I’ve criticized you on many occasions, and I regret it deeply. You never deserved to be criticized. My behavior was a reflection of my own fear that you might not succeed. But you’re doing just fine, and I don’t have to criticize your choices or actions. Especially now that I realize it was never really helpful, I’m very sorry for all the times I made you feel bad about yourself. I’m committed to changing that behavior. I hope we can start over. Love, Mother
In just a few weeks, I’m reaching a milestone in my operatic career: my 50th role.
That doesn’t mean years of merely memorizing music; role preparation is a process and an essential part of life as an opera singer. Over the years, I’ve honed that process and I’ve found exactly what works for me in order to take on a new character.
It’s a meticulous and fascinating journey every time I open up a new score. No matter what role I learn, here are the steps I take along the way:
1. Buy The Right Score
First things first! This may seem obvious but it’s a step that can’t afford to be overlooked.
There are many editions of opera scores out there and what works for Puccini is not going to work for Mozart. Different musicologists and editors decide what goes into a score, and you have to choose an accurate source for your music-making.
Bärenreiter is great for Mozart, and Ricordi is good for Puccini, but do your research and ask a coach or conductor before you make that purchase—it can be quite expensive! When I was young, I made the mistake of buying a full opera score (the entire orchestra part) so be smart and order a vocal score (voice and piano reduction).
Some scores have a lot of editorial mistakes, so be sure to crosscheck with other scores, if you can get your hands on them, before making the purchase. You want a score that is reliable.
Make sure you purchase the right version and the one that’s the most stylistically accurate: it’ll show the conductor you mean business at that first rehearsal.
For buying scores, I recommend Classical Vocal Reprints. Amazon has less of the rare works, but they do deliver in two days if you need something fast.
Time-wise, even though it takes me 2-4 months to learn a role, this first step of buying the score happens 5-6 months before that first rehearsal just so I’m extra prepared.
2. Listen to a Recording and Highlight
Find a few solid recordings of the opera—I choose them according to the baritone or the conductor—and grab those highlighters! While listening to a recording, I use a yellow highlighter for all of my text. Next, I use a pink highlighter for any musical indications that may affect my singing (dynamics, meter and tempo changes, articulation, stage directions, etc.).
I listen to a recording right off the bat to get a sense for how the opera flows, the tempi and any traditions that aren’t written in the score. Since I don’t have the role learned yet, the danger of imitation isn’t much of a problem because it’s not in my voice yet. After listening to it once, I don’t refer to it again until the very end of the process because of that same danger.
Listening to a recording can give you some creative ideas for the role as well as an example of what not to do, so stay open-minded as you listen. Remember to make the role unique to yourself while also preserving the tradition of the piece.
Don’t forget tabs: I use these hefty tabs to indicate my entrances. This makes it easier to refer to those places in a rehearsal. I don’t use a different color for arias because it gives the aria more “weight” than it needs. It’s just part of the role. It’s crazy how organization can alter your mindset!
If the score has an English translation underneath the text, don’t pay much attention to it. It’s usually never accurate.
You need to literally translate each word into your respective language. This literal translation also needs to happen with your stage partners’ text because you have to understand what they’re telling you in order for you to form a reaction. Know the general idea of what they’re saying and underline their most important words, so you can react appropriately.
I write the literal translation directly into the score, underneath the original text, and I leave the score blank above the musical notes for anything I want to add about the music itself. This may seem obvious but it needs to be clearly written so you can understand what you wrote.
I make a choice NOT to translate any scenes I’m not in because think about it: my character wouldn’t know what’s going on in those scenes if he’s not in them. It’s good to generally know what happens but sometimes it’s good to not to know what happens because your character doesn’t know what happens. Like Marcello in La bohème. I can’t act like Mimì is sick until Rodolfo tells me that in Act 3. My reaction needs to be natural and taken aback, even though I already know that she’s been coughing up cats. The only parts that need to be translated are ones that describe your character, like if another character sings, “his mother died last year and has been grieving since”—it’s pertinent information to your character to act mournful.
I use Nico Castel for my translations because it’s reliable. It has the literal translations, the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) for diction, general translations, and directorial suggestions.
It helps to translate your own score with a dictionary when you’re first starting to sing so you can understand what that process is like. I don’t do it anymore because I’ve already gone through the process many times. Plus, I simply don’t have the time. Translating text yourself is the longer road but it’s the more fruitful one. I also keep an open mind when reading the Castel and rely on my own language skills to get me through a translation, something I didn’t have at a young age. So, whether you translate your own score or use a reference tool, the meaning is roughly the same. If you have any questions about something specific, have a conversation with your director.
Extra Credit: Another step for me in the translation process is creating my own booklet of the text. I usually copy the pages of my hand-written translations or the Castel and bind them together. I refer to that in my rehearsals more than the score, not only because there are way fewer pages but because I focus on my acting and telling the story more than my singing (which, funnily enough, helps my singing!)
