You Came Here to Win, Didn't You?
WILLIAM R. BRAUN reveals some winning strategies for choosing a successful competition aria. Hint: go easy on the waltz songs, ladies.
Illustration: Janusz Kapusta
© Janusz Kapusta 2011
Aria competitions are an utterly artificial musical endeavor, but they are also a fact of life. For a young singer, the choice of arias can be just as important as the way they are sung. Here are some considerations that you, as a competitor, need to have in mind as you choose your repertoire. We'll start with observations from the perspective of the judging panel, then we'll add some advice from the perspective of your hard-working pianist. We assume that you have already whittled down your aria list to those pieces that both you and your teacher think are appropriate for you as an artist and are suitable for your voice. And please remember that the jury wants you to do well. In fact, the jury wants you to do so well that there needs to be no discussion about ranking anyone, because you so clearly won. This is a time for home runs — this is not a time to show us that you can bunt.
Mozart is always appropriate. If it were possible to get tired of Mozart, it would have happened to me by now. I could listen to Donna Elvira's "Mi tradì" every day for the next year. Your judges may even take energy from Mozart's music as the competition wears on. Moreover, if you can sing Ferrando's "Un'aura amorosa" or Sarastro's "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" with consistent tone and good legato, I will already know that you can do other things too. At the seven-hour gala honoring James Levine's twenty-fifth year at the Met, Dawn Upshaw sang "Deh vieni, non tardar." Dozens of Upshaw's colleagues sang arias that said, "How about me!" Upshaw's performance said, "How about this music?" It's a statement that you should consider making. This is partly because as a singer you are meant to be a musician, as Upshaw is. But also the idea of a performance as a statement about how marvelous the music is can take you outside of your own head and help you avoid the self-consciousness that can get you in your own way. Mozart is the little black cocktail dress of the aria world.
Explore Handel. Most singers are not suited to Caesar and Cleopatra. So what? With several dozen operas of twenty-odd arias apiece, Handel covered every shade of human emotion. I have sat at performances of Siroe and Orlando awestruck that every aria was a winner. I promise you that there is a Handel aria out there with your name on it. Look for it.
Ladies, go easy on the waltz songs. I hope that the rest of my life is long and full of music, and that I never have to hear
Juliette's waltz, Musetta's waltz, Monica's waltz or Marguerite's waltz ever again. If you are a Juliette, you know that the rest of the role is vocally unrelated to the waltz. Why not offer us the "potion aria" instead? (And please, don't call it the "poison aria.") If you really are a Marguerite, again the waltz is anomalous. Give us the "Roi de Thulé" instead, and grip us with your storytelling. If you really are a Musetta, we knew that when you walked out onstage. Sing something else.
Be able to do what the aria does. Simply by placing certain arias on your list, you are making a statement. If you offer Sesto's "Parto, parto," or the Count's aria, your statement is, "I can sing rapid triplets very clearly." If you offer "Una voce poco fa," your statement is, "I do not run out of breath on downward runs." If you offer "Steal Me, Sweet Thief," you are saying, "I can correctly count a measure of seven beats." If these statements are not true, sing something else. It is a never-ending source of amazement to me when a young woman announces "Stride la vampa," gets to the fifth measure and can't sing a trill. That faint rustling you hear is your jury scratching their heads.
Know the subtext, play the subtext. "Glitter and Be Gay" and the gavotte from Manon are fine pieces, but they are not about the things on the surface. In fact, they are pretty much about everything except what is on the surface, and if they are played literally, they become insufferable. Ditto Hamlet's drinking song and Lakmé's bell song. Even "O mio babbino caro," God help us, has subtext. (We are only going to ask for "O mio babbino caro" if the competition is running very late because … oh, please.) Show us what is really going on.
There's no need to worry about vocal categories. I don't feel that a twenty-two-year-old woman should define herself as a soprano or a mezzo-soprano. This isn't a crackpot theory of mine; Mozart, Gluck, Handel, Meyerbeer and Wagner didn't have much use for a distinction either. Thus I'm always happy when a young woman offers the page's aria from Roméo et Juliette, the page's aria from Les Huguenots, either of the arias Mozart wrote for Susanna in Figaro or either of the arias he wrote to replace them. I hardly need add that these are six enchanting pieces of music.
