Photo by Gary Beecher, The Epoch Times of Jean appearing in Toronto Operetta Theatre’s “Earnest, The Importance of Being”, in 2015
I spoke to our morning show co-host, Jean Stilwell, about the top 10 most scary arias to sing. Singers are incredibly exposed in a way instrumentalists are not, and their health has a direct impact on how they perform (whereas a pianist could technically make it through a recital with a bad cold). Keeping the body loose is a challenge when you’re acting theatrically, too. Speaking with Jean is a treat. She’s already an animated, engaging speaker (all those years as a performer!) but when you ask her specifically about opera or singing in general, she becomes REALLY excited. Here are her top 10 most scary arias to sing, and why.
1) Aria: “Queen of the Night” (coloratura soprano)
What opera it’s from: The Magic Flute, by Mozart.
What makes this scary to sing: Dangerous high F! A few of them!
2) Aria: “Now the Great Bear” (tenor)
What opera it’s from: Peter Grimes, by Britten
What makes this scary to sing: The notes sit in the awkward part of the voice where you transition from your lower voice to the head voice. So it’d be easy to unintentionally squawk. It’s also a huge acting challenge … there’s the danger of becoming too tense and unable to navigate the high notes.
3) Aria: “O Don Fatale” (mezzo)
What opera it’s from: Don Carlos, by Verdi
What makes this scary to sing: It uses the whole mezzo range and requires a crazy amount of power – and a high B-flat at the end. If you’re a darker-sounding mezzo, the challenge is not forcing the sound, and remaining loose.
4) Aria: “Celeste Aida” (tenor)
What opera it’s from: Aida, by Verdi
What makes this scary to sing: Brilliance and effortless power required in the high notes. The end of all phrases goes upwards – everything gets louder going upwards, so you need a good, solid, grounded voice.
5) Aria: “Ah! Mes Amis” (tenor)
What opera it’s from: La fille du regiment, by Donizetti
What makes this scary to sing: the nine heart-stopping high C’s required of the tenor. The singer must be completely vulnerable and trusting.
6) Aria: “O Due Mein Holder Abendstern” (baritone)
What opera it’s from: Tannhauser, by Wagner
What makes this scary to sing: It’s a softer, quieter aria that requires a great deal of control. It requires big, long phrases. The baritone must rehearse a LOT so he knows how much breath he has to give; he’s “budgeting his breath”.
7) Aria: “Largo al Factorum” (baritone)
What opera it’s from: The Barber of Seville, by Rossini
What makes this scary to sing: it’s a rapid-fire tongue-twister and it’s really easy to mess up. Every syllable must stand out, plus you’re expected to add your own little flourishes to make it your own.
8) Aria: “Zerbinetta’s Aria” (soprano)
What opera it’s from: Ariadne auf Naxos, by R. Strauss
What makes this scary to sing: The melody is hard for the singer to get a handle on, and it’s rich with harmonies underneath. Anything by Strauss is complex, with its thick, orchestration. The orchestra must keep it down, and the singer has to trust she’ll be heard. It’s a high soprano part, so it’s bright, and carries well.
9) Aria: Di Quella Pira (tenor)
What opera it’s from: Il Travatore, by Verdi
What makes this scary to sing: This is a very dramatic moment for the tenor, and he has to be careful with it. If he is acting the anger or passion, there’s a tendency for the muscles to get tight. He must control the voice and not block the sound.
10) Aria: Il Dolce Suono (coloratura soprano)
What opera it’s from: Lucia di Lammermoor, by Donizetti
What makes this scary to sing: A lot of quick jumps between high and low notes, plus lot of flourishes the soprano is expected to add.
I had to ask Jean what her scariest aria was to sing:
The “Composer’s Aria” (mezzo)
What opera it’s from: Ariadne auf Naxos, by R. Strauss.
What makes this scary to sing: It was composed for soprano, the voice type higher to mine. Lyric mezzos do sing it, but you must have high notes; the voice must sit higher in the register. When you’re a darker mezzo, like I am, it’s very hard to do. Conductors want mezzos to do it, because it’s a “pants role”, meaning, we’re lower-voiced women playing young men. This is a common thing in opera, and it opens up our options if we can do it.