4. Bang That Steinway
Now you can finally learn the music. This is an important skill to develop as soon as possible because it takes the most time. Coaches can help but they’re not always readily available and paying them by the hour is expensive.
I don’t think I need to give y’all a break down of how to learn music but take the time to solidify the notes and rhythms on your own. Repeat over and over again the odd phrases, large jumps, tricky text, etc.
I don’t separate the text out from the music and recite it as a practice method unless a passage is tricky to pronounce.
What I will do when I’m learning the music is underline the words I want to emphasize, which helps with the musical phrasing, since they go hand in hand. The emphasis might change places over time but you have to start somewhere.
and for a phrase that needs a really big breath before it (BB):
When learning a role, I practice about an hour and a half a day. Even if I’m not I’m in a focused practice session, I’m constantly running the music or text in my head.
5. Coach It
If you’re solid with the language, you probably won’t need a separate language coach but most singers rely heavily on coachings before that first day of rehearsal. A coach will play the orchestra reduction along with you so you can feel out the role as a whole.
When I was younger and couldn’t afford a coach (or wasn’t yet married to one!) for more than a few sessions, I would actually record him/her playing the orchestral reduction of my most difficult passages. I would later refer to that recording and sing along with it so I could nail it down. Even if I were a proficient pianist, their skills as a coach are invaluable for a singer and allows me to practice singing the role just as I would perform it.
The first coaching is important because you want to cover as much of the entire role as possible, to plan it out. Then you can go back and repeat the most difficult passages. After visiting with a coach, hit your voice teacher up to help you with any vocal challenges.
Repetition, repetition, repetition!
Personally, melodies stick quicker in my mind than words do. I first memorize the music and the rhythms, singing it to myself softly over and over again. I memorize 2-4 measures at a time, then add it to the next 2-4 measures until I cover an entire system. I do the same with each system then add them all together until I have a page down. I do that until the entire role is memorized.
Usually, the text latches onto this process and gets memorized without me trying. Sometimes there are a few holes, so I diligently look back and make sure my text lines up just right.
After you’ve memorized it, look back at your score to check every pick-up note, breath mark, liaison, etc, is correct. You may have changed your musical ideas and phrasing choices from that first day you highlighted your score, so add those updates in. Also, you may slip up and forget some of the small details in the score, so make sure to check yourself.
That First Day
Upon entering the rehearsal room on that very first day, you should know every music note, rhythm, line of text, and translation as if it’s a part of you. Why? To prepare yourself for the chance that some changes may need to happen, like tempi, and rhythms, as you bring your artistic ideas to the table for the first time. A balance must be struck between you, the conductor, and the director, as they already have their own ideas as well. I find that my character interpretation happens naturally within rehearsals with the director.
I have a self-made schedule of knowing the entire score 2 weeks before the first day so I’m not cramming the days leading up. Cramming is vastly different than learning a role but it happens. On those rare occasions, this may help.
Background research helps, too. The first time I sang Eugene Onegin, I read Pushkin’s novel and I remember that his butler at one point brought him his comb set. This tells me that Eugene is incredibly conscious of the way he looks, and I needed to add that to my interpretation of him.
Role preparation should not be an overwhelming thing if you give yourself ample time to learn the music, stay organized, and remain open to the natural changes that might happen over time with your character. Most importantly, figure out what works for you. Nobody taught me how to learn a role, this is just my own process I’ve found from doing it 49 times. I wish you luck as you customize your own!
“About a week ago, I got news that my childhood cat had finally passed away. Miso was just about 20 years old, and had survived a twice broken leg, so she’d seen her fair share of challenges. But she lived a long, and what I hope was a happy life with us. She was the type of cat who wasn’t quite aware that she was feline, and loved playing fetch and snuggling more than a lot of cats I’ve known. She was still the type of creature who oversaw the subjects of her domain, but she did so with benevolence and care, and was always there for you when you needed her. I’m happy that so many of my friends met her; she loved you all.
I’ve been waiting for some great breakdown to happen inside me, but the fact is we knew she was nearing the end, and she went cozy and peacefully, brought on by nothing but old age and a long life. So here are some of my favorite pictures of her, just a couple moments from throughout her life that I have to remember her by. Here’s to you, Miso. Thank you for your constant presence and affection. I love you and miss you.”
So writes my eldest about our recent loss. His brother says he doesn’t recall when Miso wasn’t with us, as he was four years old when we adopted her as a rescue recovering from a broken leg. I’ve always felt that she chose us. Miso was fetching and charming, and as she looked at us from the top of a cat tree, she rolled onto her back and invited attention. Her claws were retracted in a display of good manners as she reached out to us. We all felt it; Miso was to join our family.
