Over the past week, I have been observing the art of opera, which became popular in the 1500s and 1600s. This week, my classmates and I learned about the importance of expressing the feelings of the character when singing opera. We learned that opera is a form of storytelling and that it is layered with cultural and social beliefs. We also studied the techniques and skills that classic vocalists need. The practice of opera links with the “Exploring Voices” course I am taking because it is so vested with cultural, social, and political information, just like many of the other topics we have studied in the course.
This week I had a couple of incredible opportunities to learn a lot about what it means to be an opera singer, both in general and on a day-to-day basis. On Monday, I watched ethnographer Lauren Vinderlen interview soprano singer Naomi Merer. And on Wednesday, I had the privilege of watching what was basically a voice lesson with Professor Isabel Bayrakdarian and voice student Terra Giddens. During both sessions, I took notes and we were able to ask questions. Merer’s interview was wide in its scope, starting with how she got into opera and then going into depth as to the unique and specific skills and training needed to be an opera singer. Merer then discussed the political and social aspects of opera, the impact of illness and injury on opera singers, and the shifting gender expectations in opera. Bayrakdarian’s lesson began with very complex warmups. She then had her student sing an Aria by Caccini and was very focused on both the quality of her voice and the expression of emotion in her voice.
After the experiences with opera that I had on Monday and Wednesday, I gained a lot of insight into many different aspects of opera. Firstly, I was really curious to hear Bayrakdarian’s ideas about the responsibilities of singers. She talked about the importance of not having an ego when singing. Singer’s voices, she says, must simply be conduits between the music and the magic that comes out through performance. I was also very absorbed by the interactions between Bayrakdarian and Giddens as Giddens sung a Caccini Aria. Giddens stressed the importance of knowing everything about the opera and the character one is acting as. Bayrakdarian focused a lot on the fact that there are exact physical motions within the body for everything one wants to achieve when singing. Seeing teacher and student learn together was very cool.
Cultivating a voice ready for the difficulties of singing opera requires heavy training and disciplining. Merer explained each skill she believes to be important in great detail. The first is balance in one’s voice to be able to sound comfortable on stage. Opera singers also have to learn how to pronunciate many languages; Merer has learned seven! They have to be able to make strong and purposeful gestures because the audience doesn’t understand the language being sung. Another skill is knowing the grammar and cultural context of each language. This includes how to say specific phrases and how to use insults. Lastly, opera singers have to be able to act; they have to really become their character and express the emotions that their character is feeling. I would never have thought about the importance of many of these skills and I am glad I was able to learn about them from Merer.
There are also many requirements needed to be able to participate in the culture of opera. Singers have to be committed to everything they have to do to keep up their voice. As shown by Bayrakdarian, this includes many warmups prior to singing and exercises after singing to make sure the voice stays in good condition. Next, Merer explained that opera singers have to be very cautious not to get sick. This is difficult, especially for those singers that have kids. However, opera singers also have to have incredible technique so that their technique will still translate if they are sick and have to perform. Lastly, Bayrakdarian spoke about a requirement for opera singers that I found to be very valuable. She said that singers must never show off or feel bad for themselves when they are singing; they have to be able to stay calm no matter what.
Through the interview and lesson that I witnessed, I learned a tremendous amount about values that are important to the culture of opera, mostly from Merer’s interview. She talked about the differences between opera singing in the U.S. and other countries, specifically Germany. Germany funds its artists while the U.S. does not; this brings more competition and less stability and predictability in the U.S. Merer also discussed the political and social aspects of opera. It is a historically exclusive institution and also Euro-centric. Merer brought up the fact that blackface and yellowface are still performed by white people at the Met today. Lastly, Merer talked about the gender expectations for what men’s and women’s opera voices should sound like. She then talked about how it is a trying time right now in opera with the LGBTQIA+ movement because opera voices are kind of set as male and female. However, she did note that this year held the first performance by a trans opera singer!
I am very glad that I was asked to go through this exercise because it was very unique and unlike anything I have ever done before. I already had a great time learning so much about opera in class on Monday and Wednesday but it was just as fulfilling to think about what I had learned and put my ideas down on paper. Opera is an amazing art and not one I had ever been interested in. I am now seriously intrigued by opera and hope to learn more about its meaning and context in the future.