Ok, here’s the “other post” mentioned below; I figured I should just write it while the juices were flowing! I’ve already explained how I deal with the text while learning a role, so here’s a bit of the musical side of things. (Title of the post borrowed from the Opera America program for opera education in schools...)
With this opera (Le nozze di Figaro; maybe I’ve mentioned that?), I am already very familiar with a lot of the general “tunes.” This has come about through years of hearing bits of the opera, specifically the past two months of working on it at the Met. While I was getting my hair and makeup done every night, I would turn the stage monitor up and follow along in my score or in my text/translation print-out. Not singing, just listening, and not even listening in great detail. I was listening for style, for general phrasing and shaping, for orchestration and harmony. (Of course, some nights I just gabbed with C & K, my hair and makeup guys!)
I know people talk a lot about learning by listening and how it's a bad idea, but this isn’t what they mean. I am not learning the role of Susanna by singing along with a recording and mimicking what I hear. I’m a better musician than that. I am not, however, a good enough musician to play all of the score or all of the other parts along with myself as I practice, so for understanding the larger framework of the piece, I listen. Sue me.
Most of my time, though, is spent at the piano. For musical numbers (as opposed to recits), I generally start by reading (singing) through the piece once. This shows me what I already know and which spots need attention. Then I sit down and work it out. For this type of studying, the working-it-out part, I often sing my line a full octave down. Why? Singing unfamiliar music in a high tessitura (where the notes sit in the voice) can be really taxing. Higher notes generally require more support and it’s harder to concentrate on support when you don’t know exactly what notes you’re supposed to be singing. I hark back to my “2nd Alto Section Leader” days and just let those low notes out!
After I feel confident that I know the “tune,” I take it back up to it’s proper octave and sing through it again, doing my best to sing with full voice and full support. To accompany myself, I usually play as much of the bass line as possible; this is the foundation of the harmony, after all, so it provides me with the most important harmonic information.
All of the above applies to the non-recit stuff. The style of recitative is so different, mostly because the element of counting is essentially removed. I just sing in the rhythm and tempo of my (Susanna’s) speech, and, as you know, every night it can be different. In order to get to that point (the point at which I can really play with the words) I do spend some time going over syllables pedantically and really concentrating on the verbs, gradually speeding up until the words just flow. Every new line of recit that feels fully comfortable in my mouth and voice feels like a little victory!
Once I know the notes, I start working with coaches, putting on the polish: fine-tuning diction, shaping specific phrases, and interacting with another person in recits and ensembles. Most coaches can sing every part in an opera once they’ve studied it (in whatever octave they prefer, generally low!), so the recits start to feel like conversations and ensembles start to feel ensemble. Then the sessions I mentioned scheduling with DN, my so-called “run sessions,” will focus less on detail work and more on just repeating the music several times over, working it into the muscles of my instrument: body, voice, and mind.
This weekend I’m going to set memorization goals, although I have a feeling things will become memorized as I repeat them. Best to have a date set to double check that, though! Add to all of this those “pick-up” sessions with a full cast, and I’ll have it made! Come January 28, I’ll be ready to play.