For the past two years, kitty had been on the decline. Nothing wrong but the insults of old age. Her feeding routine became complicated, as she required very small frequent meals. She suffered senility, and was sometimes confused. As my son wrote, we knew the end was near.
On the morning of January 18, 2018, Miso spent a few hours dozing in a quiet corner of the parlor. She refused food and water. I sat with her there, as did my younger son, who was readying to return to his studies after a month off for the holidays. I knew what was happening. I prepared my son. So I scooped her up, and carried her into my room and gently set her on my bed in a cozy fleece blanket she liked.
I pulled out my stethoscope to listen. Her heart rate was double than normal, and her respiration was labored. I gave her drops of water from a syringe. She seemed to appreciate that, if only to wet her dry mouth. My son came in, and we both laid around her, and talked to her softly. We stroked her still-soft fur, trying to imprint a memory of touch in our hearts. We wrapped her in her warm blanket on that cold, rainy day.
Miso was a cat who lived in a home where music was a constant. Whether it was my kid’s music or me practicing, or teaching my voice students, she loved to come into the studio and stretch out in the middle of the floor. Bach or Stravinsky or the Dead. All of it was good to her. German Romantic music would induce her to crawl up onto my lap as I listened and studied. In retrospect, how cool was that? Those last few hours of her life, I played Schubert lieder.
An die Musik came on. It is a love song to music, and one which I’ve sung a hundred times. As the song played, sweet Miso stretched, and sighed. And then she was gone.
That night, in the rain, we buried her in our favorite area of the forest in the urban national park a few blocks from our big city home. The rain let up as we put her to rest. My son rolled some big logs to protect her grave, and we each offered reflections of our life with her. Expressions of gratitude for her kind and loyal nature. Of a long life, and the sorrow of saying goodbye.
The house feels empty. It will take time for our grief to ebb. Our home will never be the same, and our hearts will always be a bit tender when we think of her.
Thank you old friend. It was a blessing to share the journey with you.
Guest blogger Saraj Cory, KU6F, tells the story of a night that transformed her life forever. The grace and wisdom Saraj carries from her loss reflect her years of investment in spiritual practices, and a life rooted in family and friends. I met this fine woman when we were undergraduates years ago. Saraj is a reminder of how to face adversity, how to ask for and accept help, and to keep moving forward.
At 11:02pm, October 8th, 2017, I answered my landline. “THIS IS SONOMA COUNTY SHERIFF EMERGENCY COMMUNICATION – EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY – THIS IS AN EVACUATION CALL – THIS IS NOT A DRILL – EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY – THERE IS A WILDFIRE AND MARK WEST SPRINGS ROAD MUST EVACUATE”.
I don’t remember the exact wording, but that robo-call really wanted me to wake up and pay attention. I had already been patrolling my driveway for an hour. There was too much smoke, thick, choking smoke, although I could not see fire anywhere. I have chronic asthma and I am always alert to such pollutants. My husband and son were traveling out of state, so this was a solo evacuation; I was on my own.
October 7th was the annual California QSO Party. My friend had travelled up from Fresno to join me for a well needed, laid-back contest. We weren’t running numbers this year, just having fun. Her husband had gone Silent Key in July. This was the CQP to have fun. We made just 90 QSO’s in 24 hours. No rush, no worry, no sweep. At the end of the contest, for the first time in my ham life, I sent in our log before shutting down the computer. Good move. Several hours later, my house was vaporized. But I digress.
My dad moved to a skilled nursing facility in 2006. I moved his ham radio equipment to my household knowing “I can listen, but I can’t press the red button”. Darn it! After 50 years of avoiding his ham overtures, he’d finally caught me. I earned my tech license in 2006, earned my Extra in Oct 2009 and was granted his call on December 23, 2009. I had a new addiction – contesting and net control. I joined the ACS (Auxillary Communications Service), got my Sheriff’s volunteer ham radio operator ID, trained in traffic control and emergency services, and learned how to stay safe in an emergency. This saved my life and those of my immediate neighbors; who knew?
After I sent in our log for CQP 2017 and sent my friend on her way back to Fresno, I settled into my evening routine. After nightfall, I started smelling wood burning smoke, and too much of it. I had feeds for the sheriff and City of Santa Rosa Police notices forwarded to my cell phone. My memory is rather blurry, I’m relying on the official sheriff and SRPD published feeds to confirm times. At approximately 10:45pm, I received a feed that Porter Creek had received evacuation orders – at which point I put both cats into their carriers and “staged” them with my briefcase, purse, phone, Rx bag, and power cords at the front door. My dog was passed out on the bed. I walked to the top of the driveway and watched the full moon go from crimson red to completely blacked out – not good. At 11:02, I received the EmComm call on my landline. I raced over to the closest neighbors and woke them up; and phoned the further neighbors, rousing them – FIRE – GET OUT NOW – EVACUATE NOW!!!
