Lost Baritones?

With my recent trips to the theatre I have begun to ask myself where the voices are today.

While attending recent performances such as La Cage Aux Folles (Graham Norton and John Barrowman), Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Tony Sheldon) and ENO’s Lucia di Lammermoor (Brian Mulligan) I began to miss something in the performances.

The lack of a good Baritone is becoming something of a sore point. And while some might say that I am just critical of my own voice type, I really have started to ask where the proper Baritone has gone.

You might be wondering why I have included the ENO performance in my list, but it was here that I began to understand the true problem.

Before I can address this I think I should clarify a few things about the Baritone voice type from a general and historical understanding:

Baritone (or barytone; French: baryton; German: Bariton; Italian: baritono) is a type of male singing voice that lies between the bass and tenor voices. (Bass being the low male voice and tenor being the high male voice.) It is the most common male voice. Originally from the Greek βαρύτονος, meaning ‘deep (or heavy) sounding’, music for this voice is typically written in the range from the second G below middle C to the G above middle C (G2-G4) but can be extended at either end.

The first use of the term “baritone” emerged as baritonans late in the 15th century in French music. At this early stage it was frequently used as the lowest of the voices (including the bass), but in 17th century Italy the term was all-encompassing and used to describe the average male choral voice. Baritones took roughly the range we know today at the beginning of the 18th century but they were still lumped in with their bass colleagues until well into the 19th century.

From these definitions we can start to see where the problems start. The baritone is by nature not defined as having any clear, unique qualities; it is the most general of the male voice types.

It is also true to say that as a young adult male singer the voice that will emerge is a Baritone. This ‘blandness’ is where I believe that most of the problems are found today.

We as singers are always told, while training, to find our USP (unique selling point), which sets us on the road of trying to find something we can do better than others. Ask any singer about their vocal range and they will undoubtedly tell you their ‘top note’ before their ‘bottom note’ and today will also add in their ‘belt note’ if they are a Musical Theatre singer!

This frame of mind is not a coincidence as science does play some part. If you know something about singing you will understand that it is not possible to really increase your vocal range towards the bottom end, but that is not true of the upper range.

If I have lost you here, let me put it another way. If you take an elastic band and hold it tight between two fingers the note produced from it will be fairly low, pulling the fingers further apart will result in a higher note. You cannot make a lower note past a certain point as the band is too slack. This is very simply the same issue for the vocal folds. This is where vocal techniques have played their part.

The way a singer uses the voice depends on the material they are singing, but also what voice type. I believe that a Baritone can be helped to sound like a Bass or Tenor, but will find his stamina to be less for it.

I first had my own thoughts of singing higher after reading an article on the history of the male voice. In this article, the author described how all Tenors today owe a great deal to Caruso, the Italian tenor. It was Caruso who had been the most prominent singer to take the voice up to the high Cs in such a full sound (which is now commonplace). The article explained how until around Caruso’s time the male Tenor would have used a much lighter sound in the main voice and incorporated the head voice for the higher range. (True and thin vocal folds being used for most of the singing, but also the false folds to extend the range further.) Caruso was not doing so, but using true folds throughout all his range, right up to the top C.

This type of technique can go some way in explaining how the Baritone has gone from our stage today. As more information about how the voice works has been made available, it has become more apparent that the upper range can be extended in many ways, a technique made possible with the work of Jo Estill in the 1970s. Although these techniques are greatly thought of as ‘Musical Theatre’ they are to be found in all forms of singing. Even Pavarotti used the ‘belt notes’ in his singing of most of his top Cs!

The techniques taught today by many voice teachers and colleges lead to a voice that is safe and secure, but not allowed to be rich and full in tone. This is due to thinning out of the vocal folds and using ‘twang’ and ‘high larynx’ placements. Baritones would have not used this kind of technique as they would have been criticized for being too ‘light’. The ‘heavier’ Baritones of today are often thought of as being too classical in sound for Musical Theatre, while the classical ones are often far too unfocused in tone or have difficulties in attaining the top notes.

To refer back to my inclusion of the ENO performance, it was here that all these issues became clear. I found myself listening to the Baritone (Mulligan) and thinking that he was rich and warm in tone and had a real Baritone sound, but it could be a bit too heavy when singing in the upper range. I could hear that the larynx height and fold thickness was almost too much to attain a focused and ‘natural’ sound, one that he had at lower pitches. (This is the art of the classical singer, negotiating low larynx, fold thickness and tilt.) However, it was clear that had he not sung in this way the sound would have become not classical and possibly very ‘Musical Theatre’.

It was also here that I thought about the physical side to the Baritone and the characters that they play. Here I find they are normally found to be playing the older roles, characters with more stature or gravitas, slightly older or fatherly. They are very rarely found to be the romantic lead or a young man. Who can blame any Baritone wanting to do anything to sound more like a Tenor if it means they might be cast as someone younger and more likely to have the romantic lead?

However, if Baritones don’t sing like Baritones we have gaps in the ensemble/chorus and also something is missing from the roles that are written for Baritones. Such problems were found in La Cage aux Folles, where a real warmth and richness is needed to characterize the parts and to also make the vocal climax more emotional. We often hear real Baritone songs being sung by Tenors which leaves something missing in the sound and drama of the piece. You only have to listen to singers such as Jason Howard, George Hearn, Philip Quast and Tony Sheldon to hear the difference in the vocal qualities. Others like Ron Raines, Richard Muenz, Raul Esparaz, Brent Carver and David Kernan all show true Baritone qualities. If you compare these with other singers like Michael Ball and John Barrowman you will start to see how although labeled as Tenors, they really are Baritones with a very reliable technique that enables them to sing higher material.

The other factor of singing today is the microphone, without which many singers wouldn’t be able to be heard in the bigger venues. It is very hard to make a loud focused sound without a more classical sound. It is no coincidence in my mind that the singers of Musical Theatre in the past were more classical because of this. I find it very hard to find any modern ‘pop’ singer that sings like a Baritone and can only think of Barry White and Louis Armstrong to represent this type of singer. You might think of Michael Buble as an example but I would group him in with the famous crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. I hear too, that he isn’t in the same league but I think you can see my point.

So please can we have the Baritones back?