Ask the Opera Singer(s)...

Well, the title pretty much says it all. There are actually at least three of us on the SDMB, and I don’t mind in the least if any of them chime in, nor if there are any other professional singers who want to contribute.

For myself, Le Ministre, I’m a Canadian who has been a professional Opera Singer for 26 years.

A note for the Mods - MPSIMS seems to be where the “Ask the *…” threads live, and also I wanted to offer the opportunity for anyone to ask anything, even those who feel they don’t know very much about opera or music. So I started here rather than in the (perhaps more intuitive) Cafe Society. Move as you see fit…

I’m a bassoonist who has performed in many an opera, and loved it–playing in the pit can be great fun. Most fun? Probably playing the first bassoon part in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seviglia.

So, hmm, what question could I ask …

Is it fun, up there, in the lights? We’re not supposed to peek up, but sometimes I can’t help it.

I’m one of the aforementioned three, so I’ll chime in on this one (everyone’s experience is different, so there’s no reason everyone can’t answer this one).

Generally, yes, once you get to the actual performance. Rehearsal, especially techs, can be a grind, but once you’re up, in full performance mode, with the lights and the orchestra and the audience, it’s pretty much a blast. Exhausting, but a blast.

On the other hand, the lights are hella hot, especially under makeup and the typical opera costume.

Me in makeup.
Me in typical opera costume.

Yeah I’ve noticed how hot the singers get, dripping with sweat in those costumes, under the lights.

And of course you guys have about 1 billion more rehearsals than the orchestra musicians get. Seems like a lot of work.

Cool thread! I’m not much of an opera guy, but I have seen the Barber of Seville at theTeatro Colón in Buenos Aires for a walkup noseblled seat for $5. It was pretty awesome, both the theater and the performance.

fachverwirrt, what character are you playing with all the makeup? What does fachverwirrt mean?

Yeah, me too - I love being onstage, or I wouldn’t still be doing it.

I’m always gratified when a member of the orchestra enjoys doing operas - it’s not always the case, but it makes everything so much better when our partners in the pit are into the show.

To either: Are you miked? I always thought that one of the awesome things about opera is being so sing so “big”; to project your voice in a theatre without microphones. Now I’m reading here and there that miking singers happens.

Last of the (known) trio of singers reporting in - thanks for starting the thread, Ministre.

Singing on stage is an absolute blast. These days I’m doing more teaching than performing and I really miss it. The adrenaline mixed with the intense teamwork and audience feedback is awesome. And yeah, the lights are hot. I’ve sweated a few very nice costumes into ruin.

For the curious, here are my singer stats:

14 years experience ( only two when I didn’t have another job to make money…these days I have two other jobs)

Bass-baritone voice type

Miking usually only happens in acoustically poor halls where the singers have no chance of being heard or in modern works that call for special effects. I’ve done two miked productions, and in both cases they were brand new contemporary works that had spoken sections over loud orchestration. The mikes were turned on for just those parts.

That’s Andrew Borden in Lizzie Borden (yeah, that Lizzie Borden; they made an opera out of it).

Fachverwirrt means “fach (or cubbyhole, or pigeonhole) confused”. Fach is a German word meaning “compartment, cubbyhole, pigeonhole” that’s used in opera to denote a specific voice type, in terms not only of range, but weight, endurance, and timbre. Generally, a role is considered to belong to a certain Fach; only singers of that particular Fach need apply (personally, I think the Fach system is kind of stupid and limits the art somewhat, but that’s a losing battle, I’m afraid). Through most of my twenties, nobody, including me, was entirely sure what type of voice I had, whether it was lyric baritone, lyric tenor, dramatic tenor, Verdi baritone, or what. I ultimately settled in what I refer to as a spinto baritone, although that’s a term that’s normally only applied to tenors and sopranos.

It depends on the hall and on the company - for the most part, no, we’re not miked, and we train based on the idea that we will not be miked. That being said, there are many situations where we do get miked, such as big stadium concerts (‘The Three Tenors’ immediately come to mind - football stadiums just weren’t designed for acoustics), pops concerts, and increasingly, operas with a lot of spoken dialogue, particularly if it’s over the orchestra. I just did a piece in Victoria where we miked the dialogue but not the singing…

That being said, it’s amazing to be around some of the folks with really loud voices. When the Canadian Opera Company did the Ring cycle in 2006, the Siegfried, Christian Franz, had the largest voice I’ve ever heard. In the rehearsal hall, some of his lines just made your head snap back (but in a pretty way…)


There’s also “acoustic enhancement” which is used to liven up dead acoustic spaces. The singers themselves aren’t miked as far as I know; the entire space is miked, and special speakers essentially mimic resonance in strategic places around the hall. They do this at the New York State Theater, where New York City Opera is based, I believe.

Here’s a wiki.

Milked? I suppose some of the sopranos might keep a breast pump in the dressing room.

Do you like baroque opera? I love listening to the baroque opera on XM radio on Sunday afternoons.

I love it if it’s done well, though I can’t sing much of it. It takes tremendous vocal agility and a lot of specialized knowledge regarding ornamentation and style. I’ve been listening to a lot of the Vivaldi operas the Naive label has been putting out in the last few years – they make me dizzy.

I love opera, I really do. My most enjoyable gigs ever have pretty much all been opera. Also, bassoon parts in opera are usually terrific (even the second part).

So, yeah, I usually really get into it. How can you not just get swept up in the glory of it all?

Relating back to an earlier comment of mine: do you get annoyed or distracted if orchestra members look up from the pit?

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon - I love baroque opera, but I don’t care for period instruments. I’d rather hear a good, musically thought out performance; if that happens to be on viols rather than violins, fine, but I don’t chuck out Glenn Gould just because he played a piano rather than a harpsichord. Tastes vary, but I’m one of those people who prefers modern instruments to period ones, and I’ve really enjoyed doing Handel with a modern orchestra. I’ve found with Bach Oratorio (not Opera, but it’s another thing that classical singers do.) that if it’s down the half-step, it’s really low for me. (Period instrument orchestras mostly play a semi-tone lower than modern orchestras because that’s where scholarship indicates the pitch centre was - Modern A is ~440 Hz, Baroque A was around ~423 Hz.)

Figaro’s right, it’s challenging vocally - I like it because I get to make up my own ornamentation, though I’m by no means a specialist. And some shows, I wish I were getting paid by the note!

I know it drives some conductors bat-shit, but no, it doesn’t bother me unless someone misses a cue… Have you thought of attaching a small bike mirror to the bell of your bassoon? :smiley:

Once, in a 1993 production of ‘The Sorceror’ (G&S), it was my task to give the playoff hockey scores to the orchestra. The Leafs were in my left hand, and the Detroit Red Wings were in my right. When I came out at the end of the second act, I would hold my fingers on each hand in such a way as to give the score. Yes, even Opera fans in Toronto are that hockey crazed.

That is so awesome. I love singing really loudly, but to sing really loudly and really well… you must feel like gods!

Victoria, BC? What opera??

Ah, I am so relieved!