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OPERA America's Role Preparation Primer
José Rincón, Artistic Services Coordinator, OPERA America
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Original Content10/10/2013

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Contributors: Ann Baltz, OperaWorks; Valerie Beaman;; Clyde Berry, Fort Worth Opera; Daniel Biaggi, Palm Beach Opera; Johnathon Pape, Eastman School of Music

Learning a complete operatic role is a major milestone in a singer's career that requires organization and strategy. The preparation process begins long before any notes are plunked on the piano and continues after the final double bar. To get a sense of what it takes to effectively learn a new role, OPERA America surveyed five members of the Singer Training Forum for what they consider to be the essential steps, questions and resources a singer should keep in mind throughout the preparation process.

The contributors to OPERA America’s role preparation primer offer a range of experience and expertise in the field of singer training and career development. And while their respective strategies for tackling a role are nuanced and unique, four main areas of focus emerge when the strategies are compared: the source, the score, the text and the character. These areas, and other considerations, are further explored in this article.

Clyde Berry, Fort Worth Opera

  • Read the entire score, not just your part. Think of it like baseball: Even if the other team is at bat, you still need to pay attention as their actions have a direct impact on what you will do next.
  • Research the time period. You will have to alter your physical mannerisms to fit the period of the story. This may include changing your movement based on restrictive clothing, shoes, wigs, etc.
  • Research the country. If you are accurately going to portray these people, you need to know their customs, beliefs and traditions. This will help you color your singing as you understand their turmoil.
  • Be off book at the first rehearsal. The sooner you can really rehearse what you plan to do, the better and more developed it will get! Why waste time?
  • Be knowledgeable on the history of the piece. Are there any performance traditions associated with it? Why was it written? For whom? How did the premiere go? This insight will help you at schmoozy functions with donors.
  • Who are the director and conductor? Do they have a certain technique or style you should know? What are their peeves? Much like checking out your professors before you took a class, find out what these folks will expect of you. Is this a "traditional" production? If it is not, you may have to research two periods, or find out what the "take" is you will be taking on the story.
  • Coach the language. Even if you feel solid on it, it wouldn't hurt to have a refresher, especially if you've been singing in a different language for the last few productions.
  • Don't watch previous recordings of performances. They will bias your interpretation of the character. Are you going to recreate their performance, or come up with your own.
  • Before you get too concerned with the music, take time to simply act out the text. An aria is like a monologue, and a duet is like a scene. If you can perform the text dramatically, think how much more your singing and the orchestra will enhance it.

Valerie Beaman,

  • First, reading/listening to the libretto and score is crucial. Allow yourself uninterrupted private time to listen to several different recordings of the complete opera. Pay close attention to any impulses and gut feelings that arise. Pay close attention to the orchestrations, especially the interludes, introductions and endings for emotional clues to your character's subtext. It is important to remember these spontaneous images and feelings and return to them as you begin more detailed character work as they will begin to manifest themselves physically and vocally.
  • Read the original play or story that the libretto is based on. What are the differences in the representations of your character? Is there any background information that will help you imagine your character's life prior to the opera setting? What was the political/social climate when the opera was written and originally presented and does that have any significance in the story?
  • Translate the libretto word-for-word — all the roles and chorus. Paraphrase your scenes using words that resonate with you and that may affect your behavior. Whisper your arias at first without regard to rhythm and pitch and pay attention to emotions and impulses that arise. What triggers those emotions? What is your subtext (your inner thoughts)? This work will manifest in specific vocal colors and physicality so make notes during this process.
  • Begin to analyze the text in context with the externals. What are your character's circumstances in life?
    • Society: Where does your character fit? Explore class system, religion, politics, social customs, forms of entertainment, clothing styles, architecture, climate and location native to the opera, all with the intention of how they may influence your character's behavior.
    • Events taking place before, currently and future (if appropriate) that may affect your character's behavior. Are there any defining or transforming events in your character's life that determine relationships including familial, intimate and your relationship to the world at large?
  • What does your character want and need, your character's super-objective? These are the core impulses that drive the character into action. Make strong choices and use verbs that accurately and honestly reflect the stakes of the goal — words that give you a heightened sense of purpose, actions that will propel you to the end.
  • Develop objectives for each scene that move you closer to your super-objective. Objectives must be active. Come into a scene from somewhere specific to do something to someone. These objectives should bring about specific behavior. Become a student of behavior. Observe people interacting in restaurants, on the subway, etc. Try to figure out their objectives by observing their behavior and store away in your mind for future use.
  • Develop subtext for non-sung music paying special attention to interludes before and after an aria. Go back and listen again to orchestrations for emotional clues. The internal dialogue should be timed so that the first sung phrase comes out of feelings and thoughts that can no longer be held silent.
  • Be specific in your choices. Generalized emotion has one dimension and quickly becomes boring. Being in love, for instance, contains many emotions like amazement, vulnerability, uncertainty, joy, anger, jealousy, giddiness or ecstasy, to name a few. Behaving like one in love can cause you to simper, to flatter, to seduce, to exult, to deify, to posses, to manipulate, to devastate, etc. This specificity is especially important in repeated verses and phrases and makes the character more real.
  • Look for opposites in characters. No one is completely evil, totally divine, unbelievably noble. Seek out the weakness in the strong, a secret fear of the powerful, uncharitable thoughts in the sweet heroine. Decide how you might reveal your character's secrets either in behavior or the coloring of a phrase. It will help make your character more human.
  • Once you have scored the text, make sure you take the time to experience all the impulses and sensory details, especially in the un-sung sections. Don't anticipate outcomes, but work moment-to-moment toward the objective shifting tactics as you meet with resistance from other characters or situations.
  • Ideally, you will be able to begin learning the score after the initial scoring of the text. It will be a much easier process once you know what you are singing and why. Work on the character is an ongoing process of discovery. Enjoy!

