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

On November 16-17, the talented vocal students of The Glenn Gould School will put on 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.

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.       What is the difference between musical theatre and opera?

I’m definitely no expert on musical theatre, but it seems to me that most of the difference between musical theatre and opera lies in the way that we expect people to sing the music. Yes, musicals have spoken parts, but so do some operas (as the previous question showed). The two genres seem to be becoming more divergent as time goes on, whereas if you look at musicals that were written earlier in the 20th century, the standards of vocal production back then are more similar to what we consider to be operatic tradition. A lot of current musicals have more of a popular music influence and call for a more popular music style of singing. Also, today most of the time singers in musicals are amplified, whereas in opera that essentially never happens.

2.       What would you recommend as a “starter” opera for someone who has never been?

There are so many wonderful operas out there! I think the most important part of going to an opera for the first time, as with trying anything new, is to make sure that you have an open mind. I went to my first opera when I was eight years old (long before I had any interest in being a singer); it was Wagner’s Die Walküre and I was hooked! So, it’s not that hard to enjoy opera. That being said, here are a few operas that I think are a lot of fun to watch: Verdi’s La Traviata or Rigoletto, Puccini’s La Bohème or Madama Butterfly, and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or The Magic Flute. Opera Atelier is putting on this last opera here in Toronto this spring! And you can catch a lot of other wonderful operas at the Canadian Opera Company in 2013 as well, including Mozart’s beautiful La clemenza di Tito, Donizetti’s heartbreaking Lucia di Lammermoor, and Poulenc’s chilling Dialogues des Carmélites.

3.       What would be an effective way of creating interest in opera among younger people?

This is an excellent question.  I think there are a few things that all of us should keep in mind. The first is that you can’t decide that you dislike something until you try it! Opera is just like going to a play but on a more lavish scale.  There are beautiful costumes and sets, beautiful music, exciting plots (someone is usually dying, or in love, or both)…what is there not to like?  At the same time, I think it’s important to remember that operas are just like movies, plays, books, or anything else: some of them you like and some you don’t. Some are just boring! Sometimes you can’t get past the first chapter of that novel everyone else thinks is amazing. But that’s okay—it doesn’t mean that every book ever written is bad!  . There are even a few wonderful operas with compelling plots that also seem to put me to sleep by the end of the third act. It happens to everyone and you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t like something! Finally, I think that everything an opera company can do to make sure that operas are affordable and welcoming to the general public is really important.  Producing an opera is really expensive and so consequently the tickets can be expensive too.  If you’re a student, like me, you can’t usually afford to spend a lot of money.  Thankfully the big opera companies in Toronto do their best to help mitigate this problem and offer reduced rates for operagoers under 30.  When I was growing up, I went to the San Francisco opera all the time with my family. Tickets are usually pretty expensive, but not standing tickets! So, we’d climb all the stairs to the top of the theatre, pull out our binoculars, and have a great time. In San Francisco you get a great mix of folks at the opera: people down in the orchestra pit in their furs and diamonds, and people in the standing section in their jeans. Opera appeals to lots of different people.  You never know—one of them could be you!

4.       What is the most challenging role for a performer? (submitted by Jackie Barker via Facebook)

There are many very difficult roles for performers of all voice types, so it's hard to narrow it down to a few!   There are probably two main kinds of difficult roles: roles that sound really difficult and roles that are really hard to master, either from a musical or technical standpoint (and then those roles that fit in both categories).  A few that come to mind immediately are the notorious arias of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute.  The Queen of the Night has two famous arias with very difficult--and high--coloratura.  However if you're someone who is good at singing that kind of music because of your voice type, even though it sounds really hard to the audience it probably isn't the most difficult piece of music to sing!  Another opera that has a really difficult role is Thomas Adès' opera The Tempest.  The character Ariel has to sing a few incredibly difficult passages that sit very, very high in the voice, even higher than the Queen of the Night's arias, and for a longer period of time, plus they're challenging from a musical standpoint.  Then there are roles in operas that require a lot of stamina, like Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, or Brünnhilde in Wagner's Ring cycle.  Even though Susanna's arias aren't flashy, she is on stage practically from start to finish.  Wagner's Ring takes this to the extreme in a set of four operas often performed together over a series of nights.  People playing these roles have to be especially careful to sing with healthy technique or they won't make it to the end!  Finally, there are roles in contemporary operas that are very difficult to learn because of musical challenges: perhaps the rhythms or pitches are very complicated, making the role very hard to memorize or to coordinate with the orchestra.  This might be less evident to the audience than vocal acrobatics, but it doesn't make it any less challenging for the performers!  
Here are some links to youtube videos.

5.       Does your voice ever crack during a performance? (submitted by Keira Jay on Facebook)
Hmmm... well, I don't remember it having happened to me thus far (knock on wood), but I suppose you never know! 


6.       Can you tell us how opera singers train their voices to vibrate? (submitted by Rebecca Manga on Facebook)
Many people have very strong opinions on vibrato, so I hope that I don't start any arguments by answering this question!  Here is what I have to say on the subject: vibrato isn't something that I think about applying to my natural voice, but rather something that I view as a natural by-product of healthy singing, though it is also something that singers control.  I believe that every voice has its own unique vibrato that has both a natural interval (the distance between the highest pitch and the lowest pitch) and also its own speed (the frequency of those oscillations in pitch).  Generally, when the voice is what we in the Western classical tradition would consider "free"--when it's well supported and when a sufficient amount of air is naturally traveling through our resonating spaces so that the sound production is without tension--vibrato will be evident to some extent, depending on the singer.  So instead of thinking about cultivating vibrato, I think it's more important to think about how to best produce healthy sound and to see what emerges from that.

Read part one of The Glenn Gould School Presents: Ask An Opera Student.

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

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. Learn more about Lucy Fitz Gibbon at her website.

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As students of The Glenn Gould School prepare for the first of their two seasonal operas we recruited 24-year-old soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon to help with some Opera 101 Mythbusting.