This article is aimed at students learning to prepare roles as well as professionals who find themselves too busy, but must learn a role in an allotted time. Through 15 years of opera study including 6 seasons of full-time fest work in Germany, I have engineered a way of learning roles that is streamlined. Techniques have been borrowed from mentors and colleagues and are noted when specific ideas are mentioned. This article will eventually have links articles breaking down the parts, but this overview is aimed at about 1000 words.
Get the score
Ask the company what score/ version they will be using. In cases of Tannhäuser or Boris Godunov, you can’t be sure which version will be used without asking. If a school or company is using a critical edition, it is important to know. It is also important to know if there will be custom dialogue in the case of Operetta. For school productions, check to make sure you are doing it in the original language. As a general rule: if there is a Bärenreiter, this will most often be the choice for professional companies. For Verdi and Puccini you are best off with a burgundy Ricordi Hardback. These are usually cheap and often only have Italian, leaving room for score prep notations. Although the Schott scores for Wagner are nice new plates, they have not been adopted generally by opera houses and most will use Peters versions.
Prepare the score
Especially for role debuts, it’s important to immediately get a scope of the amount of work involved. Highlight the role using a bright neon highlighter. In the US, I suggest sharpie liquid pens. The have the brightest ink and last for years with their original intensity. In Europe, the best I have found is Stabilo neon. Read through the part while you highlight. Don’t simply draw a line across the page. Observe breath markings of a quarter note or longer so that your brain has an extra notation of phrasing. If it is a language you are not as familiar with, just get the highlighting done and you will prepare the language shortly.
I suggest tabbing each individual entrance. You can add more later if the section you are preparing seems to big to manage The five color tabs work the best, as you can separate sections by contents and see without opening the book, where your arias and finales are. My initial system came with Mozart preparation because they are number operas and can be easily broken into sections.
Key for Mozart tabs
Orange: Small ensemble
When these are poking out of the top of your 500 page score, its easy to turn to your aria from a closed book.
I am going to skip language prep for this article, but in this step you would write notes to yourself of things you commonly must be reminded to do in that language. For example: I like to note double consonants and rolled Rs when preparing italian scores even before bringing the role to a coach. If you don’t know the language well, this would be a good time to write the IPA. Translation is a concurrent step in this process. If you don’t know what you are singing, go home.
TLM (Translated, Learned, Memorized)
The system that has most often saved me when running out of time before a production starts is TLM. On these tabs you will use TLM as your todo list. Once you have translated a section, you will mark that section with a T. This means if you have 3 Operas you are currently preparing (which I currently do), its easy to see what work you have done on which piece without keeping that info in your head.
L would mean that this section is learned. You could sing it on book at tempo confidently with good diction. In the fest system, when the week or two before staging comes, your entire role must be at least to the TL stage in prep for musical rehearsals. If you are running out of time and some sections are memorized but some aren’t learned, focus on getting all the sections tagged with an L. If you are a guest it is almost always in your contract that your role will be 100% prepared before you get there. You can be dismissed for breach of contract if you are not prepared.
M would mean that your role is memorized and ready to stage. having completed the proper prep work, you should be well on your way to having your role memorized. Some roles automatically memorize themselves. In the case of Monterone, the role is no more than 10 pages, so the time involved in memorizing not too much. In the case of a World Premiere or a tone row opera, the amount of time learning the piece is so great that it may stick with you without separate memorization time. When I am talking about memorization, that primarily applies to the words, because if you can’t remember the tones or rhythms, it’s not really learned.
A good coach
Whether you are in school or fest at an opera house, you should theoretically have “free” coaching available to you. If a school or opera house does not give you enough coaching, it is still only you on stage. No matter what stage of your career, I suggest finding 3 coaches in your area that can work with you privately. Multiple coaches are nice because each will have their own strengths to help you. I have certain coaches that are better for certain rep and ones that I trust for vocal technique.
My work day is usually blocked out from 10-2 and 6-10 every weekday and 10-2 on saturdays. I often do private sessions in my midday break when an important project is approaching. A young coach may be more willing to work on holidays and sundays and are often a little bit cheaper than established coaches.
The rule of 25s
David Holloway told all of the Santa fe apprentices how to learn and memorize a role the first day the summer internship program. I am guessing most of us were prepared and memorized already, but he still had good tips to give. He has been a great mentor and this talk has stuck more than any other trick in preparing a role.
While muscle memory is achieved with 3,000-5,000 repetitions, meaningful learning begins at 75 repetitions. After a role has been translated part of the “L” learning should include 3 step of 25 repetitions.
Use your tabs or smaller breakdowns for your repetitions. Going through cover to cover will be exhausting and you won’t set up your muscle memory. Break your arias and ensembles into verses or smaller parts.
Say the text 25 times
Slowly talk through the text, noting your difficulties with pronunciation. Pay attention to words not common to your normal singing vocabulary. The more roles you learn, the less words you have to translate. The more repetitions you do, the more your brain and muscles will come up with the next sequence of words automatically. This is a good time to note consonants to sing through, elisions, and accents of each word. This is a good time to make sure your Italian patter is words and not spitting consonants or to make sure your German consonants do not disappear. Mark where a phrase should start and end purely based on the text. 25 times is quite a few if you are diligently reading aloud. Use tick marks in your score to note how many reps you have done, because in the moment your brain will need to concentrate purely on the text.
Speak the text 25 times in rhythm
After simply speaking the words at your own pace 25 times, you should be at ease with the text. You will now speak the text in rhythm. If you are doing a new piece which is very rhythmically difficult, you can first clap the rhythm without the words, but don’t count it towards your 25 times. Once 25 repetitions of text in rhythm is completed, the melody should be very simple to place on top of all your work.
Sing it with music 25 times
You should begin singing it “on-book”, but you will find after about 10 times you probably will have no impulse to look at the score anymore. For most roles after 25 times with music and all the other prep, you should be ready for staging. Doing this work always makes me extremely confident at the beginning of a six week rehearsal period.
There are many other tricks to preparing a role, but I wanted to give a starting point for those who don’t know where to start or are simply looking for a systematic way to get started when overwhelmed with another project.
Please leave suggestions or requests for future score prep articles. I will use this article as a table of contents to build a more comprehensive reference tool for students and professionals.