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How Opera Singers Prepare for a Performance

By Shannon Eblen

An opera singer's work starts before they even set foot onstage. Here, Written on Skin's Krisztina Szabó and Alasdair Kent share how they prepare physically and mentally for a performance and how they care for their voices.

Krisztina Szabó

Krisztina is a mezzo-soprano from Toronto, Ontario. She performs the role of Second Angel & Marie in Written on Skin.

Q: Describe your typical routine on a day when you’re performing.

A: Well, it’s wonderful to do an opera away from home because I have the luxury of not having my day-to-day life. I have a 12-year-old daughter, so when I’m at home it’s a completely different routine.

On the road, my routine is basically making sure I get a good night’s rest the day before a show. Trying not to do anything to taxing. I like to keep a low-key sort of day going the day of a show. I generally write my opening night cards. There’s a tradition in opera of doing little opening night gifts and cards for your colleagues. So, writing opening night cards just to say congratulations and good luck – toi, toi, toi, actually, good luck is not the thing you say in opera.

And the day of a show I try and eat healthy – no dairy, nothing too drying. Caffeine, alcohol, none of those things are great for singing. It just causes either phlegm or extra dryness, and you want tostay well hydrated. For me, also key is eating enough in advance of the show that I have the energy from the food I’m eating but not too close because then you get sleepy.

Q: That kind of leads into my next question, which is, what steps do you take to keep your voice healthy?

A: Again, being well-rested is, I think, half the battle, because when you’re well-rested I think you’re less likely to get sick. And sickness is the bane of every singer’s existence. We are constantly worried about being healthy.

You have to have a healthy diet, you have to have a lot of hydration, you have to stay away from all the fun things – alcohol, caffeine. We have to be super on top of our general wellness, our body wellness.  And your voice is part of your body, so your body has to be fit as well. So, keeping in shape, keeping limber, making sure you’re active but not too active. There’s a fine balance with singers and you’ll find each singer has his or her own routine of wellness to keep their voice and body in shape.

Some people do vocal rest, it really depends where I’m at. If I’m super stressed, absolutely I will try and keep it low-key, not too much talking. I don’t like to go to places that require me to speak loudly,that makes me anxious. I’m fairly low-maintenance about my pre-performance care, but I don’t like tobe out in public too much. I feel like I should be in a quiet place.

Q: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?

A: I actually don’t have many pre-performance rituals. I like to obviously warm up a little – not too much, because you can over-sing and “leave it in the practice room” as we call it. I like to get to the theater fifteen minutes before my wig or makeup call and make sure I’m in the theater and feeling grounded in the space.

Alasdair Kent

Alasdair is a tenor from Fremantle, WA, Australia. He performs the role of Third Angel & John in Written on Skin.

 Q: What is your typical routine on a day when you’re performing?

A. I try and keep it pretty casual; the things that are most important are getting a good night’s sleep, drinking plenty of water, and eating a decent meal with some good protein and some complex carbs. If I have time, I’ll go for a jog or a run to be physically warmed up, and I’ll usually sing a couple of phrases just to check in with my voice and see how it’s doing. For a score as complex as Written on Skin, I’ll look at a couple of sections in my dressing room in the hour before the show starts. Other operas that demand a wider range usually require some specific scales, or a particularly wordy ensemble might require that I check on the order of certain words. There’s a trio in the second act of L’italiana in Algeri that, despite having sung it countless times, I still can’t remember which word goes where!

Q: What steps do you take to keep your voice healthy?

A. Well, healthy is an interesting idea. Your voice is another part of your body. Opera singers often talk about being athletes, so all the things we all know to do to be physically healthy apply. Eating healthily, exercising regularly, and sleeping well are the biggest ones. I don’t drink alcohol too often and I don’t smoke or get involved in any recreational drugs, but I’m sure there are singers who do and don’t find that it hurts their artistic capacity, so everyone’s different. Staying on top of your emotional well-being is important too, especially when you’re on the road and away from home for long periods of time. Singing is such a natural expression of joy that it’s difficult to just physically coordinate that if you’re not in a very joyful place in life. The impetus has to come from within, and it’s impossible to fake. Luckily, I find this work very enjoyable, so finding the joy hasn’t been a problem for me. You often hear about singers who go through family, relationship or health troubles then having difficulties singing. Sometimes we forget that our favorite singers are human beings too.

Keeping the voice technically healthy is another thing, too. I have a regimen of scales and exercises, phrases of arias excerpted from various operas, things that I’ll run most days just to keep the machine well-oiled. What complicates that is that the machine itself is different from day to day, depending on what you did the day before, and what you’re singing at the moment. The repertoire you sing is like the food you feed your voice, and if you’re constantly feeding it heavy, rich things, Puccini, the voice responds by becoming heavier. Sometimes you have to put your voice on a diet, feed it things like Mozart and Handel, Rossini, things that are a little leaner in order to get it back in shape.

Q: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?

A. No! I always think, the less complicated life is, the better. My one pre-performance ritual is to try to show up to my hair and makeup call on time.

 

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