Wagnerian Singing and the Limits of Vocal Pedagogy

How to Cite

Parr, S. M. (2020). Wagnerian Singing and the Limits of Vocal Pedagogy. Current Musicology, (105). https://doi.org/10.7916/cm.vi105.1567


Common perceptions of Wagnerian singing center on its sheer volume, its muscular and heroic tone. This article examines how the last century of Wagnerian singing has been shaped by a school of singing defined not by theories of resonance and phonation, but by the disciplining of the breathing body. I argue that certain ideas of singing technique adapted to and then defined this Wagnerian ideal. My point of departure is an invention known as a “Sbriglia Belt,” a device created by Giovanni Sbriglia, a late nineteenth-century tenor-pedagogue. Sbriglia used the belt in his teaching to help singers press their torsos outward as they sang, thereby achieving greater air pressure and greater volume, a technique that anchors and confines the breath while also empowering the voice, allowing baritones such as Jean de Reszke to push their voices upward, into the heroic tenor domain. A German pedagogue, George Armin, extended this breathing technique further and defined a new school of singing by introducing the idea of “breath damming” in his Das Stauprinzip (1909), a method of breath retention that focuses on increased sub-glottal muscular pressure. This technique became a trademark of the twentieth-century Helden sound. In addition to exploring how breathing affects singing more generally, the essay demonstrates the importance of locating singing in the material, physical body, building on the work of Carolyn Abbate, Karen Henson, and Emily Wilbourne. The essay also adds to the conversation on voice recently brought to the fore by Martha Feldman and Nina Sun Eidsheim. However, instead of focusing on how the voice is either disembodied or located primarily in the laryngeal region, I argue for a recasting of the singer as an entire body fully engaged in creating sound from breath, in a sense re-attaching the body to the voice. In so doing, the essay upsets the conventional notion that singers are defined by and as their voices. As one of the first musicological studies to approach singing as practice from the perspective of breath, I hope to demonstrate that the “work” of the operatic singer involves much more than having “a voice.”