Today’s contributor to my ongoing series, “A Writer’s Guide” is writer Victoria Masters who shares her knowledge and experience of being an opera singer.
by Victoria Masters
There’s a reason that every time I see an opera singer in a movie, I scream. Unlike the actor, however, I do it with proper breath support and channel through my head voice only.
There’s a lot more than reading music that goes into being an opera singer. My seven years spent training for it have allowed me the knowledge to write this. If your character is an opera singer, this article is for you.
Read on to find out what opera singers learn in school!
But Do We Even Still Have Opera Singers?
We absolutely do. Believe it or not, people still see the opera, even when they’re not at the Met. Opera companies will often also host ballets in their theaters. And more than that – have you ever heard choral singing in a video game? How about a movie? Most of the voices you hear are opera singers.
Anybody who sings professionally will absolutely go through classical training, even pops stars. The voice is a career tool, and it should be treated and respected the same way a $50,000 camera would be on a film shoot.
Luckily for writers, while some of the words we use to talk about singing has, the science pretty much hasn’t changed!
How the Voice Makes Sound
This is REALLY, REALLY important. All voice science comes from this. How do your vocal folds make sound? Why, by hitting each other, of course.
Now, I can’t use any copyrighted images in this article, so I’ll instead drop a link to this study which explains it all pretty well. If you don’t have a queasy stomach and you want an up close look, here’s a video.
In a nutshell: Your vocal folds open and close to allow air through your throat. An opera singer’s main priority is allowing air to pass through the vocal folds in a natural, unconstricted manner in order to resonate as fully as possible.
If the airflow through your throat is constricted or pushed, your vocal folds will hit each other too hard, and result in something called vocal nodules, or, as Pitch Perfect brought us “nodes.” They’re the same thing, and every singer’s worst nightmare.
What Is A Node?
Nodules are basically little bumps on your vocal folds that restrict airflow and limit a singer’s ability to make sound. They never go away unless by surgery, and that surgery itself will damage the vocal folds.
A nodule can significantly decrease a singer’s range (i.e. the amount of notes they can hit across octaves) and impact the fullness of their voices.
Many famous singers including Lady Gaga, Adele, Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews have had to have corrective surgery for their nodules. Basically, their voices will never sound the same again.
How do you prevent nodules? That lies in the technique.
An Opera Singer’s Technique
An opera singer’s life and blood – the technique. Proper technique is very important for an opera singer. The main goal is to provide the voice with enough power and airflow to resonate without a microphone.
Think about it – in the centuries past they didn’t have amplifiers, so the voice needed to be as loud as it possibly could be to resonate all the way back to people in their fancy private boxes. I’m pleased to report that proper, node-preventing technique is only a matter of muscle memory. In other words, it’s really simple.
An experiment for you: Sit down and slouch and try to sing. Now sit up straight and do it. Now stand and do it. You felt a difference, right?
Your body should be in a straight line. Too far back or too far forward, and the airflow from your lungs through your throat is restricted, which results in your vocal hards hitting each other too hard and *gasp* nodules!
You want the passage of air in throughout your head and nasal passages to be totally free, so it can resonate in the head.
Here’s an exercise that will show you how to properly align your spine:
- Stand just in front of a wall, not touching it, with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Place your back hipbones on the wall (your butt), keeping your feet separate.
- Then place your shoulders on the wall. Feet should still be separate.
- Last, place your head on the wall.
- Now, come away from the wall, body part by body part, butt first.
- You will spring into a perfect singing position!
Keep your hands at your side and chin down, and you’re good to go!
A lubricated throat
Your vocal folds sit nice and slimy in your throat, and you want them to stay that way (but not TOO slimy!). Have you ever heard a sick singer talk about “throat coat tea”? Yeah, they’re lubricating their throat so those vocal folds can slide around in there.
This is why it’s actually better for singers to drink room temperature water than cold water.
Please see point 1, because if you don’t have that down, don’t even think about breath support yet. The majority of a singer’s power comes from their breath support, i.e. how efficiently can a singer manage a note in one breath?
The majority of your breath support comes from your diaphragm, which supports your lungs.
Take a big, fat deep breath and feel your stomach move out – that’s not your stomach, that’s your diaphragm. You want to give your diaphragm plenty of room to move, so again we’re back at the posture. The deeper the breath, the stronger the diaphragm, the better the sound.
That’s honestly the basics of it. Posture is life!!
The Semantics Of The Voice
There are words we use to describe the sounds the voice makes and how we make them. I’m going to get to a list there, but first let’s talk about the voice parts, the ranges, and how they differentiate.
There are six vocal parts, and it should be noted that while these are traditionally associated with genders, they can belong to anybody.
(In a choir, often divided into 1st and 2nd) – Traditionally AFAB voices, although generally achievable in falsetto. Soprano is the highest voice range. The human ear picks up higher tones more readily than low ones.
