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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2022 5 months ago

Opera singers dish on path to strength and stamina

The cast of 'The Pearl Fishers' spent some time chatting about the ways singers build their conditioning.
by: Spencer Fordin A+E Editor

Here’s something you’ll never see: An opera singer enters stage left, sings a powerful aria ... and then bends over at the knees and starts wheezing.

Fitness is the unseen element in an opera performance, an ingredient that impacts every action a singer can take on stage. Without being in condition, they cannot expect to hold notes as long as necessary and could not keep the posture they need to perform.

Recently, three members of the cast of "The Pearl Fishers" — Hanna Brammer, Kyle Oliver and Andrew Surrena — sat down with the Observer to chat about the physicality required to play their roles and the unseen hours of their lives in between performances.

“It’s important to be comfortable and strong within your body,” says Oliver, who plays Zurga in "The Pearl Fishers." “That can look like any shape and size, but you have to be connected with your body so you can appreciate the finer points of dealing with the mechanism itself. And also to be able to physically endure the stress of a two-and-a-half or three-hour opera.”

When opera singers start out, they’re still learning their voice and their body.

One of the most important things, said Surrena, is to learn how to modulate your breath. You’re developing your power and your stamina one singing exercise at a time, and each time you practice, you get a little more acquainted with the process of filling your lungs. You’re also learning, at that early stage, how much you can handle in one sitting.

“When you’re young, there’s always a tendency [to overdo it,]” says Surrena, who plays Nadir in "The Pearl Fishers." “If you’re playing baseball, you always want to hit it to the fence. If you’re playing basketball, you want to shoot it from the three-point line even though you might not be able to do it. And the same thing is true when you’re singing.

"As a young tenor, you want to sing those glorious Nessun Dorma moments when you probably shouldn’t be touching that repertoire until you’re further developed. When I was starting out, even a five-minute aria would be really taxing. After that, I’d be like, ‘OK I need to take a break.’ If I had advice for a young singer, I’d say, ‘You have time. Pace yourself. Think about the fundamentals and start with things that might not be as fun and glorious to sing.’”


Opera building blocks

What are those fundamentals? Where does an opera singer even begin?

Hanna Brammer, who plays Leila in The Pearl Fishers, says that rest is key to peak performance. (Photo: Harry Sayer)

Brammer, who plays Leila in "The Pearl Fishers," says you need to be able to match the pitch you hear on a piano.

Once you can do that, you need to project your voice up and over the orchestra, and you need to be able to coordinate your breath to the material so you’re never left flat-voiced.

“It’s all this continuous thing that you try to make as automatic as possible,” says Brammer. “You’re really competing with yourself, and I think that’s an important thing to remember.

"It’s such a competitive field, just like sports, and you can get trapped in the mental game of comparing yourself. Just try to own your own craft and be the best singer you can be.”

That’s why the maturation process can take so long.

Many of the modern opera singers don’t just have an undergraduate degree in voice training; they get graduate degrees and they participate in artist training endeavors like the Sarasota Opera’s Apprentice Program.

The path from aspiring opera singer to headliner can take decades. So while they’re learning the fundamentals early, their job is to keep taking them seriously as they progress.

“The reality is there aren’t a lot of shortcuts in developing this thing,” says Oliver. “Everyone has different sorts of exercises and ways that they develop. They work with their teachers. But you really have to be able to break down the fundamentals of everything that you do. Can you sing a scale from the bottom to the top in perfect tune?

"That’s a very basic skill. But it’s a skill that is actually fairly difficult for a lot of people to do. It’s a very basic requirement and it takes a lot of training to be able to do that. That’s a building block. Can you do that? Can you sing it up all the way into notes people can’t really sing? Can you hold them for longer than other voices? You can only do all of that from training and training and training.”

Sometimes, you can train and train and learn that you’ve been singing with the wrong voice.

Surrena began his singing career as a baritone, and he later transitioned into a tenor. How did that happen?

He had grown and matured and so had his voice.

Surrena recalls being an undergrad and singing a baritone aria from "The Marriage of Figaro;" a guest instructor said that an F note sounded “too easy,” and from that point on Surrena was trained as a tenor.


