Since my last blog post back in September, so much has happened. It has been a busy time and one of making decisions and putting plans in motion which is why the blog posts have been very sparse in the last little while, but I finally have some time to write again to update on what has been going on!
After twelve years in the Netherlands, I have decided (along with my husband and two dogs) to leave Amsterdam to change our life and career trajectories. I have accepted the position of Head of Music at Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT) in Detroit. I will also be collaborating in the creation of a Resident Artist Training Program. It is not a complete career change; I am just moving back into an opera house after some time spent in the academic world. I had a pretty active professional life outside of my regular work pre-pandemic, so this change is not a complete 180. It is more like a change in focus.
I have been in Detroit since October 20th, and it has been go, go, go! An exciting time for me starting in this company as they are in a historical transitional growth. I feel privileged to arrive at this time!
Michigan Opera Theatre
For my readers who may not be familiar with this house, Michigan Opera Theatre is the principal opera company in Michigan. MOT began as the educational outreach arm, Overture to Opera (OTO), of the Detroit Grand Opera Association, responsible for the Metropolitan Opera’s visits to Detroit. In 1963, MOT’s Founder and General Director, David DiChiera, took over the program in its third year. “Overture to Opera” officially became Michigan Opera Theatre in 1971 after establishing a board of trustees, signifying its transformation into a professional opera company. The company became known for its casting, which often featured a blend of established artists and young-up-and-coming American opera singers from a diversity of backgrounds.This tradition continues to this day with MOT’s exciting leadership: Wayne Brown, Yuval Sharon and Christine Goerke. Check out the website to learn more: https://michiganopera.org
Michigan Opera Theatre is “the premier multi-disciplined producer and presenter for opera, musical theatre, and dance in the Great Lakes Region. Based in the city of Detroit, the organization engages artists of national and international stature for stellar main stage and outreach performances and provides compelling cultural enrichment programs for the diverse audiences and communities that it serves, making it one of Detroit’s pillars of arts and culture.”
Such a move may seem out of the blue for those of you who have been following my career and my life in Europe. The truth is, I had been contemplating this for quite some time. Our stay in The Netherlands was never meant to last forever. We just ended up staying a little longer than intended; I was comfortable, my husband was comfortable, and we had security and a routine. However, when the pandemic started, it became clear that we wanted to head back to North America. I lost my mother in September of 2020, and I could not get to my family and could not say my farewell to her. This traumatic event caused me to think about my future and what I wanted to do with it. It was time for a change. I started by updating my CV…the rest has led me to this point.
Since the short time I have been in Detroit, I have already been allowed the chance to stretch my musical and administrative muscles, which excites and stimulates me. I love taking risks, learning new skills, and facing challenges. My new colleagues are incredibly welcoming, and I am always pleasantly surprised at the friendliness of the people in Michigan. People in the street are just saying hello and asking how I am doing…strangers…just being friendly! I am taken aback by it, and at the same time, I love this way of co-existing (I had missed this as well).
Last week I enjoyed traveling with my colleagues to New York City for work. It was so wonderful to be in that city again after such a long time, and next week I get to spend a week in Chicago to spend time with one of my oldest and dearest friends, and it wouldn’t be a holiday for this workaholic without some meetings, so that will happen too! As you can see, I am keeping busy! I was worried that being out of Europe would make traveling difficult, but I am so happy to be near friends and family, and Detroit is a great location to travel from!
What About Greece?
I am still passionate about singing in French and French repertoire. Many of you may have noticed an announcement that I will be teaching French Diction at the Musical Horizon’s Conservatory (MHC) in Athens Greece. This post was always meant to bee an “online” appointment. Through the magic of technology, I will work with the wonderful students in Athens with the click of the mouse. One of the finest voice teachers I know, Don Marrazzo, is the new Head of Vocal Studies at MHC. He is building a program and has put together a faculty of amazing artists. Naturally, when he asked me to join, I did not miss a beat and replied a resounding “YES” because I know whatever he is doing will be of the highest standard and excellence. I only hope that I will be able to go in-person someday for an in-person residency!
What About The Blog?
Not to worry, the blog will continue, and you will soon be finding more diction tips as well as advice and tips when you need it! I need some time to adjust to my new surroundings and responsibilities, and I am also waiting for my husband and pups to join me on this beautiful adventure sometime in December. Keep an eye on this space for the next post!
It feels invigorating to be creating and learning. I am incredibly happy to be on this side of the pond, and when I miss Europe, the airport is right there!
Tip for today: Chase your dreams, take risks. Life is too short not to experience some form of happiness every single day!
When my season ended on July 10th, it was clear to me that I needed some rest. I was still performing at my normal level, but I was definitely on a low battery and using up some of my reserves (especially after the very intense and difficult period we have just gone through). My vacation came at the right moment! I started wondering why we are so afraid to say: “I need rest,” or better yet, why do we feel judged when we do say it? As I have been pondering this question, I feel like shedding the stigma attached to self-care. As artists, we are constantly creating, always performing at the highest level, and always learning. Our brains and creativity are engaged continuously, which is amazing but takes a lot of our energy. We also never want to stop working because we love what we do, but there is also an underlying fear that we will never be invited to work again if we refuse a job. As such, many of us are running around out there on low batteries!
Understandably, we need to make a living, and refusing work is not often an option-trust me, I know this all too well, but it is crucial to set priorities to stay at the top of our game. Like my mother used to say: “If you don’t rest now, later on, you will have to cancel much more because your body will give out, and then you will not be able to do anything at all”! But we don’t have to reduce our workload necessarily if we are mindful of the needs of body and mind.
Rest is defined as “freedom from activity or labor.” I love this grouping of words, “freedom of activity or labor”! It means that you disconnect, get out of your bubble, breathe and enjoy free time. As musicians, we spend so many hours practicing and trying to perfect everything we do. We spend countless hours studying, playing, singing, translating, reading, traveling, and much more. Because it is our passion, we can easily forget to take some downtime for ourselves, and finding the balance between work and life can seem impossible.
The Benefits of Resting
Resting allows time for recovery.
Musicians, like athletes, are incredibly disciplined and require long hours of practice and training. However, athletes have trainers who advise them and schedule regular rest days to help them recuperate from repetitive activity. A day to let their muscles rest and recuperate. Rest repairs the tissue that has been worked out to heal and grow, resulting in stronger muscles. It is during their “rest day” that they get the most significant benefits from their training.
Whether we are playing the piano, clarinet, or singing, we use our bodies and muscles in specific ways for an abnormal amount of time. Sometimes I don’t realize until I stop playing that I have surpassed what my body wanted to do that day. Resting is a path to healthier playing and singing. When we disconnect for a while, we refresh our bodies and mind. Planning practice sessions while incorporating days of rest and regular breaks will most likely lead to better results in the long run.
Reducing the risk of injury
Resting frequently and regularly will reduce the risk of developing an injury. Learning to listen to our bodies and take a break instead of “pushing through” can be the line between being a healthy musician and causing an injury that can destroy careers before they even start.
When I was a student, I was overzealous in my practice sessions, and while talking to a teacher of mine (and I won’t name names), I mentioned that I was experiencing some pain. Their advice was to “play through the pain.” I could not disagree more with this advice today, but as a young pianist, it seemed the most logical thing in the world to do, especially since it lined up with what I wanted to do: Keep practicing. Luckily, I did not develop a significant injury, but I am aware now that things could have gone another way. Somehow we accept this “pushing through” as part of our profession, and working non-stop is some badge of honor that we wear, but mental and physical fatigue can be very dangerous.
