Voce Finta

This is translated usually as ‘feigned voice’, and it describes a method of singing with the larynx held high. One encounters its use particularly amongst Lieder singers, lyric tenors and baritones mostly, who are striving after artistic effect. Some nineteenth century theorists equate it with mixed voice, voce mista, or voix mixte, and describe it as a method of singing at the top of the chest voice with the characteristics of head voice. On analysis, this seems to mean taking the chest voice in a thinned out form, from the upper middle to higher than usual – in tenor voices as high as A flat or A natural – for piano effects. It should not be used for forte singing and such a use is warned against.

There is no doubt that for certain interpretative reasons this particular tone colour in lyric voices is a useful tool, but its continuous use as a method of singing piano has serious consequences for vocal health. The consequent high position of the larynx, if persisted with in forte singing, puts a severe strain on the throat, and the resultant partial closure at the false vocal chords forces the true chords to act as the resister of the upward breath pressure – a purpose for which they are not designed. The tone will tend to be bright, noisy and without low harmonics, will lack warm and dark colours, and in general will sound unmasculine. In addition, because the high larynx is now within the ambit of the swallowing reflex, there will be permanent throat constriction which will affect everything. Such voices will never achieve freedom and easy sonority, nor will the top notes be easy and rich.

The expressive qualities of this technique depict frailty, lassitude, tiredness, exhaustion, old age, dullness, greyness and death. It is an ideal medium for these negative qualities because the high larynx tone is without vibrato, and therefore lifeless. Many singers, who indulge in its use habitually start sounds without vibrato and add it later. This is a recognisably tiresome habit, not to be pursued by the wise. Its unthinking and habitual use is a gross mistake as it leads a singer’s technique down a blind alley, from which there is no easy return except by means of a major technical review.

The high larynx position with little or no vibrato is also heard in womens’ voices – it is very common in singers of Baroque music. Here, of course, it has nothing to do with the chest voice, but is caused by lack of energy in the breath stream and the lower laryngeal suspensory muscles, resulting in a high larynx with its accompanying package of technical problems. Quite often this type of singer is also trying for artistic effect, but usually before a sound technique has been established.

Despite these warnings voce finta remains a genuine interpretative device, particularly suited to lyric voices. It should be confined, however, to the expressive effects mentioned already, and not used as a means of producing piano singing. Because one expends less energy to achieve it, it can seem an easier and quicker method of establishing a piano technique, than the harder but more correct one of relying on full voice – voce piena – and learning to diminuendo whilst keeping the larynx stable.

There are a few famous singers who have used it, notably Tito Schipa and Beniamino Gigli, but even with these great artists its overuse easily becomes a mannerism, and at times a kind of effeminate crooning. However, neither of these famous singers sacrificed their ability to sing in full voice through over indulgence.

Perhaps it is worth noticing that finta also translates as ‘counterfeit’!

© 2003, Neil Howlett