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The Glenn Gould School Presents: Ask An Opera Singer (part one)

On November 16-17, the talented vocal students of The Glenn Gould School will stage two operas each night in The Royal Conservatory’s historic 103-year old Mazzoleni Concert Hall: Ned Rorem’s Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters and French-Canadian composer Joseph Vézina's Le Lauréat. Tickets are available at performance.rcmusic.ca.

This is one of several opera productions at The Royal Conservatory during its 2012.13 concert season. November 25 marks the Canadian premiere of international award-winning composer Brian Current’s new opera-oratorio Airline Icarus, about the intersecting thoughts of passengers aboard a commercial flight. Airline Icarus features soprano and Conservatory alumna Carla Huhtanen and many other faculty and alumni of The Glenn Gould School.

As students of The School prepare for the first of their two seasonal operas – look for another in March 2013 – we recruited 24-year-old soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon to help with some Opera 101 Mythbusting. A native of Davis, California, Lucy plays a major role in this season’s operas. We also asked our fans on Facebook and Twitter to contribute some questions they had on the subject of opera.
 

1.       Must you be fluent in the languages you sing?

No, you don’t have to be fluent, but having at least a basic understanding of the language really helps! Being a singer is really about being a storyteller or an actor, and you have to understand what you’re saying to ensure others understand as well. When we get a new piece of music, be it a song, an aria, or a whole role in an opera, our first step is to look at the text and do a detailed translation of the piece - much easier if you speak the language. Generally an opera singer has to have some level of facility with English, French, German, Italian, and another language of their choosing (often Russian or Spanish).
 

2.       Performing in an opera requires acting skills in addition to your vocal performance. What sort of acting training do you undergo as an opera singer?

The Glenn Gould School offered an acting course for Artist Diploma students last year, which this year also includes acting workshops. In my undergraduate education I didn’t take any acting classes, but stage experience helps immensely. I was fortunate to be able to work with a lot of different directors on different operas, and that has really helped me to be comfortable on stage.
 

3.       How much input do opera singers have in the development of the performance?

It depends on the production and the director! Sometimes a director comes in with a very concrete idea of how they want each moment to be structured, and I’ve worked with other directors that have a very different approach, where the actors and the director come to a consensus about each scene. Most of the time, though, it’s somewhere in the middle: the director has a plan, but it’s flexible. Everyone contributes their conception of the characters, and that helps shape the opera.
 

4.       How much choreography is involved in an opera production?

This also depends on the production and director! There are two basic times when you usually need choreography: when there’s something really funny on stage (physical humour, often lined up with the music) or when there’s something really scary (like a fight scene, or something where the actors could get hurt). Then sometimes there’s dancing and other traditionally “choreographed” moments.  We have a little of all of this in Vézina's Le Lauréat! Some directors like to use choreography a lot, like Marshall Pynkoski, who creates incredibly beautiful and intricate productions with Opera Atelier. Others are more free-form, more like what you or I would do in daily life.
 

5.       Do some operas have speaking parts?

Yes! Some operas do have speaking parts. Sometimes this may be called Singspiel, or a “singing play,” or an opéra comique (which doesn’t actually mean it’s a comic opera!). The first word comes from the German tradition of interspersing spoken dialogue with sung arias in what was then considered to be a less elite form of opera (these performances wouldn’t go up in the famous opera houses, but rather in community theatre spaces). However, some notable composers have written very beautiful and very important Singspiele, including Mozart! His opera Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute, is a Singspiel. Similarly, opéras comiques developed in France from vaudeville performances in the 18th century combined pre-existing songs with spoken dialogue. Like Germany’s Singspiel, eventually the opéras comiques developed their own rich tradition.  An example of an opera composed in this style is Bizet’s famous Carmen! Still, most operas don’t have any spoken parts. Instead, characters talk to each other with “recitative,” which is sort of like speak-singing.

 

6.       How do you take care of your voice when you are not performing?

There are a few things I try to do to make sure that I take good care of my voice. The first thing is to make sure that I’m taking good care of my health and my body in general since singing is really a full-body activity. I try to eat a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise daily. If I’m not healthy, I can’t sing to the best of my ability! I also try to avoid places where I’d have to speak really loudly for a long time, like loud restaurants.

Read part two of The Glenn Gould School Presents: Ask An Opera Student!

Thanks to Lucy Fitz Gibbon for teaching us all some basic opera knowledge!

Learn more about Lucy Fitz Gibbon at her website. If you’re in Toronto, you can catch Lucy as part of The Glenn Gould School student opera on November 16-17. She also performs with The Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble on November 20th at the Canadian Opera Company’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre and December 6th at Mazzoleni Concert Hall.

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