As was pointed out to my by a fellow castmate, I just sang Alberich 6 times in 5 days, which, if you know the role, is A LOT. Normally you don’t sing Alberich (or any of the other larger Wagner roles) back-to-back. However, when you are single cast in a production, sometimes you do what you have to do. I also had a long day of singing at church–4 Masses, followed by opening night! Definitely a challenge to survive all of that intact! Luckily, there were several factors working in my favor: 1. This was a virtual production so there was no pressure to oversing to fill a large theater over a huge orchestra. 2. I was able to mark in the second dress rehearsal, and in the third we skipped some heftier chunks of music since they involved the same 3 singers in each performance. 3. Our coach was watching out for me and kept reminding me to take it easy and rest.
This has given me some time to think about vocal stamina and the importance of healthy technique. No two singers have the same voice, so no two singers have the same vocal needs. As you build your technique and figure out your instrument (the journey never really ends), you find the things that work. You find the preparation methods and warmup routines that seem to get your voice in its most optimal state, and then it’s about making those discoveries into habits. Once you get to know your voice, you have to actually listen to what your voice is telling you. If you feel like you are pushing or straining, you probably are. In my experience, healthy singing just feels good. If it doesn’t feel good, there is probably something out of alignment. If you are feeling tired and you notice that you are having to work harder at something in a given aria or song, it’s probably not a good idea to keep on shoving your voice through it. You might have to make some economical vocal choices to make it through, but in the end your voice will thank you for it.
Alberich is a big sing, and even though he is a very well-written role, he is still a beast to get through. I really had to pace myself, as well as be humble enough to admit that I am NOT invincible, and make smart choices along the way. Despite the reputation, Wagner is not just a lot of “park and bark.” His music actually has incredible nuance and dynamic range, and the secret to success seems to be not simply blowing through everything like a freight train. You really have to pay attention to the score, and see how he treats not only the voice, but also the accompanying instrumental textures. If you ascribe to the whole, “Wagner = Loud, Louder, Loudest” philosophy, you will simply not make it through the role. You also have to be aware of how to approach the heavy stuff. If you set it up right, it’s like lining up a clean shot with a bow and arrow–your voice can fly right through it. In fact, it can feel pretty incredible. If you are a little off in the setup...the struggle is real. I don’t pretend to be an expert on singing Wagner after my first outing with one role, but I did learn a thing or two.
If there is one other thing I learned from this role, it’s the importance of knowing your limits and prioritizing your own vocal health. We were so fortunate to have a coach who was very mindful of our pacing and made sure that our vocal health was also his priority. Especially as young singers, we tend to fancy ourselves to be invincible, and we never want to say no to anyone, because we are worried about missing out on some opportunity. We also never want to admit with something is a struggle, or doesn’t feel right. But while we are busy pretending everything is fine, on the other end they may not have any idea there is an issue until everything falls apart. And that’s a best-case scenario. In a bad situation, someone is going to ask you to push yourself past your healthy limit, and your voice will suffer. You have to be your own advocate. It’s a balance of course. You can’t be the diva who arrives wrapped in twelve scarves drinking tepid Evian through a straw, and demanding that the air conditioning in a whole mall be shut down as you walk through the food court. You have to be able to live your life. But you can absolutely recognize when you are struggling vocally and take steps to figure out what is going on, and if you need to mark or make some other vocal accommodation, there is absolutely no shame in making that choice. As many famous singers have said, you have to take care of your voice, because when that goes, all the rest will go too.
I spoke earlier about the “freakout” stage of my process: that magical time when I doubt everything. “Why did I say yes to this? Why did I think I could do this? It’s too much! I can’t do this. There is no way this will turn out well–failure, here I come...” The inner monologue continues. This opera is no exception. It is the second hardest opera I’ve ever done, and the role of Alberich is a beast.
This is where you have to decide if you are going to give up and throw in the towel or if you are going to push through in spite of the fear, and keep working. It’s very easy to give it up if it’s just a personal project, and that’s something we all tend to do. We set a goal, make a promise to ourselves, make a plan...then we give up. We might get sidetracked by the demands of life, we might hit a wall and concede defeat, we might just decide to work on a different project instead. But what if the project is for a gig (paid or not)? I find that makes it easier to persevere, because I really don’t have another option. I have often had to tackle music that was much more difficult than anything I would have chosen for myself, simply because it was the gig I was hired to do (or the gig I paid to do). Once the option of quitting is off the table, I know that no matter what I have to find a way to make it work. So when I hit the wall, as I invariably will, instead of just giving up, I allow myself to freak out for a bit, and then I get to work. And as I said before, if you just keep working on the things you can do, eventually it all comes together.
Speaking specifically of this role, the layers of the challenge hit me in stages: there’s so much German, there are so many weird chromatic intervals (Wagner loved him some tritones!), this role is a big sing (so can I even really sing it), it’s tricky to line up a virtual opera due to internet issues...the list goes on. The self-doubt has been very real, and I have had to really push myself to keep working in spite of that. It has been a while since I’ve had a role that required this much digging, and the work has been no joke. However, it has also been incredibly rewarding to have such a challenging project, and I have had to remind myself often how much of a privilege it is to have this opportunity. This is the crucial extra step in the equation that results in successfully overcoming the obstacles we place in our own way.
If the first part of the equation is perseverance in the face of fear and doubt, the second part is gratitude. Gratitude for the ability to sing and create, gratitude for the chance to learn this particular role at this time, gratitude for the colleagues that I get to work with, etc. Being thankful for the chance to engage in any project is really key to finding the motivation to overcome roadblocks. Thinking about the blessings in a situation can often shift the focus from being a victim to being a victor. Of course you have to focus on the problem(s) themselves, but if you can also remember the gifts that have gotten you where you are, you will remind yourself that you are stronger and more capable than you might have thought. Aside from the role itself, this attitude is the biggest takeaway from working on Alberich: success may be closer than we think if we confront any challenge with thoughtful patience, focused action, and honest gratitude.