Know what is special about your voice. Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito is considered an especially cranky, ungrateful role, but Carol Vaness was surprised to hear this. "When I was first offered it, people were shocked that I could sing this part, but honestly it's not hard for me," she said in a 1989 interview. Do you have an aria that your friends and your colleagues think is quite difficult, but you find it to be no big deal? That's what you should be singing. If you can sing one of Vitellia's arias, one of Idamante's arias from Idomeneo (as a soprano or a tenor), Oberon's "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows" or Pelléas's "C'est le dernier soir," you have something special. These are thorny, difficult-to-cast roles. Many competition judges are also opera administrators, and they will notice. If pieces like these are hard for you, don't sing them. If they feel natural, take them and run like a thief.
Have a strategy for longer arias. Since you will be allowed to choose your first aria, ideally you want one that shows some variety in a short amount of time — something like Eboli's "O don fatale" or the Count's aria from Figaro. Arias that demonstrate only one thing are O.K. if they're short — Harlekin's little serenade from Ariadne auf Naxos, Don Giovanni's serenade, Susannah's "The Trees on the Mountain" — but a problem if they are long. The doll's aria from Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Prince Gremin's aria and the like are poor choices for your first aria, because they demonstrate only one part of what you can do, at great length. And be able to start at any place in the aria. A friend of mine was granted an audition with James Levine and was asked to sing the final third of one of Tito's arias. If you can't sing just the final third of your aria in front of James Levine, work on it (in your head, not by singing) until you can.
Your special enthusiasms may not be the judge's enthusiasms. If you love John Adams, I'm delighted, because I do too. But you will lose some other judges if you start in on "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung." (The real reason you shouldn't sing it, though, is that, like the doll's aria, it only shows one thing for a long time.) Countertenors, you may think that you should be cast as Octavian, Cherubino or Semiramide's Arsace, but (fairly or unfairly) most judges disagree. If the standard of singing in the competition is very high, the judging process comes down to reasons for eliminating someone. In a close finish, this could eliminate you.
And now, the pianist's perspective. We'll confine our discussion to those situations where you are working with a pianist provided by the competition, someone you don't know and haven't rehearsed with. Remember that in such cases, your pianist has absolutely no agenda other than giving you whatever you need; it is your responsibility to be as clear as possible about how you want your music to be played.
Know what markings are in your music. Your pianist will do everything possible to honor the markings that are penciled into your copy, so be sure they are yours. If you have borrowed a friend's score or a library copy, make sure the breath marks are the ones you actually do. Otherwise you may find your pianist stretching you out when you want to move ahead, or rushing you when you wanted time to take a breath. If you have a cadenza written out, be sure it's the one you sing, be sure it is legible, and be sure it indicates where the chords are supposed to come.
Be sure the music is usable. If your music is in those clear plastic page-protectors, your pianist can't make any quick notations about what you requested. They also cause odd reflections under stage lighting, obscuring the notes. Take your pages out. You can't expect your pianist to play from a huge, brand-new aria book that won't stay open. And avoid the new Schirmer anthologies, where the music is spread over a ludicrous number of pages. The newest Schirmer edition of Figaro's aria from Il Barbiere di Siviglia takes twenty pages. Look for an old Ricordi, where it takes ten.
Know how to indicate your tempo. In every coaching, you should practice demonstrating the tempo you want. You can do this by conducting, humming, singing lightly or speaking in rhythm. (If you do this by snapping your fingers, your pianist will play your aria a major third higher.) If you are not good at this, you need some strategy in choosing your arias. Think of "Ombra mai fù" or "Casta diva" or "Dove sono." The pianist has a lot of notes while you hold your first note. You are better off with something like "The Trees on the Mountain" or "Must the Winter Come So Soon," where more of your notes set the tempo at once.
Know when the piano can't give you a lot of support. Arias with long, sustained string chords don't translate well to the piano, and if you tend to be a little nervous you should work around them. No pianist can give you a lot of sound in Sophie's "Ich bin Euer Liebden in aller Ewigkeit," from Der Rosenkavalier. There's no bass, and the high chords die out quickly. Know that you need to carry it. This is why a tenor is better off with Ferrando's "Un'aura amorosa" than with Don Ottavio's "Dalla sua pace." If slow music is lower in register in the accompaniment, as in Billy Budd's aria, you will feel more secure.
Good luck! If you enjoy the music you choose, chances are that I'll enjoy it too. And somebody is going to win.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.
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