After loading both cats, my luggage, and my very old, slow walking dog into my car, I went back into the house for food. As I reached for the dog food, I heard in my head “NO!”, so I moved away towards the front door. I asked “what do I need before I leave?” and heard in my head “YOU NEED TO GET OUT NOW! LEAVE NOW!” It was actually more expletive, but you get my drift. I grabbed my flashlight and sleeping bag, locked the front door, got into my car, and drove away.
At 11:26pm, I left my driveway, two-tenths of a mile north-east of Riebli Road. Driving down Mark West Springs Road was surreal. I knew there were fires at Riebli and Sky Farm, visible from the road, but all I could see was dark smoke, like an inverse valley fog. There was no one on the road with me till I got to Old Redwood Highway where the sheriff had set up a road-block. I drove south on 101, again finding no one on the road with me heading southbound. I was in a between-evacuations bubble, for which I am grateful. Emergency vehicles sped north on 101. I drove to our shop in Roseland where I spent the night watching the emergency feeds, talking with various friends “yes, I am safe”, helping other friends figure out what was going on. What a crazy night that was. How thankful I had my office in Roseland with both cats and the dog.
Fast forward to November 18th. My friends have put my family and pets up in their home in Penngrove while we search for our new home. We are safe, we are loved, and my pal and I are working single station multi-op for North American Sweepstakes – it’s a perfect book ending of ham radio; how it keeps me happy as a hobby, how it prepared me for this emergency. Thank god for ham radio.
I am also grateful to my quilting guild, synagogue and temple, RSCDS, the greater Sonoma County community, and my dear friends who we were staying with over the holidays while waiting to close escrow. I used to think I had too many hobbies! Thank goodness for them all. It takes an extraordinary community for such mega-disasters. I’m also grateful for my studies in Kaiju. This fire definitely qualified.
Here is my house several weeks after the fire. How the hell the antenna stand and rotor are still up I have no idea. The pole the rotor is attached to was stainless steel, but the chimney cap was aluminum, thick aluminum, true, but it should have melted! There are rolls of LM-400 coax in the backyard – they shrunk by about 400% and shattered. Weird.
Christopher Smart was an 18C Anglican cleric who went mad. Some of this beautiful poetictext was excerpted by Brittan for his cantata, Rejoice in the Lamb. Our ancient kitty went missing for seventy-two hours last week, and my mind kept singing this work. Link to Kings College performance is below the text.
I’ve been in a closet. I’ve had a secret few know about. I need to write my way into some kind of acceptance, and come clean to my loved ones.
For the past twenty-five years, I have been trying to manage chronic depression. Most of the time it rides just below the surface, always there as an annoyance, but not taking over. It stays put until I experience one of those bumpy things that happen in life, and then rises into something which takes over. During those periods, there is little to do but ride it out, and reminding myself that it will pass.
The clinical checklist for major depressive episode includes experiencing symptoms for two weeks or more. The side dishes include being unable to get out of bed, feeling exhausted, self-loathing, and self-isolation.
Social anxiety is also on the menu. As episodes have increased over the past several years, my world has become increasingly small. I’ve lost the ability to sustain relationships. My true friends can be counted on one hand. Even so, I don’t want to bother them. The effort involved feels immense.
Between episodes, cognitive therapy helps. In the middle of an episode, nothing helps much. You try different medications which lessen the episodes and frequency somewhat. You remind yourself with constant mantras that there are people who love you, to whom you matter. But in the middle of the darkness, you have trouble remembering this. You forget that you are highly accomplished and educated. That you were born with prodigious gifts, and have contributed greatly to the world. You forget how much you’ve enriched others lives. You forget that people are depending on you to keep your shit together.
I’m weary. I try to be graceful and grateful. But I seek grace most of all.
A major depressive episode means you’ve got your head up your ass, and can’t get loose.
Musical Milliner offers her kind regards to all of you who have hung in there with her the past five years as she has been circling the Inferno that was her life. She’s/I’m (changing tenses here) glad to be alive, and pleased to tell you that despite dedicated and focused attempts to dismantle my psyche and resources, I am well.
On this lovely atumnal equinox, I feel…balanced.
My sons are thriving. I am rebuilding my business, and I am experiencing one of the most productive phases of my life in music.
Socializing is still a bit of a challenge. Ever the introvert when not performing, but I am taking steps to improve.
Here’s the thing: I recently heard a song which reminds us that after so many years on this journey we all share, comes a time to lose some of the load. Keep what you need or want, and continue in a leisurely stroll toward the sign marked “exit.” It takes so much effort to keep track of all the emotional hording, and is so unnecessary.
Who knows, I may even write an upbeat lyric or two. God bless the lot of you.