Daniel Biaggi, Palm Beach Opera

  • Read everything available surrounding the work:
    • The original play if applicable.
    • The composer's thought in letters, correspondence with librettist, etc.
    • Other performers' (singers, directors, conductors, etc.) interpretations of the character.
  • Study the whole libretto, not only your lines, and translate word for word (if necessary with the help of excellent sources such as Nico Castel's library), but always try on your own as well; repeat translation over and over again before even singing a note.
  • Really study the score and ask yourself what it means: many of the composer's intentions are "visible" from the vocal writing, dynamics, markings, etc. Just like a singer memorizes words and notes, he or she needs to memorize all the markings, instrumentation, etc., and continuously ask themselves what they could mean.
  • Create a background story and relationship chart (written out) for the character and all interactions…while you're at it, create a ‘red thread' of emotions, which you can follow through the performance. It may help to draw on dramatic resources, such as books by Uta Hagan, Lee Strasberg, Stanislavski, Chekhov, etc.
  • Create a physicality for the character: a walk, hand gestures, something which expresses the emotions of the character, rather than rely on ‘singer gestures' or your own modern-day gestures.
  • Establish a daily routine for each role, so that you always start the performance from the best possible vantage point.
  • Listen to interpretations of other singers, also from the past, with a critical yet open ear: not in order to imitate, but to draw from other singers experiences and insights
  • Work with many different coaches and conductors if possible, but keep in mind your goal, which is to create a fully developed character, not a pastiche of what coaches tell you to do.
  • Learn the language! No diction coach can substitute real understanding of inflection, alternate meanings of words and the cultural traits innate in a particular language. The musicality of that language has surely influenced the composer, and it is in your best interest to spend as much time on language as on vocal production, as one shapes the other.
  • Be curious, inquisitive, insatiable for constant improvement, re-creation, variety, etc. Don't accept the obvious as the best solution, really go digging into life. At the same time, always know why you're doing what you're doing, along the lines of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Johnathon Pape, Eastman School of Music

  • First and most importantly, learn the music accurately and completely. It's always shocking when a singer arrives to begin rehearsing a production and doesn't have the music learned and/or memorized. Of course, they should be fired when that happens, but all too often it becomes a case of the coaching staff having to scramble to teach the singer the part. This makes everything else fall behind in the production calendar and means that the singer cannot do their best work because they are always playing "catch up." Arriving unprepared is inexcusable and can brand a singer as unreliable.
  • If you are singing in a language other than your native tongue, know the accurate translation of what you are singing AND what everyone else is singing to or about you. It is not good enough to have a general idea of what you are singing about. You must know what every word means. Further, it is also important to know what the other characters are singing so you can react appropriately.
  • Have clear ideas of how you would like to interpret the role musically and dramatically. A thorough preparation process should help you form opinions about how you would like to create a character, hopefully through a combination of study, research, and personal connection to the music and drama. It's good to have these opinions — I always prefer to work with singers who have ideas rather than just waiting for someone to tell them what to do. And it's good when the opinion has really been formed by the singer instead of just parroting what his/her teacher or coach thinks. You must also be prepared to explain your opinions and back them up with valid reasons why your particular interpretive choice can work. That said, you must also…
  • Remain flexible to the interpretation of the conductor and director. Even the most interesting and well-planned ideas you have may not fit with the overall vision of the production as established by the conductor and/or director. A good singer is flexible enough to adapt to many different approaches to a role. A great singer can do so and make the audience believe they are seeing something fresh and personal. The truth is, if you want to have a lengthy career, you should expect that you will do certain roles in a variety of ways — some not to your liking.
  • Research the raw material. You should know the basic information about the show. Who were the composer and librettist? When did they live and work? How does this piece fit into their overall output? Is the opera based on something else, such as a novel or play, and if so, how does it differ from the source material? What is the plot? (You'd be surprised how many singers have very incomplete ideas about the plot of a show they are performing in!)
  • Establish context. If you are playing a Japanese geisha in the early years after America forced Japan to end its isolation, you need to know something about those social structures and political/historical events. You must understand the world of the story. How do people behave in that world? What are the social, religious, political and economic systems? How do people dress, move and express themselves within this world? In this society, what is acceptable behavior for a character like you are creating and what is taboo? NOTE: It is important to understand the piece as written first. Let that be your point of departure. And then, understand that a given production may place the setting in another place or time. If so, use the tools you have to establish the context of that setting. How would the character behave in that world?
  • Know what your character wants. It is critical that you understand what motivates your character. What do they want at any given moment and how does that feed into a larger character objective? At various moments in the Seguidille, Carmen may want to seduce, trick, plead, laugh, entice or insinuate. And once Don José has untied her, she may want to celebrate, dominate and/or exult. How do these moment-to-moment objectives illuminate her overriding desire for the freedom to live, love and die as she pleases?
  • Recognize the obstacles in your character's path. Conflict is the essence of drama. What keeps your character from getting what he or she wants? Who and/or what stands in the way? How big are the obstacles? How do they impact the level of your character's need? How do they raise the stakes?
  • Explore the emotional landscape. What is the emotional terrain that your character must navigate? How does it feel to live in your character's skin? Make sure that you understand the emotional impact of all the things that your character encounters. Do you have substitutions from your own life that you can call on to recreate those feelings? You need to know that you can create a rich and honest emotional life for the character and still sing the role as you need to. This takes practice, and the point is not to become a good faker, but rather, to develop your technique as an actor. Sometimes you need to fall off the cliff, emotionally speaking, in order to know how close to the edge you can get. This, of course, requires courage and a safe rehearsal environment, but it all begins by mapping the emotional landscape.
  • Who came before you? It's a good idea to know who some of the famous interpreters of the role have been — not to imitate them, but rather to understand the performance history and see the different approaches that have been taken. How do these other artists inform what you want to say with the role?