When we feel tired, pain, or if we feel like we have to push to produce sound, or to play a passage in a way that is unhealthy, it may be a sign to stop, take a break, go for a walk and clear the mind-better yet, call it a day, and do something else. When making a practice schedule, we should plan these breaks and making sure it is not just 15 minutes to run to get a coffee and get back to it (I am guilty of this much too often!). Frequent breaks to stretch the body or a brisk walk around the block can work wonders. Productivity will increase, and the body will be grateful.
Improving your performance
When the body and mind do not get enough rest, it can be near impossible to do our best work. Lack of rest will deplete our energy as well as our motivation. Overworking can also affect performance. When we are too tired, our stamina decreases and our agility and focus can become sluggish, and memorizing and performing become more challenging. Think about reading a book when we are too tired. We end up reading the same page repeatedly, and we don’t seem to retain any of the information we have just read. We don’t make any progress. The same goes for our practice sessions.
Having healthy resting periods and taking regular breaks throughout the day has the opposite effect. The appropriate amount of rest prevents fatigue, increases your energy level, improves your mental sharpness and memorization skills. Years ago, the common thought was you had to practice every day, but now we know better, and we can recognize the benefits of a rest day, and hopefully not feel guilty for taking (at least) one day a week!
“As important as it is to have a plan for doing work, it is perhaps more important to have a plan for rest, relaxation, self-care, and sleep.”
― Akiroq Brost
What does a rest day look like for you?
It depends on the person doing the resting and what their body and mind need. Just like the athlete who takes a break from intense training, the musician takes a break from playing or singing, but a rest day can still be productive. You can work mentally by doing research, translating texts, or doing some mental practice and visualizations. All of which can be highly beneficial to your regular practice routine.
Rest for a musician can also be found in regular exercise, working out the body and mind. Yoga, running, swimming, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais can all be great ways of relieving stress and keeping your body and mind healthy. Many of my students are into running and Yoga, and I can usually tell by how they cope with stress if they let their healthy habits fall by the wayside. They become more tense, stressed and their mood is more frantic. Regular movement and taking care of yourself will prevent muscle tension buildup, and the mental benefits are countless.
Yoga: Yoga improves strength, balance, and flexibility. It relaxes you, helps you sleep, and generally improves your mood by helping you manage stress.
Running and walking: Helps improve your cardiovascular fitness, improves stamina, and is excellent stress relief.
Swimming: Strengthens core muscles and increases lung capacity, and it is a full-body workout that is easier on the joints. It also boosts moods and relieves stress.
Alexander Technique: Helps musicians release undue tensions in their bodies. It can help you get more fluidity and energy if you are feeling tense and rigid.
Feldenkrais: A revolutionary body awareness method, Feldenkrais guides movements and expands perception, increases awareness, and develops more natural ways of moving, resulting in gaining ease, efficiency, and comfort in your performances.
Of course, a good old-fashioned day of letting go and just reading a book, sitting outdoors, walking in nature, playing with your dog, or watching a movie, is also a great way of resting. Let’s face it, it is one of my favorite ways of relaxing, and there is nothing wrong with that!
The idea is not to play less or practice less, but to be mindful of your work and life balance. You can drill your practice sessions until you can’t see straight anymore, but eventually, your body will refuse to comply with your demands.
“A decline in performance should lead to a search for its cause and to a focus on the quality of your recovery. Remember, often doing less is more powerful than training more.”
This summer, I rested by spending quality time with my husband and our two dogs and traveling home (to Canada) to see my family after three years. Typically, I would blend this with some work by teaching at programs, coaching, or giving some classes, but I needed the rest…there…I said it! As the year starts again, I hope we all schedule more rest days into our hectic lives to be more productive and successful in everything we do.
Be on the lookout for more content. I am still in “resting mode,” but I will be back with some interesting interviews, editorials, and tips soon!
After an extremely busy end of season, I thought it would be a nice idea to do a little diction post on this platform about one of my favorite subjects: Liaison
Liaison occurs when the usually silent final consonant of a word is pronounced because it is followed by a word starting with a vowel or a mute h. Please note, we never pronounce the “h” sounds in French as we do in English (like in the word “hat.”) For more on the h in French, click here as I have dedicated an entire blog post to this letter, which is ironically not pronounced in French.
In modern-day French, the use of liaison is something native speakers use or don’t use without giving it much thought. The French language is a living language, and so it evolves. There are many times where a native French speaker omits the use of any liaison because it makes the language sound somewhat stiff, but in classical singing, this is a different story.
Because the lyric art deals mainly with poetic verse, we stronglyrecommend using all appropriate liaisons while singing. For this, complete knowledge of all the types of liaison is essential to singing French text correctly. Do all native French speakers know the rules of liaison? No. They may understand by instinct what sounds better, but they usually can’t cite why they know this. I believe this to be true of all native speakers in every language. Typically, you would not be able to note any rules unless you have studied linguistics. Today, I would like to look at one of the most important forbidden liaisons and its exceptions.
Three Types of Liaisons
The required liaison: Links that we must make to communicate the text properly.
The optional liaison: Links that can be omitted based on taste.
The forbidden liaison: Links that are strictly forbidden.
The Singular Noun and Liaison
When a noun is in its plural form, we expect to link from the -s representing the plural to the following word starting with a vowel. This -s is otherwise silent.
Les chiens couchés sur l’herbe. (The dogs lying on the grass)
[lɛ ʃjɛ̃ kuˈʃe syr lɛrbe]
In this sentence, the word for dog “chien” is plural, but it is followed by a word beginning with a consonant which means the final -s remains silent.
Les chiens étendus sur l’herbe. (The dogs lying on the grass)
[lɛ ʃjɛ̃z‿etɑ̃ˈdy syr lɛrbe]
In this sentence, the word for dog “chien” is also plural, but it is followed by a word beginning with a vowel which means the final -s, is pronounced as a vocalic [z] sound.
What happens when a vowel sound follows a singular noun? It is forbidden to link a singular noun to the following word starting with a vowel. You may link a singular adjective but not a noun.
Le chien est dehors (The dog is outdoors)
[lɛ ʃjɛ̃ ɛ dəˈɔr]
In this sentence the word “chien” is singular and is not linked with the following word as this would cause confusion and make the text difficult to understand.
You mustn’t confuse this rule of liaison with élision. When we work with élision (the omission of a final, unstressed -e in a word followed by a word beginning with a vowel or a mute h.), we may link to the following word starting with a vowel.
La chaîne est brisée (the chain is broken)
[la ʃɛn‿ɛ briˈze(ə)]
In this sentence, the word chaîne is a singular noun. The word chaîne is a singular noun in this sentence, but it ends with a schwa (French mute -e). Because of this, it cannot be called a liaison, and we link with élision, which doesn’t have so many rules or exceptions.
Every time I cite a rule in my diciton classes, I always add the word “usually” and never the word “always”. For every French diction rule, there are (almost) always several exceptions. So what about this forbidden liaison?
In the following three expressions, we allowed to make a liaison from a singular noun (I make my students memorize this list):
“mot à mot” (word for word) [mot‿a mot]
“de temps en temps” (from time to time) [də tɑ̃z‿ɑ̃ tɑ̃]
“nuit et jour” (night and day) [nɥit‿e ʒur]
In any other sentence or expression, these words may not be linked to the following word starting with a vowel as you will see in the following example:
La nuit étoilée (The starry night) [la nɥi etwaˈle(ə)]
Notice that we do not link nuit and étoilée and the -t is silent.
2. In the following nouns mostly found in opera, and only in some instances this rule is forgiven:
Cet enfant a dormi (Faust, Gounod)[sɛt‿ɑ̃ˈfɑ̃(t)‿a dɔrˈmi]
Note: This liaison is not advised by Bernac but it is commonly done in performance practice.
