Opera singers, athletes? Those paranoid, overpampered, overweight bags of air who won't go outside for fear of catching a cold, who speak in monosyllables for fear of tiring their voices, who flee the room when someone takes out a cigarette? Dancers, yes, now they could be called athletes. After all, they move around, they even pick people up. But singers?
People speak of a singer's musicality, his subtle phrasing, his feeling for a song. Never do they mention his athletic ability. And even when they speak of a singer's power, they don't usually equate it with physical strength. But the fact is, opera is extremely demanding physically, and a good opera singer must possess many of the same qualities as other good athletes: strength, coordination, stamina. His playing field may be a stage, his uniform a fancy costume and his warmup suit a five-foot scarf, but a singer is, in his way, as much an athlete as Terry Bradshaw or Reggie Jackson.
Several singers have proven their talents in both fields. Paul Robeson, the bass-baritone, was a two-time All-America end at Rutgers and could have gone on to the pros. Baritone Robert Merrill was a star pitcher in high school who played semipro ball to help finance his education. Tenor Franco Corelli was an amateur boxer in Italy and a champion rower, and today he runs two to five miles every morning in Central Park.
Don't misunderstand me. Athletic ability isn't an end in itself in singing any more than in football. The final goal of singing, the product we wish to hear, is good tone well used. However, to produce that tone a certain amount of athletic ability, a certain amount of strength, coordination and stamina is a necessity.
To understand how and why strength is needed in singing, it is first necessary to understand how you sing. Singing, like talking, is the result of air passing through two folds in the throat, commonly called the vocal cords. The air provided by the lungs causes the cords to vibrate, and the result is sound. This sound picks up color and tone by resonating through three cavities in the head: the pharynx, the larynx and the mouth. Volume or power in a voice is increased by increasing the resistance to the air by contracting the upper abdominal muscles. This resistance forces the air through the cords, producing the vibrant, non-breathy tone associated with good singing.
Resistance isn't foreign to athletics. When we run, we depend on the resistance of the ground. When we swim, we push against the resistance of the water. For a singer this resistance is within his own body.
The best singers, the strongest singers, usually are those who have a wide range of notes. Most study seven or eight years before they are ready to sing opera, and many of their exercises consist of a kind of vocal weight lifting designed to strengthen throat and diaphragm. Veteran opera singers often develop big chests and incredibly strong diaphragms. Caruso, it is said, could move a piano by extending his diaphragm.
Luciano Pavarotti is probably the finest tenor now singing. He is certainly the biggest. "To sing you need the strong body of an athlete," he says. "Especially in the diaphragm you need tremendous strength." As a youth in Italy, Pavarotti played soccer. Today he does at least an hour of physical exercise every day.
Sherrill Milnes, who may be the finest baritone, says, "Singing is almost more muscle than musicality." Milnes ran cross-country in high school, and today he works out four to six times a week with a set of pulley weights. Though he is in trim condition, Milnes says, "Even singers who don't look physically fit, and probably aren't for other exercises, have enormous amounts of power, strength, control and discipline, all of which one must have to sing."