Analysis: Surveys of singers and singing teachers

Qualitative and Quantitative survey results ‘Getting into Character’

From the survey, I wanted to gain opinion from a wider number of singers about how they characterise an aria, and in particular, their approach to an aria for the concert platform.

Below is the list of questions :

  1. What is the first thing you do when you have a new aria to learn ?
  2. When learning new arias, how frequently do you watch the whole opera (live and/or DVD) from which they originate ?
  3. In a concert setting, what techniques do you use to convey the character to an audience (ie when you have no other characters on stage, no costume and no props) ?
  4. Do you prefer to sing arias in a staged format (ie costumed, with props and other characters) or in a concert setting ?
  5. What, if any, barriers do you find in performing an aria in a concert setting ?
  6. What top tip can you give to help a singer characterise an aria in a concert setting ?
  7. In your opinion, how important is it that the aria remains true to the original plot when sung in the concert setting ?

There was a strong emphasis on translation and learning the music when beginning to learn an aria. They can be performed in the vernacular, and there are different types of translations available in librettos and other books. However, the implication of the survey was that singers do their own translations. 87% do not watch the whole opera when starting at this time, due to time issues or a fear of picking up mistakes from other performers, such as incorrect pitches or rhythms.

Forcing respondents to choose from a prescribed list[1], showed that ‘adopting a physicality appropriate to the character’ and ‘I alter my facial expressions’ were the most popular techniques respondents chose to characterise an aria in a concert.However, naturally bias had set it, as these were prompted, rather than unprompted responses.On reflection, it would have been interesting to first ask the question around techniques for characterisation in a concert in an unprompted way, to see the depth and breadth of participants’ answers, although, as the respondents included many opera singers, it would be likely that they could answer in detail, even when unprompted.

In the qualitative answer to the question about characterisation, there were many answers expressing ideas in many different ways. The overall theme was that singers needed to ‘act’ or in other words, ‘to adopt a suitable physicality for the character’.

In asking about singers’ preferences, over three quarters said they preferred singing in operas to in opera concerts.The reasons given were varied, but common themes included that it was ‘easier’ to characterise in the opera, and that it was more ‘fun’ when working with others in opera.However, there was also a recognition that the concert platform could give the singer more ‘flexibility’ and ‘personal input’, as there was no director.

Respondents cited ‘no other characters on stage to react to’ as their biggest barrier when performing arias in concerts, although this was a selection from a pre-defined list.The qualitative comments for the question surrounding barriers in concerts were split between those who found barriers, and those who did not.

The vast majority of respondents did not answer the question posed: What top tip can you give to help a singer characterise an aria in a concert setting ?Answers were mainly about how to characterise in general, not about anything specific for a concert.One or two mentioned appropriate spacing between arias, and decisions about when to go into character (a choice the singer does not have in an opera).Three respondents suggested learning the whole role as the approach, with one unrealistically suggesting that performing the whole role first was a ‘top tip’ for performing arias in a concert setting.

In answer to the question, ‘In your opinion, how important is it that the aria remains true to the original plot when sung in the concert setting ?’ just under half the of respondents thought singers should keep faithful to the original character from the opera.However, two thirds were either happy to change the aria’s meaning for a concert setting, or conceded that it may need small revisions. One response was:

There may simply be too much back-story to try to communicate to the audience in the context of a concert setting. And therefore, to provide a meaningful performance, a new context needs to be invented and communicated.[2]

Familiarity with the aria appears to be an important element to the enjoyment of the aria by the audience.  The aria O mio babbino caro,was cited more than once as problematical for its familiarity with a generalist audience through use in film, TV and advertising, who are unlikely to be aware of Lauretta’s ‘stroppy teenager’ persona in the opera from which it emanates, Gianni Schicciby Puccini.

 Qualitative and Quantitative survey results ‘Singing teachers’ Survey’

Having established clearly from the ‘Getting into character’ survey, that the singers surveyed much prefer singing in operas, and therefore answered as if characterising a whole role,the survey of singing teachers could then corroborate or reject the previous survey results.

