Preparing an Operatic Role: Part Two

This is part two in our two-part series on preparing an operatic role. Click here to go to part one.

Research

As well as reading a decent synopsis of the opera, researching the work is important to learning your role. This can come alongside the translations you are doing and will often help to inform the story you are deciphering. Almost every opera score has a source text. Libretti are often based on plays or poetry, either produced in their entirety as an opera, or rewritten by a librettist. This is a good place to start.

In the case of Il matrimonio segreto this research took me on an excellent journey. The Italian libretto, by Giovanni Bertati, is based on an English social comedy from 1766 by George Coleman and David Garrick called The Clandestine Marriage. This play was actually based on a series of paintings by William Hogarth called Marriage-a-la-mode. Immediately, I was thrown into 18th century England, and had a visual reference frame for the characters and situations I was working with, which could really influence my character development.

Il matrimonio segreto at Scheggino Opera Summer School, 2018

I also enjoy looking at the history of a particular role: who was it written for, who else has sung it to create acclaim? The role of Fidalma was created for Dorothea Bussani who also created the role of Despina in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. She was greatly applauded for her impeccable comic acting in the first run of Il matrimonio segreto. Interestingly, Bussani was a soprano, although the role is listed for contralto in the score, but we do know that at this time she was considerably older than when she created Despina. It is clear then that the voice-types indicated in the score come from a time when all female voices were referred to as ‘soprano’, then as they aged they became ‘mezzo-soprano’ and further ‘contralto’. Shortly after this, composers, such as Rossini, would have a much clearer understanding of different female voices, and did not just assume they got lower with age. Knowing this helped me to understand why the tessitura of the role lies particularly high for me, a contralto.

Your research will take its own shape, depending on the work and role you are looking at. My advice is to follow any path that interests you; there is no wrong answer, just keep being inquisitive.

Learn your role

I’m not about to start preaching to the choir, or teaching granny to suck eggs. You know how to learn the music – slowly, with a piano, a metronome, and a pencil. Learn everything section by section until you can put the sections together. If you find it easier to start by making sound to notes and rhythms before adding the words, do it this way, if you are better off memorizing the words, then start that way. 

Il matrimonio segreto at Scheggino Opera Summer School, 2018

It can be frustrating that your voice will impose its own limit on how much time you can physically sing for in a day. A great way to double your learning time is to learn silently, practicing your text, working through rhythms, playing the orchestral reduction on the piano, thinking through how each sound or phrase will feel within your technique. Combine these things within a practice session for more rewards with less physical output. This will be completely individual to you.

My advice if you find it difficult to learn a role, even if you have done many before, is to create yourself a learning diary. I’m a big fan of day-to-page diaries and nearly always have one available for making notes from that particular days’ activities. After I have finished my learning for the day I will write, without judgment, what I have learned, like this:

Act 1 Ladies trio: memorized translation to F’s solo page. Learned melodies, memorized first 3 pages. Check bar 15 of F’s page vocally.

This will help you to see how fast or slow the learning process is going. From these notes you can look ahead and make an informed decision whether to let Netflix go through that 20 second countdown into the next episode, or whether you should get that trio out for another half hour to learn the next pages.

How memorized is memorized?

The biggest challenge from all of this is approaching that deadline you set yourself, sometime before Day One, where you are planning to be ‘off-book’. What does it really mean to be ‘off-book’? 

First, I’m not saying you will never look at the book again. Of course you will, things will shift in your memory, or you’ll have to change something depending on the conductor or director’s demands and you will need to go back to your music and check this.

Only you will honestly know if you are truly ‘off-book’ or fully memorized, so be honest with yourself. Trust me, there is no point lying to yourself and saying ‘it will be fine, I basically know it’, it will be your downfall when someone says you’re going to be singing that part while juggling frying pans!

One great way to test it is to pick any movement, start at the beginning and work your way through mentally. You do not have to sing all of the time while doing this, but you should be able to pick your way through in your head with the book closed. Any time you have a lapse of memory, go back to the book, consciously correct this, test yourself several times, then start again from the previous section.

While working on Fidalma, our excellent conductor Andrea Cappelleri talked about this process like saving a file on the computer. You have to go back and correct the error in the file, then press save. If you don’t press save, you will make the same mistake.

Only when you can mentally work through the entire piece with the book shut are you completely memorised. Realistically you will always have a couple of sticky patches, but you should at least know what they are, where they are, and when they are coming up, to combat these memory lapses. Make sure you put tags in these pages so you know to check this section of the score more often than others. Any more than about 5 in a large score and you probably don’t really know the score well enough – keep working!

Il matrimonio segreto at Scheggino Opera Summer School, 2018

Learn the other characters’ parts too

At the very minimum you need to know what everyone is saying in a scene you are involved in, otherwise the drama will not make sense and you won’t really be listening to what anyone says, simply parroting the lines back to them. We’re not doing the Sunday School nativity anymore!

I would encourage you to learn the other characters’ parts for the whole opera as well. Having a basic knowledge of all the melodies that are sung and what the characters are singing will give you a much more solid understanding of how the opera fits together, which will only enhance your performance. Besides, you might be doing something on stage in a scene your character is not normally in, so you will need to know what is going on.

It’s a lot of work

You’re probably now looking at that incredibly redrafted timeline, which says something along the lines of “I needed to start this work 7.5 months ago”. It is a lot of work, I agree, but you will be a better performer for it. Give yourself deadlines, stick to your timetable, and ask for help when you need it. You’ve got this – and you’re going to be awesome.

Seymour, Maria Callas, 1955

“An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.” – Maria Callas

Top 10 reasons to be prepared

  1.  It is the professional thing to do.
  2.  It is respectful of your colleagues who will have put the work in.
  3.  You will get the most out of every rehearsal, every coaching, every conversation with a patron, every moment of the process.
  4.  You can have more fun experimenting and ‘playing’ as your character.
  5.  Your nerves will be quelled, and confidence will grow from your preparation.
  6.  You will not be concerned with the technical difficulties of the singing part whilst on stage, meaning you can get out there and do the job of storytelling.
  7.  You will get a positive reputation as someone who is always prepared.
  8. The work you have put in will stay with you for a long time in the future.
  9. When things change, as productions have a habit of doing, you will adapt to the changes faster.
  10.  It is the professional thing to do. At every level, pro, pro-am, YAP, college, everywhere: be professional.

This is part two in our two-part series on preparing an operatic role. Click here to go to part one.

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​Wendy Silvester is a freelance opera and classical singer from Coventry, UK, currently based in Riga, Latvia. She is also a singing teacher, fledgling opera director, and opera guide writer for StageAgent.com. ​Recent opera engagements have included Fidalma, in Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto with the Scheggino Opera Summer School, Zita in Gianni Schicchi with Carlo Rizzi and the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera and La Zia Principessa in Suor Angelica ​for Stanley Opera, and Filipyevna ​Eugene Onegin​ with the Serenata Singers, Cardiff. For the 2018-2019 season, Wendy is a trainee of the Opera Studio 'Figaro' at the Latvian Academy of Music.

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