On the 16th of February, I'm singing my first Dichterliebe at the Portuguese Embassy in London, in a recital co-organised by the Embassy and the International Opera Awards. I don't have the opportunity to sing in recital very often, since the bulk of my work comes from Opera and preparing roles, so every time that I get the opportunity to sing either new or old Art Song repertoire, I always get very excited.
Leading up to the actual concert, I thought it would be interesting to share some of my thoughts about what goes into preparing a recital and how that differs from opera.
One of the biggest differences compared to preparing a role, is that with a recital you have almost complete freedom to choose what programme you want to sing, whereas a role is a completely closed experience by comparison. You can choose how you want to portray it, but the music which you have to sing has already been fully created and it's an element of a much larger work canvas.
In that sense, preparing a recital is like starting from a completely blank sheet upon which you will draw your own character. For this particular recital, following a suggestion to sing Schumann's Dichterliebe (which I haven't sung before and have been wanting to sing ever since being a very young undergraduate student and gloriously cracking my way through Im wunderschönen Monat Mai), I thought that this beautiful cycle would be a wonderful first half for the Recital. With words by Heinrich Heine, it's about falling in love and going through the difficult process of an ugly breakup with someone. As with all roles in opera, also in Art Song, the more you live and the more life puts your through its motions, the bigger your emotional palette to portray the feelings expressed in the poems will be.
This is one of the points in which Recital becomes again very different from Opera. Within the context of an operatic role, your actions and how you emote will be limited by the concept of the production and by the character's arch throughout the action. In a Recital, however, it all becomes much more personal because you're not limited by the larger context of a big plot: the length of the cycle and the journey of that character becomes your plot, but you get to draw from your own personal experience and to emote that in a much more immediate and less conditioned way.
That inevitably affects your choices at all levels: how you shape the phrases, how certain words have more importance than others and how you use a certain colour instead of another one. Of course you have to do this within the tradition and style of the piece you're singing, and also still using the same technique you would use to sing opera. However, because the emoting possibilities are so wide, it allows you to use your understanding of how your voice works to unleash your imagination and colour your voice in a way that Opera sometimes doesn't.
This is what makes recital preparation so exciting for me: I get to be much more creative and to try (and also fail and try again) and experience music in a much more personal way, and hopefully put that across in an affecting way that the audience can relate to.
At least that's the goal, but I feel that if the way you sing and shape a piece means something to you and comes from an honest and deeply personal place (rather than being filtered by the need to project into a vast auditorium or having to fit someone else's concept of what those words and character are), then that's ¾ of the work done towards genuinely communicating with the public.
For the second half of the recital, I chose a couple of Portuguese songs by different composers, four of them with poems by Luís de Camões, our greatest poet. The remaining ones are also very emblematic, especially Mar pavoroso, Mar tenebroso by Lopes-Graça (and words by Guerra Junqueiro), because the poem talks about the tragic loss of human life associated with the Portuguese Maritime endeavours, and also because Lopes-Graça was a pivotal figure in the fight against the Fascist regime under which Portugal lived under for almost half a century.
All in all, I believe I've sketched a programme which is a celebration of great music and great poetry, and I hope that comes across. Stay tuned for pictures and recordings!