“By God, It Can’t Be Done!”

John McCormack in recital at the Hippodrome

That is what John McCormack is supposed to have said in later life upon re-hearing this 1920 recording, cut when he was just short of 36 years old. He had made his first recordings at age 20 and would make his last at 58. Probably the exclamation was prompted by the long phrase beginning at 1:48, sung in a single breath without the slightest hint of anxiety or stress. Maybe he had tried to duplicate the feat and found it beyond his mature powers (McCormack’s respiratory health was not the best in his final years; he passed away at only 61 after battles with emphysema, and I fear cigarettes played a role).  

But it can be done; if phonation is ideally efficient it uses very little breath, and if the control of that breath is exemplary, it can last a long time. True, the average singer cannot go on for 22 seconds as McCormack did here - neither in his day nor in ours - but the ability is not super-rare; several later interpreters of this aria have risen to the challenge of the long unbroken melisma. 

What’s harder to find is one who has matched the evenness of line McCormack produces. Most singers would have to exclaim “it can’t be done” already in the very first phrase (a mere 13 seconds long). Start with an easy attack on middle B, gentle yet firm, neither tentative nor abrupt; proceed to an effortless walk up the interval of a fourth to E, clean and direct yet without any separation and without any bulge in volume; then down a few notes of the scale with complete consistency of tone and smooth legato; next a short trill on A in which neither the preparation, nor the trill itself, nor its Nachschlag betrays the slightest change of timbre or loss of sonority. By God!  

McCormack’s basic ease of tone production and charm of timbre were probably native; he was winning prizes (and public attention as a ballad singer) already in his late teens. But his mastery of the finer points of technique was acquired through old-fashioned Italian training in Milan. He had his operatic debut in Savona at 22, stayed in the homeland of bel canto just long enough to make his mark on the regional opera circuit, and at 23 was a successful Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana at Covent Garden. His stage career was decidedly that of an “italian” tenor - Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Almaviva, Alfredo, Edgardo, plus ventures into French opera that were all, as far as I know, sung in Italian as well. He found a still more important career off the opera stage entirely; at its height he would routinely fill the 5,200 seats of New York’s Hippodrome theater for eight or more recitals per season. (“By God, it can’t be done!”) And he found a repertory of current and traditional songs in English that meant more to his public than Handel and bel canto. Still, he stayed faithful to the latter, and to a basically Italianate approach that is worth re-emphasizing today. 

For the technically-minded, the “run” in the Handel aria (shown in notation below) has interest beyond its impressive duration. For one thing there is the complete, chiseled clarity of the short notes: he never resorts to an interruptive “h” sound, yet there is never anything in the least mushy or fuzzy about the moment when one pitch is replaced by the next. 

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Of special interest are the ascents to the four long notes, C#, D#, E and F#. All of them are approached by a clean, quick leap, without what most people would call a “portamento.” But there is no such thing as “legato” without “portamento,” and if you listen carefully (or slow down the recording to make things obvious), you will hear that on the way up to the C#, D#, and E, McCormack’s voice passes smoothly through all the intervening microtones so as to reach the higher note without any gap in the line. But on the fourth leap, to the F#, something different happens:  the same portamento is initiated, but it reaches only about to C# and then the voice “flips,” popping suddenly to the F# with perfect poise, but without connecting as it had done before. In other words it changes register, just as in yodeling -- or in the transitions that make sopranos and mezzos afraid of using their chest voices for fear of an exposed “break.” What McCormack shows is first of all that the same thing happens for guys if they take the notes above the break in head register (or, postponing this for another discussion, we might say a “head-dominant” registration). 

Second, and importantly, he shows that when this is done at a high level of coordination, the “break” is unnoticeable in real time. It is still there - but you have to slow down the record to hear it clearly. That is the classic bel canto technique of “uniting” the registers: they don’t go away, they just cooperate with one another smoothly enough to create no musical interruption. It can be done! 

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.