UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 12 | Oct.
Opera Hits a High Note with Research
Singers study characters, storylines and history
By Michelle Cook
Singing may not be considered a science, but opera students
can hold their own - not to mention some very high notes -
when it comes to research.
Preparing to perform an opera role involves more than memorizing
lyrics and costume fittings, according to Stephen Bell, Paula
MacNeil, Rhoslyn Jones and Justin Welsh. The students, all
from the School of Musics opera performance program,
presented operatic excerpts at UBCs recent Undergraduate
Multidisciplinary Research Conference to demonstrate the work
that goes into interpreting characters on stage.
I think theres a perception that opera singers
dont do research, says Jones, who was the lead
in Massenets Manon, performed by UBCs Opera Ensemble
during a tour of the Czech Republic in June 2002. But
its the performers responsibility to find out
everything associated with their character and all the references
that contributed to the composers writing of an opera.
Its a big task, even for those with smaller roles,
and opera singers can spend anywhere from a few months to
more than a year researching their character and the opera
they will be performing.
Work begins by reading the libretto, the operas text.
Then, since most operas are based on myths or historical events,
performers hunt for the novels, poetry, plays, diaries and
historical accounts behind the operas story to help
them get to know their character and the time period. Performers
also look at how a character has been interpreted before.
For this, previous recordings of an opera can be valuable
but, Jones says, its sometimes dangerous because
singers can try to imitate what other singers are doing and
we cant do that; we have to create our own role.
Most operas are sung in languages other than English, and
performers must work with a diction coach to get accents right.
If you have a role in Manon, [a French opera] you cant
sound like youre from Langley, Welsh laughs. When
you go on stage, the audience has to believe theyre
seeing someone who speaks French.
And, say the four aspiring stars, all this must be done in
addition to actually learning to sing the part.
Unlike other academics, who keep written records of their
research, all an opera singer may have to show for their hard
work is a recording and, hopefully, rave reviews. But Jones,
Welsh, Bell and MacNeil agree that research and rehearsals
are far more important than the actual performance. The academic
and artistic value is in the process.
Upcoming performances by the UBC Opera Ensemble include Rossinis
Italian Girl in Algiers, in November, The Merry Widow, in
December, and Smetanas The Bartered Bride, in March
2003. For more information, visit www.music.ubc.ca.