The disparity between the number of books written on singing technique compared to those that mention characterisation (and none for concerts) points to the conclusion that characterisation is not prioritised by singers, even less so in concerts, where some singers believe that they are able to ‘get away with’ standing still. From the audience interviews, they want to see a fully rounded performance, and to understand the character’s feelings at the time of the aria. This does not indicate that a static performance is satisfactory, although it is often tolerated by audiences as it is understood to be a convention of the concert platform.
The disparity is further re-enforced by the fact that, from the surveys and interviews, both singers and teachers are not prioritising characterisation, but instead are emphasising the acquisition of a good vocal technique, or working on characterisation and vocal technique in tandem. The workshops I attended also had a significant focus on vocal technique, which does not help signal to singers that characterisation is the crucial element of conveying the character to an audience.
There is an argument that a singer’s approach to characterising arias for a concert performance should be the same as for performing the whole operatic role, but this is problematical for a number of performative reasons:
1. Professional singers are time poor: this is evidenced in part by the fact that in the survey, one of the reasons they do not watch the whole opera as preparation, is because they do not have sufficient time. They are often given short notice of a singing job, or it may be that their current engagement severely limits their preparation time for the next job. Singers are often also teachers or indeed working in another field completely to supplement their income, which also limits their preparation time.
2. Less experienced singers can find it very daunting to be told to approach characterising an aria as if they were going to perform the whole role. This is especially true if they are unlikely ever to perform the whole role, or in the case of young singers with professional aspirations, not for many years. They are also time poor if singing is a hobby squeezed in between other demands, such as another career or studies, which was the situation for me for a number of years.
3. Audiences have different expectations for different contexts, which was confirmed by the audience interviews, surrounding how much interaction they will have with a singer, and how much they will need to know in advance of the performance. Finding the right approach for characterising an will feel the confidence of the singer come across and enjoy the right level of characterisation for the event.
Conversely, it could also be argued that for all the research and time spent preparing an aria in depth, the end result is not always demonstrably different from that of a person who has done much less preparation. Anecdotal evidence from one young singer was that she did not even translate the aria fully (an agreed ‘must’ across all camps who may not agree on other topics), but often found she was praised by audience members for a good performance which brought over the character and connected with the audience well.
From the interviews and surveys, it is evident that singers do not have a particular approach for characterising an aria. This is compounded by the fact that they have little time to go into great detail, and have doubts as to whether it is entirely necessary to do so for the learning of a single aria from an opera.
There is a danger that each new generation of singers could be put off by unrealistic demands when learning a new aria (ie the presumption that one must learn the whole role from the outset approach), and their confidence levels could be undermined by an erroneous sense that they should have done extensive research before performing it.
Conversely, less experienced singers may not be aware that a significant level of detailed knowledge of the whole opera can improve the performance of a single aria.
From my experience and from the surveys and interviews, it appears that singers perform arias in concerts more often than whole roles. An exploration into characterisation and some recommended best practice should aid several contexts: preparation for recital exams in music conservatoires, opera concerts, auditions and competitions.
Conclusions from my research, concerning current approaches to characterisation
1. How do singers tend to approach characterising an aria?
There are various approaches singers take to characterise an aria. Universal to all contexts is the importance of translating and understanding the text, including the sub text, the context of it within the narrative and the relationships the singer has with other characters in the opera. This knowledge needs to be combined with correct learning of the pitches and rhythms. A knowledge of the opera’s plot is important, although opinions vary as to whether the composer’s source material should be researched to add more depth to the singer’s understanding.
From the ‘Getting into character’ survey, the singers prefer to sing roles in staged operas rather than arias in concerts. Along with the depth interviews, it is evident that they are thinking about how they would perform an aria within the opera, and not much about characterisation specifically for concerts.
2. How do singing teachers teach characterisation and how much emphasis do they put on this element of learning to sing ?
Based on the singer teachers’ survey, the comments from Trinity Laban College post graduate students and the lack of writing on the subject in pedagogical singing books, it appears that teachers spend the majority of their time teaching vocal technique. However, there is a strong argument that a focus on characterisation can improve technique, as is borne out by the footage of Kiri Te Kanawa and Angela Gheorghiu, who use elements of the staged choreography from the staged opera in their concert versions which appear to aid technical elements, such as supporting high notes with sufficient breath control. This needs to be in balance with an emphasis on vocal technique, not in lieu of it, otherwise singers can get into bad habits (such as weak breath control) which are damaging for their long term vocal health.