Two thirds of respondents spend less than half of their teaching time characterisation. Opinions are divided, as were the singers, as to any distinction between technique and characterisation.  It could be argued that technique and characterisation are indistinguishable because to gain one, the other must be present.  This is exemplified by the respondent who said that characterisation, ‘ is all part of vocal technique’. There is, however, an opposing view that arias cannot be studied until a good vocal technique is first achieved, ‘Without solid technique one cannot characterise’.

A third view blends the two by stating that both technique and characterisation and inform each other, and when one area is working well, then so is the other :

The vocal/musical/emotive system is, in effect, one thing. When the voice is activated to its full, proper, natural function there is no distinction between technique and characterisation.[3]

I am inclined to agree with the third view, however, there are instances of singers performing many roles in succession and as a result, their vocal technique suffers.  This is likely to be due to a shift in focus to acquiring the correct rhythms and pitches of their role, along with all the production elements (blocking, costumes etc) over and above maintaining their vocal technique.

This is particularly true of the opera houses in Germany, where singers are engaged to perform roles, rather than to receive vocal training.[4] In the light of this, it appears that there should be, ideally, a constant re-balancing of focus for singers between maintaining and developing their vocal technique, and elements of characterisation as previously mentioned (posture, colouring of tone, facial expressions etc.)

In agreement with my earlier hypothesis from the in-depth interviews that singers put a great deal of their emphasis on vocal technique, three quarters of survey respondents rated ‘learning to sing technically well’ as ‘most important’.  This helps to confirm my conjecture that teachers and singers are not prioritising characterisation because of this.

Respondents rated ‘teaching the opera plot’ as ‘least important’, although in the comments, teachers wanted their students to know the opera plot, and could research it themselves.  This is problematical, because if teachers do not explicitly indicate to students that knowledge of the opera plot is necessary, students can easily miss out this crucial stage in learning an aria.

Instead of whole scores, students will often study arias from anthologies that help perpetuate the idea that arias are isolated pieces of music, rather than an extract from a whole narrative.  Some anthologies will include plot summaries, for example, Arias for Soprano[5]but I find this insufficient in my own preparation to really understand where the aria fits into the whole narrative.

Nearly all teachers (93%) surveyed said that they give specific advice for the preparation of arias to be sung in concerts. Some talked of the use of ‘imagination in lieu of external clues (eg no set or costume)’, and ‘verbal contact with the audience expected’ which shows that they are thinking about the different context of a concert.

They were also thinking practically, with many references to the need for careful programming of a concert of operas, including the avoidance of tiring the voice and that the big emotional demands of some arias may need to be tempered with others.The singers did not mention this practical consideration.

One respondent reported, ‘I would not suggest an evening composed exclusively of opera arias. There must be a leavening of art song/lied/chanson/English song.’  I agree that there must be a balance for the singer in the difficulty of repertoire in a concert as well as the emotional demands of the programme.  The audience also need to be taken on a narrative arc so they will not tire emotionally too soon.  However, I believe that this can be achieved entirely with a programme of opera arias, if they are carefully chosen and introduced appropriately.  The introductions can help to space the arias sufficiently to shift the mood of the concert for both the audience and the singer alike.

There were also mentions of allowing sufficient time between arias for the change of mood and character.This is in stark contrast to the Singers’ Survey ‘Getting into Character’ where no-one responded with any practical suggestions.

Click here for the next section: Analysis: Youtube footage of Angela Gheorghiu and Kiri Te Kanawa

[1] Click here to view the survey.

[4] Talk by soprano Suzanne McGrath ‘A view from Berlin’ on opportunities for opera singers in Germany 2nd August 2012.

[5] Robert L. Larsen,  Arias for Soprano: G. Schirmer Opera Anthology,  (G.Shirmer 1991)

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