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Letting the Lion Roar — Words of Wisdom on Developing and Maintaining the Dramatic Voice
Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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Opera America Magazine7/1/2009

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Singers with dramatic voices — those who will someday sing heavy Verdi and Wagner roles — present a special challenge for both academic and professional training programs. At meetings of OPERA America's Singer Training Forum, challenges related to the nurturing of these rare artists are a frequent topic of conversation.

How can professionals work together to better serve these singers? OPERA America, with the assistance of professionals in the field, has put together an online resource with information about fostering young dramatic voices and career paths of dramatic voices through history. This information is collected in the artists section of

With the proliferation of young artist programs at opera companies across the country, the process of building an opera career has been streamlined for many singers; participation in a young artist program offers not only a "finishing school" but a chance to be heard by artistic directors and managers. However, emerging artists with dramatic voices are not often appropriate for typical young artist assignments (outreach tours, small roles and chorus on the mainstage), and thus must forge their own path. In the article that follows, five established professionals share stories and advice for these singers and those who work with them.

A few years ago, when judging a vocal competition, I heard a very young, big-voiced mezzo scream her way through Santuzza's aria. During the deliberation, one of my fellow judges (the head of a major university's opera department) declared passionately, "She's got a monster in her throat, and no idea what to do with it."

Today this is, alas, an all-too-familiar situation. A true dramatic voice requires immensely skillful guidance on every level (from teachers, managers, young-artist programs) to fulfill its potential. I recently addressed significant issues facing the dramatic voice with five highly knowledgeable interviewees. Each one followed an atypical career path, and each boasts significant experience on the national and international scene. They are:

  • Christine Brewer, soprano
  • Clifton Forbis, tenor
  • Eugenie Grunewald, mezzo-soprano
  • Jason Stearns, baritone
  • Diane Zola, former dramatic soprano and artist manager, now artistic administrator of Houston Grand Opera

Knowing what you've got
STEARNS: When I was 15, people said, "You sound like Robert Merrill. You have a 35-year-old man's voice coming out of a 15-year-old's body!" Then and there, I knew what I was going to do. The only problem was that I should never have been advised to take singing lessons. I already knew how to sing! As soon as I started lessons, my voice got messed up, and it took me a long time to get back to what I did naturally.

GRUNEWALD: In college, no one knows how to train a big voice. They had me sing Mozart — they were treating me as a soprano in college, because I had coloratura. I hadn't heard of a coloratura mezzo until I got out of college! I was told to sing like a pretty little lyric soprano, but I didn't know how to manage my breath, and as a soprano I had no top. When I switched to mezzo, my top immediately came in.

FORBIS: I was a baritone in college. I tried to sing as a tenor early on and was discouraged from it by people who said "It's too big" or "You could hurt yourself that way." There was a teacher at my college during my final year who had also made the switch from baritone to tenor. I got to study with him a bit, but at that point I'd pretty much figured it out: "I'm a tenor — I just have to go find me a teacher who can teach it."

STEARNS: Teachers teach studio singing — they don't teach opera singing for a big theater. Lessons should be taught in at least a room the size of a recital hall, with the student far away from the teacher. This would immediately show whether or not the singer has any output of sound. So often, when students finally have to sing on a big stage, they can barely be heard!

Singing teachers in schools must stop teaching lieder and French song — it will never develop the voice. This kind of music only closes it and forces it into a little box. Students should be taught to sing oratorio, opera, even Broadway and some operetta. They graduate with a box full of music that will never earn them a nickel in the real world. Their voices are so small and limited from having been forced to sing such small, intimate music that, when faced with the real world's challenges of having to audition for opera, church work or oratorio, they don't have what they need to get hired.

GRUNEWALD: With teachers who don't know how to handle a big voice, they tend to whittle the voice down rather than teaching a really good technique and letting that voice grow the way it needs to grow.

FORBIS: It takes a big voice to teach a big voice — and for me, early on, there were missing pieces of the puzzle that only a big voice could communicate. If you don't have a teacher who knows it, understands it and has sung it, in a lot of ways you're wasting time.

ZOLA: There isn't a plethora of great voice teachers, nor is there a real understanding of the big voice. I'd say [to academic institutions] make sure that your faculty is not only the very best it can be in teaching and nurturing all singers, but also that it has a real understanding of what it's like to be a big voice. Maybe allow students a certain type of curriculum where they learn the big repertoire — not performing it, but let them start sinking their teeth into it. Encourage them not to rush. They should be learning their languages and learning to be great musicians.

Patience is the operative word
BREWER: I started out as a very light soprano when I was 17. I was fortunate to have a great teacher at the little Methodist college where I studied. He approached everything in a really lyric way. I sing everything now with the same approach that I had when my voice as half this size. I don't try to make my voice sound bigger — I never feel like "I've got to cook up some sound!" It comes from the emotion, the interpretation. It's never about trying to push my voice.

FORBIS: Today you have guys who should be singing Mime but are singing Tristan! I think the basic knowledge of the big voice and what's appropriate for it is lacking. Consequently, people are getting used to hearing lighter voices in certain heavy repertoire, and they don't know what the correct voice should sound like. It takes longer for a bigger voice to come into line, and people aren't willing to wait anymore.

ZOLA: People want singers either to do Isolde tomorrow, or, since they're so unformed, people just think you have an unwieldy voice, no technique, so you can't sing. Instead, they have to realize that this kind of voice needs time and nurturing. Everyone wants a wunderkind — there aren't wunderkinds per se in dramatic repertoire.

A balance of repertoire
ZOLA: I so admire what Stephanie Blythe is doing. This is someone who had a really solid technique who was allowed to grow. There aren't many big-voiced mezzos who can sing Isabella [in L'italiana in Algeri] with such ease — but at the same time her Amneris in Seattle was fantastic.

BREWER: I always come back to Mozart, Handel, Haydn. Are you doing something that keeps your voice moving? The singers who are, I think, on the right track. You can get stuck in the really heavy repertoire. I like to mix it up even now, say, with Baroque things — I think that's what keeps the voic
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About the Author: Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, is lecturer and special consultant to the company's Ryan Opera Center. Earlier this year he led master classes at DePaul University and Baldwin-Wallace College Conservatory.
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