That phrase that you hear in fashion, or even for costumes on stage, “are you wearing the dress, or is the dress wearing you?” came to mind a few weeks ago while I was teaching a lesson in my Denver studio. It’s easy to think you know the notes, rhythms, words, markings, and everything else the librettist and composer put on the page, but until that music is really “in your voice,” I’d bet the aria is wearing you…and sometimes the fit is really, really bad.
This happens for many reasons. The most obvious is that it’s not a good aria for you – whether the wrong fach, the wrong tessitura, you’re too young or too old, it doesn’t matter – but not every composer fits every voice well, or it might just be the wrong time for you to sing that aria. A good teacher will help guide a student to find the right repertoire, but this is difficult with certain subgroups of students, like the bigger voiced singers, who can take years to mature into their instruments, and may have to sing a lot of song literature and vocalises before they are ready for the arias that really suit them. But much more commonly, you are singing something that actually is right for you, but you have doubts…about that high note at the end, about the fioratura in the middle section, about that random chest voice spot, about how to sing that umlaut in the passaggio, etc., etc. Those doubts show up in your sound and your body language even if you think you’re hiding them. And then that aria is wearing you.
Think about the most skilled piano and string players – they painstakingly examine the relationship between every note in a piece, exploring how to create legato or make an interval really meaningful. We’re lucky in opera – we have words to create meaning and our breath (when used well) creates legato naturally. But do we as singers take the time to really sing each pitch and its neighbor on the page? Rarely. Or if we do take the time to learn the notes thoroughly, do we trust that our brain has accurately relayed that information to our instrument, hidden there in our throat? Most of my students learn their music faster than they think they do, and it is only doubt that holds them back from really wearing the aria themselves. When you hear great singers, even if you don’t like something about their interpretation, you know they have for sure made each note their own, in their own instrument. They don’t mimic what they’ve heard someone else do, or do something only because a teacher or coach told them to. They’ve considered it for themselves, made decisions about how the notes and words relate to each other, sung phrases individually a number of different ways, and then they JUST DO IT. They wear those glorious notes and words, and for that 5-minute aria, you’d swear it was written just for them, because they inhabit the music so well.