Bois épais (Amidis, Lully) [bwa(z)‿eˈpɛ]
Obéissons quand leur voix appelle. (Manon, Massenet)[ɔbeiˈsõ kɑ̃ lœr vwa(z)‿aˈpɛlə]
Note: The singer should always make liaison lightly, but the parentheses surrounding the [t] and [z] in the examples above emphasize that the singer should do these particular links even more lightly than any other.
When navigating the world of French lyric diction and particularly the rules of liaison, please be sure to consult someone who is familiar with not only when and if these should be made, but why. If you are armed with knowledge, you will eliminate any extra doubts you may have while singing.Arm yourself with knowledge and you will eliminate any extra doubts you may have, which is one less thing to worry about while performing!
After years of coaching French repertoire, I have come across some difficult words which people struggle to pronounce, unless you know how to say them. There is no way to figure them out unless you are a native speaker. Pronouncing these words cannot be solved with diction rules or IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Let’s look at three of these particular words and some contexts where you can find them.
The word Solennel meaning Solemn in English, is often used in French poetry. It looks like we pronounce it a certain way, but it is not what you think. Let’s dissect this word:
If we use our knowledge of French diction rules, it may look like we pronounce it as [sɔlɛˈnɛl]. If we are unaware that nasal vowel sounds when followed by another n loses the nasal quality and returns to its original sound (for more on this rule, see my previous blog post), the temptation is to add an [ɑ̃] in there to cover all of your bases.
However, this would be the wrong way to say this word. In the following excerpt from Fauré’s Cinque mélodies de Venise we find this word in “Et quand, solennel, le soir…”
We pronounce the text as follows: [e kɑ̃ sɔlaˈnɛl lœ swar]
Yes, you saw it correctly; thatisan [a] in there. This word has gone through some spelling changes over time, which is why you sometimes still (although rarely) see it spelled solemnel.Even with this older spelling, the word is still pronounced [ sɔlaˈnɛl]. In the following clip, you can hear its correct pronunciation at 2’10”:
The word femme, meaning woman, is also one of these abnormal words which looks one way and sounds another way! When we pronounce the word in English as it is written in French when we use expressions such as “Femme Fatale”, which can sound like “fem fuh·taal“, but beware, this is not how this word sounds in French! In the following example from Fauré’s Rencontre, we find this word in the text: “Ô dis-moi, serais-tu la femme inespérée…”
We pronounce the text as follows: [o di mwa səˈrɛ ty la fam͜ inespeˈreə]
The word femme is also pronounced with an [a], as you will hear in the following clip at 18 seconds into the recording:
The Verb Faire:
Commonly mispronounced, the verb faire , meaning “to do” in English, also happens to be one of the most common verbs used in the French language and poetry. There is also a particular pronunciation of the root of the verb in some conjugated forms.
For example, in most tenses of the verb, the -ai- component of the word is pronounced as an open [ɛ] as one would expect. The spelling also totally changes in some of the rarely used tenses, and there is even no root word “fai” anymore. Regarding the -ai- sounding utterly different than what it looks like, here is a list:
PRESENT: je fais [fɛ] tu fais [fɛ] il/elle fait [fɛ] nous faisons [fœˈzõ] vous faites [fɛtə] ils/elles font [fõ]
IMPERFECT: je faisais [fœˈzɛ] tu faisais [fœˈzɛ] il/elle faisait [fœˈzɛ] nous faisions [fœˈzjõ] vous faisiez [fœˈzje ] ils/elles faisaient [fœˈz ɛ ]
Notice that in the first person plural of the present tense and all of the imperfect conjugation, the verb’s -ai- sounds like [œ].
In the following text from Duparc’s La vie antérieure we find the text: “Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir” we see two -ai- syllables, and one could assume that they sound the same, but this is the imperfect form of the verb “faire”..
We pronounce the text as follows: [lə səˈkrɛ duluˈrø ki me fœˈzɛ lɑ̃ˈgir]
You can hear it clearly in the following clip at 3’19”:
Yes, this is a word. In this case, it is a verb. If you have followed any French diction course, you should know that -eu- when it is the last sound in a word sounds as an o-slash [ø] unless the -eu- in question is part of the verb avoir (to have). When it is part of this verb, it sounds very different.
It can be in this form of the verb with an auxiliary: J’ai eu (I have had) or in this form il eut (he had). It will still sound the same:
J’ai eu (I have had) [ʒe y] Il eut (he had) [il y]
I have heard this word often turned into an [ø] or even an [œ]. When you translate your text, be sure to be alert and if it is a verb, use the appropriate pronunciation.
In the following clip, you can hear the proper way to sing this sound at 1’58”:
Véronique Gens and Roger Vignoles
A thing that I repeat to my non-native French-speaking students all the time is: “When pronouncing French, please don’t trust your instincts because they are probably incorrect. Stick to the rules and what you don’t know, ask a qualified French diction coach”. There are more words like the ones I have mentioned in this post, but these come back mispronounced, again and again, so memorize them, and you will be ahead of the curve!
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a soloist in an ensemble of a German Opera house? I recently caught up with Nina van Essen who has been at Staatsoper Hannover since 2019, and she was happy to share some wisdom that she has picked up so far along the way.
Many emerging singers dream of landing a fest contract (A fest contract means you are “fixed” in one ensemble for the duration of a contract, which usually starts at 1-2 years) without really knowing what it is all about. Nina van Essen started her contract almost straight out of school, which is exceptional, but she is doing very well and thriving. I caught her performance as Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel back in December of 2019, and I was very proud to see her on stage.
I have been Nina’s coach, duo partner, and friend for almost five years. She is a wonderful mezzo-soprano with incredible artistic instincts. When she was in her studies, she was always one of the most hard-working people in the program. We have since transitioned from a teacher-student relationship to a friendship. I was happy to catch up with her recently and thought I would ask her about her experience in “the real world”. Here is what she had to share.
When did you decide to pursue a career in Opera?
Nina: I have the feeling that opera chose me. I was always interested in storytelling. When I discovered that being a character on stage would allow me the “freedom” to crawl into someone else’s skin and do things that I otherwise would never do in my own life, I thought: “Hey, that’s amazing!” I feel like I’m not the real me when I am in that moment. The more I was doing it, the more I started to feel post-performance like I had just been on an adventure -those are the good moments.
Next to your training, what has helped you become such a well-rounded artist?
Nina: Thank you for calling me that! Especially since the pandemic, I realized that you could not make art from an “I have to” place. I needed to let go of all sorts of expectations that I seem to put upon myself. Coming from a place of connectedness, acceptance, and love of music is the only way to provoke emotion in your listeners. My particular struggle has always been that I tend to over-focus, which causes me to get stuck at times. Being focused is helpful when you need to get something done, and it can be challenging when you have to let all of that go on stage, especially since singing, for me, is very much an act of letting go.
Finding challenges outside of my training has never been difficult. I have always had an interest in learning new languages; I am always striving to improve my vocal technique-and not be blind to possible progress; I live life and enjoy the moment (Go all the way or don’t do it at all!). I also love to try new things (super scary, but necessary!). I make sure to spend time with people I care about and who give me energy. These things will always be part of my process, and it is a beautiful journey. The most important thing is to remind myself when I don’t meet my own expectations to not beat myself up about it. After all, I am the one setting my own goals (mostly), and so I can also be the one to take them off of my own plate.
When did you start your first fest contract?
Nina: It feels like my first fest contract has only just started. I started in the summer of 2019 at the Staatsoper Hannover, and I am still here.
What was it like stepping into an ensemble for the first time?
Nina: Unbelievably exciting and scary at the same time! I was fresh out of school, having just finished a Master’s degree in opera, I was 25 years old, and I had only one season between the time I finished my studies and the start of my contract in which to prepare. I spent that season getting ready while keeping up with a full performing schedule. My first season in Hannover started with a full and demanding program, so yeah, it was full steam ahead!
