Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fach the Tyranny, or The Importance of Being Dramatic

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A lot of people ask me how I came to be an opera singer. The answer is long and complicated, but can be condensed down to this: I’ve been doing it since I was little; I’m good at it; and it Just Made Sense.

WonderKid!Clouds was pretty full of herself. I was told, back then, that I was something special - that I had an exceptional voice which would bring me great success. I still get told that I have a lovely voice. The one thing that they don’t tell you when you’re an idealistic little kid is that having a lovely voice doesn’t actually get you all that far.

It will surprise precisely no-one when I say that all voices are different. In classical singing, we refer to different voice types as fãcher (singular form fach). As well as Soprano/Mezzo/Alto/Countertenor/Tenor/Baritone/Bass, there are further classifications within each pitch group: soubrette, lyric, coloratura, dramatic. A very, very basic analysis goes as follows: Soubrettes have small, light voices and do best in early music through to Mozart; light lyrics can extend through Beethoven into some Romantic repertoire; full lyrics and coloratura can sing the really famous stuff; and dramatics sing Verdi and Wagner. Essentially, the difference between soubrette/light lyric and dramatic is the difference between a choirboy and the woman in the horned helmet.

I am a soubrette soprano, which periodically gives me a bit of an identity crisis. See, lyric or coloratura is where the money’s at. Mozart still gets performed reasonably often, but early music is a bit of a niche market. Which is a shame, because I think it’s glorious, but that’s another debate for another post. Much as I love early music, I also love some of the later romantic repertoire and would dearly love to sing that on a stage for money. No dice.

I hesitate, here, to say that my voice is “different”. All voices are different. Jessie has a very different voice to mine, but the thing we have in common is that neither of our voice types is particularly easy to market. In my case, there is one practical reason why I won’t get hired to sing Puccini anytime soon: my voice isn’t very loud. It will grow, I’m told, with practice and confidence, but as it stands my voice would never carry over an orchestra in a large venue.

(The obvious answer might seem to be to use a microphone. However, aside from the fact that it’s Not Done, most conventional microphones cannot broadcast the dizzying heights of a soprano voice. Believe me, I was in a rock band.)

So I’m not going to be Mimi any time soon. That’s a shame. Can I start practising now, so I can be prepared for when I am ready?

The response, at this point, is divided. If I ask my singing teacher, I am rewarded with a frown and a sharp intake of breath. Oh, no no no. Too big. You’ll hurt yourself. If I ask my vocal coach, however, I am rewarded with an encouraging smile and the promise that I’ll get there really soon - all it will take is plenty of practice and an increase in confidence. Mixed messages, much? There’s clearly no universal law that states that She Who Is Soubrette Will Break Her Voice With Lyric Arias, so whom do I believe?

Practical considerations aside, there is one thing that confuses me about a soubrette attempting bigger repertoire. In these days of orchestral reductions and, yes, microphones (where the venues can afford super expensive ones), I sometimes fail to see why I should be quite so firmly discouraged from trying it out. Sure, I’d be a silly choice for a big opera house production with a full symphony orchestra, but for a little fringe production with a piano or string quartet?

There seems to be this idea that singing certain repertoire with anything less than the ideal voice is bad and wrong and will sound horrible. The quality of my voice, however - the thing that reportedly makes it so pleasant to listen to - doesn’t change, whatever I choose to sing with it. What’s wrong with taking a few risks once in a while?

I’m excited about Ah! Forget My Fate because I get to do just that. I’ll be branching into repertoire I’m usually advised against singing. I’m not going to break my voice on it, because I’ve been doing this long enough to know what is and is not safe for me. I’m just going to sing it, the way I know how, and see where it takes me. If it really does sound awful and wrong, I’ll have learned something about the way these things were written. If it sounds all right, then maybe I can come back onto this blog next month and start really challenging these ideas about what opera “should” sound like. Because, really, why not?

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