Ann Baltz, OperaWorks

Learning a complete role can be a daunting task. Not only does it require vocal and musical preparation but attention to character development and physicality are equally important. This guide will show you ways in which you can learn your role accurately, thoroughly and efficiently.

Learning Styles
  • Cognitive: likes to research; discuss
  • Visual: sees words; sees music; imagines self in role
  • Auditory: hears language sounds; hears music
  • Kinesthetic: feels language in mouth; feels flow of music; feels emotions
  • Other styles:
    • Trial and error vs. perfectionist
    • Process vs. product
    • Surface learner vs. in-depth
    • Organized vs. haphazard
    • Left Brain vs. Right Brain

Research Materials
  • Synopsis
  • Biographies of composer or artist
  • Historical books for time period
  • General reference such as The New Grove Dictionary of Opera
  • Mythology books
  • Original novels or other source material

  • Translate the text word-for-word (dictionaries and verb books)
  • Mark the IPA at the same time
  • Check other sources for translation questions (libretti)
  • Study the language of your opera (self-taught books or courses)

Learning the Score
  • Text only
    • Write out or copy only the text
    • Take it with you everywhere
    • Speak it
    • Listen to language tapes for color and flow of language
    • Speak it through with a coach for pronunciation
    • Speak it through with a coach for meaning
  • Text with rhythm
    • Speak words in rhythm
    • Speak words in rhythm with inflection of notes
  • Text with notes
    • Learn the flow of the melody without the words
    • Add words and rhythm to melody
    • Research and add cadenzas if appropriate
    • Listen for key centers, cadences, harmonic shifts, modulations
    • Listen for accompaniment moods (tempo, rhythms, orchestration)
    • Compare the piano-vocal score with the orchestral score
    • Listen for instrumentation
  • Listening
    • Listen to several recordings by different artists
    • Listen while your coach plays only the orchestral part
  • Begin to sing through the role
    • With a coach, sing through your part for accuracy
    • With a coach, sing through your part for meaning
    • Have your coach sing the other parts to cue your lines
    • Use a piano accompaniment CD for repetition and flow
    • Use the piano accompaniment CD to help with memorization
    • Audio-visualize yourself performing this role
  • Pre-production
    • Stage your role for yourself to get used to moving and singing
    • Find clothing or accessories that make you feel like your character
    • Bring colleagues into coachings for duets and trios, etc.
    • Organize a sing-through of the entire role with colleagues
  • Production rehearsals
    • You made it!
Research Materials (Wikipedia is not the only research source!)
  • General
    • The New Grove Dictionary of Opera
    • The Definitive Kobbé Opera Book
    • A History of Private Life (five volumes)
    • History books pertaining to the time the opera was written or set
    • Museums: artwork from the time an opera was written or set
    • Literature: writings from the time an opera was written or set
  • Composers and Artists
    • Biographies
    • Opera reference by composer
  • Operas
    • Specific opera guides
    • Original novels or source materials
    • Mythology references
  • English Language
    • Dictionaries, with IPA
    • Verb books
    • Diction books
  • Foreign Language
    • Sunset Series publications of languages in 10 Minutes a Day
    • Language course
    • Guides: Nico Castel reference books, William Weaver translations
As you can see, there is no one correct way to approach a new operatic role. The contributors to this article agree on several points but they also disagree at times, such as whether or not a singer should listen to recordings during the learning process. Varying perspectives and opinions are partly what make opera such an exciting art form. As a singer, it is your job to take in as much information as possible and make educated decisions about what works best for you. This article is meant to serve as a jumping off point for further exploration, so go forth and research!
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