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All Possible Worlds

Diamonds are a Diva's Best Friend

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In the third installment (see 1, 2) of the series on "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's Candide, we turn to a different perspective: Jody Mullen, a self-proclaimed "coloratura geek" who teaches voice in Manhattan and is interested in the history of coloratura as a form.

Barbara Cook as Cunegonde in the original 1957 productionBarbara Cook as Cunegonde in the original 1957 production"Glitter and Be Gay," Cunegonde's showstopping aria from Leonard Bernstein's operatic interpretation of Candide, is a challenging part of the lyric coloratura repertoire on a number of levels. In addition to the technical virtuosity and stratospheric "money" notes inherent to most arias in this fach, the role of Cunegonde calls for a strong singing actress who convincingly ricochets between despair and glee as she ponders her new station in life and adorns herself in jewels. (Think Marguerite from Gounod's Faust after too much Starbucks.) She's also required to deliver a miniature monologue in the middle of the aria—an unusual occurrence in the standard operatic repertoire. To do justice to this role, it simply isn't enough to stand there and tweet like a nightingale (or, as we sometimes say in the business, to "park and bark"). The diva has to have some serious dramatic chops to pull this one off, and if she does—take note of Natalie Dessay, Kristin Chenoweth, and Barbara Cook—she steals the show.

As a soprano who performs repertoire of this nature, I often find that coloratura passages are, on a dramatic level, indicative of laughter (see the famous Laughing Song from Strauss' Die Fledermaus or Oscar's arias from Verdi's Un ballo in maschera) or sobs (see the final cabaletta of the Mad Scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor or the cadenza at the end of "Ah non credea" from Bellini's La sonnambula). I love that Bernstein blurs the line between the two—how the singer, in the midst of a florid, agile passage, dissolves into hysteria. Isn't that often the way of it?

Natalie Dessay performing "Glitter and Be Gay"Natalie Dessay performing "Glitter and Be Gay""Glitter" is technically demanding due to its florid phrases and plentiful high notes. The singer must maintain a beautiful legato line in the lower, more lyric passages (when Cunegonde is waxing poetic about what might have been) without tiring the voice in order to facilitate a seamless transition to the quick, staccato "laughter" phrases. She must also treat the notes in the coloratura passages as though they are all in one place vocally in order to avoid producing glaringly different sounds in the high and low registers. One of the chief goals of operatic singing is to maintain a consistent tone quality throughout the range, and "Glitter" is an excellent measure of that skill.

So how does the singer tackle this difficult work? Here, as in all operatic singing, it's all about good posture, maximum resonance, and, above all, BREATH SUPPORT. When the singer inhales, she expands her ribs, engages her lower abdominal muscles, and energizes her facial muscles in order to produce a healthy, free, resonant sound. She keeps her consonants quick, clean, and clear and her vowels unadulterated. (A common exercise to improve vowel purity and legato is to sing the entire piece on vowels only while in the practice room, feeling no space whatsoever between the notes in a phrase.)  When she practices the coloratura passages, she may elect to sing them all staccato to develop laser-like accuracy. (Coloraturas who feel especially confident singing staccato ornaments will thank Bernstein for using them so freely!)

I have not, to date, used "Glitter" as an audition aria, although I'd certainly consider it, as I've retired "Willow Song" from Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe for now. While it is a good fit for my voice, I just haven't connected to its humor on a personal level yet, and I see no point in singing it if I'm not going to be amazingly funny! But when I develop a powerful subtext that helps me to become Cunegonde, I'll certainly add her aria to my repertoire. Maybe all I need are a few diamonds and rubies to inspire me…

Jody Mullen is an American lyric coloratura soprano who lives, performs, and teaches in the metropolitan New York area.

www.jodymullen.com

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Thank you, Jody Mullen!

What a perceptive, informative and entertaining post you have written! I am not especially interested in opera, and even less interested in opera's "diva" subculture, but you have expertly conveyed your passion for and knowledge of this subject in a way that I found extremely fascinating. I wish that more opera enthusiasts were able to articulate the reasons for their passion as you have done so well here. Bravissima!

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