I was listening to Minnie Riperton during an interview of her daughter on Fresh Air last week and it got me thinking about all the hoopla about her high notes in that song. I’m pretty sure that she topped out at a high G (G6) using her whistle register.
Here’s the video, for your reference.
Apparently, according to pop music lore, that note was the highest note ever sung by a lady on a popular record (which happened to be a number 1 hit).
Well, I was discussing the song with my aforementioned friend, Nate, of piano tuning and music pun fame, and he immediately asserted that opera singers didn’t sing those notes. To which I said, “hold up. no way. i know that’s not true.”
So then I had to start pulling out music to find proof. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the right book, so I had to do all my proving via YouTube.
Well, now I thought I’d share the fruits of that search and thereby make sure that Nate stands publicly corrected.
So here’s the proof. The first video gets annoying but the rest are worth the listen:
This Mozart concert aria is notoriously difficult because it not only contains a G6, but it also generally difficult because the tessitura is so high.
From Wikipedia: Popoli di Tessaglia!, K. 316, for soprano, with its two famous G6’s (i.e., the G above high C, or 1568 Hz by modern concert pitch – according to the Guinness Book of Records, the highest musical note ever scored for the human voice) that come shortly before the end. This aria was composed in order to be inserted into Gluck‘s opera,Alceste, and also specifically to showcase the superlative vocal skills of Mozart’s sister-in-law, Aloysia Weber, who was only 18 at the time. However sopranos who are able to cope with the aria’s demands have been few and far between, and the aria is usually omitted from performances of Alceste. It has been therefore redesignated a concert aria, to be presented in concerts by such rare singers as are able to deliver its fiendishly difficult coloratura.
Natalie Dessay appears to be the queen of high notes on YouTube, but just to make sure representation is varied, let’s check out this recording of Joan Sutherland (swoon!)
Here’s a song I loved to sing along with as a child. We had a recording of Maria Callas doing it when my sisters and I were little and we would just howl along with it. I’m sure it was lovely.
It’s important to note that Minnie Riperton’s high G6, though lovely, was not the same as these high notes sustained by these opera singers. Minnie Riperton used her whistle register, which is generally considered a less than desirable or less authentic sound in the classical voice. It’s somewhat akin to a man’s falsetto. Or I should say that my understanding of the whistle register for a coloratura soprano is that it is desirable not to use it. My teacher wanted me not to use it, but perhaps that is because she thought that she could develop my voice without relying on it, i.e. for my voice it was undesirable to use. I guess I’m not entirely sure.
Wikipedia explains the whistle register in Classical (western) Music thusly:
In European classical music, the whistle register is used primarily by coloratura sopranos. Many parts in the coloratura soprano repertoire extend beyond “high C” and often extend up to high F (F6). Although many coloratura sopranos use whistle tone vocal production to sing these notes, some operatic sopranos are capable of singing up to “high F” (F6) without utilizing the vocal production associated with the whistle register but remaining in the modal register. That being said, most coloratura sopranos do utilize the whistle register, particularly when singing staccato notes in rapid succession, during high trills, or other elaborate coloratura ornamentation in the upper tessitura. Rarely will coloraturas use whistle tone when doing high extended notes. However, singers like Mado Robin were noted for doing so. Also, some rare coloratura sopranos do not need to use whistle register at all. Probably the best-known example of the whistle register in European classical music is in the “Queen of the Night” aria (properly titled “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen“) from the Mozart opera Die Zauberflöte; it calls for pitches up to F6.
And because Wikipedia brought it up, here’s a performance of the Queen of the Night by Diana Damrau. Skip to 2:10 to get through all the spiel of this singspiel.
(Her performance is very harsh to me, but then again, her character is pretty angry, so it’s fitting).
Here’s a performance by Edita Gruberova. The recording quality is much worse, but it provides contrast:
And finally, Natalie Dessay: