I just wrapped up singing Nemorino in Doña Ana Lyric Opera’s production of L’Elisir d’amore. It was an amazing and fun experience, and I got to meet and work with some wonderful people. By all accounts (who have spoken to me), I did well at it. It was a real challenge though.
I’ve had roles in operas before. I was John Brooke in Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Betto in Gianni Schicchi, and Bardolfo in Falstaff. I’ve had major parts in musical theater and oratorio.
But singing a lead role like Nemorino in L’Elisir d’amore is hard. Like really really hard.
My teacher for the past few years was a Helden tenor. His main role in Europe was Siegfried in Wagner’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Thus he’s had plenty of experience with very long and challenging performances. He gave me enough training for me to know how to deal so much singing, but it was still shocking to feel it in the moment.
Just to be clear, Nemorino is in no way as tough as the real dramatic leads of Wagner’s operas. But for my first major role, he was tough enough. Why?
- It’s long. In the first act, Nemorino is on stage and singing through almost every moment except for the first chorus number and Dulcamara’s entrance. This can be very tiring and can affect how you sing the second act.
- It’s high. The highest written note is an A, but the tessitura is consistently high. Listen to the following duet between Nemorino and Dulcamara. It never goes higher than a G (though tenors often add an A at the end), but that G is sung repeatedly as an accented note on offbeats. At one point, the tenor rocks back and forth between F# and G. Also notice how the tempo changes at certain points to deliberately help the tenor.
- There’s an orchestra. That may seem like a “Yea, duh” statement, but the difference between singing with piano accompaniment and an orchestra with percussion and brass is just monumental. Even in a lyric opera like L’Elisir d’amore, the orchestra can get very loud.
- Opera is just plain complicated. Besides having to focus on vocal stamina, I had to pay attention to the development of Nemorino as a character. He goes through a big change in this opera, and if I had gotten too caught up in my throat, then I would have been bad at telling the story.There are also mechanical issues related to working on a stage. There’s an audience, and I had to consistently sing out to them even if it wasn’t natural. There’s also the orchestra pit, which can be very intimidating. In one scene, Nemorino is accosted by the town’s girls. On both nights that I sang, we got very close to the pit, and some of my attention had to be divided between singing, acting, and being safe (and keeping them safe).
- You’re expected to be an artist. Even with all of the challenges, I was expected to go on stage and make artistic choices and have the confidence and capabilities to see them through. No one cares if I could survive singing “Una furtiva lagrima”. They want to hear music. They want to feel passion.
Now that I’ve done it, I feel like a much stronger and smarter singer. Experience is oftentimes the best teacher. I began to make automatic changes to my singing once I was confronted with the orchestra. Because of all the high singing, I feel much smarter about how I move through my passaggio.
However, I am glad that I sang this role now instead of several years ago. In no way would I have been prepared to sing a role like this, say, two or three years ago.
So thanks, Doña Ana Lyric Opera, for allowing me to sing this role. It was a blast.