When is a Voice “Old”?

One of the most memorable (and enjoyable) opera performances I ever witnessed was at the Met in the late 80s: Alfredo Kraus (then in his 70s) and Frederica von Stade in Massenet’s Werther. Granted, Kraus was famous for turning down roles that did not suit his voice. And what an amazing instrument it was! I have a record that makes all my singer friends laugh–an early recording of Kraus singing one high C and D after another. All the most difficult high tenor arias. He holds these high notes so long that it becomes almost a parody. (These ridiculously drawn-out, exquisitely beautiful notes do distort the line of the music; the composers were no doubt rolling in their graves.) So yes, Kraus started out with one of the most phenomenal instruments ever (on a par with Pavarotti’s).

Did I mention that he was in his 70s? And his voice was still pristine. (He looked pretty darn good, too, at least from my seat in the nosebleed section of the Met.) Von Stade was also at her most gorgeous, heartrending best. I know of no other singer whose empathy carries all the way to the back of the house. And her creamy, supple mezzo, infused with so much genuine conviction, is still my all-time favorite voice.

Which brings me to Whitney. Her voice was also world-class. She definitely could have sung opera if she’d chosen to. Although the drugs would have caught up with her voice a lot sooner. And the alcohol. And the cigarettes.

Voices are fragile and they do become more fragile with age. While I was living in New York I performed with many singers in their 20s whose voices were already ruined. Wide vibratos, unreliable pitch. Sing the wrong repertoire or with poor technique or while you’re sick and you don’t need vices to destroy your voice. Outside of drugs, one of the things that really kills a voice is GERD–acid reflux. And a bulimic singer isn’t going to get very far for obvious reasons.

Cigarettes alone would have taken the sheen off of Whitney’s voice. Alcohol dries the vocal cords. Free-basing? Um, yeah. So all that angsting about how singers get washed up because of their age … Age was not Whitney’s problem. What about Tony Bennett? Forty-eight is not old for a singer, not one who pays attention to her health.

Opera does make special demands on the singer. Renee Fleming (older than Whitney) is still at the height of her powers (and her beauty). I would be surprised if she has any vices to speak of, not with her demanding schedule.

Several years ago I was an American Idol-type judge for a local contest, and the audience favorite was a 17-year-old who sounded 30. When she didn’t win, she was outraged. She would show us! She hasn’t.

After seeing a picture of Adele in People, Jeff and I watched several of her YouTube videos. We were mystified by her popularity. Her voice was so obviously a wreck. Then, finally, someone pointed me to a video of her when her instrument was healthy, and I started to understand the appeal. Later on I read about a clinical diagnosis of her vocal problems, which were clearly attributable to overuse. Is she really destined to have a long career? Once you’ve damaged your voice, it becomes like a trick knee or a bad back: it can easily be damaged again. And a major career like Adele’s will eat you alive if you don’t know how to protect yourself. Few do.

There was nothing wrong with Whitney’s technique. Just watch any concert performance from before her drug problems took their toll. Her face isn’t distorted, her throat is relaxed and so open that you can practically see all the way down. She could have sung for years and years, but life got in the way.

Click here to see Alfredo Kraus and Frederica von Stade in action.

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