Despina Chronicles: Words, words, words!

My teachers would be proud! I have taken their advice and am learning Despina the “right” way – text first and then notes. This approach was a success when learning Allerseelen last year, but I admit that it was the exception rather than the rule. The excitement of having new rep usually overwhelms my patience and common sense – I want to dive in, learn it all immediately, and practice until I can’t sing anymore. This really isn’t the best way to go about it, though…

It can be difficult to slow down and learn all the various elements separately. I think there are two sides to a singer: the Performer and the Musician. The Performer loves the drama, the excitement, the plot twists and turns, the gorgeous soaring lines, the orchestra, the flood of feelings. The Performer doesn’t want to wait – the Performer wants to do.

Then there’s the Musician. That’s the part of us that was listening when our teachers spoke their words of wisdom, the systematic and logical part of us that realizes the importance of establishing a solid technical foundation upon which we can then layer all the feeling and emoting and performing. By technical, I don’t just mean vocal technique (although that’s certainly one aspect of the foundation singers need); I also mean the technical details of language, diction, rhythm, pitch, and articulation — the tools through which we can effectively and honestly interpret what is printed on the page.

As my coaches have likely picked up, I really dislike speaking my text dramatically, declaiming it as an actor would. This is undoubtedly because I tend to learn the text and the music together – something I’ve gotten away with when it comes to songs and arias but is less possible with Mozart recit. The two elements are so associated with each other in my mind and muscle memory that it is uncomfortable to take away the music and rely on just the words. This is a weakness of mine and one I’m determined to eliminate.

Baritone Boy has been a wonderful resource, and I’ve added his suggestions to the tips gathered from classes, coachings, and masterclasses. Here’s the approach I have been using to learn all these words words words:

  1. Translation. Know what you are saying, and know what other people on stage are saying. All the time and effort you put into knowing your lines and your translation is only 50% effective if you don’t know what someone is saying to you and you stare/smile blankly at them.
  2. IPA what you need. I no longer IPA every syllable – I’m short on time and the amount of space on the page is usually limited too – but I will write in anything I’m not immediately sure about. Mostly this is in regards to the treatment of voiced/unvoiced consonants and occassionally which syllable is accented. I used to obsess over open/closed vowels, but no longer – in Italian there’s less agreement on which vowels are open and which are closed than one initially expects. I’m not making this up! I heard this directly from Marci Stapp, author of The Singer’s Guide to Languages and editor of Nico Castel’s Opera Libretti Series, more than once. Also, Ruth Ann Swenson suggested to just about every singer in a 2013 Astoria Music Festival masterclass to open up the vowels the singers were singing as closed.
  3. Know when to double consonants and, equally importantly, when not to double consonants. This should probably take priority over open/closed vowels. Excessive doubling of consonants, including the rolling of r’s that should be flipped, is one of the top diction inaccuracies. For consonants that should be doubled, try triple-ing them. Even when we think we’re doubling enough, odds are we can go even further.
  4. Know which syllables are accented. Think of the accented syllable as having a longer value and not just being louder or consisting of a heavier articulation. If a final syllable is unaccented, do not speak it (or sing it) as if it is the most fascinating note in the phrase.
  5. Get through every vowel sound in vowel liaisons. Don’t skip any of them!
    Despina vowel liaison.jpg

    a mash of vowels in the opening scene of Act II, Cosi fan tutte. NYC, 2014.

    Which is why the next point is important…

  6. Speak through the text slowly, and then repeat! No need to rush or even to deliver the lines with feeling. The goal of this exercise is not to try out different inflections or pacing, it is to build the diction cleanly into your muscles and mind.
  7. Baritone Boy offered this fantastic piece of advice: Keep the entire line of text energized and do not let the voice drop off at the end of a sentence. Americans tend to have a descending inflection at the ends of phrases in daily speech (try this — read out loud the previous sentence… Did your voice dip down at the end?). This, combined with the fact that most Italian words have unaccented final syllables, can result in dropped breath support and/or pulling back on the voice.

With this process, I’ve found that memorization is easier since I’ve already built in so much repetition. The Italian flows more smoothly, and I can direct more of my energy to the meaning and whether I’m singing the right notes and rhythms instead of getting tripped up by the diction.

If you have other suggestions regarding recitative of the Italian Mozart variety, please comment and share!



4 responses to “Despina Chronicles: Words, words, words!

  1. Hi Joyce,

    I am a soprano in India and I love your blog. It inspires me so much to keep on this path to opera which I love. I hope to get a formal education in europe soon. In the meantime I’m learning lot of repertoire and this particular post of yours was just divine help! Thank you! I’d like to know, while studying the recit, do you write out the text separately and learn it or do you read it from the score itself? Because if its the latter, then I too am soo tempted to sing it instead of speaking it!

    Thank you once again for all your posts! Best wishes, Faye

    • Hi Faye,

      Thank you for reading and commenting, and I’m so glad to hear you enjoy the blog. My goal is for it to be enjoyable and informative for both singers and non-singers alike, so thank you for your feedback!

      I do not like reading out of the score when learning text because everything else on the page is quite distracting. If I happen to have a copy of the Nico Castel IPA and translations, I’ll use that to save time on writing everything out myself. At other times I’ve written the text on index cards to make them more portable instead of shuffling a sheaf of paper everywhere I go.

      What repertoire are you learning and do you have some favorite pieces? There is so much beautiful music out there and not enough time!

  2. This is very useful for singers of all levels when learning a new piece, even though we often want to skip these steps and go straight to singing! Thank you for detailing the process!

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