Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Opera Guidelines - A few helpful tips for opera pianists and singers

The following is collected from information I have used in the past while working with pianists and singers in opera training programs.  Some of it may even have been posted here in the past.  

No one has ever said that opera is easy.  In fact, to do it (as with almost anything else) WELL, takes a lot of hard work and determination.  Here are just a few thoughts and suggestions on ways to work productively both before and during rehearsals.


Role of the opera pianist:

Rule #1:  The pianist always rules the rehearsal

            Both musical and staging rehearsal time  is always minimal and often very valuable.  There is little, if anything, that a stage director, conductor or the singers can do if the pianist is fumbling or unsure to any extent.  Since the pianist is expected to be able to follow a conductor, play the score with great security and virtuosity (sounding like the world’s greatest orchestra) and catch all mistakes the singers are making in pitch, rhythm, text and diction and be able to sing any missing vocal parts when necessary (while continuing to play),  the pianist must then be the most prepared of anyone in the room. 

The pianist’s role is to be subservient to the conductor’s musical vision and instruction, but must not rely on the conductor to provide all musical information or correct all mistakes.  The pianist should be the most knowledgeable about the score and the text and use his/her skills to assist the conductor as much as possible.  The opera pianist will regularly correct the mistakes of the singers, without waiting for the conductor to address them.  The pianist often helps to control the pacing of a rehearsal too.  The pianist can help to prevent a rehearsal from getting bogged down in silence or indecision by anticipating where the conductor or stage director may wish to begin after a pause.  This sort of ‘telepathy’ is achieved when the pianist has a very thorough knowledge of score and libretto and has paid careful attention to the singers, and to the discussions of the stage director and conductor during the pause.

In summary:  The rehearsal pianist is extremely active, never passive.

Rule #2:  Rehearsal #1 = Performance #1

Not just in opera, but in any collaborative situation, there should be one guiding rule:  Be prepared for your first rehearsal as though it were a performance. 

With rehearsal time always at a minimum, the coaching or rehearsals are not the place for the pianist to be learning his/her score.   When coaching singers individually, the pianist is solely responsible for progress in the rehearsal as there will usually be no conductor (or anyone else) present.  The pianist’s job is correcting all pitches, rhythms, text and diction.  Moreover, it is the pianist’s responsibility to make sure the singer has thoroughly studied the character and made strong musical decisions based on their decisions of character.   Since the pianist will, in fact, lead the singer through all facets of preparation (technical, dramatic and musical), the pianist must have a complete knowledge of the score, the language, the libretto, the characters, the performance traditions AND be able to play the score and sing all parts with perfection BEFORE meeting for the very first rehearsal.

Summary:  The pianist must be as prepared for the first rehearsal as he/she would be for a performance

Rule #3:  Be methodical

Because there is so much information and material for an opera pianist to master, it is essential to be very organized and disciplined in the way one prepares.  With experience, everyone will come up with a method of practice and score study that is most useful, but the following is an example of how to gain the most BASIC of preparations.  Note that the pianist is responsible for the information not just for pianists, but for being able to lead the singers through their preparations as well.  In other words, everything the singers are asked to do must also be done by the pianist:

Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)
Recommended process for learning this score:
There are several steps necessary to gain a thorough knowledge of a work before setting foot in the rehearsal room.  While you may find your own method more suitable,  the following is intended as one suggestion for learning an opera score for those that may have little or no experience.
Materials needed:
·      Piano/Vocal score (Ricordi edition is preferred)
·      Full Score, if possible (Ricordi publishes an affordable edition)
·      CD Recordings
·      Libretto which includes both the original Italian text and a good (preferably literal) translation of the text.  The best source is Nico Castel’s literal, word-for-word translation.
Steps for score study/preparation:

1)    Read through the entire libretto first to acquaint yourself with the story and the characters.
2)    Start from the beginning, and read through the translation of the text for each section (ie. Chorus, aria, trio, etc.)
3)    Write the word-for-word literal translation into your score.
4)  Speak, out loud, the Italian text for this section
5)    Listen to a recording of this section
6)    Work through the piano part, learning all notes, rhythms, fingerings, etc.
7)    Play through the vocal part(s), singing along, making sure to learn the Italian text as you go.
8)    Listen to the recording once again, this time following along with the full orchestra score (if you have one).  Pay particular attention to the sounds of the orchestra, noticing as much detail as you can about the sounds of different instruments, etc..
9)    Play through the section again at the piano, trying to imitate the sounds of the orchestra as much as possible while also trying to sing/”hear” the vocal part as you play.
10)    Listen to the recording once more while again following along with the score.