How many roles did you sing during your first season, and how did you prepare for this undertaking?
Nina: In my first season, I was contracted to sing: Zweite Dame in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, the role of Page der Herodias in Straus’s Salome, Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. I was scheduled to end the season singing the role of the Second Secretary to Mao in Nixon in China, but the performance, unfortunately, was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, we prepared Martin’s Le Vin herbé, in which I sang Branghien.
I started to prepare most of the roles as soon as I received my contract and before arriving in Hannover. I traveled to Italy in summer 2019 to coach Rosina and, luckily, I had previously sung the Zweite Dame and Hänsel during my studies. The theatre gives us access to many excellent and helpful coaches, so I never have to study alone. The house also keeps an eye on your improvements, and your “Studienleiter” (study leader) will always be there if you need more piano preparation. I am very grateful that I had already performed the role of Hänsel since I was contracted to do a run of Hänsel und Gretel at the same time as I was rehearsing Rosina. Vocal guidance is something very personal, and if you feel like you need a teacher, you have to take care of that yourself.
What is a typical day like when you are part of an ensemble?
Nina: It varies quite a bit. You will have periods of having just one coaching a day (depending on how many roles you are scheduled to sing), but mainly the operas overlap with one another. There are all sorts of different kinds of contracts. In Germany, no matter your age, when you start your first fest contract, they usually give you an “anfanger” contract (beginner contract) with a minimum salary and a maximum amount of performances- which is more or less forty-five (45) performances. Performing so much gives you a lot of experience.
In my case, my “normal” schedule has always been: Morning session rehearsals from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and evening stage rehearsals from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm for one production, all the while preparing the next production. Sometimes, with performances at night (for yet another opera) which doesn’t necessarily allow you to miss the morning session for the show you are rehearsing.
Most German houses work with a morning and evening schedule because some people have families, and the lunch break is considered sacred. In the beginning, I thought this was a lot of break time, but I soon discovered that this break was essential in order to prepare upcoming projects and, most importantly, to REST! I must say; they will sometimes use it for costume fittings or promotion videos etc.
What has been the biggest challenge of being an ensemble singer in a house?
Nina: Keeping vocally and mentally healthy by learning to say “no” to undoable things and always keeping an eye on what you need for your development has been a challenge. When you start to feel like you are compromising your vocal technique or physical and mental health, it is essential to have a team to keep you in your “creative” space (including your teacher, your coach, physiotherapist…). It is your responsibility to keep yourself healthy, and no one comes to check on you to see if you are doing okay.
Stay true to yourself. You make your art, and that comes from a profound and personal place. No one can tell you in what state of mind you need to be. Mostly anything is negotiable, and there are always ways to take things off your plate like double casts, understudies, and requesting more coaching (musical or language). If you have a good agent, you can also set all of that in black and white in your contract before you begin a new season.
Usually, they inform you of the roles the house would like you to sing by the spring before the new season begins, but a lot can still change, especially now.The theater typically re-negotiates your contract in October to see if they will keep you for another season.
What has been your biggest “expectation versus reality” moment during your time at the Opera House?
Nina: While getting ready for the start of my contract, I was very prepared and focused on what was coming, but I experienced a lot of stress that I mostly put on myself. Letting go and just waiting to see what the stage directors and conductors will be like and what they would expect of me has been the reality. I tried not to start with lots of “I have to’s” which has been eye-opening.
The feeling of repeating a show 7 to 14 times can be a fantastic experience, but it asks a lot from your memory and stamina. Sometimes shows are spread all over the season while you are already busy with something else. That was new for me, and I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to keep a show always “fresh.”
When debuting a role, I needed much more mental preparation than I thought I would need. My expectation of debuting Rosina, for example, was something like: “I rehearse six weeks, and doing shows of something else in the middle is fine since I know Hansel inside out”. I didn’t realize that I also needed “after show rest,” and I wasn’t getting enough of that. In addition, my stamina was not yet ready, so I started to go to the gym more to the point where I got a bit obsessive, which resulted in more stress rather than release. Now, I realize that it had more to do with trust, and only I can build that with my sweat and blood.
What is the level of German you need to have to work in a house like Hannover?
Nina: It’s best if you already speak basic German. I happened to have a slightly better grasp of the language than most of my colleagues, and in this house, it didn’t seem to be a requirement. But then, if you don’t have a basic level, you end up not understanding emails and meetings which are in German. I think it is indispensable to learn the language of the country in which I am living. I believe it is possible to learn rather quickly when you get here, but I would recommend making an effort to know enough German before starting a fest contract.
If you have a good command of the language, the house will ask you to speak on the radio or with some regular visitors to the opera house, and then it’s best if you can make yourself understood. Our house offers weekly German lessons, which is excellent, but I don’t think that is the case everywhere.
What is the one thing you wish you knew about being fest in a house, but didn’t know?
Nina: You cannot do any other work besides the work itemized in your contract unless you negotiate it with the house way in advance. You have to work very hard and at the same time take care of YOURSELF first because you WILL meet your limits.
Something wonderful that I didn’t expect is the family you will build within the theatre. Everyone who works in the house is, in some way, totally devoted to their work, and it is palpable. It’s never dull. You’re constantly surrounded by inspiring people. It can give you a lot of comfort to see the regular audience members recognize you and come back every other week; this way, you can make a genuine impact on the community.
I wish I had known how important consistency is before I arrived here. I used to practice whenever I needed to. Now I have had to build more of a routine that allows me to perform at my optimal best. My routine includes exercise, mental care, time off, playing around with some light/folk singing, healthy cooking, practicing repertoire, and trusting myself; I always end up knowing my score more than enough to be considered prepared. If you have a steady routine already that you can rely on, that will help you get into the busy schedule of being in an ensemble.
What would be your most significant piece of advice to singers looking to get a fest contract?
Nina: Settle your technique. Make sure you know what your voice can and cannot do. Of course, it will change while you develop.
Learn the language and be willing to give your all while you are festing.
Festing gives you security and a monthly income but hardly any freedom, so make sure you like the theatre and the city because you will be spending most of your time there.
I would advise doing many fest auditions. All the German houses are somehow connected, and there are always casting directors associated with multiple theaters.Don’t be hesitant to step into this scary process. I was super young and felt not at all “ready,” but I learned so much from just doing it. You will be overwhelmed with responsibility unless you are prepared and really can handle it.
The easiest way to get a contract is going through an agent since theatres sometimes don’t invite singers to audition who do not have one. That doesn’t mean that you have to stay with this agent forever, but it does mean they take around 10 % of your income. This will be worth it especially when you are in a position where you need to negotiate something in your contract.
There are C, B, and A houses. It’s up to you where you want to audition. They all have different pros and cons. For example, If you start in a smaller house, you might sing more significant roles than if you start in a bigger house. Both are interesting.
Finally, never lose your curiosity and eagerness to learn, even if sometimes you feel like you’re part of a machine. Keep challenging yourself; your last performance is your standard. And remember, you are part of a team. You see the same makeup and costume people and you all contribute to the show. Please give them the same energy as they give to you. You are an “ensemble” after all.
What is coming up for you?
Nina: I am preparing Dorabella in Mozarts Cosi fan Tutte. We start rehearsals next week and we will (hopefully) perform until July.
Something occurred to me during these exceptional times and it has lead me on a new journey. I think that artists don’t get enough of a chance to talk about how they “shape” their minds so I recently started a podcast, “Mind your Mind” because I discovered when I began to sing professionally that training your mind is as important as training your voice.
About Nina van Essen’s podcast “Mind your Mind for Artists”
“Sharing some insights that I wish I would have had during my conservatory studies. Every episode I will talk to different artists from performers to designers and more, about their tricks and tips to live their most focused life and perform their best.”
