Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti passed away on Wednesday at the age of 71 after an opera career that spanned five decades. The "King of the High Cs" sang almost until the end; he gave his final performance last year for the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. When do opera singers peak as vocalists?
Usually between 30 and 50 years old. Singers' voices mature anywhere from their 20s to the early 40s, and, in general, voices that are deeper and heavier in tone take longer to develop fully. Coloraturas, or sopranos with light voices, typically reach their peaks earliest, in the mid-20s. Tenors start to hit their prime in the late 20s or early 30s, and basses sometimes have to wait until middle age for their voices to mature. Some get started earlier, of course. Soprano Maria Callas made her professional debut at 18 as Beatrice in Franz von Suppé's Boccaccio, and basso singer Jerome Hines played Monterone in Verdi's Rigoletto when he was just 19.
The best violinists can play with top orchestras as teenagers, but opera singers take the stage much later. Vocalists spend years mastering their techniques, but physiology also explains why opera singers have to wait. Hormonal changes continue to alter a singer's voice in adulthood, long after the end of puberty. The vocal folds—muscles that rapidly open and close as we speak or sing—get stronger, as do the muscles that support them in the chest, abdomen, neck, and back. When the hormones stabilize—and the muscles and lungs reach the right levels of development—then the singer's voice reaches its prime form for opera. Singers have to project their voices above the orchestra, reach the farthest corners of concert halls, and possess enough stamina to last most of an evening.
Opera singers can stay at their peak for decades with efficient technique, good health, and a suitable repertoire. One reason Pavarotti was able to sing for so long was because he didn't strain his vocal folds; he delivered songs as easily as if he were conversing, embodying an approach that voice coaches call "Si canta come si parla," or "Sing as you speak." He also knew what his voice was capable of and stuck close to arias that made the most of his talents, like "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot. Others don't age so gracefully: Despite her early start, Maria Callas declined prematurely. Some believe she wore out her voice in the course of highly dramatic performances; others think Callas' early roles were too heavy for her voice.
The vocal folds start to weaken eventually because of age, and sopranos suffer the most. During a tenor's high C, his vocal folds close about 500 times a second; for a soprano's high C, the rate is about 1,000 times each second. * When menopause hits, the loss of estrogen lowers women's voices and they lose their highest notes. Since fat cells produce estrogen, though, obese opera sopranos tend to be more resilient. They can keep on singing.
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Explainer thanks Stanley Cornett of the Peabody Institute, Gerald Crawford of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Robert Sataloff of Drexel University College of Medicine, and Karen Zorn of Longy School of Music.
Correction, Sept. 14, 2007: The original version of this article stated that a tenor closes his vocal folds 500 times a second for a high C, while for a soprano that rate is 1,300 times a second. Since the soprano's note is one full octave higher, it requires a doubling of the frequency (to about 1,000 hertz). (Return to the corrected sentence.)