Podles is credited as being a “true contralto” and as the leading contralto of our age. Her giant sound can fill the largest of halls, or fire up and down the trickiest Baroque cadenza, and her frequent outings in trouser roles are significantly assisted by her chest voice, which produces a sound “more manly than one hears from any countertenor” (2) Indeed, she is one of the few female singers today that can authentically perform Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death", more commonly performed by basses such as Christoff and Kipnis, as the powerful chest voice required is not something usually found in female singers (3).
But where did this prodigious voice come from? “My voice comes from my mother, who is also a true contralto” (4) Podles told Joel Kasow of CultureKiosk.com. She too had a “baritone-like voice” but “also sang Rosina as she had the high notes.” (5) Just like her mother before, teachers and critics alike found it difficult to understand her voice. Luckily, she had the confidence speak out when something felt wrong. To one of her teachers, she said: “Just let me sing in my way” when trying to produce her high notes. The results were “fantastic.” (6) Given she is one of the few singers that can sing while suffering from flu, cold or fever, Podles is obviously doing something right!
In an interview with Kazik Jedrzejczak on YouTube, Podles makes an interesting distinction between the “heavy” sound of the alto voice, and the soprano-like extension and flexibility of the contralto:
“I think people very often make [a] mistake because they think that contralto is…lower than alto. It’s not true! Alto, like…for example, Marian Anderson…it is a pretty short voice, with a beautiful low register, low timbre, very dark, and not that much in the high register.” (7)
One of the criticisms levelled at her is that the register breaks in her voice are quite pronounced, with a distinct light, high coloratura, a smoky, covered middle, and a powerful, masculine chest register. Given that Callas, Butt, Suliotis and others all had trademark gear changes which wowed their audiences, perhaps critics should be a little less prissy in their analysis of a voice which, after years of use, suffers no ill effects and which still has three octaves at its disposal.
“if I sing with three voices, it's because it is impossible to sing over three octaves with the same voice - you can't sing a high C the same way you sing the low C three octaves down.” (9)
In the video below, you can hear an early Podles singing “Nacqui all'affanno” from Rossini’s Cenerentola. You can hear how light the middle and head registers are, and how different they sound to the mature Podles. The only similarity is in the notes below the stave, particularly those below C4, such as the stunning runs down to G3. Contrast this with the video below that, with an older Podles singing Ulrica’s “Re Dell'Abisso” from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. The whole voice has taken on the dark weighty quality found only in the lower register, while the phenomenal G3 at the end is now truly baritonal in quality.
(2) Ewa Podles: Grand Voice, Grand Manner To Protect It - January 24, 2001|By David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critic - http://articles.philly.com/2001-01-24/living/25311634_1_ewa-podles-podles-voice-baroque-music/3
(3) The New York Sun - A Heavenly, Rarely Heard Voice - By Fred Kirshnit | February 28, 2006 -http://www.nysun.com/arts/heavenly-rarely-heard-voice/28257/
(4) CultureKiosque - An Interview with Ewa Podles - By Joel Kasow LYON, France. 3 August 1998 -http://www.culturekiosque.com/opera/intervie/rhepodles.html
(6) Ewa Podles: Grand Voice, Grand Manner To Protect It - January 24, 2001|By David Patrick Stearns, INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC - http://articles.philly.com/2001-01-24/living/25311634_1_ewa-podles-podles-voice-baroque-music/3
(7) University of Toronto's Faculty of Music - A Voice of Wonder - Polish Contralto Ewa Podles – Uploaded on 21 may 2007 byalexandmark007.
(8) CultureKiosque - An Interview with Ewa Podles - By Joel Kasow LYON, France. 3 August 1998 -http://www.culturekiosque.com/opera/intervie/rhepodles.html
(11) MusicalCriticism.com - Contralto legend Ewa Podles talks about her San Francisco debut and her career - By Marina Romani 8 October 2009 - http://musicalcriticism.com/interviews/podles-1009.shtml