Monday, August 31, 2009

Out of Body

Well, after all that, they didn’t even ask for Susannah! Oh well, it was a good excuse to get the aria ready for this coming season.

They asked for Juliette’s “waltz” aria instead, an aria I have sung many, many times - and an aria that many people hate. It is sung by young sopranos for many reasons: it’s not difficult (in the sense that it’s easy to learn the notes), the accompaniment is light, and it shows some flexibility and a few high notes. It is often interpreted by said young sopranos as a joyous romp through Juliette’s birthday party, nothing more than an expression of how happy she is in the moment. “What a great party! I wish I could stay here forever!” This treacly approach is why the aria is widely loathed by audition pianists and panelists.

Yes, it’s a waltz, and it’s her birthday, but what is joyful about
“This intoxication of youth lasts, alas, only for one day!
Then comes the hour when one weeps.
Far from the morose winter let me slumber
and inhale the rose before it’s petals are plucked.”

Sounds like a girl going kicking and screaming toward womanhood, if you ask me, but I swear to you that I have seen a soprano pick up a prop rose with a smile, sniff it, and then toss it gaily over her shoulder at the end of those lines! I died a little in that moment...

I put the aria away for a long time, because I wasn’t sure I could sing it with the necessary gravitas, but a couple of years ago I put it back in the line-up. I’ve been 30-something for a while now, and I think I understand a bit more the longing that Juliette was feeling. It was fun to watch my interpretation grow as I grew up...

And then this summer I started working on Juliette’s second big aria, sung as she takes the poison in the tomb. It is a very mature, very womanly aria which I love to sing and which will be making an occasional appearance this audition season. And - and this shouldn’t really have been a surprise - I think my knowledge of the rest of the character has put the finishing touches on fleshing out the Waltz. There we go.

As if to prove a point, at the audition on Friday I did something new, something I wasn’t expecting and, frankly, something I’m not sure is even “done.” The waltz ends with a cadenza, a long running stream of unaccompanied notes. This cadenza is kind of shaped like a mountain, building up to a quick high D and then back down again before rejoining the piano and ending with a big finish. I have always sung the cadenza fairly evenly; it’s entirely comprised of 8th notes, after all. But Friday, when I got to the D, I actually held it out, probably not more than an extra second, but long enough for my brain to scream at me!! “What are you doing?! You’ve never done this before! Do you know how to get back on track and end this thing without falling to pieces now that you’ve totally broken your rhythm?!?!”

Heh. I made it out unscathed, but those moments when instinct takes over can sure be scary! I hadn’t, after all, “totally broken” my rhythm; I just stretched it a bit. The phrase was alive, vibrant, and apparently it wanted to blossom. It was kind of an awesome moment, one in which my voice seemed to exist outside of me for a moment. I hope it won’t be the last...

Friday, August 28, 2009


I have an audition today, the first of the season!

In a funny twist of audition repertoire, I’m offering both Susanna and Susannah! The heroines of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah share a name, but not much else. One is a feisty Italian who is always at the head of the action, either manipulating it or cleaning up the messes, literal and figurative, and who ends the day in the arms of her beloved. The other is a young Appalachian girl, pure and sensual, who is desired and misunderstood and shunned by her town in such a way that it leads to her ruin. You know my long love affair with Susanna, but I’ve also had a place in my heart for Susannah (keep your eye out for that H in this post!) over the years. It is a wonderful opera, with a great heroine with a great character arc. I sang several scenes throughout my schooling, but was never sure my voice would gain the required heft to make it through so dramatic a role. Well, here we are!

As I was warming up this morning, I was thinking about which aria to start with, and I’ve decided to go with Susanna. I know the aria very well, I have two great productions on my resume, and I have another already booked for the 2010-11 season. It should be a good introduction to the panel! (Although technically I think I’ve sung for them about ten times over the years...) If they ask for Susannah after that, I’ll have some things to watch out for.

First, character. Gone will be the crafty yet dreamy lover hoping for a good end to a crazy day, and in her place will need to be an innocent, wide-eyed, hopeful girl, longing to see the world. The Floyd aria needs to start without a trace of guile or desperation. In fact, I think the whole aria (“Ain’t it a pretty night”) should be sung with hope and innocence; the outside world hasn’t yet become real to Susannah.

Second, vocal style. Well-sung Mozart is all about line, line, line. Legato for days. With the American aria, I need to get back to truly speaking the text, similar to how I would sing a Mozart recitative. There are moments in the Floyd where I will pour on the legato, but not on every phrase. There are several chunks of phrases (that’s the technical term, “chunks”) that come back at the end of the aria. I need to remember to sing them the first time as if the words are just pouring out of my mouth as quickly as I think them up, without schmaltzy embellishments. Those can come in at the end, tastefully, of course.

It’s exciting to think about rep like this, to take two arias that are so different and remind myself of the potential areas for danger. Too much legato in Susannah will lead me to sing too heavily which will lead me to blowing the high notes. Too much Susanna sass won’t allow the purity of Susannah’s character to come through. A great challenge.

I’ve got more thinking to do about purity and innocence this season, as my three new roles are all wide-eyed wonder girls: Genovieffe, Micaela, Marguerite. The approach to these ladies will be very different from that of Susanna, Rosina, and Zerlina!

Stay tuned...
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