Introduction and Defining Terms

Characterising of an individual aria in a concert setting is generally considered to be much more difficult than characterising an entire operatic role.  This is likely to be because performing arias in a concert often means singing a succession of arias, from different operas, in a short space of time, standing in the same performance space, often in the same dress, and yet having to switch quickly from character to character.

I intend to explore how opera singers characterise a role for a staged opera through both in depth interviews and surveys. A survey of singing teachers will also establish how much emphasis is put on characterisation of arias in singing lessons alongside the teaching of technique.  I will also discover whether singers, and singing teachers, take a different approach to preparing arias to be performed on the concert platform, taking into account the different contexts of a concert performance and a fully staged opera, and in particular, what role characterisation plays within a concert performance.

Defining terms

It is important to define the terms used in the research questions.  The term ‘characterisation’ covers many parameters including, vocal colour, facial expression, tone, timbre, placing, location (imagined or actual), and context.

Below is a table of elements of characterisation which the singer can adopt to help communicate the character to the audience :

Face Expressions with eyes, mouth, eyebrows reflect the character’s temperament.
Posture Varied postural positions according to character’s age, emotional state etc.
Movements Walking, sitting, standing etc can all be altered to fit with the character eg slower for frail characters
Vocal colour Voice can be darkened (to sound more formal or older)Voice can be lightened for example, for humour
Breath Breath can audible or inaudible, a short intake, or long intake to show character’s emotional state.

The more technical vocal parameters are widely discussed by vocal pedagogical authors such as Janice Chapman, Richard Miller, Thomas Hemsley amongst others[1], but those elements outside of vocal technique, such as costume and adoption of particular physicalities to match the character do not tend to be included. For this research, ‘characterisation’ is meant as the process by which the singer communicates the character they are portraying to the audience in the opera.

Although the term ‘aria’ has a long and interesting etymology[2], for the purposes of this research, the term ‘opera aria’ is used to describe the section of an opera sung by one character.  Concert performances may often include the preceding recitative as it conveys plot, and therefore, importantly, helps the audience contextualise the aria.

It is interesting to note that ‘concert arias’ also exist[3], although not the subject of this research. I will be mainly using examples from later romantic repertoire which do not have recitative such as Signore Ascolta by Puccini, as this is the repertoire that I am mainly suited to.  As a contrast, I will also include Dove Sono by Mozart from the classical period with its recitative telling much of the Count’s character, thus making the fears and longing of the Countess expressed in the aria all the more salient for the audience.

The idea of ‘opera’, too, has a long and varied history[4], but for simplicity in this report, the term means a staged production where classical singing by the characters tells a narrative. The ‘concert platform’, interestingly, is not a term that has its own entry in the Grove Online resources, although is used extensively in biographies of musicians within the resource.  It is interesting to note that the way concerts are executed is continually evolving for example oratorios, which are traditionally static, are now sometimes semi-staged[5].

However, for this research the definition of a ‘concert’ works well:

A musical performance given for an audience, generally by relatively large numbers of players or singers; for performances by small groups or soloists, the term ‘recital’ is preferred. In the classical tradition, concerts are normally as untheatrical as possible, given without action, in ‘concert dress’ (white tie and tails for men, long gowns for women: the evening attire of the upper classes in the late 19th century) and with merely functional lighting and stage set-up. The audience is invited to respond to an experience that is principally auditory, and to do so in a rather formal manner. Concerts generally take place in purpose-built halls. They also have their rituals: applause for the arrival of the principal musicians, who may come on in succession (orchestra leader then conductor, for instance); silence during the performance; applause afterwards (but only after whole works). And these rituals are generally maintained even for performances of music far outside the orchestral tradition that gave birth to them: Renaissance church music, for example.[6]

However, in this research, a ‘recital’ can be considered synonymous with the term ‘concert’, and the ‘concert’ is one in which the programme comprises mainly or even entirely of opera arias, as previously defined.

Click here for next section, Personal Rationale for research.

[1] The selection included: Chapman Janice, Singing and Teaching Singing: A holistic approach, (Plural Publishing 2006); Miller Richard, On the Art of Singing, (OUP 1996); Hemsley Thomas, Singing and Imagination (OUP 1998); Potter John, The Cambridge Companion to Singing, Cambridge University Press 2000).

[2] Jack Westrup, et al. “Aria.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed July 10, 2012).

[3] The most famous concert arias were composed by Mozart for particular singers, or for insertion into his operas. There are other more up to date examples such as Phaedra by Benjamin Britten, written for Janet Baker.

[4] Arnold, Denis, et al. “opera.” In The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online, (accessed July 10, 2012).

[5] An example of a staged version of an oratorio is Merry Opera’s version of Handel’s Messiah.

[6] Hurd, Michael and Paul Griffiths . “concert.” In The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online, (accessed July 10, 2012).

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