IOP joins with Royal Opera House to explore the art and science of singing

22 May 2018

The physics of how opera singers make themselves heard above an orchestra and how the length of your vocal tract affects your voice were explored in an evening on The Art and Science of Singing held at the Royal Opera House (ROH) in partnership with IOP on 9 May.

IOP joins with Royal Opera House to explore the art and science of singing

 

The event – part of the ROH’s Insights programme – was one of several collaborations between IOP and the ROH that have focused on singing or dance, looking at the science behind the art and featuring brief performances or demonstrations.

IOP joins with Royal Opera House to explore the art and science of singing
Royal Opera House

In the venue of the ROH’s Crush Room, tenor Alexander Edwards (pictured above) opened the evening by performing the aria Recondita Armonia from Tosca, before Dr Evangelos Himonides (left), Reader in Technology, Education and Music at University College London, spoke about the science of the human voice. He said that when listening to music or singing, our vocal folds vibrate slightly in sympathy with the sound. While the singer produces a sound of which the fundamental frequency gives the “pure” note, the timbre is produced by the harmonics that overlay it. Opera singers are trained to project their singing at a particular frequency to enable them to be heard above an orchestra, he said.

IOP joins with Royal Opera House to explore the art and science of singing
Royal Opera House

He demonstrated how the voice is transformed as a child grows into an adult, playing a series of recordings made over several years of a boy’s voice as it changed into that of a man. “Our voices never break, they change,” he said.

Modern imaging techniques such as MRI can enable us to see inside the larynx where sound is produced, he said, and showed an endoscopy of his own larynx, giving a close-up view of his vocal folds in action. He also played recordings of people with throat cancer or without voice boxes who had nevertheless been able to produce sounds.

IOP joins with Royal Opera House to explore the art and science of singing
Royal Opera House

After mezzo soprano Angela Simkin (above left) performed the aria Va! Laisse couler mes larmes, from Handel’s Werther, Act III. Philippa Ratcliffe (left), Head of the Speech and Language Therapy (ENT) team at the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, spoke about her job in working with people with voice disorders. She also described the anatomy and physiology of the larynx. Vocal folds are “incredibly robust”, she said, but could be affected or damaged by a number of factors including dehydration, smoke or lack of recovery time after singing.

If a singer starts to strain their voice before the age of about 16 it can lead to problems later on, she said, noting that young performers sometimes risk the health of their voices because they lack the authority to resist demands that can mean them being overused.

IOP joins with Royal Opera House to explore the art and science of singing
Royal Opera House

James Hendry (left), who accompanied Alexander and Angela on the piano as they sang, is a répétiteur who works with and coaches singers and has been involved in numerous opera productions. The role of répétiteur was that of one of the “chief caretakers” of singers, he said, and their close relationship with performers enabled them to know when they were singing well or not and when something would not work.

IOP joins with Royal Opera House to explore the art and science of singing
Royal Opera House

With the singers and speakers he joined a panel chaired by the evening’s presenter, Chloe Miller Smith (left), for a Q&A session. While the panel agreed that the length of a singer’s vocal tract had an effect on their voice, there was no scientific evidence that other physical characteristics were influential, Evangelos said. They did agree, however, that evidence supported the idea that choral singing had a positive effect on mood and self-esteem.

IOP joins with Royal Opera House to explore the art and science of singing
Royal Opera House

Speaking about the event, our Public Programmes Manager, Toby Shannon, said: “It has been a fantastic experience to work with the team at the Royal Opera House to come together to explore the science of singing from the perspectives of scientists, health professionals and the artists that use their voices in extraordinary ways to create such beautiful art. It’s through events like these that we aim to reach new audiences with physics and demonstrate that physics is very much part of culture.”