Monthly Archives: May 2011

Robert, toi que j’aime

Isabelle sings this beautiful floating aria in Act 4, when Robert comes into her chambers to abduct her. By this point, Robert has lost just about all his worldly possessions and his honor, and is flirting with unholy magical powers.  Isabelle pleads with Robert to spare her, reminding him of the love she has for him.  A more complete synopsis is found on the Meyerbeer Fan Club website.

Some background.  Robert le Diable was Meyerbeer’s first overwhelmingly popular splash in the opera world.  The first performance took place in Paris, November of 1831, and the opera hit 100 performance by April of 1834 (Kaufman, 1984).  Not bad!  Meyerbeer was, for a period of time, as well-known as (and maybe even more popular than) his contemporary Rossini.  Robert le Diable is no longer performed as frequently, but it’s popped up a few times over the past 20 years.  I hope the popularity tide continues to turn.

Back in the day, Isabelle’s part was not considered the prime female role of the opera, but it has been my introduction to Meyerbeer’s work. I was originally drawn to the beautiful longing in the orchestra and the alternating stretch of the “chorus” and accelerando in the “verse.”  The range is C4-C6, with plenty of visits to my difficult friends E5-A5.

For your listening pleasure, and so you really know what I’m talking about: here is a recording by Beverly Sills, and here is June Anderson’s performance.  Thoughts on which rendition you like better?  I have adopted Sills’ high C6 in the final chorus before the cadenza.  It is Isabelle’s defiant, desperate cry, perfectly expressed by the M7 interval leap from D5 to C6 – it gives me the chills and thrills!

Robert, toi que j’aime et qui reçus ma fois, tu vois mon effroi!
Robert, you who I love and who received my time, you see my fear!
Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi!  Grace pour toi!
Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me!  Mercy for yourself!
Quoi? ton coeur, se dégage des sermens les plus doux?
What? your heart breaks the sweetest oaths?
Tu me rendis hommage, je suis à tes genoux, à tes genoux!
You showed me favor, I am at your knees, at your knees!
Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi!  Grace pour toi!
Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me!  Mercy for yourself!
O mon bien, mon bien suprême, toi que j’aime, tu vois mon effroi!
O my dear, my most dear, you who I love, you see my fear! 
Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi!
Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me!


The challenge.  This aria is not considered a standard offering at auditions and competitions, but I’m glad to have it on my rep list.  The music provides plenty of opportunity for a singer to demonstrate long line and breath control, but I think the biggest challenge is imbuing each phrase with character and expression.  The aria has three distinct sections of verse and chorus.  The text becomes quite repetitive, which means it is even more imperative that each line is sung with intention and meaning.  Otherwise, this seven-minute long aria becomes a draaaaaaag.

My interpretation (the plan so far).  The aria starts with a loving Isabelle sweetly telling Robert that she is afraid.  The rise and fall of the melody is soothing and gentle, as if she is weaving a calm spell over the crazed Robert.  She asks for mercy, but she is still in control of herself and the situation at-hand.  When Robert sings “No, no, no,” Isabelle’s calm cracks for the first time, and uncertainty creeps into her tone.

The ascending melody opening the second verse is an expression of Isabelle’s rising fear.  She appeals to Robert’s sense of honor, asking if his heart will break the promise he’s made.  She casts herself in a vulnerable, submissive role at Robert’s feet, in the hopes that Robert will not harm the woman he has such tender feelings for.  When Robert denies her a second time, Isabelle looses her confidence and her nerve.  Her soft cries float through the air, gliding and swooping until she ends the second chorus with a dying sob.

By the third verse, Isabelle knows she is running out of options and time.  She frantically reminds Robert that he is her most beloved.  The rocking melody from the first verse weaves into the ascending line from the second verse.  Her voice rises in a chromatic pattern as her hysteria builds.  She is desperate, begging for her life – the M7 leap in Sills’ version takes place – and pleading with Robert to spare her and to save himself.

Whew, what a ride.  I hope to do Isabelle justice.




Training and letting go with Diane

After ending the work week on Friday, I trekked over to my voice teacher’s and had a wonderful masterclass/lesson with soprano Diane Alexander.  It was exactly what I needed after Thursday night’s unsatisfactory practice.  I’ve learned all the new notes for my Musical Merit repertoire (six pieces in two months), but getting each piece into my voice has not been as smooth of a process.

My voice seems to change every few weeks when my teacher and I uncover a slight adjustment in my approach to support, resonance, breath, or vowel. I don’t mind improving, but having these changes in the weeks right before the biggest competition in town takes some of the fun out of the process.

As a coloratura soprano, my challenges occur when navigating around E5-F5-G5.  I feel like a beginner each time I encounter  one of these notes: how do I achieve the right combination of resonance and clarity?  These notes, of course, make their appearance in every single piece, so I need to get this straightened out.

In an effort to create depth and size through my problem passaggio, my latest strategy was to use the resonators in my mouth (teeth, tongue, palate) to generate more energy in the sound.  Instead, I ended up with a tired voice and doubts about my fundamental technique. Maybe I don’t know how to sing.  Maybe getting into graduate school was a fluke.  What if I’m not special enough to compete with the hordes of sopranos circling jobs like vultures …  This is such a dangerous path to go down.  I know when this thought-process starts gathering speed, but it’s hard to slap enough sense into yourself for it to be effective.

