Don't mess with a soprano  

Nice sopranos? Who knew?

I wasn’t always this way. I used to be nice.

Quitters of this world don’t become sopranos. To be a soprano is gruelling, frustrating, lonely, and fantastic.

Above is a picture of a lovely field of daisies. Imagine just beyond the edge of the picture are two beautiful, sleek stags. Under the carpet of the flowers are dozens of happy bunnies and even more cute chipmunks.

In the world of singing, the stags are tenors, the cute bunnies are basses and baritones, the chipmunks are altos and the thousands of beautiful and colourful daisies are sopranos.

It is not that there is anything wrong with them. There are just so many.

If all these names sound like a foreign language, don’t panic. You are right. They are Italian names.

  • Soprano have the highest, lightest, clearest singing voices.
  • Altos have deeper, sexier voices, but are given witches and mostly unsavoury people to play.
  • Tenors are the male vocal equivalent of sopranos, but they are much rarer.
  • Basses are the lowest sounding. The colour of their sound is dark and sensuous.
  • Baritones share qualities of tenors and basses. They are the workhorses of the business. They can fit many different roles.

The road to being triumphant in singing can be long and gruelling. You need to learn music, to move and dance, to act. It takes time to hone your skills.

I studied for 10 years at the University of Washington, and turned it into my private arts school by taking as many drama and dance classes possible along with my music curriculum.

You could become a shrew vying for the few parts available at school. I remember having an epiphany. It was 10:30 a.m. in the music cafeteria halfway through my school days.

I had just bad-mouthed a soprano who got a part I coveted. 

The epiphany: if I continued this way, I would always be jealous and miserable.

I needed to work on being nice. It was very seductive to find blame. Much harder to find generosity of spirit. Not all people find generosity.

Lofti Mansouri, an iconic stage director of San Francisco Opera, writes about two divas in his book, True Tales from the Mad, Mad, Mad World of Opera. 

Soprano Leyla Gencer and mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry were not friends. They hated each other.

“They even refused to speak directly to each other, channelling all communication through me,” wrote Lofti. “In rehearsal, even if they were holding hands, Grace would turn to me and say, ‘Lofti, is she going to do this badly on the night of the performance?’

“Or Layla would ask, ‘Is she going to cross in front of me right in the middle of my high note?’ 

“Their curtain calls became famous for stepping on each other and causing pain. They never played nice.”

I experienced a frustrating year on my journey to becoming a soprano. It was also a lot of fun. I won the western division of the National Metropolitan Opera Contest. 

I won eight days at the Met culminating with a coast-to-coast radio broadcast of the regional semi-finalists. I sang on the stage of the Met in New York. Me!

I sang beautifully.

I didn’t win. 

The same year, I was a semi-finalist in the Cecilia Schultz competition at Seattle Opera.

I didn’t win.

I was a semi-finalist with San Francisco Opera Merola Program.

Didn’t win.

I flew to Los Angeles, expenses paid by Chicago Lyric Opera as a semi-finalist of the Chicago Lyric Opera Auditions On The Air. 

Didn’t win. 

Exhilarating year. Frustrating year. So close. So far.

Which years? 

A lady doesn’t tell.

There can be lonely times too. For me, that meant Kaiserslautern, Germany.  I found a job at Pfaltz Theatre. I didn’t know anyone. I had an eye infection when I arrived. Oh, I didn’t speak German, and I needed to find a doctor. 

I learned that everyone else was also lonely and from many different countries. I got help and made friends quickly. It was easier to be nice in Germany.

We all had contracts, which meant we didn’t have to compete with each other. In the end, we had camaraderie, lived in tiny apartments often with no heat. Not quite starving, but rich in experience.

It is different in North America. You had to travel to your audition in those days.

In Canada, that meant travelling to Toronto where most auditions and agents are. You pay for that trip. If you get hired, you are paid fairly well. You need to pay for lodging, food and any other expenses during the rehearsal and performance time.

You are alone. Just you and your understudy. Your understudy is paid to jump in for you if you become ill. I always watched what I ate when around them.

Music and singing, fantastic.

On my way to being a soprano, I learned a few things:

Humility – There is always someone better than you. Learn from them. There is always someone not as skilled as you, help them.

Joy – Singing with someone, singing with an orchestra is to experience true joy.

Camaraderie – Singing at 7 a.m. at an Alberta grade school is a lot of fun when shared with other fools like you.

Lastly, to be nice. Ah!


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About the Author

Sue Skinner is a singer of opera and musical theatre, a choral conductor and a teacher/coach of voice. 

She has travelled the world, learned many languages, seen every little town in Alberta and supported herself with music all her life.

She has sung at weddings, funerals, musicals, operettas, opera, with symphonies, guitars, jazz groups, rock bands and at play schools. 

Skinner has taken two choirs to Carnegie Hall, sung around the world, and teaches for Wentworth Music on Zoom.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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