Fitness and fatigue

So how do singers condition themselves? Do they build their strength just through song, or do they do a wide variety of physical exercises to get there? Surrena clarifies that while core strength is vital, it may be a little bit different than you think.

Andrew Surrena, who plays Nadir in The Pearl Fishers, carries his instrument with him at all times. (Photo: Harry Sayer)

“When you think about crunches or ab training, you’re thinking about contraction or squeezing those muscles so you can form that six-pack,” he says. “But for us, I think more about expansion. We work our diaphragm to really release and open up that midsection so that we’re controlling the breath. If you train that muscle too much, it has a tendency to squeeze out that air.

"But we want to keep that air controlled so that we’re negotiating our voice.”

Oliver agrees and says you want the least amount of tension in your body to reach your best notes.

Brammer, a native of Traverse City, Michigan, said that she finds yoga is conducive to singing because it forces the singer to forge an alliance between their breath and body.

And more importantly, she says, it gives the performer a chance to center themselves.

“Having that time for yourself is important,” she says. “We’re giving so much in the rehearsals and we’re giving in the performances, so it’s like, ‘This is my time for me.’ I know a lot of singers like to run or do cardiovascular exercises. I think some singers like to strength-train too. We’re constantly wearing heavy costumes and we need to move convincingly and not trip on ourselves. We need to portray these people. It takes a lot of core and full body strength.”

Richard Russell, general director of Sarasota Opera and a former performer in his own right, said that he began distance running in his 30s to improve his general health.

And he found that it also improved his performance.

Russell says that just standing on a riser and singing through a performance is arduous, so anything you can do to give yourself an edge is helpful.

“There’s some school of thought that there are some weight training things that people shouldn’t engage in,” he says. “I’ve been told there are some things around the throat but I can’t say definitively that’s the case. As far as what you’re doing for running, it’s really just your breath, and the better your breath can be is just going to help your singing.

"There’s no downside. The more control you have of your breath, the better you’re going to sing.”

Equally important to training, however, is restraint.

Kyle Oliver, who plays Zurga, says that overuse injuries can happen in opera just like in sports. (Photo: Harry Sayer)

All of the singers said they have to be careful not to overdo it when they’re exercising or when they’re singing for fear of damaging their instrument. When a performance is near, they have to be cognizant of not overusing their voice even in general conversation.

“I’m definitely conscious about how much I’m speaking especially the day after a performance. Especially if I have another performance coming up the next day,” says Surrena. “I’m constantly aware I carry my instrument with me at all times.

"I use it to communicate at all times. When there’s a demand to have that instrument perform at a certain time, I have to really pace myself and make sure I’m showing up to that performance healthy and able-bodied.”

On days after performances, Brammer said that drinking tea or a steamy shower can be helpful, or perhaps gargling with warm salt water. But most important, she says, is resting up and recharging her body.

“For me, on days of performances when we have to wait all day for an evening performance, I usually sleep most of the day,” says Brammer. “Just to give my mind a rest, my body. I’m saving my energy for later.

"It really is a whole body endeavor when you’re on stage because we’re thinking about physicality as our character. We’re also needing to support these big sounds. So we get off the stage and we’re as sweaty as if we had just run three miles.”

What’s it feel like when they’ve overdone it?

Oliver said that he can feel a little bit of muscular fatigue all over his body, because his whole body supports his instrument.

His vocal cords may even feel raw from overuse, and that’s how he knows when he needs a rest.

There’s a reason operas aren’t shown on back-to-back nights; it would be too physically taxing.

Oliver says it would be “far from ideal” to have back-to-back performances, because if you don’t take the time to rest and heal, you’ll never get back to your peak condition.

“Fatigue can lead to injuries,” he says. “You might see in basketball a guy playing 43 minutes every night. He’s going hard. Then he tears his ACL. That can happen with opera singers. In rehearsals, we have to pace ourselves.

"We can’t sing out the whole time because that would really be a strain on our voice and can cause vocal injury. You can get nodes or cysts or burst blood vessels in your vocal cords by overdoing it. You have to be able to listen to your body.”

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