An opera is a theatrical show where a dramatic story is set to music. As in a theatre, there is movement, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance in the form of ballet. The most striking feature of opera is that music has the most important role and all the parts are played by singers. It has a rich and fascinating history that is 400 years old and is still considered by many as the most supreme art form since it integrates a host of creative and performing arts.
In opera, roles are assigned to singers on the basis of their voice types. This is because composers assign a voice type to a character based on his/her personality or age. There are seven voice types in opera that are recognized. These are soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, bass, baritone, tenor, and countertenor. As an aspiring opera singer, the first thing that you should know is that you cannot choose your voice type. You are born with one and it is this voice that you must work on to excel as a singer.
First Things First
If your dream is to become a professional opera singer then you have to show a lot of patience and perseverance. Depending on what your goals are, you need to fix a 'to do' list for yourself. You can follow these steps to get closer to your goal.
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Identifying the Voice Type
While starting out the first thing you have to identify is your vocal range and the associated voice type. Your vocal range is the highest and lowest note that you can sing in tune and with ease. To sing opera, you have to find your tessitura or the range you are most comfortable singing in. This will ensure that the sound you produce while singing is powerful and not strained. In opera, performers are assigned roles based on their voice types. These are:
- Soprano: This is the highest female voice type. Sopranos with their high-pitched, delicate, feminine voice usually play the female lead or the heroine sometimes referred to as the 'Prima Donna'.
- Mezzo-Soprano: Also referred to as a mezzo, this is the middle female voice with a darker and warmer vocal timbre or tone than a soprano’s. In opera, mezzos usually portray older women, female villains, and seductresses. On some occasions, they are assigned a “trouser role” or “pant role” which is that of a young boy.
- Contralto: This is the lowest female voice. Contraltos usually sing the roles of older females or special characters like witches and old gypsies.
- Countertenor: This is the highest male voice, often said to be very similar to a mezzo-soprano’s voice. True countertenors are very rare.
- Tenor: This is usually the highest male voice in an opera. Tenors have a powerful sounding voice and usually play the hero or the lover in an opera.
- Baritone: This is the middle male voice and in opera buffa or comic opera, the baritone is often the ring-leader of the comedy, but in opera seria or tragic opera, he is usually the villain.
- Bass: This is the lowest male voice. Low voices usually suggest age and wisdom and so bass singers play the role of wise old men in serious opera. In comic opera, they are generally used for old characters who are foolish or laughable.
Taking Opera Singing Classes
It’s difficult to train for opera singing on your own. Apart from taking training in classical vocal music, to sing like an opera singer, you should also take lessons from an experienced vocal technique coach. He or she will be able to guide you with techniques that will raise the overall level of your performance. Breath management, correct use of head voice, chest voice, 'passagio' technique and a lot more will be taught by the vocal coach. If you wish to pursue a career as an opera singer, training under an expert is a must to excel in your craft.
In addition to taking training in vocal techniques, learning to read sheet music is important for you. It will develop your understanding of musical notes and reduce your chances of going off-tune while singing. Since most operas are composed in French, Italian, and German, learning these languages will help to improve your diction and your ability to emote more effectively while performing.
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Tips for Tenor Singers
When referring to male singers, the tenor sits at the top of the vocal range with the baritone and bass below it. Only the countertenors can sing higher notes. Tenor singers usually have a vocal range that lies between C3, the C one octave below middle C, and A4, the A above middle C. If you are a tenor, you will have to use your head voice while singing the higher notes and chest voice to sing the middle and lower notes. You will also have to master the ‘passagio’ technique while moving from one vocal register to the other to avoid unwanted register breaks. These lessons are an important part of opera singer training.
Through the course of opera history, tenors have won and lost favor with opera composers. It was in the 19th century that tenors finally started receiving their due prominence when the science and technicalities behind singing became a matter of discussion. They started refining their vocal techniques in order to make them more appealing to a broader range of audiences. Since then, tenors have become the heroes of some of the greatest operas around the world. There are several types of tenor. These are:
- Tenor buffo or spieltenor
Since the tenor voice has so many sub-types, even the most famous tenors cannot be expected to play every role written for them since some are created for very specific types of tenors. With practice and training, you will be able to identify your forte and once you are ready, you can go ahead and audition for the roles that will be the best fit for your voice type.
Tips for Mezzo-Soprano Singers
The mezzo-soprano or mezzo which is among the female voice types falls in between the contralto which has the lower vocal range and soprano which has the higher one. It usually encompasses the A below middle C and the second F or G above middle C. The vocal timbre of mezzo-soprano is warmer than soprano. It sits on the middle voice register. In opera, plenty of roles are composed where the mezzo voice is called into play. This voice type is divided into further sub-types which are:
If you have the mezzo voice type, the way to shine is by acquiring the best vocal techniques that will help you to sing freely and powerfully. The vocal timbre or tone should be of the highest quality. It is always recommended that you stick to your natural tessitura or vocal range without trying to sing in a range that doesn’t come to you naturally.
As with any discipline, the key to success is routine practice. Opera singers often take acting lessons to improve their movement, ability to read characters and express them better through their singing. The best mezzo-sopranos are often very versatile and can reach a few semitones beyond either end of their range. Becoming a mezzo-soprano is often the most common choice for women unless they have vocal cords that lend themselves to a particularly high or low voice which would make them a contralto or soprano.
Using Vocal Effects
Opera singing involves the usage of many vocal techniques that helps to elevate the level of the performance. One of the popular techniques used by singers is vibrato. This effect is expressed in the form of a pulsating tone that oscillates between two closely related pitches.
To develop a vibrato your voice has to be ready and backed by good vocal techniques. The way you control the opening and closure of your vocal folds along with the airflow through it will determine the quality of your vibrato. Trying to produce vibrato by merely imitating the style used by famous singers can lead to very poor results.
Vibrato is used when singers sustain the high notes while singing a musical piece. If not cultivated through proper practice it can cause stress on the vocal cords and considerable damage. Also using it at a stretch can reduce the impact of the effect. It can begin to sound as monotonous as a song when sung from the beginning to the end in a straight tone.
So knowing when and how to use the technique is as important as the quality of the sound that is generated when you incorporate it into your singing. Taking lessons with opera singing teachers is the best way to develop a good voice and learn how to use such vocal effects effectively.
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To become a successful opera singer you need to be extremely driven. You can take vocal training on the side or pursue a program in music from a musical conservatory or university. It may take 3 to 4 years to gain sufficient training before you can start auditioning and finally performing. Only diligence and hard work can help to fulfill your dreams. So, it's time to get going!