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Aria Talk
Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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Editor's Note: Have you ever wished you could find at least one audition aria that people haven’t heard from every other [fill in your Fach]? If that’s your predicament, this regular column may prove helpful. In each issue of Voices, “Aria Talk” will offer information on arias that are all viable alternatives, and will include at least one taken from a contemporary work.
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Charles Gounod, Mireille (1864), Mireille’s “Air de la Crau,” Act IV, sc. ii: “Voici la vaste plaine”

“Je veux vivre” and the “Jewel Song” seem almost inevitable at auditions. If you’d like a change, check out another Gounod gem, Mireille. This opera’s neglect is a shame, particularly as regards the glorious title role.

Mireille takes place in Provence, where the heroine’s father is a wealthy farmer. He makes her miserable by preventing her from marrying a poor basket-maker, Vincent. Mireille’s other suitor, the bull-tamer Ourrias, wounds Vincent in a fight. Desperate to see her beloved once more, Mireille makes her way across the Crau Desert. In her aria she begins the journey vigorously, but her strength falters and she becomes delirious. Recovering, she proclaims herself “the pilgrim of love” and drives herself onward.

Like Juliette and Marguerite, Mireille starts her opera as a light lyric but gradually takes on significantly greater vocal weight. This deeply stirring, vocally magnificent scene requires real command of full-voiced high climaxes (you can hold the final B forever) plus considerable rhythmic verve, but floating with a thread of sound is nearly as vital. Both fragility and burning conviction emerge here with a sustained intensity that can be riveting. Yes, it’s a bit long, but no longer than Violetta’s first-act scena.

Score—Choudens (look for it in a good music library)
Recording—Mirella Freni, cond. Michel Plasson, complete recording, EMI Classical # CDS7496532 (special import); Danielle Borst, cond. Cyril Diederich, complete recording, Cascavaelle #1048


Gaetano Donizetti, Anna Bolena (1830), Smeton’s recitative and aria, Act I, sc. iii: “È sgombro il loco... Ah parea che per l’incanto”

I’ve heard countless mezzos and contraltos suffer through Donizetti’s “O mio Fernando.” If you want bel canto but don’t want to subject your young voice to this sort of pressure, and if you have a really comfortable low register, Smeton should be made to order.

The page of Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn, Queen of England), Smeton (Smeaton) is also hopelessly in love with her, unbeknownst to her husband, King Enrico (Henry) VIII. Late in the first act, Smeton stealthily enters Anna’s apartments, intending to return a miniature of her that he had stolen. In his ravishing, highly decorated aria, he recalls how, as he wore her image against his heart, it seemed—as if by magic—that his tears inspired sighs in Anna herself.

Evenness of tone is a must here, along with a fairly wide range (two full octaves, if one sustains an interpolated high A-flat at the end) and dazzling ability in coloratura; one rapid scale charges right over the lower break, from high F to low A-flat. The constant dotted rhythms demand great precision. One should be able to play with the phrases, and superb grace should permeate both the brief legato section and the florid passages.

Recording—Janet Coster, cond. Silvio Varviso, complete recording, London Classics #455069; Jennifer Larmore, cond. Carlo Rizzi, in “Call Me Mister” (recital of trouser role arias), Teldec #10211


Richard Strauss, Capriccio (1942), Flamand’s sonnet, scene iv: “Kein Andres, dass mir so im Herzen loht”

Lyric tenors’ German aria is generally Tamino’s “Dies Bildniss,” which has always struck me as very hard work. For something equally ardent but not quite as wearying, there is Flamand’s sonnet. (Virtually every Flamand has also been a Tamino, by the way.) Flamand shows that Strauss could on occasion write gratefully for tenor. The leading soprano reprises this melody later in Capriccio, but Flamand gets it first!

Flamand is a composer, his friend Olivier a poet. Each is infatuated with Countess Madeleine. Olivier’s sonnet forms the conclusion of a scene from his new play. He recites the text to Madeleine, for whom its sentiments are ultimately intended. Flamand rushes off to set it to music, leaving Olivier a chance to woo Madeleine. Upon returning, Flamand accompanies himself as he sing the now-“musicalized” sonnet. The text expresses all of his (and Olivier’s) longing for Madeleine: “Nothing else so inflames my heart….Nothing else could I sigh for as I sigh for you.”

Flamand must soar through this exquisite music, maintaining a sense of forward motion while keeping the legato phrasing effortlessly buoyant. At the same time, he must shape the text with a sensitivity rivalling that of his poet colleague.

Score—Boosey & Hawkes
Recording—Nicolai Gedda, cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch, complete recording, EMI Classics #67391; Uwe Heilmann, cond. Ulf Schirmer, complete recording, London Classics #44405


Modest Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov (1874), Shchelkalov’s aria, Prologue: “Pravóslavniye!”

The leading baritones of great Russian companies frequently take on Shchelkalov as a cameo role (one thinks of the Bolshoi’s matchless Onegin, Yuri Mazurok, a quarter of a century ago). In this moment in which all eyes are on the singer, real distinctiveness of voice is required. In just a few minutes, a good Shchelkalov can leave an unforgettable impression.

Andrey Shchelkalov is secretary of the Duma. In the courtyard of the monastery of Novodevichy near Moscow, he appears suddenly before an unruly crowd. Once a police officer silences them, Shchelkalov announces that Boris has rejected the Duma’s insistent plea that he become Tsar. Shchelkalov predicts woeful times for the Russian people, who lack a ruler. He asks that they trust in God to send comfort to them and guidance to Boris.

What must move—indeed, overwhelm—the audience in this aria is the sheer dignity of Shchelkalov, which colors every line. The singer should color every word with the utmost specificity. The rounded, rolling voice must also offer enough ring for the series of sustained high E-flats. There are dynamic markings for nearly every phrase, and these must be properly integrated into the whole without creating bumpiness in the vocal line.

Score—Edwin F. Kalmus or Dover Publications
Recording—Vassily Gerello, cond. Valery Gergiev, complete recording, Philips #462 230-2; Kim Borg, cond. Issay Dobrowen, complete recording, EMI Classics #65192

Bass or Bass-baritone

Kurt Weill, Street Scene (1946), Frank Maurrant’s aria, Act I: “Let things be like they always was”

A tragedy of life in a New York tenement of the 1930s, Weill’s Street Scene is subtitled “An American Opera” but uses a mix of Broadway and operatic voices. The latter include the pivotal role of Frank Maurrant. Now that Street Scene’s popularity is increasing, try bringing Frank’s aria to your auditions, provided you can achieve the necessary power for it without forcing your voice.

Frank is a stagehand who’s away from home frequently—away from his children and Anna, his wife. Desperately unhappy, Anna begins an affair with a married man. Already suspicious, Frank returns home one evening and has a heated argument with a Communist neighbor, who calls him a “roughneck ignoramus.” Frank longs for a return to what we’d probably refer to today as “family values.” In “the old days” it was different,
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About the Author: Editorial Dramaturg, Lyric Opera Chicago
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