One of the hardest things about training as an opera singer is figuring out what roles to learn. Usually you start with recommendations of others, but at some point you have to start doing the exploration yourself. In a broader context this applies to pretty much any music you work on–how do you know what is the “right” role or song?
The obvious answer is the much-discussed fach system, where voices are classified into various categories, and then roles are grouped into those categories. It certainly has its uses as a jumping-off point, but it can be a bit limiting. Even if some role is supposed to fit your voice by the fach system classification, it may not be right for you. And just because a role is listed as a different fach than your voice, it doesn’t mean that it might not be a perfect fit. Don’t worry, this is not going to be a blog about the fach system!
But seriously...how do you know something is a good fit? In my experience, the answer is pretty simple: it just feels good. Whenever I start working on a role or song that feels somewhat “comfortable” for me, I know I’m on the right track. It’s not that everything is instantly easy, and that I don’t have to work at it, but there is just something about it that seems to fit. Just like when you are trying on clothes–you know when the fit feels good. The trick is to remember to listen to that feeling, since it’s not always immediately obvious. In fact, we often discount that feeling. If something feels “easy” or “comfortable” we have this idea that it must not be hard enough. We can accept that our skills have improved enough to make certain things easier to do, but when they DO seem easy, we just assume it’s because they were easy all along and therefore we need to look for something more challenging. It’s a weird little trick of the mind, and it’s so subtle that we don’t always see it.
I’m now slightly better at recognizing things that feel right, and going with that. Case in point: Vodnik. It felt pretty good last year, but by revisiting it, I know that this role just feels good in my voice, and I never feel like I’m trying to shoehorn my voice into something that doesn’t fit. I’ve sung arias in the past that just felt like a slog to get through, and then I’ve had arias that feel natural and effortless (in a way). The Catalogue Aria feels pretty easy, not because it IS, but because it fits nicely into my voice. That’s such an important realization to have as an artist: you don’t have to keep searching for the impossibly hard thing that you can barely sing yourself. That is not going to be what is impressive, and it is certainly not going to show you off well in an audition. If you find something that feels like it fits, maybe just run with it, and work on getting THAT role or song up to the best shape it can be. It will be far more satisfying, and possibly more successful for you in terms of results! Renee Fleming talks about that in her book, where she used to take these hard and unfamiliar arias to auditions thinking they’d be super impressive, when in fact it was having the opposite effect. Bottom line: when something feels good, SING IT.