Preparing the role

Vivien Conacher

Vivien Conacher, one of the stars of SPO's forthcoming production of Così fan Tutte, explains how she is preparing for the key role of Dorabella.

I’m thrilled to be playing the role of Dorabella with St Paul’s Opera. She’s a fantastic multi-dimensional character and I can’t wait to shape my interpretation as our rehearsals progress. Dorabella also has a lot of on-stage time in the opera, with a lot of music to sing, so preparation will be key.

The first step in learning any major role is to get hold of the score. I went for a Barenreiter – it’s easy to read and is probably the most trusted publisher for Mozart scores. Although Barenreiter editions can be a little more expensive than other scores, I’m singing Dorabella again in 2019 (and hopefully more times beyond that) so I like to think it’s a worthy investment.

Once I own a score, I really do treat it as my workbook for the opera. Some singers are more precious about keeping their music in pristine condition, but I like to make my markings straight into the score as I learn the role. To start with, I marked all the cuts that we would be observing for this production. Most companies will do a little bit of editing to streamline Così – it can be a very long night otherwise! As everyone’s version will have slightly different cuts, I always mark these quite lightly in pencil, so I can scrub them out for future productions.

Next comes the trusty yellow highlighter for all of Dorabella’s text – this is where I really get a clear overview of how many scenes of recitative, solo arias, and ensemble items I need to learn (and let’s be honest, Dorabella sings A LOT). Over a couple of days, I also write in my own translations for the Italian text in pencil, so that I know exactly what each word and each overall phrase needs to communicate. The final stage in preparing my score, is to mark each separate scene with a coloured tab, which makes them quicker to find mid-rehearsal.

The next step for me is to sit with the score – and a pot of tea – to listen to a recording of the whole opera. This is to get a musical overview of the way the opera works. As the music isn’t committed to memory yet, there isn’t much danger of imitating the performances of other singers. But this can be a problem if you listen to recordings too much through the rest of the production process. I chose to listen to Anne Sophie von Otter’s Dorabella as she has such a lightness of touch with her Mozart singing, but there are numerous other mezzos who I enjoy hearing in this role, too.

You’re probably thinking as you’re reading this that this whole preparation process sounds quite time-consuming, and you’d be right. At this point, I haven’t even sung a note of the music. But for me, this initial work with the score is really important – it helps me to make an overall game plan about learning the role, and instead of a huge, heavy score that seems insurmountable, I now have little highlighted sections behind coloured page tabs to attack one by one.

The next big step in my role preparation is, of course, the music. I try to work in small sections, tackling the recitative by speaking it over and over to get the text into my muscle memory as close to spoken Italian as possible. I also make various marks in pencil as I go – reminders about rolled ‘R’s or double letters which are so important in Italian pronunciation. Also, breath markings, dynamics, and where the character might speed up or slow down based on her thought process or mood. I also have to make choices about feminine endings / appoggiaturas as well as potential decorations to some moments in the score – all of these are dramatic decisions based on the intention of the particular phrase. Different singers might make different choices with these, usually in collaboration with the conductor or musical director, which means everyone’s version of Dorabella will differ musically in certain details.

Once I have a good general understanding of my music, I book a few coaching sessions with a close friend who is a fantastic pianist, to really drill everything musically. In the early stages of learning a new role, it’s important for me that I work with someone who is happy to “note-bash” any sections I’m finding tricky, and who I feel comfortable making mistakes in front of. Working with a musically-precise and non-judgmental friend works well for me!

All the roles in Così fan tutte are quite sizable – there is a lot of time on stage for each character, with a huge amount of music and text to memorise. The sections that are the biggest challenge to memorise are the big ensembles – particularly the finale in Act 1 which is a beast! There are so many rapid phrases, character singing over the top of each other, close harmonies, and the rhythms have to be so precise or there is a danger that everything will fall apart. In the early stages of my preparation, I’m already feeling the fear about these ensemble scenes, but I think this will be familiar for anyone who has tackled a role in Così

Once we arrive in the rehearsal room for our first staging session at St Paul’s Church in Clapham, the preparation we have done in our own time will become useful in informing the show as a whole.

Our director Ashley Pearson has fantastic plans for the production, and I immediately feel like we’re in safe hands under her dramatic guidance. Ashley asks us all to go through the score and write down anything that our characters say about themselves, anything the other characters say about them, as well as anything that our characters say about the other characters. This is such a useful process that can be applied to any opera role! By going back to the libretto as our starting point, we can uncover concrete facts about the character and their relationships, as well as any questions that we could explore in our staging rehearsals to shape our own interpretations. Already some interesting choices are being made by the cast and it’s so exciting to see the roles coming to life with such individuality so early in the rehearsal process.

So that brings us to today – a staging rehearsal on a gloriously sunny London day. This afternoon we will be tacking the Act 1 sextet – one of those aforementioned tricky ensemble numbers! Here goes...