Making a Career: Character Singing
Just about every serious student of voice dreams of a prestigious career in starring roles on the world’s great stages. The reality, however, is that only a small percentage will succeed in achieving the loftiest heights as Violetta, Carmen, or Rodolfo at the Met and La Scala.
Three artists who have enjoyed lengthy and productive careers specializing primarily in character roles — mezzosoprano Judith Christin, and tenors Charles Anthony and Anthony Laciura — prove that it is eminently possible to enjoy rewarding, productive, and financially secure livelihoods within the field in a capacity that is every bit as vital to our art form as performing the leads.
The question of whether a career specializing in character roles chooses you or you choose it can vary from one artist to the next. Laciura, guided by Arthur Cosenza and conductor Anton Coppola at the New Orleans Opera in his formative years, set his cap toward character roles right from the beginning, winning an early National Opera Institute award that recognized his specific abilities in this area. Shortly thereafter, Laciura, who is perhaps the only artist in the history of the Metropolitan Opera to have offered a selection from Sousa’s operetta El Capitan as part of his onstage audition for Maestro James Levine, began an association with that company that has continued for over 20 years.
During her early years of auditioning for U.S. companies, Christin focused primarily on leading-lady lyric mezzo arias. Her representative of many years, Elizabeth Crittenden of Columbia Artists Management Inc., persistently urged Christin to steer herself in the direction of including character roles. Over time, Christin was persuaded that it was worth taking the chance that she might have a better shot as a character mezzo than as Dorabella or Cenerentola.
Anthony, another New Orleans native, won the Metropolitan Opera “Auditions of the Air” (precursor to the National Council Auditions) in 1952. On the advice of conductors Fausto Cleva and Alberto Erede, who conducted the finals, he used his $2,000 prize (matched by an outof- the-blue gift from Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who had heard the finals concert), and headed for Rome for further study and immersion in the Italian language.
Summoned to the Met from a stint working for the Texas Company shortly thereafter, Anthony made his debut with the company in 1954, initially performing and covering both leading lyric tenor roles and character roles. As the years passed, Anthony became increasingly useful to the Met as a character tenor, and celebrated his 50th anniversary there earlier this year — the longest career in the company’s history, with further performances planned for the coming season.
Clearly, all three have had, and continue to enjoy, richly rewarding lives and careers, and all three have begun offering instruction in the particularities of creating vivid characters. In fact, Christin and Laciura initially did so as a team for apprentices at The Santa Fe Opera in the late 1980’s, where the popularity of their classes has continued in succeeding years.
Even if your career seems destined from the beginning to turn toward these kinds of roles, Christin stresses the importance of solidifying a rock-solid, consistent technique before all else, pointing out that several of her career highlights — Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Despina in Così fan tutte in Santa Fe, Susanna in John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles at the Met — while nominally in character roles, still required substantive singing and exceptional stamina. Anthony, who readily admits that his early success in the Met competition was due to a gift for mimicking the sounds of the Italian language without any comprehension whatsoever, underlines the importance of really learning and immersing yourself in foreign languages.
Laciura notes that in Europe, particularly in Germany, character roles have often been assigned to veteran singers to prolong careers that began in principal roles. Commenting on the trend in the U.S. for companies with apprentice programs to assign character roles that require special skills to youngsters merely as a means to save money, Laciura remarks that he has no problem with that, provided that there is someone specifically assigned to teach the apprentice the considerable differences between interpreting, say, Goro and Pinkerton.
While all three artists point out that being a character singer generally means that an artist can often maintain a longer career in this niche than as a “star” (provided that both general and vocal health prevail), Christin advises all aspiring singers that there are no guarantees. Noting that she increasingly finds that young artists want an assurance from the beginning of longterm financial stability, she feels it is crucial to let them Anthony Laciura as Njegus in Lehar's The Merry Widow. Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives. know that there will be challenges and sacrifices along the way, whether financial, personal, or vocal, and they must be prepared to be tested.
While Christin also points to an element of sheer luck in the success of her career, appreciative audiences — and managers — would counter that all three of these performers have earned their status in the field by consistently delivering well-sung, lively, vivid portrayals in a myriad of roles. Cherishable as artists and colleagues, Christin, Anthony, and Laciura are exemplars of the rich possibilities for aspiring artists beyond the roles of prima donna assoluta and primo tenore.
Tips for Prospective Character Singers
How do you know if you’re really “a Character?” Find out first from your most trusted mentor — someone very aware of practices in the professional world of opera — whether your “package” (voice/personality/ look) would be more productively applied to character singing than to principal roles.
Should you elect to pursue character roles, don’t assume that it’s the “easy way out.” You must still nail your technique solidly no matter what type of career you pursue, and much character work is as technically demanding as singing the leads.
At least as much as your colleagues singing the leads, it is crucial that you, as a character singer, immerse yourself fully in the languages you sing and the varying styles, to make yourself competitive in the marketplace.
Know the work of your “ancestors.” For example, an ample body of work exists on audio and video recordings of Piero de Palma, Michel Sénéchal, Hugues Cuénod, and Heinz Zednik to give aspiring character tenors inspiration for authentic and flavorful interpretations of their roles in the Italian, French, and German literature.
With the help of your coach or teacher, choose from the rich literature of arias available for character singers to construct a winning audition repertoire.
About the Author: President and General Director, Opera Colorado