Ask the (not quite) starving Opera Singer!

Thought I’d try my hand at this.

Go ahead: ask the wig-wearin’, tights sportin’, butt spankin’, cigar smokin’ opera singer anything your heart desires (within reason ;))

What’s the point of vibretto? Does it help project the voice? I know it makes the note easier to sustain, but is there any other reason for it to be accepted in opera?

Vibrato is a natural part of the human singing voice. It occurs in almost all singing, though it is sometimes undetectable to the ear. Although there are aesthetic tastes associated with it in opera, it is not something done intentionally or with conscious thought. Rather, it is a characteristic of the free, energized, and highly athletic singing that is required for classical singing. The operatic vibrato is distinct from the ‘pop’ vibrato you would associate with, say, Barbara Streisand or Whitney Houston–in which case it is often applied intentionally for effect.

vibrato itself does not add or subtract from the audibility of a singer’s voice. However, a vibrato that is too slow, too wide (in pitch fluctuation), too fast, or otherwise “off” can often be a sign of a voice in distress.

There was a good discussion of this topic in response to a “Cecil’s Mailbag” article a few months ago. SDMB member SLK’s comments were especially well-informed. the website is:

Thanks for the question!

Having now looked it over, I want to emphasize that the thread I posted above contains a lot of misinformation as well as good stuff. Again, SLK had the best posts on the subject, IMHO.

OK, I can see “wig-wearin’, tights sportin’, and butt spankin’.” But doesn’t cigar-smokin’ ruin your voice?

Also, got any funny stories about goof-ups or practical jokes that were played onstage?

And IS it indeed over when the fat lady sings?

Yes, smoking definitely ruins the singing voice. The things I listed I’ve only (mostly ;)) done on stage.

Let’s see…a couple of my favorites:

I once did a show called “The Elixir of Love” (l’elisir d’amore) in which I played a traveling “doctor” selling fake remedies. My big entrance was supposed to be in a fire-engine red 1950’s pickup truck (engine off, of course). Anyway, this had gone flawlessly in rehearsal (we would put the thing in neutral and stage hands would shove it out onto the stage. my job was to brake and steer to the right mark), but on opening night I climbed into the cab of the truck as my entrance music started and there were no keys!!!. The truck was updated to have an automatic transmission, so it was stuck in “park” and couldn’t be moved. A huge flashlit melee ensued, and eventually the keys were found, but by the time I got onstage with my truck, the entrance chorus was over, and the audience sat and watched while I trundled (squeek…squeek…squeek) across the stage. I was so out of breath from the excitement that I didn’t sing too well, either :frowning:

Last year during a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute I had to sit and make an very serious, empassioned speech to a bunch of “priests” who had all decided to hike up their robes and “freeball” it (backs to the audience, so only I could see).

My girlfriend once had to walk a dog onstage during a production of Massenet’s Manon. She was all decked out in a beautiful gown, a period wig, jewelry, the works–very elegent. But it was a crowd scene set in a public park, and every night the dog (a borzoi–pretty big) would go bolting after the puppets in the Punch and Judy Show being performed on the other side of the stage. She’s still pissed about that.

I’ve got more, but this might end up just being boring…

As for the fat lady…well…often yes, it is over when she sings.

Maria Callas was bold enough to show us something new, by way of obscure operas of the bel canto variety. This legacy has all but died with her. Why?

Donna Galloway is a coloratura in possesion of a clear voice (if a tad high for my taste) particularly suited for Mozart. In fact, I’ve never seen her do anything else. Has she, in fact, done anything else? And I find her stage presence to be somewhat stilted and wooden. Do you agree?

supertitles - a sop to the weak-minded, or a welcome aide for opera “newbies”?

aschrott: Do you know the soprano Olivia Stapp? I went to high school with her son, Hank, and stayed in their house a while when her son was injured.

If Cecil Adams did not exist, we would be obliged to create Him.

Who are you calling a newbie?

I’ve been around long enough to know that Beverley Sills is the most over rated cow in living memory. And no matter what she wears on stage, she looks like a shmata

Wait a minute. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t know anything about opera.

My favourite pastimes are snooker and poker.


