Why do opera singers use so much vibrato?

28 September 2017, 14:22

Female opera singer

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

If you ask someone to imitate an opera singer, you can guarantee that they will do so with a humorously excessive amount of vibrato. But is this technique more than just a tradition?

To get started, here’s Puccini, with lots of amazing vibrato:

But opera hasn’t always sounded like that.

Opera was born in Italy at the end of the 16th century, when the ‘camerata fiorentina’, a group of musicians and intellectuals from Florence, became fascinated by Ancient Greece and wanted to revive the ‘simplicity’ of ancient tragedy. Then in 1598, Jacopo Peri wrote the first ever opera, Dafne.

Although Dafne has now been mostly lost, we know that unlike 18th- and 19th-century operas, the production focused on the words, not the music. An opera written in the 16th or 17th century (the Baroque period) could be described as more of a play with musical interludes. 

Even so, these interludes were always accompanied by an orchestra or a small musical ensemble, which meant the singers still had to project over the instrumentalists. As operas developed, they came to be divided into two types of singing: recitative and arias. Even in periods of recitative singing, the singers are constantly using their voices, and need to be able to use their tool for a considerable amount of time without damaging the voice.

And here’s where vibrato comes into the mix.

Using vibrato enables the singers to sing very loudly and project for a long period of time, without tiring out their voice. Listen to this video of Elina Garanca singing ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ from Carmen.

Do you see how relaxed she looks while singing her high F sharp at the end? That’s because she’s using vibrato.

Vibrato is an effective way of ensuring your muscles are relaxed while singing, which in turn creates a fuller sound. Vibrato essentially means ‘vibrating’ your voice, which helps a singer maintain their stamina while singing (which they need, to make it through four and a half hours of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg).

But as opera singer David Leigh points out on Quora, vibrato is not exclusive to opera. “Every singer, in every genre, has vibrato”, he says. “What we think of as straight-tone is actually a very small vibrato extent, usually less than 10 cents (or 1/10 of a semitone), and sometimes less than 5 cents. Vibrato rates in popular music usually vary between 4-8 cycles/second, which is the same as the acceptable range for opera singing.”

However, if pop singers do use less vibrato, it is often because they are mic’d up and therefore don’t need to project as much as an unmic’d singer in an opera house.

We like this analogy from composer and writer Saul Tobin on Quora:

Saul Tobin Quora quote

So next time you go to the opera, spare a thought for the singers, who have to go on stage night after night for hours of intense, emotional singing, and still manage to knock it out of the park with some cracking vibrato.


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