The Wagnerian Method

What We Know / by Joe Kloc /

Physicists investigate the grand artistic vision of one of the most influential artists of the last two centuries.

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When physicist John Smith spent the night in his garden with the score to Götterdämmerung, the final opera in Richard Wagner’s four-part, 15-hour epic, Der Ring des Nibelungen, he wasn’t interested in its account of the apocalyptic struggle of Norse gods for control of the world. Smith was concerned with a struggle of a different sort—one between the opera’s words and music that might elucidate the controversial German composer’s peculiar vision for the future of art.

On Smith’s mind was an age-old difficulty all soprano singers face: They mispronounce lyrics when singing powerfully in the top half of their range. This “soprano problem” was formally recognized at least as far back as 1843, when French composer Hector Berlioz wrote in his Treatise on Instrumentation that “[sopranos] should not be required to sing many words on high phrases, since this makes the pronunciation of syllables very difficult if not impossible.” It does not appear, however, that Berlioz—or anyone else—ever understood why this problem occurred.

In 2004, Smith and his colleagues Joe Wolfe and Elodie Joliveau at the University of New South Wales published a study in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America that revealed the physiological cause of the soprano problem for the first time. They sent an acoustic signal through the vocal tracts of nine sopranos and used a microphone to measure how the signal changed when the sopranos sang vowel sounds at various pitches. They found that when a soprano sings at high pitches, she adjusts her vocal tract to make her voice resonate. In effect, she “tunes” the resonance frequency of her vocal tract to match the frequency of the pitch at which she is singing. This vocal-tract tuning, which gives a soprano’s voice enough power to fill an opera house, is what makes certain words at high pitches difficult for the audience to understand. (It is joked by singers that Wagner’s character of Siegfried in Der Ring des Nibelungen ought to have been called Sahgfried, as his name is sometimes pronounced that way by sopranos looking to get the most volume out of their voices.) Jane Eaglen, a critically acclaimed soprano who has performed Wagner’s works in opera houses worldwide, explains that sopranos must try to find a balance between power and clarity. “It’s really about how you modify the vowels at the top of the voice so that the words are still understandable but so that you are also making the best sound that you can make,” she says.

Composers generally cope with this problem by writing lyrics for sopranos that are not essential to their operas’ plots. But Smith and Wolfe began to wonder whether some hadn’t found a better solution. They realized that composers could actually avoid the problem completely by pairing words with notes at which the vowel sounds resonated naturally in a singer’s mouth. Smith saw Wagner—a perfectionist notorious for writing long and demanding soprano roles—as an obvious candidate on which he and Wolfe could test their theory.

Wagner was a ruthless opportunist and an outspoken anti-Semite with an ego on par with the grandiosity of his operas. His narcissism and stubbornness plagued his personal life, but shaped him into an idealistic and dedicated artist who was utterly uncompromising in his work. It took him almost 30 years to complete his Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle. He was methodical in his research, engrossing himself in Hellenic dramas and Norse mythology. He worked and reworked each opera without regard for the growing horde of creditors that was never far behind him. When need be, he even created new instruments and edifices—he invented the Wagner tuba, and, in the 1870s, built his own opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, just to get the sounds he wanted.

Smith felt that through this obsession with perfection, Wagner might have come to understand the relationship between vowel sounds and pitch necessary to overcome the soprano problem. “He was a man of huge experience who had a lot of time to polish his operas,” Smith explains. “Others had to do it for a living, but Wagner sponged off other people.”

Perhaps most importantly, Smith’s decision to focus on Wagner was also influenced by the sheer scope and demand of Wagner’s ultimate vision: to synthesize all forms of artistic expression into what he called “total artwork.” He wrote passionately about this theory in his 150-page essay, The Art-Work of the Future, referring to dance, tone, and poetry as the “three primeval sisters” without which no work of art is complete.

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