WallyM7 asks:

I’m afraid I don’t have the kind of knowledge to answer that question completely. Maria Callas was an enigmatic figure, because although she was primarily known for the bel canto repertoire (that’s “beautiful singing”, for those who aren’t familiar–a style of opera that puts emphasis on the vocal line first and foremost while other musical and dramatic elements take a back seat), she wasn’t possessed of a particularly beautiful voice. What she brought to the stage was a kind of dramatic commitment and insight that was unprecedented in singers of the “golden age”. It was then the norm for singers to be fairly wooden figures on stage–stepping down center for their arias, and then not doing much else. Callas had a visceral interperetive quality that raised the bar for everyone else–the consummate singing actress.

As far as the repertiore question goes, Wally, I can’t answer. It may very well be that some of the pieces she brought to light have since faded from view, but that isn’t necessarily due to her presence/absence. Opera history is full of ebbs and flows in taste and interest. On the other hand, there have been few singers since Callas that wield the kind of artistic clout that she did.

I’ve never heard of her. Many people do become hyper-specialized, though, especially coluratura sopranos for whom there aren’t all that many roles. My guess is that she sings the Queen of the Night? I know one woman who sings nothing but that one role–period. She works all year, every year doing essentially nothing but two arias and some dialogue in various translations and cut formats. I think it would be the artistic touch of death, but she makes a killing at it.

Arnold asks:

IMHO, supertitles are the best thing to hit opera in a long time. They have some drawbacks, but the benefits far outweigh them. Supertitles allow for the best of both worlds: they let you hear the music in its original language (more important than you might think–composers write their music with the vowels, accents, stresses, etc. of the language in mind) while still understanding the action. In the old days you had to come to the opera already knowing the story unless you spoke the language in which it was to be sung.

The big drawback of supertitles is that they often supplant the singers as the audience’s primary focus. It’s especially troubling in comedies, where audiences will start laughing at the joke in the supertitles before it has even occured on stage. It takes some of the interactive joy out of performing, because you feel disconnected from those watching.

The other option, of course, is to do opera in translation. I’ve had mixed experiences with it. Singing in a translation is often awkward, and at times the elegance of a good libretto can be compromised because silly or misleading words were included to acommodate a rhyme scheme. You do avoid the supertitle quandry, though. And people always get the jokes–if they’re done well.

single dad:

Sorry. What does she do primarily? Where?

You realize, of course, that you’re trashing a legend? I have to agree though. Beverly Sills had amazing high notes. Period. The rest of her voice was a mess (IMHO), and the quality of her singing deteriorated quickly over the years (especially evident in poor intonation). She did a lot of good for the art form though, since many people know her name and have heard music that they otherwise might not have simply because she recorded or performed it.

I managed to find Olivia Stapp on the All Music Guide (a site I highly recommend, since I write for them occasionally…plug…plug… Singledad, she’s listed on several recordings there.

Wally, Donna Galloway has a home page at According to the info there, she also sings quite a bit of Donizetti and Strauss. It looks as if she was a member of the Chicago Lyric’s young artist program at some point–very prestigious.

Thanks, aschrott.

I’ll have a look.

What are your favorite roles?

And – do you feel that there’s an undue emphasis in casting on singing ability, to the (sometimes) detriment of acting ability?

I ask this because I’ve seen, in several shows, performers who were singing the hell out of their roles, but who were mediocre actors, at best… I remember a Carmen that left me completely unconvinced that anyone would be seduced by the wooden lady up there. Granted, she could sing… but nothing else.

  • Rick

I am fond of Kathleen Battle.

Professional Opinion?



My own favorites to sing include:

All of the Mozart roles for Bass-baritone, especially Figaro, Don Alfonso (Cosi fan tutte), Leporello (Don Giovanni) and Osmin (Die Entführung aus dem Serail).

Colline, in Puccini’s La Bohème

Bottom, Peter Quince and Theseus, from Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Collatinus from his The Rape of Lucretia.

Two which you probably will not have heard of, but which are especially near and dear to me:

The role of Hotel Manager/Duke/Trial Judge in Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face (yes, that means what you think it does :D), and the role of the Father in Marc Anthony Turnage’s Greek–an updating of the Oedipus story set in London’s east end.