Stay tuned for the first episode with Psychiatrist/violinist/politician Esther van Fenema
“Sing everything like you are singing bel canto” is something I repeat frequently. Bel canto means “beautiful singing,” but it also means to sing everything with smooth phrasing and as legato as possible. Legato is the connected and uninterrupted production of sound, and it requires the singer to understand which vowels and consonants they are singing and how these relate to each other. How do you achieve this if you are not singing in Italian? More specifically, how do you accomplish this while singing in French? Without diving into the numerous French liaison rules, here is a quick explanation of three different ways you can link words in your French singing.
The word vowel is taken from the Latin word vox, meaning voice. For singers, a proper understanding of all the vowels in every language t is at the top of the list of essential things to know. The unvoiced consonant stops or blocks the vowel completely, while the voiced consonant partially stops the vowel which causes an audible adjustment to the vocalic flow. Unlike English or German, French seems to run together with no clear separation between words, making French, much like Italian, a very singable language. The legato in the French language is the constant vowel flow within words and between words. This word-to-word flow is achieved by linking words to each other, known as “liaison.”
Here are three methods of linking up words in French:
Liaison occurs when the usually silent final consonant is pronounced because it is followed by a word starting with a vowel or a mute h. Please note, we never pronounce the “h” sounds in French as we do in English (like in the word “hat.”) For more on the h in French, click here as I have dedicated an entire blog post to this letter, which is not pronounced in French, ironically.
Elle est arrivée avec un homme (She arrived with a man) [ɛl‿ɛt͜͜͜͜ ariˈve aˈvɛk‿ œ̃n‿ɔmə]
Notice that the t of est and the n of un are in liaison with the following vowels. Usually, these final consonants would be silent (see example below).
Example: Il est venu avec un cadeau (He came with a gift) [il‿ɛ vəˈny avɛk‿œ̃ kaˈdo]
The t of est is now silent as is the n of un because consonants instead of vowels follow them.
The singer, working with liaison, should make the now sounded consonant rapidly and quite late because we don’t want to emphasize the liaison. It should also not alter or shorten the vowel preceding it. The use of liaison is more present in lyric diction rather than in spoken French. In everyday speech too much use of liaison makes someone sound quite stiff and old-fashioned. There are quite a few rules related to liaison; some are optional, some are mandatory, and some are forbidden. In some cases, a wrong liaison (for example, making a z sound instead of a t) or choosing not to make a mandatory liaison can demonstrate a lack of taste or education.
When using liaison, be aware that some phonetic changes occur with the consonant affected.
The s becomes a z: Les amis (the friends) 
The d becomes a t: Le grand arbre (the tall tree) 
The x becomes a z: Deux amis (two friends) 
The f becomes a v: Neuf heures (nine hours) 
Be sure not to get confused with these phonetic changes as they should not change the word’s meaning.
Sans amour (without love) [sɑ̃z‿aˈmur]
Sens exatasié (senses in extasy)[sɑ̃s‿ɛkstɑˈzje]
As we can see, in the first example, the liaison from the s in the word sans meaning without the s is always silent, but in the second example, we always pronounce the s in the word sens meaning senses; we are just linking the words to each other.
Elision is the omission of a final, unstressed -e in a word followed by a word beginning with a vowel or a mute h.
Example; Elle est assise depuis une heure (She has been sitting for an hour) [ɛl‿ɛt‿aˈsizə dəˈpɥiz‿yn‿œrə]
Here we make elision on the final e of elle because the following word, est ,starts with an e, so the l of elle is sounded right before the word est. Elision is commonly used both in lyric diction and in everyday speech.
LINKING UP or “enchaînement”
Linking up or enchaînement occurs when we pronounce the final consonant, whether a vowel follows it or not. It is neither an elision or liaison, and it happens pretty naturally in singing and speaking.
Example il est ici (he is here) [ilɛt‿iˈsi]
The link between il and est is just that, a link. You do not need to show the link in your IPA translation only from a liaison or an elision.
As you get more familiar with liaison, you will have the knowledge needed to opt-out of some liaisons that seem excessive. To quote Pierre Bernac (see below), who was an authority on “French Mélodie”: “There are a great number of cases when the liaison is optional, and left to the taste of the performer.” However, for a singer to know when they can leave out a liaison, they must have a thorough knowledge of singing in French.
Consulting a French Lyric Diction coach or an excellent French diction manual will be the best course of action rather than asking a friend who speaks French. Everyday French does not necessarily require the knowledge of the relatively large set of rules used for singing in French. There are many things to consider when singing in French, so always make sure you cover all your bases.
Did you know:
An excellent book to start building your library is The Interpretation of French Song by Pierre Bernac. He explores the musical analysis and suggested liaisons in the texts to help you find your way with French Mélodie.
Pierre Bernac (12 January 1899 – 17 October 1979) was a French singer, a baryton-martin, known as an interpreter of the French mélodie. He had a close artistic association with Francis Poulenc, with whom he performed in France and abroad. Poulenc wrote 90 songs for him during their 25-year musical partnership.
A friend of mine posted this little photo on social media the other day, and it gave me the push I needed to finish writing this post that I have been working on for a while:
I have devoted my life to being a collaborative artist. After years and years studying by myself in a practice room to become a soloist, I eventually discovered that I don’t enjoy playing alone. I was always drawn to chamber music, vocal repertoire, and ultimately, the vocal arts stole my heart. I am very passionate about my work with singers, especially young singers and emerging professionals. It is a gratifying and exciting career.
As a collaborator, you learn to put your ego aside and work with others, some natural collaborators and some who are not. You learn to accept some personality traits that may not correspond to your own and you learn to cope with your recital partners’ stress levels as you put your own aside. You even know to be a calming force for them during their preparation or while on stage. Sometimes you play fiendishly complex music only not to be noticed even when you play it perfectly because that is what you trained to do. When a few select people notice you after performances (very often those who have studied the piano), you don’t mind not being the center of attention since it is all part of the “gig.” The rewards far surpass what some may perceive as negative experiences. I have a previous blog post detailing my thoughts on this matter: What am I?
For a long time and still today to some extent, the singer-friendly pianist is seen as someone who could not make it as a soloist or a chamber musician, looked down on by soloists. However, that could not be further from the truth. I see playing with singers as a calling. I studied languages, poetry, various styles, conventions in singing, conducting, and prompting because this is all part of this multi-faceted career. So much more is expected of a collaborative pianist than people realize. More often than not, we have to be the most prepared and knowledgeable person in the room, all the while staying modest. Having three degrees in solo performance, I don’t regret choosing to go into the collaborative arts for one moment.
When playing with our colleagues, our artistic voices should unite to make a cohesive musical impression. To achieve this, the pianist must play with conviction, confidence, and a complete and deep understanding of the text. This kind of preparation adds to the depth and layers of any performance.
I have noticed that some things are missing in young singers’ overall training, as it relates to professional etiquette to the collaborative partner. I am fortunate enough to work with colleagues who teach their students how to treat a singer-friendly pianist. Still, we can’t expect young singers or instrumentalists to understand how to cultivate their collaborative partner relationships if we are not helping them learn, or leading by example. Hopefully, these following points will help put those who need it on the right track.
Equal partnership: The collaborative pianist is your equal, and you should see them as such. When you are on stage with your collaborative partner, you share the performance as a team, no matter the singer’s level or the pianist; you are a team at that moment in time. We shouldn’t forget that the composers (mostly pianists themselves) gave the piano an important voice in the composition. As I always say: “You are only as good as the person you are performing with”, so it is essential that whatever you do on stage, you do together!
