Music Article

Scaling the Heights of the Pop Aria

Hitting the high notes -- A quick history of singers with broad ranges, including Yma Sumac and Mariah Carey

When Mariah Carey's stately pop-gospel hit ''Vision of Love'' took MTV by storm last year, fans naturally love Carey's sultry, Pre-Raphaelite looks and slick vocals. But it was her sequel — her unbelievably high-pitched ''eeeeeek'' — that blew them away. In its high-art form, that sequel is familiar enough as the sound of an operatic coloratura soprano's extreme high range, the notes above high C that opera fans take for granted in arias from Lucia di Lammermoor and The Magic Flute.

Pop music, though, has heard very little of that. In the '50s, ''Incan princess'' Yma Sumac took the middle class by storm with mambo-rhythmed Peruvian chants that zipped to the very top her four-octave range. In 1975 the jazzy soul singer Minnie Riperton has an eek-ridden hit, ''Lovin' You,'' that's sampled on a current album by an English dance-music group, the Orb. Carey's publicists originally claimed that she had a seven-octave voice range, but anyone who knows music would have to be skeptical, Unless the top two of those octaves are audible only to the canine kingdom, Carey would have to be a Mr. Bassman on her low end. But even opera singers have been known to use coloratura to make up in showmanship what they lack in depth. Just ask Mado Robin. Who, you ask? A French operatic soprano of the '50s now remembered for hitting the highest eeks in recorded musical history — and not much else.

Originally posted Oct 11, 1991 Published in issue #87 Oct 11, 1991 Order article reprints
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