Those pieces were written in England within the last ten years, and I performed in the American premieres of both, so I feel like a part of their history (plus they got a lot of media exposure, which really helped me!)

It really depends. The bottom line in opera is always the music–otherwise a play would be equally satisfying (perhaps more). But, in my view opera is only really successful when the music and drama are equally convincing, and both treated with equal care. The kind of show you’re describing isn’t worth seeing, in my view.

The well-known stereotype is that all opera singers are fat louts and cows with little going on upstairs. And, fifty years ago there was little expected of a singer other than to stand and sing beautifully. But that isn’t the norm anymore. Singers are expected more and more to keep themselves in shape and to approach performing with more of a “gesamtkunst” in mind. While singing on stage I have had to: Ride a bike, juggle, engage in acts of S&M, climb ladders, take prat falls, etc. The trend is very much in the direction of placing more emphasis on acting and drama, and those of us who are young up-and-comers are mostly taught and encouraged to approach singing that way.

However, I’ve seen a number of productions like the one you describe-including a Carmen starring two unbelievably fat and unattractive people. My personal favorite was a production of Puccini’s Turandot. If you don’t know the story, Turandot is a chinese princess who is so beautiful that men from far and wide come and risk their very lives to court her. She must have weighed 400lbs. I’m not kidding.

The bottom line for me, Rick, is the particular opera being performed. If it’s something by Donizetti, Bellini, or any of those other bel canto composers, the action will not be believable no matter how fine an actor you have in a role. Those kinds of operas require an unusual suspension of disbelief (as, for instance, in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor where two men draw their swords, take them back to strike at one another, and then sing a 6-7 minute ensemble before beginning to fight). In that case, I want the singing to be of the highest quality, even if the stage performances aren’t gripping.

But, if it’s anything comedic, anything Mozart, or anything modern (just examples), I would rather be engaged and entertained at the reasonable expense of singing than bored to tears.

As a side note, the increased emphasis on appearance is a problem for a lot of performers because their vocal type and physical type do not match. No matter how beautifully she sings, a six-foot soprano is unlikely to be cast opposite your average sub-six-foot (ahem) tenor. If she’s Joan Sutherland, then fine, but otherwise she had better go and find some tall men. Myself, I’m 6’4" and I only weigh 160lbs., so roles that require a burly stage presence don’t come my way very often.

wow…long winded today :slight_smile: (favorite subject!)

“I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception”
–Groucho Marx

Well…I don’t care for her, but that’s no reason for you not to like her. The whole point of enjoying music live is that it allows for different voices to emerge (both literally and figuratively).

IMHO, she represents the difference between a “pretty” voice (her), and a “beautiful” voice (Renee Fleming, Pavarotti, any number of others). Her voice has a clarity that many people find appealing, but to my ear it is uninteresting and monochromatic. Also–because delving into any pursuit to the degree that I have this one inevitably leads to pickiness–I just can’t get over the technical inadequacies of her singing. She can only do things one way–she’s limited by her own way of singing. The singers that I enjoy most are the ones that surprise you with what they are able to do from moment to moment, and who allow their musicianship and dramatic sense to dictate their vocal choices, not vice versa. Having said that, I have at least one recording of hers that I still enjoy quite a bit.

KB has always been a hot topic of discussion among singers because she has a reputation for being…“difficult”. She will never again sing at the Metropolitan opera, which used to be her mainstay, because her attitude was too much to deal with. But many people think she gets a bad rap. Three different people whose opinions I trust have worked with her in the past few years, and all of them found her to be very pleasant.

Listen to what you like. Anybody who tells you not to doesn’t get the point, and probably is missing out on their own enjoyment. But my advice is to always seek out new things too. My own tastes change so often that I have racks of CD’s I can’t stand to listen to anymore.

“I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception”
–Groucho Marx

To me, Battle is merely competent.

I don’t think that she has an “interesting” voice.

An expert may well disagree. Everyone’s “ear” is different.

Thank you for your response.

It is indeed the clarity of KB’s voice that I like. To me, other female voices that I run across, say, on PBS, I find muddy.

I am a rather casual listener though and don’t know many of the names. The next time I have expendable cash I will look for Renee Fleming. (I have some Pavarotti!)

Thanks again,