(first published February 19, 2010)
“High-note-itis” is a virulent condition that strikes opera singers hungry for audience approval. At endings of arias or after a long cadenza (an ornamental passage written to display a singer’s virtuosity), singers afflicted with high-note-itis take the note that’s written, ratchet it up by a fifth (like from do to sol), or an octave and hold onto it, before descending to the last note, to a chorus of bravos or bravas. This illness afflicts singers dying to show off their pipes, to wow the audience–that sort of thing.
Composers want their works to be sung as written. If they wanted a certain note sung a fifth or an octave higher, they would have written it that way.
Needless to say, high-note-itis is not a flattering term nor a desirable condition in a singer. It is a form of vocal gymnastics that has nothing to do with the music that’s actually written. According to J. Merrill Knapp, author of The Magic of Opera, occasionally taking a high note other than the one written can be “a legitimate operatic practice.” But when these extra notes become too numerous, it negatively impacts the entire performance.
Addendum to the original post: Even America’s new darling, the delightful ten-year-old opera prodigy Jackie Evancho, exhibited a minor case of high-note-itis to conclude “O Mio Babbino Caro,” which she performed on “America’s Got Talent.” But if I had her pipes and were bringing an audience of hundreds to their feet, I might succumb to the temptation of singing the last two notes an octave higher, too. (I almost interrupted this countdown to write about Jackie–who delivered an incredible performance–likely the first time many if not most Americans ever heard “O Mio Babbino Caro,” but a countdown’s a countdown. So, I snuck her into this post instead.)