A Breath of Fresh Air at the Opera
23 December 2011
It all looks so effortless on the stage, but how do opera singers produce that magical sound? Dr Alan Watson and final year biomedical student Caitlin Williams of the School of Biosciences teamed up with mezzo soprano Buddug Verona James from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, to explore how singers breathe.
In a project supported by the Wellcome Trust, they focussed their attention on a large flat back muscle called latissimus dorsi. Its main action is to draw the arm downwards and as a result it is highly developed in swimmers who use it to pull themselves through the water. Its contribution to breathing is a consequence of its attachment to the lower ribs. Rather surprisingly, it is involved both in inhalation and exhalation. In patients with restrictive airway disease, it is recruited to help suck air through the narrowed passageways of their lungs, however it is also active when we expel air explosively during a cough. Though mentioned in many books on singing technique there was previously little consensus as to its role, but what it does was dramatically revealed in the Cardiff study. "Twenty minutes into our first recording session it was clear that we were onto something interesting " said Dr Watson. Pulses of activity in the muscle were seen to coincide with the onset of each note during coloratura singing (a florid style containing many runs and trills). Rapid fluctuations in activity also help to maintain vibrato when the voice is used at full power.
The results, published in the Journal of Voice, contribute to the new and rapidly developing field of music physiology, which will ultimately help performers understand what they do and enable them to communicate this more effectively to their pupils.