Repertoire: When you throw new repertoire at your pianist a few days before a performance, decide to do a transposed version of your piece at the last minute, or if there is no time to rehearse together, please be aware that the pianist can refuse to do this on short notice. Performing art-song repertoire requires time, discussion, agreements. Sure, your pianist can probably “wing it” with you, but you should both want to dig deeper than that for performance. Remember that you are both performing, and both need preparation time together.
Know your score: This is so important! Know your score ( I know, I wrote it twice), and by this, I mean all of it, not just your line. Take the time to look at the piano score closely. Frequently the majority of the information from the composer is written in the piano score. You will also better understand your entrances and what you should hear to draw your inspiration from to sing your phrase. Know the piano part as well as you know your part. This goes for when you sing with an orchestra as well. Keep your eye out for a future post on this!
Forget the old-fashioned “lead and follow” approach: There are times when the singer creates the moment and times when the pianist creates the moment. Performance should be musically satisfying for both artists. This is achieved by discussing the musical agreements you will make with your partner, as in rubato, ritenuto, tempo, color choices, by examining the meaning of the text and deciding what you both wish to convey. A unified idea of the piece will only make it more convincing to your audience. Of course there is always room for spontaneity in a performance, and that comes with time together and experience.
Qualifications: Collaborative pianists have extensive study not only in song and opera but as accomplished soloists. They have chosen the career path of collaborating with others and are committed to doing that with you out of a genuine desire to make music with others. They can sight-read with expression; they are flexible, good listeners, and are capable of learning mountains of music in the short-term. Keep in mind that while you are learning your recital, the pianist is probably learning your program alongside several more demanding programs.
Contacting a pianist: When you have the date of your performance, be sure to communicate with the pianist in a timely fashion. Provide the date, venue, and budget available for the concert. Plan a rehearsal schedule. An ensemble can only be successful with the appropriate amount of rehearsals to prepare for a performance.
Gratitude is an attitude: It is always appropriate to thank the pianist after a performance regardless of how you may feel after the performance. If the pianist had not agreed to play with you, you could have not been singing in the performance, so gratitude for the service is really a good place to start.
Here is a list of pet peeves pianists have. I wish I could say these rarely happen, but they happen more often than you think. It is just because people don’t realize that they are doing this; after all, the thing the collaborative pianist does best is “make it work.” I know there are probably different peeves that people have, but these are the ones that I feel are important to mention for now.
Your Score: When providing music to your pianist, please make sure that all the notes are printed on the page, including the bass line and key/time signature. I used to accept less than perfect scores and fill in what is missing or find an alternate score. These days, I am upfront if a score is not clear and tell the singer that they need to provide a better copy. I also give a better score to the singer when I have it. It is an excellent idea to keep a file of clean and clear PDFs of your scores to send to your collaborative partner. Be sure that the PDFs are the same edition you are using.
Nodding: When in performance, try to avoid the “nod to the pianist to start playing”. It feels uncomfortable, and it breaks the mood and flow of the performance, not to mention, the pianist also has to feel ready to start and may need a little more time to put themselves in that mind space. Discuss with your pianist ahead of time when possible what you do to prepare between selections. Usually, the pianist can tell by looking at your profile when you are ready to start singing
The Vanna White hand gesture: You finish singing, the audience applauds, and you bow; you turn to your pianist and extend an arm as a presentation. This is one of my personal biggest pet peeves. As partners, we should bow together. I always suggest that when the singer is done, they look over to me or wait for me to stand, and we bow together. This presentational gesture, however well-meaning may have been done in the past when collaborative pianists were not seen as equal performing partners, but is a bit out of place in today’s performance practice.
Vanna White: is an American television personality and film actress known as the hostess of Wheel of Fortune
Preparation: Come to your rehearsals/coaching sessions fully prepared. We never expect to be teaching you notes, pitches, and rhythms; these are your tasks to complete even before you make an appointment with a pianist. A good performer should anticipate their entrances to prepare in time and ready to make musical decisions.
The “Well..on the recording” argument: Please try and avoid using this phrase. We need to find our interpretation of the piece and a tempo suitable to both of our ideas of the interpretation. We are creating a moment and should not be copying it from a recording, no matter how beautiful it may be!
Posting on Social Media: There is nothing more alarming than scrolling through your social media feed and seeing a video clip of yourself playing out of the blue. When you perform with anyone on stage, please make sure you have permission to publish the clip before you share it. If they give you permission to post it, please identify them respectfully in the post. It is considered bad form not to mention the other people in your clip.
What you can expect from your Collaborative Pianist:
Preparation: If you have provided your program well in advance, the pianist should be exceptionally well prepared both musically and textually for the rehearsal to be productive. They should know their translation of the text and the context of the pieces you are performing. They should also have already formed an idea of their artistic contribution to the performance.
Communication: Sometimes we are busy, and it takes a while to get back to messages (sometimes we need a nudge), but if a pianist constantly does not reply, move on to the next person on your list.
Openness: Your sessions are filled with discussions and musical experimentations. Preparing a recital together is a two-way street, no matter the singer’s level or the pianist. You both have a stakein the process.
Support: That is at the core of what we do as collaborative pianists. We are there to be with you in your preparation and on stage. You should have a good feeling when you work with the pianist. You should feel free and welcome to engage in musical discussions and choices.
Knowing the vocal line: The singer-friendly pianist should be fully able to sing the score’s vocal line. It is rarely a beautiful sound, but it is part of the job. Only by singing it and playing the piano part simultaneously can you fully understand the space needed to sing a phrase or take an organic breath or how fast you can sing the text. The collaborative pianist who can do this is head and shoulders above the rest.
Always gives their best: The collaborative pianist always gives their best and treats the music with the utmost respect, even if they are playing something straightforward or a piece they have played for twenty years or more. They give the same intensity to every score they find in front of them to deliver the very best performance they can provide.
Being a collaborative artist is extremely rewarding. It is like a calling for most of us, and we would never want it any other way! It is one of the most intimate musical settings, dependent on communication and mutual respect. As a singer, you will always need a collaborative pianist, and there is no way around this. I hope these tips can help you maintain and cherish the pianists in your life and help them cherish you in return.
Social media is a big part of our lives. I would not say that I am an expert at navigating social media platforms, but I have been responsible for content for a few organizations and for my own professional use. With everyone – including colleagues and potential employers – now owning some form of social media account, how can you ensure that you effectively build your professional network and engage in exciting discussions while maintaining appropriate professional behavior?
Whatever you put on your social media accounts is a direct reflection of you – so, it is good to know how to use it strategically and responsibly. Technology is impacting the arts in much the same way it is affecting our daily lives. It is in a constant state of flux, and the adoption of multiple platforms is the driving force in marketing trends and opera performance practices. Many cultural fields that may not have traditionally engaged in technology use are now adopting and embracing it to reach, engage, and attract audiences. This fact has never been so evident than during this pandemic when social media is almost the only connection artists, schools and companies have with their audiences. Artists are caught between two worlds: A hundreds-of-years-old art form and technologically advanced platforms.
As a young emerging artist, what should you be putting out into the world? What is appropriate content? You may already have accounts, and a firm grasp of how to put yourself out there, but here are a few suggestions of how you may want to look at building your Social Media presence:
Creating a Digital Persona
Step 1: Develop your “Brand” (“branding” describes the process of creating a recognizable name or image attached to your work)
Who are you? What makes you unique?What do you do?
What do you want to highlight about yourself? What makes you stand out?
Create a digital portfolio of your work. (Start with what you have and build on it.)
A professional headshot you can use for all platfroms including your website
Video(s) of a performance(s): It is important that you only post recordings which show you in the best possible light because everyone is watching. Make sure to regularly replace them with current content.
Photos of yourself in action in opera productions; concerts; etc
Step 2: Research: Look around and draw inspiration from what you see.
How are other performers in the arts utilizing Social Media?
