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The Vibrato Debate

Thursday, August 21, 2008 - 01:35 PM

When I started listening to classical music, after spending the first 18 years of my life basically immersed in rock, I found that I was really drawn to early music – the earlier the better. And of course to modern music, especially the so-called Minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Then I started to notice something else – a lot of the names on the early music records began cropping up on the new music records I was listening to. This would later become a huge trend, as the Hilliard Ensemble, Anonymous 4, and Trio Mediæval would all champion new and emerging composers as well as the medieval songs they were allegedly formed to sing. And the reason quickly became apparent – if you were singing Steve Reich’s music, he wanted a non-operatic sound – a voice without the warbling sound we call vibrato. This is the same kind of technique used in early music. So the early music crowd had a far easier time fitting in with the Reich sound than singers who’d been operatically trained.

Vibrato is now de rigeur for opera singers and for “American Idol” contestants. Like a guitarist shaking his/her finger to make a note sustain longer, a singer uses vibrato to cut through stuff – that might be the orchestra’s dense accompaniment, or the distance to the back row of seats in an opera house. Either way, vibrato is a very useful thing. It is also a bit of an acquired taste, and is probably best used judiciously. If you look at the history of singing, it is a relatively recent development, that probably began with the proliferation of bigger opera houses and concert halls in the 19th century – the very same engine that drove the development of the modern piano. With microphones, though, vibrato is no longer needed, yet every Kelly Clarkson wannabe warbles and throbs her way through the songs on TV talent shows. And now the Brits are all in a lather because the fabled series of concerts known as the Proms will apparently be performed “senza vibrato” – without any vibrato. Purists say this is how the music was originally intended. Others, who consider themselves purists as well, feel that this is the way it’s been done for generations and the way it should continue to be done if the tradition is to survive.

I hate purists.

I’m also not a huge vibrato fan, but it does have its time and place. What do you think? When Elvis Costello or Sting leave the pop world and start singing their “serious” projects with a wide vibrato, does it sound classical, or just silly? Would an opera sound less grand if all those singers were just singing “straight”? When is vibrato okay, and when is it an affectation? Leave a comment.

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