- A Note from the Guest Editor
Some readers may be familiar with a study of the voice from the early 1960s, one with a surprisingly material focus: Leo Lionni's Inch by Inch. This is the story of a plucky green inchworm who deploys his talents to measure the features of his avian friends, including a robin's tail, a toucan's beak, a flamingo's neck, and the legs of a heron. A nightingale, however, poses a particular challenge: measure my song, he demands. Threatened with an immediate gobbling, the inchworm cleverly obliges. The nightingale sings, and the inchworm begins to inch away, until he inches out of sight. This issue takes up the nightingale's request with less trepidation and guile, measuring, following, and deconstructing the materiality of song and the voice, tracing along the way questions of historical transmission and notions of vocal substitutions, replacements, and improvements.
Anyone would be forgiven for asking: how is it that the voice, or at least voice studies, has not yet grown a little weary or even completely hoarse? We are spoiled by numerous studies of and special issues devoted to the voice. The year 2015 alone saw the publication of Shane Butler's The Ancient Phonograph, Nina Sun Eidsheim's Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice, Martha Feldman's The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, Jelena Novak's Postopera: Reinventing the Voice-Body, and the colloquy Why Voice Now? in the Journal of the American Musicological Society.1 In November of the same year, the University of Chicago hosted "A Voice as Something More: An International Conference," keynoted by Michel Chion.2 This vocal flurry followed close on the heels of James Q. Davies's Romantic Anatomies of Performance (2014)—reviewed by Etha Williams in this issue—and was followed by Karen Henson's 2016 edited collection Technology and the Diva and a special issue, simply entitled "Voice," in Twentieth-Century Music.3 A complete accounting of voice-centered work from even the past five years is impossible here; this issue of The Opera Quarterly adds to a seemingly indefatigable chorus.
But some of the inspiration for this issue comes from precisely the notion that the voice can indeed become tired and that it is fragile. Nina Sun Eidsheim approaches the question of strength from a physiological perspective. In her essay on Maria Callas, she explores the obsessions over Callas's changing waistline and the speculations surrounding the effects of weight loss on the power of her iconic [End Page 203] voice. What would it mean to bring the exacting methodologies of organology to the study of the one instrument that cannot be found among the classification system of Hornbostel and Sachs? Eidsheim points the way forward to a new field of vocal study, one that would be radically interdisciplinary, and would challenge widespread assumptions that adhere to vocal production.
A few years ago, much of the research that Eidsheim brings to bear on Callas was solely the domain of specialist surgeons and vocal therapists. These days, in part because of the highly publicized vocal troubles of figures such as Adele, a much wider public is more keenly attuned than ever to the details of the vocal apparatus and its various pathologies: polyps, nodules, and vocal cord hemorrhaging. Unlikely celebrities have recently emerged, such as Doctor Steven Zeitels, the founder and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation. The subject of a New Yorker article in 2013, Zeitels is famous for his delicate microsurgeries on the vocal chords of singers including Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Julie Andrews, and Adele.4 In August 2017, a long-form article in The Guardian by Bernhard Warner detailed the vocal troubles faced by pop stars and opera singers alike, arguing that their origins lay in the demands placed on singers by Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini.5 Whether or not we agree with Warner's assigning of blame, he makes a compelling case that today's conception of a powerful voice is untenable and ultimately unsustainable for many singers. The pursuit of this ideal leaves voices weakened and abused.