Tag Archives: interpretation

Reframing My Goals for Musical Merit

Over the past few days my nervousness about Musical Merit has increased. I know after giving my recital that my technique will most likely stay intact, but how do I stack up against other singers? I know I’ve improved since last year, but by how much? And is it enough? What if they (the judges) don’t like me or my singing?

Dante helps me pack for my trip to San Deigo. NYC, 2014

Dante helps me pack for my trip to San Diego. NYC, 2014

These questions are common for singers to obsess over, but they’re not doing me any good. So, to combat my rising nervousness and doubt, I’ve decided to shift the focus of this trip from hoping to place in the competition to 1) singing each piece of music with conviction; and 2) treating myself to a mini-vacationContinue reading


Du also bist mein Bräutigam?… When hearing voices saves a life

I made it to the Bay Area! In a way, I have traveled back in time: I’m living at home (albeit just for about two weeks) and eating my parents’ food (delicious !). I drive around this town and cannot associate any of the sites or sights with the anxiety I experienced just a week ago as an independent “grown up”, working, living on my own, running errands, and trying to avoid traffic. The past two days have consisted of eating, shopping, and spending time with my family. Summer is now synonymous with fun, sunshine, and singing. I truly feel like a college student again.

I got down with my Pamina scene to finalize the memorization. BASOTI starts in seven days, and my fear is having one of my scenes cut if I show up unprepared. It’s been a few years since I sang this in college; the notes are still there but the German needed some lovin’. Some people complain that German is harsh or ugly, but I find it remarkably satisfying to sing. Lovely vowels with an equal emphasis placed on the importance of crisp consonants. I thanked the English translation printed in the score for providing the big picture but scoffed at its in-authenticity, given the poetic license taken to make things rhyme. As always, I like having a literal translation, word for word. It’s quite embarrassing and awkward if my character completely miss the dramatic or emotional point of the scene.

A not-too-freely-altered-for-rhyming-purposes version is readily available online, but I like to painstakingly cobble my own translation together. Word by painstaking word (my fantasy: I’ll miraculously and organically learn a language using this method). Thank goodness for the internet. But I must invest in a huge library of dictionaries once I’m done with all this moving.

My feelings on Die Zauberflöte are mixed; beautiful music but the plot is quite ridiculous and goes off on too many tangents. I find the character development flat and the pacing of the story a draaaaag. Perhaps there is just a little too much good music here? I think Mozart needed a cold-hearted editor to slash a big X through a couple measures and improve the flow. Pamina has some gorgeous music though, and I wouldn’t want any of it cut. Her almost-suicide scene is quite powerful if sung with the madness the three spirits reference several times (Wahnsinn tobt ihr im Gehirne). In my opinion, the biggest disservice a singer can do to Pamina is to sing her as a wimp. No one likes a quitter, but Pamina’s flirtation with death makes sense in light of the betrayal she experiences from both her prince, Tamino, and her mother, the Queen of the Night. I love this scene because Pamina’s vocal line jumps between short and long phrasing. Her text is straightforward, but her music alternates between emphatic statements and uncertain fragments. She isn’t thinking clearly, she is a mess.

I may have included the link before, but here is a little refresher if you need it. Pamina’s outfit takes some getting used to, but it’s a beautifully detailed production, Paris Opera in 2000.

Some back-story: Pamina is in love with Prince Tamino, who has taken a vow of silence to demonstrate his worthiness. Unfortunately, Tamino failed to mention the point of this exercise to Pamina, and she misinterprets his silence to mean his feelings for her have disappeared (this is when she sings the deceptively simple but heart-wrenchingly bleak “Ach, ich fühl’s” in Act 2). In addition to this drama in her love-life, Pamina is having some issues in her relationship with her mother. Mama is a smidgen manipulative and sees an opportunity to rid herself of a long-standing rival, Sarastro. She gives Pamina a dagger and two options: A) kill Sarastro, or B) be disowned, destroyed, and damned (alright, so the translation for the last bit is more along the lines of “cursed” but I couldn’t pass up the alliteration opportunity).

The scene. Pamina is really too nice to act as an assassin, so she comes up with option C) use the dagger to commit suicide instead. In her first line, she addresses the dagger and asks if it is to be her groom since Tamino has abandoned her (Du also bist mein Bräutigam?). The score notes that Pamina “rushes” in, and her vocal line is broken into two phrases for a breathless and frantic quality. Her second sentence carves a beautiful legato line and ends on a ringing upward swing; she exclaims that the dagger will complete her grief (Durch dich vollend’ ich meinen Gram). In these 4.5 measures, Mozart paints Pamina as unstable and alternating between crazed mutterings and manic proclamations.

Just as she is about to stab herself, the three adorable spirits take action and tear the dagger from her (Ha! Unglückliche, halt ein!). She scoffs (Was?) at the idea that Tamino, the one has turned away from her, still loves her. The score does not explicitly say whether Pamina ignores or is unaware of the spirits prior to this moment, but I like to imagine that her mental breakdown is so encompassing that she does not hear or see the spirits until they physical intervene.

This is the point where Pamina’s madness runs out of steam. After three beats, she asks why Tamino will not speak to her, a question that is also broken into two musical phrases as if she does not have the strength to finish the thought in one breath (Warum sphracher … nicht mit mir?). The three spirits say they are forbidden to answer this question (Dieses müssen wir verschweigen) but can take Pamina to see Tamino and his faithfulness (doch wir wollen ihn dir zeigen, und du wirst mit Staunen sehn, daß er dir sein Herz geweiht.) They talk her out of the dagger-ing and into finishing the scene with a quartet of love’s triumph over its enemies. Pamina is so convinced that she breaks the rhythmic unity of the quartet and leads the spirits in the final page of music (verloren ist der Feinde Müh, die Götter selbsten schützen sie.). It is a complete transformation, and Pamina’s confidence in herself and the universe is restored.

I’m ready to do this! The three spirits better be ready too – I will probably go after someone with Pamina’s dagger if this scene is cut from the BASOTI line-up.

With a head full of German,


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!