Monday, January 14, 2008

She's a Lady

Welcome to a guest blogger from HGO's production of MAGIC FLUTE...

Hi there! My name is Jamie Barton and I am performing the role of the 3rd Lady in Die Zauberflöte. This is my first year in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and this is my first opera role on the big stage. This also happens to be my first opera by Mozart, my first German opera, and the first opera where I have had to learn dialogue in a different language. That’s a lot of firsts!

My role as 3rd Lady is not very large, but it is challenging: I am just one in an ensemble of three women who almost always sing together. It is not too often that singers in my line of training have to focus almost all of their energy on being a part of a group of singers. There are only a few shows that I can think of that feature a small group of characters that have to "sing as one voice". A lot of times they serve as background characters -- something as minimal as the single minded group of doo-wop girls in Little Shop of Horrors first comes to mind, as do the trio of gossipers in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. I guess the most famous trio of operatic ladies other than the trio in Die Zauberflöte are the Rheinmaidens in Das Rheingold. I actually just sang as one of the Rheinmaidens in the Studio opera scenes back at the beginning of December! Although the three Rheinmaidens tend to have a few more solo lines, they do sing together a lot and represent one unified purpose. Perhaps in a funny way it prepared me for the uniqueness of performing the 3rd Lady in Die Zauberflöte. Although the Rheinmaidens are done within the first scene of a very long opera (and don’t return until several operas later), the performance time on stage is about the same as the three ladies in Die Zauberflöte. They also have very similar jobs… the ladies in Die Zauberflöte are sent by the Queen to do her bidding, which often involves using their womanly wiles as a tool of deception to guide Tamino and Papageno to do the Queen’s bidding. Similarly, the Rheinmaidens were placed at the River Rhein by their father Wotan, ruler of the Gods, to do his bidding of defending the golden treasure at the bottom of the river. How do they do this? By detracting men from their location by using their womanly wiles as a tool of deception, of course! I wonder where composers got that idea…

Singing as "one voice" in a trio that is supposed to think as one mind has its difficulties! First of all, one must understand that we are all trained to sing individually. That’s not to say that opera singers never sing with other people – we just tend to sing a lot more by ourselves than in heavy ensemble. It is all ensemble singing for the three ladies in Die Zauberflöte, and one must make vocal adjustments to be a good ensemble singer. One of my biggest jobs as being the lowest voice in this ensemble is to provide a vocal foundation for the two higher voices. The upper two voices sometimes end up having higher notes or quicker moving vocal passages, and my job is to provide a steady and firm base for them to sing over. Our conductor, Maestro Steven Sloane, was actually talking about that the other day during rehearsal. He said (speaking about one section in the score) that the 2nd Lady and I needed to act as a steady and strong foundation so that the 1st Lady could feel at ease soaring over our line. I have sung in a lot of ensembles before training as a solo operatic singer, but this is still an interesting job to have! Of course, while it all probably sounds like our job is to constantly avoid vocal land mines and to try to act as one character, there is a lot more freedom that comes with it. Even though we almost always sing as one voice, our characters are all very different personalities (especially in this production!) This adds a lot into how we can inflect the lines and even sometimes affects what the text can mean. It is also really nice to get to sing with two other incredibly talented women. I take a lot of inspiration from how they perceive their characters and sing their lines, and it’s nice to bond with such great people!

I think the hardest one of those "firsts" I was talking about earlier has been learning all of the German. I am not a native German speaker – I grew up on a farm in Rome, Georgia! So for this very American girl who often has very southern diction, it has been a long and difficult process to make me sound like I have lived in Germany all of my life. It started with a ton of work on my own. I did research on the opera by listening to recordings of native German speakers and I wrote out pronunciations and checked those pronunciations with reference books. I then started musical coachings to help me rehearse the role. The coaches at Houston Grand Opera are fantastic, so any questions I had about diction were quickly resolved. The process of learning how to sound natural has continued with having the conductor here – he happens to live in Germany, so that helps! I have found that people often have differing opinions about inflections in the spoken German lines, and that is also something I am still working around. However, I can honestly say that with every mistake I make in rehearsal and coachings (which are quite a lot, believe me), I learn something new. And, I guess that’s my job as a Studio member… to continually learn and grow as an artist. Thank goodness Houston Grand lets us learn on our feet!
You can learn more about Jamie at her site

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