Because this is a long and involved inquiry, I will respond to it throughout rather than merely at the end. I would not normally answer this kind of inquiry here, but have decided it could be a useful resource for many. My part of the dialogue is in italics.
I am a 43-year-old (American) professional opera singer and voice teacher living in Hergenrath, Belgium. My children are 2-and-a-half and almost 4…so my body has certainly undergone hormonal changes (back and forth) in the last years.
— Hormonal changes from the birth of children naturally add to the depth, richness and beauty of the voice.
Also, as it is when you have small children, we were all relatively sick last winter. I had a throat infection for which I took antibiotics in January. My voice was raspy for months. I tried not to sing or demonstrate too much or strain my voice with the kids, but it was very difficult. I earn a substantial part of our living with teaching and small concerts. I am constantly weighing whether I should cancel or not.
— The decision of when to sing through illness is very difficult, and a challenge that every professional encounters. Singing when unhealthy can definitely cause vocal damage, especially if it is extended over time.
— In rehearsals, try to “mark” in sotto voce as much as possible, or down the octave, or both.
— You have made a good decision to demonstrate less when teaching. As much as demonstrating can eliminate a lot of explanation, an absence of it can open an interesting gap in which students find their own, utterly unique voice and tonal beauty.
In mid-April my voice started to feel almost normal again, and I began to practice again. Stemming from the sickness, every time I went to sing a high “g”, “a-flat”, or “a” above the staff, out came about a M6 higher! Whenever I do a diminuendo to pianissimo on these tones … out wanted to pop these whistle tones about a sixth higher. I started “thinking” an octave higher…and out popped the octave higher! Although I am a lyric coloratura and have attempted Königen der Nacht (even on stage-with a very embarrassing high “F”), I have unfortunately NEVER had a whistle voice. I sang Blondchen thousands of times at auditions although the high E has always been a kind of torture for me…even trying to sing it lightly. The “E” is the limit.
— It is not uncommon to have this pop into whistle tones after being sick, and it might have to do with a slight swelling of your vocal cords. However, Sutherland started out as a dramatic soprano and switched to the bel canto repertoire later, so it is not unheard of to find new things in the voice as you age. Without hearing you, I cannot say for certain what is happening with your voice and range.
The depth and weight of my voice has increased in recent years. My legato and support have also improved in recent years and colleagues are saying my voice has become more of a lyric than a coloratura. The “coloratura” itself has always been excellent. I still don’t have any problems with extremely fast passages or trills…only going from about a high D (above the staff)…. and higher up.
— I would expect this with age and the birth of your children. People often sing lower, heavier repertoire as they age. The roles and repertoire best suited to a voice are determined not only by the range and actual pitches it can reach, but also with the timbre and color of the instrument on those pitches. If your voice is acquiring more warmth, even if you could sing the High F, it might not be a match for something like Königen der Nacht because that role requires a more steely sound.
My teacher is renowned and teaches good technique although she has not and cannot help me integrate a passaggio from the head voice to the whistle voice. She says there isn’t one…and that I must continue above the high D with head voice. She swears there is no way to “mix“ the head and the whistle as they have absolutely different functions. I have read that the vocal folds vibrate laterally in the whistle voice and simply through sensation I am aware that it IS different. But does that make it impossible to mix or bridge the head and whistle registers successfully?
— This is one of those things that vary from voice to voice. For example, some men can seamlessly bridge the falsetto and full voice, and their falsetto is so strong it is almost the same as a lyrical, spinning full voice tone on the same pitch. Others never have a very useful falsetto, and certain schools of singing scorn the falsetto. They do not consider it legitimate and make no effort to work with it. Some women can achieve a masterful integration between the whistle and fuller voice function while others always have a noticeable shift in timbre or quality. In my personal experience, there are energetic factors as well as physical ones that contribute. Beliefs, emotions, fears, reflexes and individual physiology all come into play. Your fascination with this tells me there is something your unconscious wants to work with beyond the obvious goals your creative, analytical self has for your singing.
The whistle voice started popping out as a result of being sick but then, as I said, about mid-April I was getting healthier and healthier and my voice was getting back to normal and it was still coming out. I thought I was dreaming. This can’t be happening at 43. I looked up everything I could find and use about whistle technique…Oren Brown, David Jones…trying to be careful not to practice this too much. My children are constantly squeaking in the whistle register so I am not sure if it has not been inspired by them!
