Becoming the Badass Soprano: Learning from the Past
Yes, I do still blog when the mood strikes me – as it has recently.
Figuring out what rep to sing has always been a struggle for me. I mean, your fach is ultimately what you get cast to sing, but all of us have to start by figuring out what to sing in order to get cast. In my case, there has been a lot of disagreement on that subject.
Now that I'm singing way better than I ever have in repertoire that most people who hear me (FINALLY) agree is truly suited to my instrument, the question of what I used to sing - and what I maybe should have sung instead - has come up quite a bit in my recent lessons and coachings.
For anyone who missed my earlier posts on the subject, I sang lyric mezzo in my early 20s, much to the chagrin of many teachers and coaches I worked with at the time.
I won some of my first competitions singing rep like Gluck's Che farò senza Euridice? and Bizet's Ouvre ton coeur in the low key (which was still kinda high, but not as high as the high key).
My first few roles were the Sandman in Humperdink's Hansel and Gretel, Stephano in Gounod's Romeo and Juliette, Dorabella in Mozart's Così fan tutte, and Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.
So if we go by the conventional wisdom that your fach is determined by the roles you are cast in, a clear picture starts to emerge: I was basically a high (arguable zwischy) lyric mezzo.
But so many people who heard me fought me on that.
They loved my Parto but didn't think I was a mezzo. They didn't think I was an Orlovsky, but also didn't think I was a Rosalinda or an Adele. They heard the beginnings of my dramatic/Wagnarian potential before I was even out of undergrad, but since that potential displayed a soprano quality, they wanted me to sing decidedly soprano light lyric rep, with some coloratura thrown in (because my voice has always moved well).
That rep was uncomfortable for me, to say the least, but I sounded like a soprano and I looked like a soprano (or, at least I didn't look convincingly enough like a guy to sing pants roles), so according to the powers that be, that's what I should have been singing. Plus, as my top was more consistent than my middle, I would obviously never be heard over an orchestra if I didn't start singing higher rep. (The problem couldn't possibly have been that I needed better technique to fix my middle, right?)
Fast forward a bit to age 25 - I was out of school, sticking to my guns about the rep that felt comfortable, and living in Germany. I was hoping to find an agent and start working as a lyric mezzo.
But the people who heard me heard that dramatic/Wagnerian potential again. They understood why I sang lyric mezzo in my early 20s – that made sense to them – but they heard Brünnhilde in my future and insisted that lyric/Jungendlich rep was the way to get there.
They told me to look at Agathe, and Fiordiligi, and Salome in Massenet's Hérodiade.
And since I wasn't able to find work in Germany, I came back to the States, found a great new voice teacher, and embarked on five years of mastering my instrument while floundering for rep as a not-yet dramatic soprano.
Between the ages of 25 and 30, I burned through soprano rep like it was going out of style. I tried going lighter and I tried going heavier. I tried going higher and I tried going lower. I tried Mozart and Rossini and Verdi and Puccini and Massenet and Weber and Gluck and really anything that anyone suggested in the hope that something would feel "right."
I had very few successful auditions, but I was offered a Carmen cover, Tisbe in La Cenerentola, and Berta in The Barber of Seville. I was also invited to sing Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas in concert.
Despite all my efforts and the insistence of so many people that I would die alone in a ditch if I didn't start singing soprano, I was still basically still being cast as a high, zwischy mezzo.
At age 30 I was about ready to give up on singing all together. My technique was better than ever, but I wasn't auditioning successfully. And I felt like I couldn't put together a package of arias that really fit my voice to save my life.
Fortunately, a benevolent and established dramatic soprano offered some rep advice that got me motivated again. She said most of my rep was too lyric and suggested some entry-level dramatic pieces.
I took her advice and made it through a CD pre-screening for the first time since I started calling myself a soprano!
In my 30s my voice has continued to grow and change for the better – getting more reliable and more consistent as I store up little technical details, and as I find repertoire that really fits my voice.
One day, as a new teacher and I were working on some technique, we put it together that while I sounded like a soprano, my voice lined up more like a mezzo.
So we started talking about zwishy rep.
Not lyric zwischy rep this time. Dramatic zwischy rep.
And when other people heard my Santuzza, my Ortrud, my Eboli, my Fidelio Leonora they actually agreed that it was right for me - that it suited my voice.
Which brings me to now.
Now my teachers and coaches think I probably would have been a great Dorabella in my 20s because it's a lot like what I sing now, only lighter. They think I would have sung bel canto well – not bel canto like Norma, but definitely Adalgisa and Romeo. They think I probably would have been a great Rosina back in the day.
And we all kinda wonder what would have been different if I'd stuck with my zwischy rep over the last decade instead of taking a detour into decidedly-soprano land.
Maybe if I'd stuck with the zwischy rep, I would be blogging now about the folly of sticking with zwischy rep when everyone was telling me I was a soprano.
I can't go back, so I'll never know for sure.
But in hindsight, it seems my voice has always been happiest in the space between soprano and mezzo. That trying to go the lyric-to-dramatic soprano route was futile at best and, at worst, may have worked against the technique I was building.
Ultimately, all any of us can do is sing what we sing best as well as we can. But if I were to point to a life lesson I can apply going forward, it would be this:
If my technique is objectively improving and my voice is objectively growing but my repertoire is stagnant, it's probably time to find different rep.