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Opera singers: how to choose repertoire

We've received several questions about how to choose operatic repertoire, focusing on auditions and German opera houses. In this post (and our video!!), we do our best to give you the strategies we've used to answer these questions successfully. Happy practicing!


Your repertoire will grow and change with you several times in the course of your singing career, and that is okay! (If you are currently going through a vocal transition, watch this video and get some insights!)


Yesterday, we spoke about how to choose repertoire while you’re still a "developing singer", but the truth is you NEVER stop developing. Things do become more stable and easier with experience and age however.


Defining YOUR voice


First thing: no matter what you sing, the best rep for you at EVERY STAGE is the rep you sing AMAZINGLY WELL UNDER PRESSURE.


There are a few things to look at in this process. One of the most important things we must learn as artists, is how to ask the RIGHT QUESTIONS.


These questions should also be posed to your teacher, and you can do a lot of investigation on your own too. Learning about your voice is a life-long pursuit, and it is a battle that takes hard work only YOU can do!


Ask yourself


1. What is the natural weight of my voice? This will be the main deciding factor in choosing repertoire. The weight of your voice will change as you age, making a repertoire shift necessary in almost every voice type, at least once during a career.


2. What is the color of my voice? Is it more Italianate, or more Germanic? Is the timbre brighter or creamier? Darker or lighter? If it is a darker color, does it mean I am really a mezzo/baritone, or am I a young dramatic? (Or am I fabricating the color?)


3. Projection, or volume of the voice. Literally how loud do I sound in the house. This is very much a developmental issue. Some people start at the very beginning of their careers with very loud voices. This is something to pay particular attention to, especially in North America, where the houses tend to be physically much larger than their European counterparts, even the big ones. The truth is, if you answer these other questions correctly, projection and volume should be no problem.


4. This is more of a statement but remember: very heavy voices usually cannot sustain a high tessitura, even if they have a large vocal range. This goes back to the weight of a voice.


It makes sense: if you can sing an aria easily, that’s a good place to start!

HOW TO CHOOSE


After you have determined the “big picture” for your voice, it is time to strategize.


Like it or not, there are simply some operas that get produced more than others, and when you are trying to book your first jobs, it is important to offer at least some standard repertoire.

Looking at your natural strengths:


1. Every single one of you is uniquely made. Yes, there seems to be a billion light lyric sopranos, but still, there is only ONE you.


2. So find out what is special about you! It could be your timbre, your ability to sing coloratura extremely fast and accurately, maybe you have an unusually reliable high C you want to show off.


3. Just find ONE thing that sets you apart and HIGHLIGHT THAT when you are choosing repertoire.


The most important thing about choosing rep is putting down your ego, and asking "What do I actually sing best?" Some people have an easier time with that than others.


The ultimate two questions of rep choice are: What am I built for? What do I sing best?

Choosing rep for German house auditions


This sort of dovetails into our discussion on fest contracts. If you are trying to be hired for a fest contract, your strategy for repertoire will usually center on the lyric roles: all the Mozart, German language rep, and standard repertoire by Rossini, Puccini, Verdi, Strauss and Wagner. (They are always trying to cast those pesky small roles in Wagner and Strauss in house, as they can be just as challenging as finding the larger ones for some reason!)


A sample list for a light lyric soprano could look like this:

1. Adele in Fledermaus - shows personality, acting, high notes

2. Something in that fach that shows coloratura if you've got it

3. One of the ina/anna ingenue roles: Adina, Norina, Susanna, Zerlina etc.

4. Something by Mozart


If you have a more sizable instrument, the best strategy is:

1. Something by Mozart if it's comfortable

2. a standard rep German aria (operetta can be good since most houses produce operetta)

3. Standard Italian rep - Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, Bellini


If you have a very large and dramatic voice type, we recommend just bringing the easiest arias you can find until you get very comfortable in your voice. For years I suffered through arias that were too high, and as a result, often sang with a high larynx. When I finally found my current voice teacher, he said I was using MAYBE 60% of my voice.


A couple things to know


By the time you are auditioning for guest repertoire in German fest houses, we assume you have an agent and a team working with you. Ask your agent which roles you are being considered for, and offer those. Don’t assume anyone can tell you’re able to sing one Puccini role just because you offer a similar one. If you’re up for Tosca, bring Tosca. It’s as simple as that.


It is extremely unlikely you will be hired as a guest artist in a rep house in the beginning, especially if you live overseas (outside Europe) - you have better chances at guesting in stagione systems like France, Spain, Italy and the UK. Remember that many companies try to save money by hiring local artists, so even if you are just as qualified as someone else, they may be hired over you based on the budget of the opera house.


For more tips and info (and SILLINESS), here's our video:


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