— Sometimes life circumstances, such as illness, open the door to new capacities. Not only does the voice shift, but everything about our personality does too. It is fascinating and something we can develop if we accept it, or that we can hinder if we return to our old beliefs in limitation and the reflexes that sustain them. The playfulness of children is one of the greatest teachers of liberated vocal function I know. You are blessed to have them!
As I now (almost two months later) understand, this could be a development in my voice (rather than a malpractice. I am able to sing scales backwards from high G (above the Queen of the night) downward. I reach comfortably to the high B above the Queen of the night with vibrato and can hold it. I can fool around up there with passages up and down. There is no book though on what to do. And when I tried to demonstrate it for my teacher it “didn’t work” anymore. Most of the time it is there and I have figured out how to get it with beginning very relaxed on a “mwa”…or “vwa” or “vwoij”. I can sing in the “whistle” and it sounds very beautiful when I “get” it (and am very astounded and amazed at this because it just suddenly appeared and I NEVER could do this with my voice before) but when I go downward I flip back into the head and when I go from head on up into the whistle I have to “flip” back into whistle. I cannot mix.
— This is the same experience many singers have developing the bridge out of chest voice into the middle voice, and again as they need to bridge out of the middle voice into the head voice. The solution is the same in every case. There is an old coordination exercise we did as children – we had to rub our tummy with one hand and pat the top of our head with the other. The challenge through a vocal transition is that we have to maintain a consistency in the phonation and breath flow while the articulators readjust the resonators so they can adequately enhance the changing frequencies of pitch. The tongue, palate, jaw, lips, facial muscles and all kinds of little muscles inside the throat and face make tiny, unconscious adjustments. We get subtle sensations of things opening and closing and yet the core of the sound, determined by the phonation and the breath being paced through it, has to be flawlessly congruent. It is a coordination exercise that has to be mastered through intention and subtle perception. It requires highly refined listening and impeccable concentration
Another problem I am trying to figure out is how to stop the whistle voice from “popping” back down (mostly the interval of a 6th or so) into the head. When I try to sing up there for any amount of time, the sound pops “out“ downward and I get a silly “yodel” back down.
— This is possibly because you are “stretching” your cords by staying up there for too long. Practice this interval and bridging in and out of it for only 3 minutes a day. Marathon runners do not practice by running marathons every day. That would destroy their body. Extreme pitches in the vocal range are reserved for climactic moments in the drama or musical form. They are judiciously used in repertoire because of the demands they place on the voice. They must also be practiced prudently and with restraint
I have tried to sing as nasal as possible and use a bit of an “O” vowel (to “lower” the larynx) and it seems to help get a bigger more focused sound but it is in no way foolproof. What should I do?
— Release attachment to outcome. Observe. Play. Observe. Intend and visualize more than you actually practice. Work with athletes has repeatedly demonstrated that visualization is even more powerful than actual practice. You can do perfect transitions in your imagination and your mind and body will program you to be able to later reproduce this success in physical reality. Visualization can save your voice when you are ill and it can also be an excellent thing to teach your students when you are not well enough to demonstrate.
Another unfortunate observation is that I seem to have lost my good abiltity to diminuendo to ppp and pppp into thin air on these high notes (G, Ab, A and higher) The whistle voice has “taken over” and wants to come out. I can still do a messa di voce to piano but the softer it gets…the good supported tone stops and out only comes air.
— This is a loss of phonation and might be due to fatigue, inadequate breath support or overstretching.
Another question: should I abandon practicing the whistle register on my own for fear that it could ruin my entire voice altogether? A good friend and colleague of mine (a lyric) told me that.
— The whistle register should be easy and not ruin your voice. You should not do any practice that is creating fatigue.
Would it be possible to develop my newly attained whistle technique and be able to “really” sing the Queen of the Night or Blondchen or easy high E-flats at the end of arias?
— The question is not only can you hit the notes, but also what is the vocal quality. As you describe the richness and warmth of your tone, do you believe it has the steely, dramatic or brilliant character for these roles?
Most of my students are working on a good basic technique with me. Many vocalize to high F as I do. One can and does sing the Phantom of the opera high E in obviously the whistle register (wonderfully!). She is 16 and still has a very light, breathy sound, and we are working on improving her support. Although her technique is definitely not good (We are working on her voix mixe chest to head) she has been born with this whistle ability. Hmmm.
— As you work to help her support and integrate her voice, you will have a great opportunity to “steal” some tips for yourself.
I would be so grateful for any help, information, or advice in how to proceed.
— Overall, try to relax and NOT decide what the voice should do, but learn what it wants to do. Honor your instrument and choose repertoire accordingly.