 7-10 years, it is one of the most difficult and rewarding journeys to embark upon. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is quoted as saying ‘the soul reveals itself in the voice only.’ Ask any singer and they will tell you that uncovering their singing voice is a path to discovering the depth of their own power of expression and purpose.
The human voice could be declared the first instrument in existence. Storytelling is the oldest form of communication and is recognized globally as the main tool we have used to pass along our shared histories. Songs are sung in love, protest, celebration, ritual, and worship—we all know at an instinctual level that music carries an energy that words themselves cannot completely fulfill. The song form, in all cultures, creates a historical link between our most basic ritualistic beginnings to our contemporary artistry. We hold it as one of our most sacred rights—to express our truths, our perspectives, and our fantasies freely—so much so, that it is the very first right outlined in our desire to declare our freedoms: the First Amendment.
We know deeply that our voice is, and always will be, the most powerful form of expression we have. When the voice is elevated to the art form of singing, the voice then allows us to express what cannot be communicated solely with words, and there is suddenly a hook into the empathy of a stranger’s experience. Voices have the ability to transmit emotion past the written word — we are hardwired to respond to each other’s voices through the most basic of instincts.
When you experience an opera singer’s sound, you are hearing the collective breadth of not just the mechanics of those little vocal folds — but of the person’s entire life experience, shaping the timbre and beauty of their sound.
It’s a bit like a wash of color that changes throughout the life of an artist, adding and evolving to include everything they have struggled through and felt up to that point. The end result of the sound they create then meets your ears and your soul to create an empathy with your own. If you ever wondered why tears sometimes pour after hearing an aria, consider the unseen (but felt) knowledge of your sudden connection with their soul through their music-making. An artist shares their voice because they know that connection creates healing.
We are now in a time of need of great healing for not only our global experience, but our inner lives. The outer life is full of upheaval and it seems to get more complicated each day. How will we find the courage to speak up when we are called to? How will we find the strength to face these trials? We discovered during the pandemic shutdown of the last few years that when isolated from each other, unable to hug or be in each other’s presence—we turned to art. Art, in all its forms, gave us soothing, comfort, inspiration, and escape. Opera is among the ultimate of expressions to immerse ourselves in this goal—the human voice offers the quickest path to emotion and gets beneath our logical mind to shake us to tears, laughter, anger, joy—for reasons we do not always understand.
You will often hear singers tell you that they feel the ability to sing opera is a kind of superpower. As a singer myself, I’ve felt it! It’s a deep and kinesthetic response when you experience the voice like this. Suddenly, you’ve found a new ability to carry an emotion in a very large, overpowering way, at the very top of your range, or the lowest notes you’ve ever uttered. It becomes a new kind of communication that taps into the most melodramatic feelings we are capable of. What does emotion sound like? The human voice answers this question.
We are now in the process of gathering together again, however carefully and with some trepidation. But we do it because we know, at a fundamental level, that the shared experience of art creates empathy and connection. When we all share a visceral experience together, it creates an instant bond among those who might be strangers. Much like a roller coaster ride with people you’ve never met, you find yourself laughing and shaking with the person next to you who is now suddenly not a stranger, but a neighbor. We know, from historical events like 9/11 and the pandemic to everyday events like sitting in a restaurant or a movie theater, that the sharing of a transformative experience bonds us to each other at our deepest level of empathy.
Composer Richard Strauss noted that ‘the human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but the most difficult to play.’ But as any opera singer will tell you—it is the fantastically challenging work of peeling the layers to get at the core truth of our voices that makes the moment of expression worth it. When you celebrate and support an art form like opera, you are also making known your recognition of our right to express our truths. This powerful medium declares our right to be heard, for the betterment of our human experience.
All while bringing us some much-needed beauty along the way.