Whose profile is interesting and why? Analyze their techniques and what draws you to their content.
What can you take as inspiration from these accounts without becoming an exact copy?
Which technology platform(s) will give you access to the audience you want to engage?
Watch tutorials on how to use the different platforms. Choose platforms that are interesting to you.
Start with one platform and build your brand.
Step 3: Start Using Social Media
Start small: choose one platform and create your account.
Include interesting posts and information: Save photos of your cute pets and your culinary skills for your private account. You will want to look at your professional profile as a business card-what you put out into your professional network.
Keep your message/content focused on a clear subject. If you are a singer, you want to be seen as a singer.
Numbers will increase in time: Don’t worry about how many followers you have. This takes time, so be patient!
Make sure that your Brand always drives your social media presence.
Have an identifiable name. Choose a name that is related to your field (Many singers use their full name and voice type)
Each account you use should represent yourbrand; if possible, use the same name and photos on all your accounts.
Think about the feel and look of your account
Use the same banner or profile images (make it easy to tell which performer is attached to your account)
Use a similar account name which also builds brand recognition.
As your account becomes more advanced, you may wish to create an email address for professional correspondence. It is a good idea to set this up initially – even if you will not be using it right away – as it enables you to create an account that matches your brand name.
Link accounts. This way, your audience can find you on multiple platforms. You can also encourage responses on various media platforms and engage with multiple audience groups.
Keep information up-to-date on all of your accounts. Refresh clips regularly as your voice grows and you become more professional.
Step 4: Keep Track of New Trends
Don’t get complacent – review your numbers and decide which responses matter most to you overall.
Keep track of new technology and explore new social media trends and concepts. Not every trend fits everyone, but it is good to stay informed.
Regularly post fresh and engaging content but be careful not to over-post as this can make your audience uncomfortable, and eventually, they may end up unfollowing you. Posting for the sake of posting is not how you keep your content fresh.
Be yourself. The things that make you unique are the things that make you stand out from the rest of the “noise” online.
Pitfalls of Social Media
The significant amount of data available via social media platforms makes it very easy for the public to develop a perception (positive and/or negative!) about a singer based solely on their digital content. Therefore, you should decide which aspects of your life you would like to share on social media and which elements to keep private. Filtering your message before posting it is of the utmost importance. Social media can influence your standing with an employer and potentially affect your present and/or future employment status. Professionalism in posted content and online interaction is essential and helps the singer retain and build a positive reputation.
A Simple Rule to Follow:Never post anything online that is damaging or negative regarding a production; performance; director; conductor; administrative staff; faculty; fellow singer; costume worn in a performance; etc. An opera company may not discuss the consequences of a negative post with you. However, posts of this nature can lead to professional disaster(s) for future seasons.
Social Media Platforms Currently in Popular Use
It is a good idea to set up a professional page to keep private and professional posts separate. You can still post professional content on your private page, but I would discourage photos of a personal nature on your professional profile.
Suggested frequency of use: post content 1-2 times per week or on special occasions (concerts, events, or announcements)
Types of posts: Articles, photos, concert announcements
Goal: These posts show up on your contact’s newsfeed. Ask yourself: what would you want to see from a performer as you are scrolling through your feed? In other words, what do your followers want to see vs. what you may want to post
Profile: Your two photos (profile and cover) should immediately tell followers about you or your story. Ensure that the photos are related to your profession (i.e., a headshot and a photo of a performance) to let followers know what to expect should they decide to “like” your page.
Suggested frequency: Every 24-48 hours or periodically
Types of posts: This is the visual diary of your artistic journey. Keep captions short and hashtags relevant to what is in the photo (people swipe through their feed much faster on Instagram).
Goal: Visually represent an emotion or an important moment in your journey. Stay loyal to your brand.
Instagram stories and reels: These are a more spontaneous version of your feed. Even though the stories vanish after 24 hours, be responsible and only post things that cannot come back to haunt you. The screenshot function exists, and nobody is safe from it and remember…everyone is watching!
Tips: IG takeovers generate more followers and can be fun. Generally, a company or an organization invites you to do a takeover as a form of promotion, so it is good that you become familiar with this medium.
Suggested frequency: There is no real limit on the frequency of posting on Twitter. The platform was designed for prolific posting.
Types of posts: Text-focused, but also great for sharing articles and other links
Goal: Quick shoutouts to other artists, articles, or thoughts about your art. Mentions (@) and hashtags (#) are a huge part of building a Twitter audience.
Suggested frequency: 1-3/month
Types of posts: This is your platform to showcase/share your performances. Your presence here is the quickest way for people to get to hear what you do.
Goal: High-quality videos that show you in the best possible light.
Profile: Create a YouTube channel with a nice photo and good content.
Tips: The titles of your videos let people know what they will be viewing. List your name and other vital information, for example, your pianist, your ensemble, the date of the recording.
Use extreme care in choosing your material. Regularly delete videos that do not portray you in your most current state or vocal and artistic development.
Be mindful of what you are posting on these platforms. The most important thing is to be true to yourself. You want to show your online professional personality, but you don’t want people to fail to recognize you when they meet you in person. Here are a few of my what-NOT-to-post tips:
Copying others: Be inspired by other accounts-remain true to yourself, and do not copy other accounts. You don’t have to recreate yourself for social media, and it should not feel like a chore to create your content.
Don’t post anything overly calculated: Unnatural poses and setups stick out like a sore thumb and are not your most authentic voice.
Repetitiveness: Captions like “best cast ever!” get old when you use it in each and every post.
Negativity: Refrain from venting about your problems on your professional feed.
Consent: If you post about others or have other people in your photo and/or video, don’t post unless you get consentfrom the other individuals involved. That is just common courtesy.
Negative or hateful comments: If you are getting these kinds of comments, congratulations, you have arrived! It is a sign of success, and the more visible you are, the more people take it upon themselves to tell you what they think. The best course of action as a young emerging singer is not to engage or separate yourself from them by blocking them if it gets too heavy.
The amount of time and effort devoted to creating a well-executed digital persona also impacts its success level. The most engaging online content consists of genuine observations, photographs of performances, and experiences that provide the audience with a real connection to the artist.
As we embrace and use Social Media and all technological advances in the arts, it is crucial to keep in mind that it will be accessible to everyone and they will all have an opinion. Content that is personalized and genuine stands out from the online “noise” generated by millions of users. Keeping a narrow and focused message format is vital to attracting people to your accounts. There is a fine line between posting content that is genuinely engaging and posting content for content’s sake. The adage of “quality over quantity” will serve you well as you work to develop a strategic and effective professional social media presence!
I am currently working on Le Nozze di Figaro with my students. For some of them, it is their first experience singing “recitativo”. I always love this process, especially with recits as beautiful as those written by Mozart in this opera.
Recitativo, an Italian term commonly known in English as “recitative” or “recit” for short, is a style of delivery used in opera, oratorio, and cantata. In a recitative, the singer is allowed the freedom to adopt speech’s ordinary rhythm and delivery (as ordinary as it can be while singing it). In an opera setting, the recitative is where the story develops because it carries the text’s emotion and moves the story along. Whereas the aria is more reflective, telling the audience about the character’s thoughts and intentions.
There are two principal types of recitative:
“recitativo secco” or “dry recit”
This style of recit is sung with a free (written out) rhythm dictated by the accents of the words.
The accompaniment is a “continuo” (harpsichord and cello and in the baroque style, sometimes organ), which is chordal and straightforward. However, in the classical period, the harpsichordist can be invited to ornament.
In the bel canto period, the pianoforte is the accompaniment.
The melody approximates speech by using only a few pitches.
