Opera N00b Performance Anxiety
September 14, 2009 1:51 PM   Subscribe

I was just cast in an opera! Problem: I have never been in an opera before, and am not really a "musical" person. Please help me keep from falling flat on my face!

Though I have landed a major role in an upcoming comic opera production, I don't know how to sing opera -- I have a lot of training as a performer but I haven't done any actual singing onstage in many years, let alone opera. The director and conductor have assured me that they have no problem with my character speak-singing most of his lines a la Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, and that I was cast because of what I would hopefully bring to the character in terms of acting. I trust the director completely and think everything will be fine... eventually.

The director keeps reminding me that it doesn't really matter what notes I'm singing, it's all really about when I start and stop singing. I have the book, and cd's of both the whole score and the piano music. But really none of this stuff means anything to me. I can sight read enough to pick out a melody, but when I look through all these pages of music notation, I can barely tell what I'm looking at. It's an original opera, so I don't have like a cast recording I can listen to.

By the time we're done rehearsing I'm sure I'll have that down. It's the first week of rehearsal that has me freaked. Tonight is a read-through with the whole cast, all of whom will be real live opera people. I can't help dreading that I'm going to look like a total ignoramus and wind up slowing things down. I'm sure they'll wonder why I was cast instead of an actual tenor. I am planning to go in and be confident and friendly, but I'm a little psyched out at this point.

If you have any advice to help get me through this rehearsal process I'd be happy to hear it. I only have two and a half weeks, I'll do whatever I have to do to ace this.
posted by hermitosis to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think everyone, regardless of their training, goes into a rehearsal with a little bit of trepidation. It's like the first day of school.

Just remind yourself: The director hired you for a reason. If anyone has any initial doubts, those doubts will be assuaged by you just doing what you are good at, and the cast will quickly come to see "oh, okay, I get it now," and they'll trust the director. Sure, there may be one or two snootypants "oh, you're not an opera person, what are you doing here?", but that reaction is more about them than it is about you, in my opinion.

And congrats!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:58 PM on September 14, 2009

That is so cool. Maybe you can work up some self confidence at the NYC Oct 7 karaoke meetup.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:59 PM on September 14, 2009

I know, you'll already be in production on Oct 7, but you can't have too much self confidence.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:01 PM on September 14, 2009

What's the comic opera? If it's one of the comic tenor roles from pretty much any Gilbert and Sullivan opera, it is semi-traditional to have a non-singing comedian in the role. (cf Eric Idle in the Mikado)
posted by rmd1023 at 3:01 PM on September 14, 2009

I take it you are having trouble reading the full score. If all the different lines are overwhelming, here's a tip: ignore most of it; much of it is just harmony and semi-percussive stuff. Both while you're reading and singing, focus like a laser on three things:

--Your part (useful for knowing what to sing);

--Whatever other character is singing at that instant (useful for knowing when to come in);

--Whatever instrument is keeping the beat (often chords in the, piano, low brass or low strings).

Most of the rest of the notes are just fluff.

One good exercise would be to go through the score with and mark which part(s) in the orchestra has the main melody at every point. This brings me to tip number two:

Bring a pencil.

You say you're not a musical person, so you may not be used to this, but you should write in pencil (never pen) directly on your copy of the score everything the director tells you about how or what to sing. This is a practice that is expected of all, and I mean all, professional musicians, and is probably expected of you. Do not be the person asking to borrow a pencil! That more than anything will land you directly in greenhorn territory.
posted by Commander Rachek at 3:19 PM on September 14, 2009

I'm an opera singer. First of all, it's no shame to ask for coaching. If you haven't done this already, get in touch with the composer or conductor and let them know that you'll need a lot of coaching on your part. Working on this stuff with someone else-- ideally someone friendly-- makes it a lot less scary. Write notes in pencil on your score during the coaching sessions so you'll remember what you worked out.

Meanwhile, the best thing you can do to prepare is this: get the rhythm.

Don't worry yet about the pitch of your notes. Don't worry yet about the instrumental bits. You say you can sight-read a bit, so I'm guessing you can read rhythms and time signatures. You've also got the CDs to help you.

Figure out how to speak the words of your part in rhythm. A major part of this is finding where the emphasis of each measure lies. Usually this will be on the "strong" beats. Finding these is easy:

The first beat of the bar is always strong.
In 4/4, beats one and three are strong: ONE-two-three-four.
In 2/2, generally just the first beat is strong.
3/4 is a waltz: ONE-and-two-and-three-and.
6/8 is the tempo of early rock ballads like "The Great Pretender": ONE-two-three-four-five-six.
This is a contemporary opera, so there may well be some weird time signatures (weird=anything with an odd number higher than 3). It is completely OK to ask for coaching on those.

Once you've worked out where the strong beats are, put little pencil marks above those notes, or underline those syllables in the text. Then work out the rest of the note values so you can speak the whole phrase in rhythm. Count the rests too, so you know where your next phrase starts. Go through your part section by section, clapping or tapping out the beat (including the rests) and speaking your own lines in rhythm at the same time.

If, by the first day of rehearsal, you're able to speak your entire part in rhythm, you'll be well prepared.

Good luck!
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:20 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Thanks for your help and encouragement everyone. A little update:

Tonight everyone there seemed just as nervous as I was, and they all claimed to feel completely unprepared. Then when we started, all around me were these beautiful voices! When it finally got to me I felt like a braying ass, and I was so nervous that my tempo was a disaster, but everyone was completely relaxed and friendly about helping me (just as I hoped but didn't dare to count on).

Part of the problem is I WANT to sing some parts if I can, even if I have to talk a lot of it. But the only way I will do this is if I have something to copy. So I talked to the director at intermission and he said that if we met tomorrow, he'd be perfectly happy to go through and make a recording for me with him singing my part, showing me exactly what goes where. I'm ace at memorizing something once I can actually hear it, and I have until Wednesday before I need to sing again -- plenty of time to practice.

With that guarantee, I felt 1000% better about the whole thing and actually didn't blow so hard at keeping the tempo in the second act.

I don't think it's okay to link to the production here because that would be presumptuously spammy, but if anyone wants to know more about it, you know how to reach me. Don't count me out for karaoke just yet -- maybe I can come out after the show.
posted by hermitosis at 9:06 PM on September 14, 2009

I'm curious what the opera itself is, as opposed to what theatre's staging it. It makes a difference: a non-singer would be great for anything newer than Gilbert & Sullivan, disastrous for anything older.
posted by spamguy at 6:30 AM on September 15, 2009

You might also want to get a friend who can sight-read to do a reference vocal for you.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:59 AM on September 15, 2009

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