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One’s “own” voice?

Sometimes personal and professional lives get tangled in unexpected ways. As I was writing an article on the nineteenth-century celebrity soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887), a colleague who’d been asked to send comments on an early draft alerted me to a problem: I wasn’t writing, or so they thought, with my “own voice.” Their comment got me thinking—first of all, about the basis for their claim. Admittedly, it wasn’t the easiest of criticisms to take. But it also got me thinking on another level. My whole article was, after all, an attempt to address a set of fundamental questions: do we truly have (or own) a voice? One single, inner, personal voice? Are voices nothing more nor less than some kind of essences proceeding from individual subjects? Should we long to retrieve them? What about teasing them out as more motley relational complexes?

In modern Western societies, voice has persistently been associated with identity, subjectivity, transparency of expression. With a tool or capacity that makes us (into) active agents in the making of the world. One obvious example: voice as a political concept—the ability to express and make one’s opinions heard in the public realm. This identitarian, empowering notion of voice is remarkably ecumenical; it pervades strands of thought from fields as varied as philosophy, literary theory, psychoanalysis, or musicology. As a scholar from the last discipline recently put it, there seems to be a steady liberal assumption operating around this puzzling object: “I have a voice, therefore I am.” This axiom also has implications that extend to the reception—or, so to speak, listening—side. Grant voices, especially appealing ones, a transformative and representational power, and most of us will want to gain access to the “real” individuals who lie behind them.

That’s precisely what happened in the mid-nineteenth century with Lind. Born into a humble family in 1820 Stockholm, she gave her first performances in the opera house in Sweden in the 1830s. Later, she moved to Paris to recover from the injuries that overexertion had caused to her vocal organs. Her consultant and voice trainer there was the celebrated pedagogue Manuel García fils (the author of an important vocal treatise, the “Traité complet de l’art du chant). “Hard work, indefatigable practice, unwearying study”: here lay the secret, by near-unanimous agreement of Lind’s nineteenth-century biographers, of her recovery and rise to universal success. Universal indeed. For by the time of her first London appearance at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1847 she was on the verge of becoming a global celebrity—a status sanctioned by her US tour in 1850-52.

The London cultural industry was quick to promote Lind’s debut on the British stage. The periodical press brought out countless accounts of her life, appearance, and personality. A halo of piety and sincerity distanced her from the more disparaging prima donna stereotypes (which ranged from moodiness to greediness and prostitution). Her singing—she excelled in brilliant coloratura roles such as Amina in Bellini’s La sonnambula—was praised for its silvery tones, agility, and breathtaking soft high notes. Her daring embellishments lent her something of a brave, fearless character. Most notable of all, however, was the way that Lind’s performances came to evoke the empowering force of “unmediated” sensory experiences. As a journalist recalled nostalgically in later years, “The one question of the day was, ‘Have you heard her?’”

The extent to which the public craved to see and hear the performer directly has to do, I’d suggest, with the unparalleled media activity that marked the historical moment. A real Lind fever—or Lind mania, as it was then called—took over the whole of London society. A stock of more or less extravagant Jenny Lind products flooded the market: from engravings to daguerreotypes; from porcelain statuettes to bonnets and gloves; from “Jenny Lind” ballads to albums of melodies marketed “as sung by” her. What drove this production of disparate commodities was the provision (or rather promise) of “authentic” Lind experiences. The more faithful the reproductions, the more likely they were to attract and satisfy the appetite of consumers. What’s more, these multiple texts and objects created an intermedia realm of experience: one could sit on their sofa looking at a portrait, and be expected to “invest Jenny Lind’s form and features with the harmonies which they have drunk from her voice” in the theatre.

Left: “Scene.—Pit door on a Jenny Lind night” (Punch, 10 July 1847). Right: “Melancholy scene at the opera on a Jenny Lind night” (Punch, 14 August 1847). Personal reproductions. No copyright applies as the images date from the mid 19th century.

But this artefactual complex did more than make Lind somehow visually and aurally ubiquitous. Just as the layers of visual representations would make people only more eager to catch a glimpse of the “real”, “authentic” individual, this same tension between mediated and unmediated experiences heightened some of the perceptual and ideological characteristics associated with Lind’s voice. The “purity” and “clarity” of tone; the extraordinarily “piercing” quality of even the softest of her notes; the almost “ventriloquial” character of sounds that seemed to emanate from nowhere: Lind’s voice was as much the pouring-out of some hidden individual essence as it was the product of a rich tapestry of material and human encounters. Mediation was key to it. Objects and bodies that were interposed between audiences and Lind also crafted her sounding identity. Far more than the single performer was involved into that voice’s making.

With hindsight, my colleague’s advice—that I should try harder to “find my own voice”—has proved useful in all sorts of ways. It made me ponder the vocal challenges and possibilities of a multilingual life (Italian being my native language); or of writing about sometimes very different subjects. Above all, it prodded me to think over how ready I was to subscribe to the very claims I was making. Letting historical voices go, by dissolving them into a thicker relational complex, may be all too easy as a scholarly endeavour. But then doing the same in a more personal dimension is a rather different thing. I do ultimately take pleasure, I think, in the relationships that undoubtedly have shaped the voice speaking in that one Lind article. Perhaps such voices may feel even more “our own” precisely because they bear the marks of lived encounters. So many people and objects and events share in those projections we often claim for ourselves alone.

Featured image credit: London, United Kingdom by Thomas Kelley. Public domain via Unsplash.

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