A 1st soprano has a higher range than a 2nd soprano, so will often sing either counterpoint or higher harmonies. The prima donna of an opera is usually the soprano, although not always.
Range: Middle C to High A or Soprano C (Two octaves above middle C)
The mezzo-soprano, or middle soprano, is the middle voice part. Most AFAB people will fall somewhere in the mezzo range.
Mezzo-sopranos often take harmony parts in choirs, and will occasionally take the lead in an opera. Often used for supporting roles such as friends and mothers.
Range: A3 to A5
Alto is the 2nd-lowest AFAB part. Altos will often play the villain in an opera and sing harmony in a chorus. Their voices are generally full and resonant. They can also be divided into 1st alto and 2nd alto.
Range: F3 to F5
Contralto is used for AFAB people, Countertenor for AMAB people. These people generally have a range lower than F3 and higher than F5, although some have even greater ranges.
In recent years contralto has come to mean somebody with a vocal range that spans 3 or more octaves, and yes, we all hate them. But we would kill to be them. (Looking at you, Mariah Carey!)
This is the highest AMAB range. Note that all notes will shift to the bass clef here and ranges should be evaluated as such. Tenors often play romantic leads in operas. Most of your favorite belting rockstars are tenors.
Range: C3 to C5
The AMAB alto equivalent. They can sing high bass or low tenor. A coveted voice type, but rather rare. Michael Buble is a baritone.
RANGE: A2 to A4
The lowest voice range of all voice types. The foundation of the voice types. It is very atypical that somebody who is not AMAB would have a bass voice type.
There are distinctions within all voice types for their certain *types* of voices. The most important one is lyric vs. dramatic. Lyric voices move smoothly, liltingly.
They blend well with others. Dramatic voices stand out, are often darker in coloring and contain more vibrato. Here is a great article from McCray studio that explains it very in-depth.
Head Voice vs. Chest Voice
You will often hear singers talk about their “head voice” and their “chest” voice. What the heck is that? Well, it’s pretty simple, really.
Your head voice is the part of your voice that resonates in your head. The sound moves through the nasal passages at a higher level, so the higher notes are your head voice.
The chest voice is the part of the voice that resonates in your chest, i.e. the lower notes.
The part of your voice where you move from chest to head voice and vice versa is called your passagio.
Everybody has a passagio, and they will have one for their entire lives. The notes in the passagio are generally weaker and harder to control, because they haven’t quite made up their minds where to resonate.
However, like anything, they can be trained and developed with good technique and practice.
There is a popular style of singing called belting. You mostly hear it in Broadway musicals and from modern pop stars like Katy Perry and Jessie J who sing impossibly high notes with no vibrato.
BELTING IS VERY BAD FOR YOU. IT WILL LEAD YOU TO DEVELOP VOCAL NODULES.
The proper technique for this sound is called mixing (i.e. mixing head and chest voice). You can think of your body like a woodwind instrument – where the sound resonates affects the quality and style of the sound.
Now, I’m an opera singer, not a Broadway star, so I don’t mix and I’m not going to pretend to teach you how. Here is a video from somebody who can explain it better than I can.
Musical Term Guide
If you are going to be writing about opera or voices in any way, I strongly recommend familiarizing yourself with musical terms.
They’re mostly the same words we use to talk about instruments, but here’s an overview and a link to a much more extensive glossary just in case.
Piano – softly
Forte – loudly
Fortissimo – very loud
Pianissimo – very soft
Fortepiano – moving from loud to soft quickly
Allegro – lively & quickly
Adagio – slowly
Crescendo – when music grows from soft to loud
Vibrato – the amount a voice naturally vibrates
Falsetto – when a male voice sings above the natural voice range (often imitating a female voice)
Aria – A self-contained piece for one voice
Chorus – a group of singers providing background voices & exposition
Recitative – words sung in conversational style
Roulade or Run – Notes sung on one syllable. Christina Aguilera is famous for her runs.
Accompaniment – music played in the background of a song
There are many more words, but these are probably the most common you will use in your writing.
Write Away, My Darlings…..
These are the basics of opera. I hope this has been an informative guide for you!
Now go, write your heart out. But while you’re screaming into the night at a plot detail you just can’t get right, remember to keep an eye on your breath support.
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About Victoria Masters
Victoria Masters is a billion-year-old witch moonlighting as an American expat currently based in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she works as a freelance translator and editor.
She holds a degree in Screenwriting from University of California- Irvine, where she was a recipient of the Outstanding Screenwriting Award.
She is an experienced script doctor with more than 50 screenplays under her belt. Her fiction has been featured in The Furious Gazelle. In 2018,
Victoria completed her first novel. She is currently in the revision process and plans to query later this year.
When she is not writing, Victoria spends her time studying Chinese and hanging out with her cat.
Thanks so much to Victoria for sharing her wisdom on being an opera singer.
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