Archive for June 9th, 2010

Becoming Soprano

So today I had a voice lesson. I have those semi-regularly, they’re supposed to be weekly but I have been having a hard time with scheduling the past couple months. However, I will be doing better (especially now that I’m unemployed). So today was a “let’s catch up and talk about planning type stuff” kind of day. The end goal right now is for me to get into grad school next fall, so we’re talking about songs I should learn and such.

I took this while my teacher was out for a moment copying a piece of music for me.

And here we see the opera singer in her natural environment.

I’m going to talk a bit now about voice types. Most people are aware that there are basic classifications of voice, concerning how high or low you sing, and separated by gender. High female voices are soprano, low females voices are alto, high male voices are tenor, and low male voices are bass. Many people are not aware that this “choir” version of voice classification is extremely over-simplified. In the classical world, voices are grouped into six categories (three per gender), and each category has many different sub-categories, called “Fach” (which is German). The three main categories for female voices are soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto (that’s where the word “alto” comes from). For male voices, it’s tenor, baritone and bass. If you want to know all about the subcategories, please feel free to read the Wikipedia entry about Fach, it’s quite good.

The entire reason I’m mentioning voice types is because right now, I am making a transition between them. You see, for the past nine or so years (I’ve been studying voice since late 2000, so almost ten years), I’ve been training as a mezzo-soprano. This is a lower female voice (technically it’s in the middle range, mezzo being Italian for “middle” or “medium”), below soprano range but above contralto. This is important because your voice type determines what roles you perform. Fach is more complicated than just how high or low you sing. It also involves the quality of your voice, what sort of roles suit your voice, and nebulous things like how “dramatic” or “light” your voice is. If you read the Wikipedia entry, you’ll notice there are about seven different types of sopranos, ranging from the very high, light, coloratura sopranos, to the Wagnerian (stereotypical fat viking woman) sopranos.

So I’ve been training as a mezzo-soprano for about as long as I’ve even been studying voice. The problem is, my voice teacher and I have determined that I’m not a mezzo-soprano after all. I’m a soprano, likely a dramatic or lyric soprano. This changes not only what types of songs I will learn, but what roles I will play, and practically my entire outlook on life.

One of the first things I often tell people who are unfamiliar with opera is about the physical maturity of a person’s voice. Very few people are aware of this, but physically, your voice doesn’t fully mature until your mid to late 30s (even later for some people, usually those with deeper voices). This makes entering the opera world at a younger age somewhat difficult, as you simply don’t have the stamina to perform every single night for two months without possibly hurting yourself. I’ve heard horror stories about promising young men and women ruining their voices by trying to go too far, too quickly. This also makes figuring out your Fach quite difficult earlier on, as voices can and do change. As my voice teacher has repeatedly told me, almost all dramatic sopranos are trained as mezzos when they’re young. It’s just the quality of voice we have that makes teachers believe we’re mezzos early on (I also have quite a low range in part because I grew up with two older brothers who are basses, I copied their low speaking voices). There’s nothing wrong with this in general, as it gives us a bit of diversity in our training, as well as knowledge of mezzo roles (which comes in handy if you end up teaching voice, which I’m sure I’ll do at some point). However, there are some habits that I got into as a mezzo that don’t do anything for me as a soprano, so I’m also re-learning a few technical things (mostly just getting out of my own way and not over-thinking it). It also means that I have to completely change my outlook on the types of roles I’m going to get.

Mezzo roles, in general, tend to be the old woman/maiden aunt/evil lady, if they’re not trouser roles (trouser roles were originally written for castrati way back when, since there are no castrati now they’re generally played by women, mezzos having roughly the same range if not the same type of voice as a castrato). I was fine with this. I’ve done a few of these roles in opera productions in college, and I tend to enjoy scheming and/or being comedic. I hadn’t done any trouser roles, but I’m sure I would have at some point if I’d continued in mezzo-land. The thing is, I was sort of settling for it. I didn’t want to admit it, but I wanted to be the lead. I wanted to be the important one, the one who has the dramatic aria and steals the show. Not an ingenue (the romantic female lead), not Juliet, but Lady Macbeth. The woman who sees her life falling apart around her and laments the wrong decisions she’s made. That always appealed to me more. I can enjoy doing a comic role, although I don’t like being laughed at as much, but that isn’t where my heart is.

So becoming a soprano is an interesting experience for me. I’m scared. I’m scared of high notes, of sounding bad on them. I’m scared that I won’t get hired because of my size (although I’m still working toward a general “fuck you if you can’t see past size to the beauty of my voice” attitude). I’m scared that I won’t do as well as a soprano. But on the other hand, I’m excited. I’m excited that I finally get to learn the dramatic roles, that I can learn arias like Porgi Amor and Adieu notre petite table. I’m excited to get to be the center of attention on stage, and not because I just did a pratfall. I’m excited to learn new pieces, simply from an academic standpoint (I love learning new things).

Becoming a soprano is going to be a long road for me, both emotionally and technically. But I’m cautiously optimistic. The worst thing to do is not try.


Read Full Post »