Pants Roles Concerns

[reposted from My Blogger, 2012]

I’ve been getting some questions recently on my other blog about pants roles.  They’re very good questions – questions that I think a lot of singers have – so I’m going to put them up here.

Singing-through-thenight asked: Hello! I will be auditioning for pant roles in the fall for a few productions, and I was wondering if I should invest in a pant suit? Is it really unacceptable to call for a pant role while in a dress? What do yo do? Help! 🙂

My answer: Great question!  I’ve asked this same question to many different coaches/conductors/directors/etc and basically gotten the same answer.

First of all, it isn’t completely unacceptable to wear a dress.  If that’s all you have, then go with it.  Also, if you’re doing a general audition where you’re singing arias from several different roles (and they’re not all pants roles) then you should probably side with a dress.

However, if you are specifically auditioning for a pants role, it is a good idea to come in a pants suit or at least dress pants and a blouse.  It’s good for them to see you in a way that is closer to how you’ll look in costume.  I’d also do your hair in a way that’s flattering but is off your face/pulled back.  My hair is short so I don’t really have to worry about this part. 😉

Pants suits are a touchy subject, though, because it’s easy to go wrong.  You must wear a suit that flatters your body – you don’t want to hide your form or make it look different from what it normally looks like.  Also, you must find a suit that is professional and classy yet stylish.  Remember, you’d normally be wearing a dress for this audition – the suit should be on the same level of formality but you don’t want to look like you’re headed for a business meeting.  You still want to show a bit of your personality with what you’re wearing.  It’s a tough balance, but it’s completely achievable.  When in doubt, wear something that makes you feel confident and that shows you off in your best light.  🙂

Mag4ever asked:  Saw your photos from Hansel and Gretel! My performing arts high school is doing that as our opera this year! Super excited! Any advice for a teenage mezzo on performing, pants roles, or anything else? How about specifically for the role of Hansel (which is who I want to be)? Thanks! 

My answer:  Thanks!  And this is definitely a question that I’m more than happy to answer.  🙂

First of all, check out this website for some of the best tips on playing a pants role.  It goes over everything and even gives helpful examples.  Hansel is mentioned specifically there, so it’s definitely worth a look.

Second, watch and listen to every production of Hansel and Gretel that you can get your hands on.  How do professional singers portray the character, both vocally and physically?  What can you learn from them?  My favorite Hansels are Brigitte Fassbaender and Angelika Kirchschlager.  And besides listening to the singers, just really get the music in your head.  That opera has an extremely complex orchestration and it will help you immensely in the long run if you know all the vocal lines and the orchestration inside and out.

Third, practice the crap out of your music.  Just when you think you know that part, something crazy will happen and you’ll be headed right back to your piano to relearn something.  Know every note, every dynamic, every meter change, etc etc.  Hansel is a tricky role – he’s all over the place both musically and physically – so be over-prepared so you can be ready for anything.

Fourth, do some hands-on research of your own.  Watch how little boys play, how they move, what they’re interested in, and how they interact with the people around them.  I’m sure you have brothers or cousins or neighbors who could be helpful in this.  I’ve learned almost everything I know about pants roles from observing.  Just start mimicking guy’s movements and gestures.  It will all come in handy later.

Fifth, have fun!  Good luck with everything and please ask if you have any further questions 🙂

If you have any questions for me, or if you have anything to add to what I’ve said here, please don’t hesitate to send me a comment.  I’ll do my best to answer your questions or pass along your suggestions.

3 Things I Learned from Dawn Upshaw

Dawn Upshaw has taught me far more than three things in the years I’ve known her. It’s easy to say that she’s bestowed upon me a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. But, today I’m going to talk about what she taught me about New Music.

[“New Music” is a generally problematic and confusing term. In this article, I use it to refer to contemporary music in the “classical” style: symphonies, art songs, and operas.]

1. Give Composers Opportunities to Fail
Unless you’re Mary Shelley, you don’t write a best-seller on the first try. Opera composers are the same way. They can’t be judged on the very first major work they compose. Imagine if your first big project determined the success of your entire career. It’s insane to think about! And, yet, there are so few opportunities for contemporary opera composers to create and premiere a new work, that they’re often judged on their first symphony or opera.

Think about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. We never would have gotten that piece if he hadn’t been paid to write Symphonies 1-4. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve listened to Symphonies 1 and 2, but they are no Symphony 5 (sorry, Beethoven).

We need to take a chance with composers who don’t have a crazy-long track record and we can’t get down on them when they don’t create The Next Great American Opera on their first commission. We need to let them have their Symphony 1 and 2 and 3 and 4; we need to let them find their compositional voice and develop it over time with each new commission. And we need to continue to champion them as they move forward in their careers.

2. Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate
Dawn Upshaw worked alongside composers to create new song cycles and operas, opening a dialogue between singer and composer. How better for either of us to learn but to be in the process together from the get-go.

Also, what better way to promote something than to work on it yourself? It shows a deep level of trust and respect for the composer’s work. It shows that this isn’t merely another gig for you. You’re putting your own artistry into the project and bringing it to life with your own voice.

And I think about big point about this is that you can’t force your ideas on a composer. I’ve seen the best work created when the composer is genuinely inspired by the source material they’re working with. Let the composer choose the text. Compromise at times. But the spirit of collaboration should be present from start to finish, with no one party making all the decisions.

3. Say Something Relevant
You should never create new music just for the sake of creating new music. It must say something, be relevant to the audience and the world. People like to whine about opera being a “dying art,” but then they do nothing to help create new, living opera!

Opera should never be created in a vacuum. Like any organism, it needs an environment in which to live, and our world is its environment. Reach outside of the art sphere and bring others in. Get people excited about what you have to say through the powerful form of music.

New Opera in NYC
When I think about new opera in New York City, I think about these companies:

Center for Contemporary Opera
Fresh Squeezed Opera
Prototype Festival

And I’ve been trying to do the same with my own company, OperaRox Productions. We have new operas coming up in our Summer Double Bill at The Stonewall Inn.

Who are some of your favorite contemporary opera composers? How do you think we can keep opera relevant and exciting in the 21st century?