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Role Preparation: How the Heck to Do it

So you’re learning your first operatic role. That’s fabulous! But what in the $*&% does that mean in terms of work? I know you’re feeling overwhelmed by the translation, notes, rhythms, ensembles…. Oy vey! Relax. Here’s the deal. You have to be smart. You can master any role you desire in just 12 weeks. Be disciplined. Be organized. Have your espresso machines ready. And here we go.

Before you begin this journey, I’m going to assume that you’re an intelligent musician who is willing to work hard. Take a couple of weeks to translate and IPA the bejezus out of the text. ALL. OF. IT. Not just what you’re singing, but all of the words spoken onstage by anyone in the opera. This is your job. If you don’t find at least a little bit of nerd-tastic joy doing this - find another line of work. Seriously, stop what you’re doing and become an accountant. A museum guide. A shoe sales woman. Anything. You’ve got to love this more than shoes. And that’s a lot, y’all.

Then sit down with a fabulous recording, your favorite video, or both, your score, and go on the journey to fully experience the story. This is your only opportunity to listen. Once you’re finished you should not – I repeat you should not – learn a role from a recording. You are an intelligent musician. You have a degree(s) in music. Act like you know what you’re doing!

So here we go. Pull out the role you’re currently learning and your favorite calendar, complete with colored pencils if that’s what makes you happy. Here’s your guide to learning the role of your dreams:

Week 1:

You’ve done your homework. Your text is translated and you know the IPA like any good vocal music nerd. Maybe you even speak the language! Speak the text over and over. Your job this week is just to speak the text and learn the cadence of the language. Don’t look at rhythms or pitches. Speak. I know it hurts your soul just a little bit to not sing this glorious, new music, but trust me. It will be a happier time in the long run if you just learn the text. This is your job.

Week 2:

Breathing. Breathing is your friend. It’s your only friend, really. If you’re going to have longevity in this business, you have to learn to harness the power of your breath. Real singer breath. So this week you’re going to sit down with your score and plan your breath. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?

Breathing is a topic that really deserves its own discussion, but if you’re a soprano you know that singing high notes is an athletic event; one that requires planning and technique. High notes require a specific muscular support combined with the right pharyngeal space – it’s a Happy Meal. A party in your mouth. Your brain needs to prepare for this party in order to achieve proper execution. So go through your score and notate every place your brain needs to prepare. My favorite method of notation is to use my purple highlighter and add a (^) symbol a millisecond before I need to engage my support muscles. Then practice. Practice just breathing with your score. This week, all you need is breath.

Week 3:

You will have arias. Sometimes these are extremely difficult (hello Zerbinetta, Lucia & Queen of the Night). Even if you think these arias are “throw away” pieces, they can also be far more difficult than you profess. These are tiny moments for you to shine in the course of the opera. Learn the notes. Pitch perfect and that is all. Any aria that is less than pitch perfect is absolutely unacceptable. You say “but Pavarotti did xyz aria with abc mistakes…” Yeah. As pretty as you are you’re not Pavarotti, honey. Pitch perfect. Just notes. That’s all you get this week.

Week 4:

Recitatives. You’re learning your first Mozart opera? Your first Bel Canto opera? Fabulous! The recits are so, so, so important. So spend this week learning rhythms of the recits. Remember week 1 when you were just speaking the text like a native? This is why. Get into the nitty-gritty of the recit with the cadence of the language. Mozart is great for this because he was an effing genius when it came to text setting. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Language, language, language. You’ll thank me for this one day.

Week 5:

Hey, let’s do some recits with notes and stuff! See how much easier it is to add notes once you’ve mastered the language and the text? You’re welcome.

Week 6 and 7:

Ensembles. So you’ve got a duet or a quartet. Maybe even a sextet to work on? This is it. You already know the text so let’s find how you fit into the grand musical scheme of things. And you have two luxurious weeks to do it. Act 1 Finale of Don Giovanni, no problem. If it helps, do a harmonic analysis of the score. Whatever keeps you going to find your groove. Two glorious weeks to spend on ensembles? Heck, yeah!

Week 8:

Whoa. At this point you should have touched every single note in the score. Instead of starting at the beginning of the score every day, start at the end. Work backwards. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it makes sense. If you start with the music that ends the opera, you’ll be able to finish it much more easily when you’re tired.

Week 9 through 11:

Look how far you’ve come! Now comes the fun part. Memorization (#ugh). Begin with the final act – Act III or IV depending on the score. Maybe even Act V. This is what you memorize first and not just your text. Memorize the translation and what each character you’re interacting with is saying. Take one long, luxurious week for each Act and compound your efforts. i.e. When you’re working on the second act of La Traviata, make sure you’re continuing to work on Act III at the same time.

Week 12:

Polishing. This is where you get to begin to add your own musical touches. Nuances. Colors. This is where each role becomes your own. In an ideal world, we have at least 12 weeks to prepare a role.  And we all know that it will take more than one week to incorporate all of the nuances you want into a role, but this is a GREAT place to begin. Take your newly memorized role to your coach and start to hash it out.

And here we are! You didn’t think you could do it, did you? The more you study and sing, the faster you’ll get. Just remember … you were trained to do this!

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Lily Guerrero, Soprano