When talking with audience members after a long opera, one subject that seems to come up time and time again is "How do you memorize all that?" In the next couple articles, we'll try to address exactly that. These are mostly my thoughts as a singer to other singers. For those of you who are not singers, though, I think you may find this little window into our lives interesting. And as we go, if any of you have some thoughts to contribute, add to the comments below. Hearing about additional different techniques will be great for all of us on this subject, and will be featured in Part 3.
This is the first article, and for now we'll just cover a bit of singer-lingo, and then address what some of the common expectations are.
Here's a couple common terms: "Off-book" means memorized. Memorized here means you can roll out of bed and sing the role, even with distractions involved. If you have managed to sing it all through without a mistake only once, and that one time required every bit of concentration you could muster, you are not "off-book" yet. There's so many distractions in performance that can derail your memory, that you can't get by with just this quasi-memorized state.
Being "on-book" is the other term. This means you will be singing with a score in hand. Even here, though, if you have to stare at the score in order to avoid getting lost, you need to up your level of preparation. Most singers aim to be "mostly-memorized," even when there is a score in your hand. This lets your eyes get out of the score, to watch the conductor and to communicate with your audience. The book is there mostly as a backup.
So, when should you expect to be on-book, and when will you be off-book? This usually depends on the type of performing you'll be doing.
Concert-work is an example where you generally sing "on-book." This is true for almost any oratorio and for large masterworks, like Messiah. Typically, it is a large work with a handful of soloists, chorus, and orchestra.
Every now and then, though, a conductor might ask for you to be off-book. If that is the expectation, it is usually spelled out in the contract ahead of time, but not always. If you're getting mixed signals in your communication with the company, clarify right away, before the start of rehearsals. After the start of rehearsals, it'll be too late to try to memorize. If a company did not communicate with you about that, stick your ground. Don't let yourself get bullied into risking a poor performance by trying to perform memorized when you are not fully memorized.
For a fully staged opera (or a musical), the expectation is always to be "off-book" by the first rehearsal. I can't think of any exception here. If you are not memorized, you did not prepare for your role, simple as that. Many companies will reserve the right to terminate your contract if you arrive without knowing your part. Even if they don't do that, you will be letting down your colleagues. Don't be that singer!
For that matter, if there is someone else that is unprepared at the start of rehearsal, try to be professional. Don't complain, just do your job, and trust that if action needs to be taken, the company will take care of it. There's too much gossip already in this industry, don't indulge in it yourself. Just be the amazing professional you are, and let everything else fall where it may.
There is something else to be mentioned here: prompters. This only comes up in the very largest of opera houses. A "prompter" in this case is a person, who sits in a "prompter's box" offstage, or in the orchestra pit. He or she calls out your next line at you just before you sing it. The prompter cannot be heard from the audience, due to the acoustics of the theater. However, if there happens to be a prompter (again, this is very rare!), you are still expected to be memorized, especially if you consider how much you are being paid at that high of a level. Show up without knowing your stuff there, and you'll be out of a job in a heartbeat, with a dozen other people that they can call on to replace you. The prompter is not there to support a lack of preparedness; he's there only as a safeguard. Personal note: I have never had a prompter.
Here's a confusing one: Concert Opera. This is where you're singing opera, but there are no costumes, few or no props, and minimal or no staging, beyond standing and sitting. In most cases, these are "on-book" - but you should probably clarify with the company beforehand. Here's a warning sign: if the company is calling it "semi-staged", they may be expecting you to be memorized, as if it were a fully staged opera.
Being "off-book" is the expectation when singing contests and auditions. This includes contests where you are singing art song, music theater, and opera contests. An example (at least here in WA state) at the high school level is Sole/Ensemble, but it's true at all levels.
Recitals are also sung memorized. The biggest difference between recitals, which are memorized, and concerts, which are not, is basically focus. If you are a central, featured singer, if the performance is about you, then it is a recital, even if an orchestra is present. If however, you are joining another group to perform some larger work with other singers (solo and choral), then it is a concert.
Finally, choral work is almost always on-book. The only exception to this might be some specialized group that does a lot of choreography. The best example that I can think of here is a Barbershop chorus, or certain, specialized, "spectacle" professional touring groups, like Anùna, or some caroling groups.
Did I miss any?
In Part 2, I will be discussing my own, personal habits for memorization. Part 3, however, will be exclusively on others' techniques and tricks. So send me your comments, tricks, and tips!