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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 12 | Oct. 10, 2002

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 Music’s opera performance program, presented operatic excerpts at UBC’s recent Undergraduate Multidisciplinary Research Conference to demonstrate the work that goes into interpreting characters on stage.

“I think there’s a perception that opera singers don’t do research,” says Jones, who was the lead in Massenet’s Manon, performed by UBC’s Opera Ensemble during a tour of the Czech Republic in June 2002. “But it’s the performer’s responsibility to find out everything associated with their character and all the references that contributed to the composer’s writing of an opera.”

It’s 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 opera’s 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 opera’s 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, “it’s sometimes dangerous because singers can try to imitate what other singers are doing and we can’t 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 can’t sound like you’re from Langley,” Welsh laughs. “When you go on stage, the audience has to believe they’re 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 Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers, in November, The Merry Widow, in December, and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, in March 2003. For more information, visit www.music.ubc.ca.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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