Learning an opera role is an interesting exercise, especially when it’s a really well-established role in a really well-known opera. You are at once expected to learn about the history, the traditions of performance, the great singers who have sung it before you...all of these things that will invariably help inform your own interpretation. However, all that background knowledge can add a certain weight to the whole process, a certain expectation. And even putting the weight of history aside, there are the myriad other challenges: pronunciation, translation (if in a foreign language), notes, rhythms, vocal technique, phrasing, artistry, acting, stamina...it’s a wonder anyone ever learns anything to begin with! But like so many other things, it’s just about focusing on process over product–if you just focus on the end result, you’ll never make it there. If you focus on the steps you will take along the way, they are much more manageable, and you can more easily do the work without feeling that “weight of expectation.”
So let’s talk about process. I want to be clear: this is just MY process, based on my experience. You will have to do the work to figure out your own, but I hope that this can be a help as you figure that out!
Getting started (like in many projects) is always tricky. I get the score, I open it up, flip through the crisp and unmarked pages...where do I begin? What is the best step? In fact, I’ll often just let the score sit on the piano for a while without opening it–just thinking about the process. I know once I get to work, I have to finish, so I wait a bit before getting “on the ride.” It is similar to the feeling of getting strapped/locked in at the beginning of a roller coaster, waiting for what lies ahead. Side note: I have learned that I am NOT a roller coaster person–I am perfectly content on the ground while you crazy people ride the coaster, thank you very much. So I wait, and think, and plan. I generally will make a chart of the work ahead, so at least I can see it all laid out on paper (I’m a fan of spreadsheets). I was introduced to “The Chart” concept by Ann Baltz (who founded OperaWorks), and it really did change the beginning stages of my process for the better!
And then, finally...the work begins. Usually I will sit down and plunk through the whole thing, accompanying myself and crashing through the singing as best I can. I don’t expect perfection, or even halfway decent anything...I just want to get a rough idea of what I’m in for. That helps me “frame” the opera in my mind so I can see the whole scope of the work. That is easier with some operas than others–my current project, Alberich in Das Rheingold, has been one of the more challenging roles to just stumble my way through. But I did it.
Once I’ve stumbled through it, I sit down and highlight my part throughout the whole score. Having that highlighted staff makes it easy for my eye to know where to look as soon as I turn the page. It also makes me feel like the score is really “mine”–I’ve made the first mark on it, so away we go. Then I start working with the translation and pronunciation...the really tedious stuff. Thankfully I don’t always have to go word by word and do a translation myself–Nico Castel books for the win! Although I will definitely look up words here and there to find alternate meanings, and if it’s a language I feel decent with, I’ll try to translate things without looking them up first, and then check after the fact. Speaking words by themselves, then in sentences, then in rhythm with the notes in the score, building in layers.
At the same time as the text work is going on, I’ll intersperse that with some time plunking out notes on the piano and singing parts, sometimes on text, sometimes on neutral syllables or some other vocalise (like a lip trill or through a straw). If an opera is broken up into arias and ensembles, I’ll generally start with one aria or ensemble, and use that as the first foothold on the rest of the piece. If there is recitative, that is whole other adventure! In fact, I think recit should get its own blog post! When I do it right, going back and forth between music and text helps reinforce each other, and it also keeps me from getting too bored with one or the other! Because boredom in role prep, folks, is a real thing! Keeping my mind active and working on different things makes it feel like I’m not getting to stuck in any one thing. Of course, sometimes you do just have buckle down and spend that time on an aria or scene–it’s all about finding a workable balance and knowing what you need to do as a part of your process.
And that’s really what this is all about–I don’t share my process because I think it’s the way everyone should work, or that I’m a great expert. I am sharing it because I’m hoping to help everyone find their own process. One of my professors in grad school (thanks, Dr. Rodgers!) talked about the importance of discovering your own learning process, so you can recognize those patterns that develop as you learn a role and figure out how to help them best serve you. And it’s absolutely true–once you know your process, whether it’s learning an opera role, fixing a leaky faucet, or cooking a five-course meal, the fear or uncertainty has less room to take hold. Which brings me to another crucial step in my process: the “oh no I can’t do this why did I say I could do this I’m going to fail and it’s impossible” breakdown.
This moment usually happens to me when I’m about ⅔ of the way through the work of learning a role. I begin to doubt myself and wonder what the heck I was thinking to take on this project. Usually someone gets to hear this venting in a bit of a rant (not necessarily hysterical, but definitely not exactly calm). I feel like this whole thing is just too much. It’s too hard, too impossible, so I should just stop right now. Interestingly enough, this moment always seems to happen at the point where things are about to get easier and feel much more natural (that ⅔ point). If I just keep working, and push through, I’ll get to the downhill side of things. Once I was able to recognize this as a legitimate part of my process, though, it became less of a scary crisis point, and more of a signpost of my progress. The whole, “Oh, I know that tree. I’ve been this way before” kind of thing. Knowing that there is something on the other side of it helps put this breakdown/freakout in perspective. It doesn’t stop me from having it, or feeling the concern, but it does allow me to weather that storm and come back to work the next day without feeling totally hopeless.
After clearing that last hurdle, it’s time to start working on memorization and artistry. Hopefully I’ve been laying some of the artistic foundation earlier (marking dynamics, looking through the piano part for clues as to what the orchestra will be doing, thinking on breath placement and phrasing, etc.). But now the focus can shift to those considerations once I’ve got enough of the role under my belt. And along the way, if I’ve been diligent with my other steps, the memorization has already been started long before I actively work on “trying to memorize.” There is still the need to drill certain things, review text and translations, work through scenes for memory’s sake, but there will already be a good foundation laid by my earlier careful prep. This is also a time when I might break out some recordings and do some listening, and even use those to help with memorization and acting. Sometimes just putting on a recording and lip-synching along while acting out the scene is really a lot of fun! Not only does it help with memorization, but it frees me up to explore the music and the drama without the burden of vocal considerations.
And then, finally, I have to put it all together, and get the thing on its feet while actually singing it. Again, if I’ve laid a solid foundation, this is less of a time of being afraid of the role and more a time of excitement. I have built the racecar, now it’s time to put it through its paces and see how it works on the racetrack. There is a lot to think about at any one moment when you are performing, so having the foundation not only helps combat nerves, but it also allows the freedom to explore and make new choices as you discover new things about the character and the world of the opera.
So...that’s it. A rough rundown of my process of learning an opera role. There are still more elements to it–recitative work, historical research, reading source material, basic background knowledge of style and performance tradition...but this is the framework I use. Or at least, this is the framework I try to use. I don’t always succeed in getting every step exactly in the same order, or being the totally organized and efficient singer I aspire to be. Sometimes there is a time crunch in preparation that requires some speeding ahead on things to cram it in place. But by knowing myself and my process, and knowing what I need to do to get the job done, I feel much more confident about preparation in a variety of circumstances.
And honestly, now that I actually think about this process, it really does apply to so many other areas of my life outside of opera. Especially the “breakdown/freakout” moment. How many times do we all do that, where we get stuck in our own “self-defeating” mindset? And often, funnily enough, it comes at EXACTLY the moment we are about to have a breakthrough in a positive way–we just don’t know that at the time.
I hope this look at my process is helpful for anyone reading this, and I hope that even if you aren’t an opera singer or performer, you can still find nuggets of inspiration to help figure out your own process in whatever area of life or work you find yourself struggling! If you know yourself and your process, you can conquer far more than you might think, and you will no doubt discover a whole host of new exciting adventures along the way.