My teacher says to relax and just have fun because this is when the best singing happens.  I try to follow all his directions, but this one is tough: how can I relax and have fun when there is so much music for me to learn and when my technique isn’t secure?!   When my short-lived career is never going to have a chance to mature?!

Then Diane gave me the same message.  I never disbelieved my teacher, but hearing another experienced professional give me the same advice and then applaud the sound I produced right after taking the advice was a powerful moment.  We were working through “Willow Song” from The Ballad of Baby Doe, a piece that Diane is very familiar with.   She took my hand.  We sang the last page of ahh-ahh’s together, our hands swinging happily back and forth.  It was incredibly lighthearted and light-spirited.  The aria is wistful, hopeful, excited, tender, joyous, carefree, and loving, and I enjoyed it more in that moment than I ever have before.

Diane encouraged me to allow the voice to flip over the top half of the mask. This was a familiar idea, but one I had backed away from because I thought it was cutting off a deep-seated energy and thinning my voice.  The extra effort it took to control and multiply the sound was tiring my voice and leading me to over-sing.  With Diane’s suggestion, I was no longer fighting to control the flow of breath and sound – what a relief.  I used this in my practice tonight and sang comfortably for about an hour.  My voice felt stronger, my line was smoother throughout my range, and my breath was more stable with less air escaping unnecessarily.  YES!  Can’t wait to practice again tomorrow!



No shame in strategizing

Learning roles.  This means preparing all music for a character in a given opera even if you haven’t been cast yet.  This is how we pad our sparse resumes when actual stage-time is limited.  Am I speaking just for myself or are there brave souls out there who will admit to this strategy?  There’s no shame, just ruthless practicality.  No one can argue against the marketability of having a role ready to go:

– “Would you like to hire me?  I already know how to do this job.  I’ve spent hours studying, memorizing, and practicing.  And I won’t charge you extra for showing up perfectly qualified and super prepared.”

– “Sure.” (no arguments here)

HR experts and self-help/motivational speakers push us to dress for the job we want, not the job we have.  An opera singer puts on the Viking helmet of her dreams in the privacy of a practice room, and improves her odds by already knowing the notes and the characters.

It’s standard for applications, teachers, and other singers to ask what roles you have prepared.  Thinking fast, I say I’m working on what’s-her-name … because the straightforward answer is: I got nothin’.

The majority of my recent singing centered around local competitions and graduate school auditions.  These situations call for range in languages, time periods, and style.  It’s 15 minutes to show how much bang someone can get for their buck/endorsement/praise.  This versatility has its place in the real-world (I’m guessing here since my experience as a paid singer consists of two – count ’em, two! – contracts), but learning a role speaks of commitment.  It’s like getting your bachelor’s compared to taking some classes at the local community college; no one hates having credits in basketball and basket-weaving, but most of the praise seems to come around graduation time.

Working full-time, and going to school full-time (but not for music) left me very little time to prepare roles.  Thank the singing gods I’ll be an opera performance major in three months.  My existence will revolve around opera.  I’ll have the incredible luxury of spending 8+ hours a day on music rather than 8+ hours thinking about music.  I have a lot of catching up to do.  Many singers younger than me either have more experience or more impressive looking resumes.

I am singing a little of Pamina and Giulietta over the summer in San Francisco. I like a Giulietta with the guts to circumvent her family’s wishes and the maturity to balance out her emo youthfulness.  Does Pamina have the same fire?  She seems gentler and less terrifying to tackle, whereas Giulietta sounds like she could kick you in the face.  But Mozart is a trickster.  He strings notes together in straightforward progressions.  He says it’s okay to let down your guard and it’s absolutely possible to learn this piece in 30 minutes.  His lines float, but you realize you have to work to make it sound so effortless.

Pamina is a good place to start since the voice doesn’t have to fight the orchestration.  But the type of movement and control in Giulietta’s part is what I specialize in as a coloratura.  These two ladies will need to battle it out over the summer.

Plotting and scheming,


Born again

My name is Joyce, and this summer marks my transition into life as a full-time soprano.  The classical music scene is a tough one.  There aren’t many tattoos, piercings, gun-fights, or gangs, but it’s cut-throat, under-funded, and over-saturated with sopranos.

Sopranos.  They’re everywhere.  I trip over them.  I even live with one (but she’s wonderful).  And I have voluntarily signed up to compete with them for the rest of my days.  Voluntarily may not be the right word – let’s say my own sense of preservation forced me to re-evaluate my life on a grey cloudy morning while running on a treadmill.  It was not a pretty day, and my mood was just as uninviting and uninspired.  The thought of repeating the same routine was breathtakingly depressing, so how would I go through the same motions the rest of my life?

Something had to give.  That something turned out to be my job because I was laid off later that month.  The universe truly works in mysterious ways.

That was the turning-point, the moment when I stopped digging myself deeper into a pit of emptiness and accepted singing as my passion.   2.5 years later, I am getting ready to move to San Francisco for a summer opera program and then to Arizona for my master’s in opera performance.  It will be a busy transition, but it’s only the start.