Accompanying singers

Last updated Apr 4, 2024 | Published on Mar 17, 2022

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.

Following up on the post and episode about accompanying solo instrumentalists, we’ll look now at accompanying solo singers.

While there are, of course, many similarities there are also some aspects that are peculiar and specifically related to singers. 

Partnership

Everything that was discussed in the episode on accompanying solo instrumentalists still stands: it is a trust relationship.

Too often this trust is broken by an unclear understanding of what singers, especially during a staged production, go through: they need to sing, from memory, act, move around dressed in sometimes questionable costumes, with temperatures elevated by the lights.

We, conductors, stand on the podium, dressed comfortably and with a score in front of us.

Here’s a video on the topic with 2 practical examples:

 

  • Recitative and Aria “Hai già vinta la causa!” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
  • Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì” from Puccini’s La bohème

The number of things that go on during a stage performance obviously makes more room for mistakes, big and small. When a singer is in trouble, he or she will look at the podium for help. If you cannot provide any, the trust will be broken.

Voice type

One of the things you need to realize is that the voice is a live instrument. It can change every night based on a number of different conditions. It also changes from one singer to another, even if on paper they have the same voice type.

Recognizing the voice you have in front of you is crucial to a successful performance. You need to hear how heavy (or not) the voice is; how much metal it carries. These two factors alone will give you an indication of the tempos you can take.

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It is totally useless to come with a set tempo in your mind and not be willing to make some changes based on the voice you have in front of you. This will only frustrate everyone involved.


On the other hand, if you can recognize the specificities of the singer, you will be able to anticipate problems before they arise and build trust in your partnership with them.


Why? Because you will learn how to breathe with them at any given moment.

Recitatives

Everything else, of course, still stands: balance, technique, rests, etc.
On this topic though, there is a sensible difference when it comes to conducting recitatives.

Recitatives come in 2 variants: secco and accompagnato. The secco employs only the basso continuo: harpsichord and a cello and does not need to be taken care of on the conducting side.

The accompagnato, on the other hand, makes use of more orchestral forces and does need the conductor. The biggest difficulty, in this case, is the suspension of the pulse, needed to guarantee the soloist’s musical freedom.

If the recitative is short, keep the baton in motion between the beats, slowing down the motion in order to follow the singer’s rhythm. Give a clear click on the preparatory beat for the orchestra to restart.
If the recitative is long, you can simply mark every downbeat without moving through the bar until the preparatory stroke comes.

Arias

Arias need to be taken care of in accordance with the singer. Learn about the singer’s needs: a longer or extra breath for instance. Discuss the tempo. Discuss rubatos, especially in verismo operas. Again, understanding the type of voice you have in front of you will increase the success of your performance. This might take some time but it will save you a lot of time in the long run.

One last thing: in order to successfully accompany any type of vocal music, you need to know the words by memory. It’s the only way to fully understand and predict if something is going to go wrong. Combined with breathing with the singer, you can avoid problems in the majority of the cases.

Photo by Ornella Tiberi. “Camille Claudel”, International Opera Theater production, 2013

Notes

Cover image by Lucas Craig from Pexels

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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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