3. Do singers and singing teachers take a different approach for arias to be performed on the concert platform?
Singing teachers from the survey do give different advice for performing opera arias in a concert. They focus on practical considerations such as the selection of appropriate repertoire for the singer’s technical ability. They also wish to consider the whole programme: the mood and technical difficulty of arias to be spaced in such a way that the singer does not tire too quickly. They also consider the emotional journey of the programme, so that the audience can follow an overall narrative of the concert.
Singers are not, on the whole, thinking about approaching arias for concerts as a dramatic role, but rather a display of vocal ability. The perception seems to be that established artists sing the entire role, and new artists aspire to sing whole roles. Consequently, concert performances appear to be less well received by singers, who assign them as a second rate opportunity and as such they see them as less aspirational. Therefore, their approach is similar to that of an aria within an opera, although they will ‘scale down’ the characterisation in terms of physical movement and demonstration of emotion for the concert platform.
4. What are the different contexts of a concert performance and a fully staged opera ?
This table shows the major differences:
|Staged Aria||Aria in concert|
|Costume||No costume – often long evening dress for women or evening dress for men|
|Other characters on stage||No other characters on stage|
|Often with full orchestral accompaniment, sometimes with accompanying chorus||Often with piano reduction of the orchestral score; any accompanying chorus is absent|
|Performer knows whole role||Often performer has not performed the whole role|
|Performer never breaks through the fourth wall (in many productions, but in some they do)||Performer breaks through the fourth wall between arias|
|Long period of immersion in one character and musical style||Changing between several characters and musical styles in quick succession|
|Audience is brought along on a journey, aria not seen as separate performance||Audience responds to the separate performance (applause etc.)|
|Often a physical separation between audience and performer – stage, pit, size of venue, and lights which render the audience invisible to the performer||Often a closeness to the audience, and no ‘screen’ from the lights|
|Singer has been externally prepared by a stage director||Singer prepares themselves.|
|Rehearsal period to develop character||Little/no rehearsal period|
|Narrative is pre set – opera is sung in the order it was composed||Narrative can vary depending on the arias chosen|
It is clear that there are significant differences between performing in an opera and in a concert. There is a great deal more flexibility when performing a concert, as repertoire can be customised to suit both the singer and the audience. The singer can be their own director, meaning they can characterise the aria in the way they choose. However, arias outside their original context can be a challenge regarding the lack of visual ‘clues’ to the audience, such as props, scenery and other characters on stage, as well as the short amount of time the singer has to portray the character.
Often, the performer has limited performance space available in a concert setting, compared to a large opera house or theatre stage. In a concert, the performer is not expected to move away from the curve of the grand piano (assuming a piano reduction is being used and not an orchestra). This can be both a help and a hindrance. For those less experienced singers, it may help them find somewhere specific to stand and reduces the aimless wandering that can be brought on by nerves, but for the more experienced who can embody their character fully, it may be problematical to keep a character who lends themselves to movement, to be tethered to one spot.
This research has been most informative to my own approach to characterisation, and I hope the guide will be a help to others. I have learnt that characterisation is on a continuum, and so there is not a definite ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach to it. This means the performer has much more freedom to be creative. It is not necessary to characterise arias by always sticking rigidly to the original opera plot, although this approach can be appropriate for certain contexts. The meaning of the arias can be expanded or slightly adapted to fit into a different dramatic context – that of the opera concert.
Taruskin cites Norrington in saying that, ‘…in order to rediscover anything one must first remake oneself, and one must do this by challenging and bringing to consciousness all the prejudices and knee-jerk habits one never knew one had.'
Through a critical evaluation of filming myself in workshops, lessons and performances, I have noted some of my external ‘knee-jerk habits’ and have tried to remove them. At the same time, this research has helped me to change my habitual attitude to characterisation. I now feel able to look critically at any performance context in which I am asked to participate, and to make informed, nuanced choices for characterisation depending on the particular context of the performance.
 Richard Taruskin, Text and Act, (OUP 1995), 231