How to hit opera's high notes


Four sopranos discuss how they prepare for some of the most challenging vocal performances that music has to offer

Imelda Drumm

Mezzo soprano (Irish), Amneris in Lyric Opera’s Aida

How do you prepare for a role?I buy the score, listen to numerous recordings, and get an idea in my ear of where it’s going. When I’m ready enough, I work with somebody, have a little bit of coaching. Then you have to sing it in, learning as you go. You don’t really know a role properly until you’ve sung it once – it’s in performance that you learn how to pace it. But it won’t be in your bones until you come back to it.

How do you prepare in advance of an individual performance?I’m a divorced mum who has to bring her kids to school every day. I’m not precious. It would be nice to get some rest, especially for a big role. I normally go in to the theatre three or four hours in advance, to have peace before dealing with make-up, costumes and the conductor. I go over the areas and corners I want to review, to make them better than the last time.

How do you keep your voice in good condition?You basically sing all the time. I’m very lucky. I got the chance to go back to college after my divorce, I’m doing my PhD with Veronica Dunne. We worked on getting rid of some low-level vibrato that has crept in. It’s great to have a second pair of ears. The voice is now in the best shape it has been in my life. If you sing in big auditoriums your eyes deceive you into singing bigger than you need to. There’s no magic. Keep the airflow moving, keep the voice supported, and sing within yourself.

What’s the biggest surprise your voice has given you?My PhD thesis is looking at the female voice, and how it’s affected by changes in hormones, or confidence, or divorce, or bereavement. I’m affected at the moment by the tragic death of a colleague, British baritone Bob Poulton – he was on a Glyndebourne tour, and died in a car accident. Over time my voice has gotten bigger, and I can make the transition to heavier repertoire. If I was a light soprano, my career would now be over.

Your favourite aria?I love the Handel repertoire, and I like Dopo notte from Ariodante. After all the trauma and trials, the character thinks his love has deceived him, but after the night comes the day.

Lyric Opera’s Aida is at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday

Kim Sheehan

Soprano (Irish), Gretel in NI Opera’s Hansel and Gretel

Role preparationI’ll buy the score, a selection of DVDs and CDs, read up and do research. Then I’ll sit at the piano and work on the music itself. I spend a whole day on a certain number of pages, and work my way through it, section by section.

I’ll go for coaching in London, and for singing lessons with my teacher in Berlin. I play around with it a lot in the practise room before I even get to the rehearsal process. If it’s extremely demanding I’ll spend hours trying out different things, and make as many mistakes as I possibly can, so that I know where my voice stands.

Performance preparationI am quite sporty. So if I have the luxury of going for a long walk I will. I do yoga, and t’ai chi. I try to calm the body. I look over the music gently, and make sure I’m doing what’s asked of me in the score. I relax as much as I can – when the adrenaline starts flowing you really have to have control. And then I’ll do a very thorough warm-up, and sing parts of the score that will wake up the voice. I’m usually really calm, nervous but calm. And I like to stand around and chat with the people I’m working with.

Maintaining the voiceI don’t drink much alcohol when I’m rehearsing or have a show coming up. I run. I refrain from idle chit-chat, which is really exhausting for the voice. I do a nasal douche, which really clears you out. I sing so many high notes, I have to know where my voice is. I avoid smoking areas and gas heaters. I like as much fresh air as possible. And generally I try to stay in a good frame of mind.

Biggest surpriseThe most surprising thing, because I’m quite small, is the sheer strength that I physically have. That really comes out when I sing. I feel it, and it surprises me, that I’m so passionate when I sing. I can always rely on my voice. It’s always going to be there. I don’t worry about it.

Favourite ariaZerbinetta’s aria from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. I’ve had the greatest pleasure singing that role in Switzerland and Germany. It’s got everything: the high notes, the passion, the vocal tricks, the changes of personality, from aggressive to soft and alluring. And musically it’s just so beautiful – you have to be blended with your orchestra and conductor. I just love every second of singing it.

Mercedes Arcuri

Soprano (Argentinian), Minka in Wexford Festival Opera’s Le Roi Malgré Lui

Role preparationMy singing teacher Horacio Amauri lives in Argentina. I was born there, studied with him since I was 15. He’s my voice teacher and also my spiritual guide – we need that, too. I went to Argentina to work on this role with him. If I can’t do that, I have coaches in Spain, where I live. And if I can’t go to Argentina, I’m usually on the phone with my teacher.

Performance preparationThe ideal is to stay at home, and not to speak. That’s perfect for the voice. Silence is the best thing in the world. I just try to do things that give me energy, write to my friends, so they answer and say nice things to me. I’m not a ritual singer. I just need silence and to keep the energy.

Maintaining the voiceYou have to work it every day. It’s like the body. We’re athletes in a way. There are people who don’t like studying or practising. I love it. I try to discover and improve things every day.

Biggest surpriseI am a happy singer. I love what I do. When I began my career, singing every day and in good conditions, the best surprise was that my voice was simply there. I didn’t have to do anything. It was healthy. I could trust it.

Favourite ariaZerbinetta’s aria from Ariadne auf Naxos. Because it shows everything in me – my personality as an artist, my voice, coloratura, everything. It makes me happy to sing it. I identify with the character and Strauss’s music.

Jessica Muirhead

Soprano (British Canadian), Vreli in Wexford Festival Opera’s A Village Romeo and Juliet

Role preparation I read through the entire score and libretto, I make sure I have an understanding of the text, the story, where it’s going.

I always try to start from the text. Usually I take it to my coach, I have coaches all around the world who I trust. I get them to record it for me. I bang through the notes, then take it to my teacher, to an acting coach and a diction coach. All along the way I’m doing my research into the story, the composer, the inspiration behind it all.

Performance preparationI like to sing, actually. I always sing the day before, the warm-up begins then. The day of the performance, I don’t have to do too much. I sleep in as late as possible and I do a little bit of a warm-up.

The bit I’m worst at is doing too much speaking. I have a good meal before the show, and do some physical and vocal stretching. But I don’t have a major workout. It should all be there by then.

Maintaining the voiceI try to avoid smoggy places and speaking too much. It’s speaking that kills the voice more than anything. At home I sing when I’m vacuuming, when I do the dishes. I’m sure the neighbours hate me. That’s when I get the best notes. I have my coaches, and go to my voice teacher twice a year for a vocal tune-up. She’s kind of like a chiropractor. She fixes everything, and when she’s done her work, everything is lined up.

Biggest surpriseDiscovering my high notes. When my teacher asked me to sing Sempre libera [from Verdi’s La traviata], I thought I couldn’t do it. But these high notes came out, which I didn’t expect. You can’t really work on them much. They’re either there or they’re not. And when I had true laryngitis I didn’t know if my voice was ever going to come back. It was terrifying.

Favourite ariaProbably Depuis le jour from Charpentier’s Louise, because it’s so beautiful. The text is so wonderful and so real. I understand where the character is at that moment, the first time she . . . let’s not get too detailed . . . the first time her heart was opening. It’s so pure, so honest. It’s a dream for me to sing.

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