In this recit preceding this lovely duet between the Contessa and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, we find a typical recitativo secco. You can hear that both singers adapt to a more “spoken” freedom with the text, but all the while singing with their full instruments. The spoken like quality is created with the words, pauses, tempo of the text and not by taking away the vocal quality.
“recitativo accompagnato” or “accompanied recit”
This style of recit is sung with a stricter rhythm.
There is a more involved orchestral accompaniment.
It appears in dramatically important moments.
This type of recit’s character is more emotional.
The vocal line is melodic and typically leads into a formal aria.
An “arioso” is also a form of “recitativo accompagnato” in lyrical form. The words are still the driving force, but there is a more ornate and expressive melody.
In this example of recitativo accompagnato, Fleming as the Contessa gives us a fully sung recitativo with all the spoken language’s color while never compromising her voice.
An appoggiatura is an Italian term to indicate a musical ornament that consists of an added non-chord note in a melody that is resolved to the chord’s regular note. This added note is typically one degree higher or lower than the principal note and can be chromatically altered. The term comes from the Italian verb appoggiare, “to lean upon.”
In the Classical repertoire, singers are expected to add these ornaments within the body of a recitative even if they are not written in the score. Some editions give you options written above the staff but these are suggestions and you can decide if you would wish to add them or leave them out :
Remember when adding your appoggiatura to a phrase to look at the text and how the added note will affect the text. Will it weaken the statement when it is meant to be strong? Does it help your question sound like a question? The decision to add these should be text and character-driven to make it most effective.
How to Approach Singing Recitativo
A singer learns about recitative from the beginning of their formal training; however, there is often not much help beyond the basic understanding until you are confronted with performing it. At this point, the singer must find a teacher, coach, or conductor who understands and has experience with the subject. Decisions on adding appoggiatura in recitatives can help shape the text’s inflection; that being said, always be prepared to remove them or add more at your first musical run-through with a conductor. There are strong opinions and tastes regarding this practice, so it is in an artist’s best interest to remain flexible.
Tips on how to learn a recitative:
Translate the text; not just a word-for-word translation, but use words you would use in your daily life. This translation is of the utmost importance because the recitative is text-driven, and your connection to the text and how you express it is based on your translation.
Make a phonetic translation of the text and meet with a diction coach. You will work on the natural pronunciation, inflection, and meaning of the text.
Speak the text in rhythm until you know it inside and out, develop your muscles for the language, and you will attain a natural inflection. Test yourself by writing the text or reciting it while doing a mundane household chore, independent of the notes and rhythm.
Start learning the notes slowly with the text.
Take it to your voice teacher and put it in your vocal mechanism before adding any vocal “effects” . You mustn’t skip this step. Learn to sing it before you sing it!
The next step is to work with your vocal coach. Your coach should be able to play and sing all the other replies so that you can rehearse your timing and entrances before going into your first musical rehearsal with the conductor and cast.
You will inevitably be asked to “speak more” when you are working on “secco”. Please be careful with this. The “parlando” aspect of the recitative is the last layer of your preparation. With your voice teacher and coach’s help, you should first build the recitative into your voice in a technically healthy way before adding any “speech like” effects. Be careful not to go entirely to the “parlando” side of the recitative because continually going back and forth between “speechy” and “sung” will prevent you from keeping your voice fresh throughout a performance.
Learn the rhythm to recitativo secco very carefully. After you have done so, you will sing it with a more natural flow, but it is always easier to loosen up when you know something inside out, but if you haven’t learned it the way it is written on the page first, it isn’t easy to go back if a conductor asks you to do so.
Some conductors observe all rests in recits, and some require you to go through specific musical rests that break up a grammatical phrase. While there is some truth to the fact that composers had to observe time signature, which is why some musical rests are in the bar, you should always try and adapt to the conductor’s preference, even if/when you disagree with them.
Being able to sing recitatives convincingly separates the good from the great. Try following these steps the next time you learn a recitative and try to go too quickly: “Make haste slowly!” is an excellent rule to follow when learning/preparing recitatives.
A common point of confusion in French Lyric Diction is knowing when to pronounce the -ill(es), -il(s) as a Yod [j], and when do we pronounce this double “ll” combo as just one “l” [l]. There is a method to this madness, and it is not so complicated.
If the term”Yod” or “j-glide” is stumping you, you can check out one of my past blog posts on the subject of semi-consonants to catch up!
First, we should look at when we pronounce “i” as a Yod.
i or ï is pronounced as a [j] when preceded by a single consonant when it is in front of an a, e, o, or eu. Beware: not when it is in the middle of a word -ie- in some verbs and their derivatives or as the last sound of the word -ie.
Avant de quitter ces lieux, sol natal de mes aïeux (Before leaving this place, native soil of my ancestors), Valentin’s aria from Faust by Gounod
[aˈvɑ̃ də kiˈte sɛ ljø sɔl naˈtal də mɛz‿aˈjø]
In the example above, in the words “lieux” and “aïeux”, the i and ï are pronounced as a glide. Both of these vowels are in front of eu.
But we do not make a glide in the future tense conjugation of verbs like “oublier” (to forget) [ubliˈe]
J’oublierai (I shall forget) also does not have a glide; in fact, the e vanishes in pronunciation. I often hear [ʒubliəˈre], but the correct way to pronounce this word and other words like it is: [ʒubliˈre]
When -ie- is at the end of a word, it is simply [i] unless the composer gave a note value to the schwa, in which case it will be [iə], and we should not hear a glide between these vowels.
il, ill, ll : When do these letters make a Yod?
il, ill, and ll make a glide when at the end of a word in the following combinations: -ail,-eil, -ueil, -oeil- and euil.
il sounds as a glide in the middle of words in the following combinations: -aill-, -eill-, -euill-, -ouill-, -ueill- and oeill otherwise, it is pronounced as [ij].
Un deuil amer (bitter mourning) [œ̃dœj‿aˈmɛr]
but in the word fille, we add an [i] in front of the glide; otherwise, there would be no vowel in the word: jeune fille (young girl) [ʒœnə fijə]
List of Exceptions:
As anyone who has ever studied the French language or French diction knows, there are many rules to follow, but there are just as many exceptions to the rules, if not more.
When il(s) is at the end of a word and follows a consonant, the i is [i], and the l is sometimes silent and sometimes sounded.
The following is pronouncedwithout an l or a glide.
gentil (nice) [ʒɑ̃ˈti] N.B: You should not confuse this gentil with its feminine version gentille [ʒɑ̃ˈtijə] which is pronounced with a glide.
fusil (gun) [fy’zi]
grésil (hail) [gre’zi]
sourcil (eyebrow) [sur’si]
The following is pronounced without a glide but with an l
cil (eyelash) [sil]
fil (thread) [fil] or fils [fil] (the plural form of thread and pronounced exactly the same as the singular form) and not to be confused with fils (son or sons) [fis], which is pronounced without an l, but with an s whether it be singular or plural.
You could memorize this list, consult a French dictionary for the IPA translation on these more special words, or refer back to this post.
The exception also applies to the ll in the following words and their derivatives:
mille (thousand) [milə] Derivatives: million, milliers, milliards…
ville (city) [vilə] Derivatives: village, villageois, villagoise
If you don’t want to forget, memorize this phrase: Milles villes tranquilles: “A thousand tranquil cities” then you will remember that every word belonging to the family of these three words in French are pronounced as [l] rather than a [j].
These tips should help you navigate the world of “glide or not to glide” when it comes to the YOd and how to avoid making mistakes while singing, or speaking!
My favorite French dictionary online
We don’t always have a dictionary in our pockets, and let’s face the fact that we are in a digital age, no matter how much we love actual books. My favorite French dictionary online is the Larousse: https://www.larousse.fr/ This dictionary has been my go-to since as long as I can remember, it has it all, and the online version is quite good to work with.
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