I'm taking a break from writing about New Operas that MCO has produced to focus on our upcoming production of I Pagliacci. Last week I shared with you all our mitigation plan approved by the city of how we can safely move forward with our outdoor production. To read that blog click here.
This week I will be writing about the role I am singing in Pagliacci, and how I prepare and study to create the role. This will be my first time performing the role of Nedda, but I have been preparing the role since last summer. The first thing I do besides learning the notes and the rhythms is write in the translation into the score. We're using the Schirmer edition of the score, which comes with an English translation, but I use the Nico Castel opera translations to look up, and hand write the word for word translation in each of my scores. It is important to know "word for word" what you are singing in order to become the character, rather than only having a basic knowledge of what's going on. Knowing "word for word" means that when I go to sing a phrase I can emphasize, and put true emotions into each word. I do this for my character as well as all the other characters in the opera, because it is equally important for me to know what everyone else is saying to me, in order for me to react truthfully.
Once I know what I'm saying and what the other characters are saying, I look through for repeated words or ideas. These can give clues as to what is important to a character, as well as clues of rank and status. I often memorize and study the arias of a character first. Not only do these longer outbursts of sustained thoughts and ideas give insight to the characters emotions and desires, but they are often used in an audition to get you the role to begin with.
Many people suggest starting at the end of the opera when learning a role, but after memorizing the arias I most often begin at the beginning. However, this is not always true, when learning Madame Butterfly, I started in Act II, which is the middle!
The very first time Nedda sings she says "Confusa io son!" Translated as, "What does he know?" The next time we hear Nedda she is singing her aria, "Stridono lassu," which begins with a recitative. Recitative is a style of delivery that leans more into the natural rhythm of speech, and while it is still "sung" the text generally moves more naturalistically than the aria portion of the piece, where the words are drawn out in long phrases. During the recitative, Nedda says, "What fire there was in his look!" referring to Canio. She hopes he does not know her secret, (that she is love with another man), because she knows how jealous he is and actually uses the word "bruttale" meaning, brutal. Already we know A LOT, and it's only been a few lines. She has some fear, and the Italian bruttale has two T's, which get doubled in the the language, and help the actress (me) really express what that word means through the pronunciation and coloring of the voice on that word. The cool thing about this is, you (the audience) don't have to understand what the Italian means in order to understand the context of what the singer is saying! My job as a singing actress is to allow you to watch and listen and catch the subtleties of the character and the story without having to rely on a translation. Even if there are super titles at a performance of an opera, do you really want to have to read them the whole time, and miss what's happening on stage? My favorite performances of opera to watch are the ones in which the singers, and directors are so incredibly good at telling the story, that I don't need to read the text to know what's happening. I can see it, hear it, and feel it.
In acting, the words really are where it all begins. The wonderful thing about opera is that the composer gives you sounds to attach to the words, that can, and do help your interpretation of the words. Obviously sometimes it's fun to play with a juxtaposition of emotion from what the word or the sounds are. For instance, in Pamina's aria Ach, ich fuhl's from Mozart's The Magic Flute, she repeats the words "If you don't feel the longing of love, then there will be peace in death." To only sing these repeated words the same each time, would not give all that you could to the character. At some point in the aria when Tamino is not looking at her, it's very effective if this sweet character can use these words to threaten Tamino and try to manipulate him to look at her. When he still doesn't turn to look at her you can then begin to understand her emotionally unravelling to the point that she actually does decide to commit suicide. Fortunately, the three spirits stop her, but if the singer does not give you different emotions for each of these repeated words, you might not believe how she gets to that place emotionally.
Back to Nedda. The composer gives beautiful bird like trills before the "aria" begins, and we can hear them, but it might not be as effective, if you don't also see me hear them. Ultimately, creating the role of Nedda means not just learning the notes and working with a teacher to know how to sing them. It's more than also working with a coach, who can help with my understanding of the pacing, the language, and style of the piece. (I should stop here and say thank you to both my voice teacher, Christine Weidinger, and coach William Vendice who are both a tremendous help and necessary step in all my role preparation, and who I miss greatly during this strange time of social distancing, and inability to travel.)
The step I'm in now is focusing on the words and the music and bringing them to life by understanding their pure and grounded meaning. They are Nedda, and to become Nedda, I must understand her words and the reason behind them. I'm looking forward to continuing the journey with our stage director, Keturah Stickann and conductor, Logan Campbell who will also have ideas and interpretations of the character that we will discuss and that will emerge within the character I am already developing. I'm also excited to work with the cast and to play off their ideas of their characters, because acting is also reacting and responding to what you are given on stage. Opera is an amazing form of theater that allows you to use words, language, and sounds of all kinds of instruments and voices to help create your character, and the world that you are inhabiting.
We hope you'll join us at the performances either in-person at the Tennessee Amphitheater or online in the comfort of your own home.
Tickets can be found at https://viewstub.com/I-PagliacciAug13
In the meantime, enjoy this performance of Nedda's aria. Performed in Prague last summer with Opernfest Prague. Conducted by Maestro Richard Hein with the orchestr Severoceskeho divaldla!