 For Singers:  

The singers prepare according to the following guidelines.  However, the pianist may need to assist or even teach much of this to them.  Therefore, the character study section is very important for pianists to think about before coaching as well. 

The following are suggestions to a singer as to how to prepare his/her role in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote:
Steps to Preparing Your Role:
1)  Read the libretto (not just a synopsis) in its entirety at least twice.  Do this before doing ANYTHING else.
2)  Translate the entire score
--word for word (which you will write underneath each word of the original). Translate everything your character says AS WELL AS everything your character would overhear other characters saying on stage. (In other words, don’t translate only half of a conversation!)
--in a loose translation of all that is said when you are not on stage:  even if it is not your material, you MUST understand the whole opera to be able to know your character’s place in the story and relationship to other characters.
3)  Listen to recordings (always listen to more than one recording!!!)
            --NOT TO LEARN THE ROLE but to get an overview of the opera.
--Follow along with your score. Pay attention to the orchestration and how it will influence/impact your vocal performance (e.g., thick orchestra vs. light orchestral color; pizzicato vs. legato playing from the strings, etc.)
            --Listen/watch videos of the opera in the original language.

4)  Historical Research
--social situation:  Understand the place your character holds in society and what that means with respect to the way you interact with social superiors, equals or underlings. (For example, if your character is a servant, does he/she bow to others? does he/she look a superior in the eyes?)
--literary influences:  Is this work based on a book, a legend or some other kind of story?  If so, how is it similar, or how does it differ from the original or different versions?
--composer:  Who was Mozart?  What do you know about him, his personality, his life?  What is his musical “style” and what is characteristic about his music?  
--librettist:  Likewise, who was the Emanuel Schikaneder?  Did he write this story?  If not, how did he change the original story?  What was his relationship with the composer?
5)  Style
--music:  What is the appropriate musical style for this work (for example, do we sing using  portamenti, ornamentation, cupa, etc.)?  How do you sing Mozart differently than Puccini or Massenet?
--physicality:  what are the physical demands required to safely and effectively sing your role?  (For example, does your character often have to sing while fighting, or crawling on the ground?)
--costumes of the period:  How might your character be dressed on stage and how might this affect your movement/physicality. (For example, are the ladies wearing corsets? If so, how will this affect the way you breathe?  Men:  Will you have heavy costumes that require extra strength or breath control?)
--artwork of the period:  A helpful way to learn the aesthetic of the Classical period is to look at artwork (paintings, sculptures, architecture) from that period.  Often that can tell us some things about the style, people and music.

*Questions to answer about your Character:  
Sometimes the libretto/story tells us many things about our characters.  However, sometimes it does not tell us everything we need to know.  When you cannot find information in the libretto, you may be required to either find the answers somewhere else OR to make up the answers for yourself.  While a big part of this program will be helping you to do this, it is important that you already begin to understand your characters as much as possible by asking yourself many of the following questions and finding the answers.  Read through the libretto, maybe the answer is there.  If not, sometimes that historical research will tell us.  If that doesn't work, then just think about your character and decide for yourself.  This will all be very important to how you move on stage, how you act and even how you will sing!

--Where did he/she come from?
--How old is he/she?
--What is he/she like?
--How does he/she differ from “original” character (if the work is based on pre-existing story)? 
--How does he/she change during the opera?
--Where is he/she going?
--Where/when does he/she live?
--What are the social structures, standards, expectations of the period?
--What are you based on? (a fictional character? a legend? an actual person?)
--What do the other characters think about you?
--What do you learn as the character develops?
--What does the audience know that you don’t?
--Who are some of the past great interpreters of the role?
--What was their contribution to the role and what special qualities of voice did they have to help the character?

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