Do you like mysteries? If so, you should enjoy the process of properly preparing a role, aria or lieder. It requires the same sleuthing, historic background checks, and intuition required of a detective. First, gather the facts – research the relevant time period connected with the composer, the librettist, and find any pieces of literature that the opera, aria or song may have been based upon. Next, discover clues and uncover any information that will help you build a unique and multi-dimensional character that you can claim as your own. Delve into your own life experiences to connect the two together. Once that is in place, you can unleash your imagination to include other nuances and “evidence” that will help mold and perfect your character. Clues can be found in paintings, books, movies, or even on the subway. When you are watching people interact in a restaurant, on the street, at work, etc., you may gain new insight into how to tweak your character’s responses or physical behavior.

Knowing your character intimately, as well as the lives of the characters you interact with, helps position you for success. It allows you to be flexible and curious during rehearsals, because you are armed with an arsenal of artistic choices. The stage director and conductor may also have a particular artistic path in mind. Because you are flexible and prepared, their motivational suggestions will only help mold and perfect your character. All of this work prepares you for anything that comes your way, allowing you to be a confident, spontaneous and a “present” performer.

Preparing yourself in this manner for today’s market is of paramount importance, because budget restraints and cut backs create shorter music and staging rehearsal periods for opera productions, leaving much of the motivational and character work to you, the artist. It is up to you, the performer, to prepare thoroughly prior to the first rehearsal.


“Self-expression must pass into communication for its fulfillment.”
~ Pearl S. Buck

To further aid you in your preparation, I’ve outlined ideas for developing a complete, sympathetic character. So put on your detective’s cap and get busy!

1. I think keeping a journal for each role you learn is a good beginning. As you learn new facts and continue to do more performing of a particular piece, jot down your new insights and ideas. These insights may come from your peers, conductors, stage directors, stories or articles you read, TV, movies or even a picture you see in a museum, or perhaps a performance you experience of someone else doing your role. Knowing you have a thorough knowledge of a character at your fingertips is invaluable. Imagine the value of a journal such as this if you are asked to perform a role you haven’t sung in 6 months to a year! Reviving the character from your journal will help with all aspects of remembering the entire role including the music and words. Always be looking for new and interesting additions to your information.

2. Start by getting to know the composer and librettist. Read as much as you can from several different sources about these folks. Find out about how he or she lived their lives, not just the hard facts, but who they really were. What historical, weather related, political events help shape their lives? What relationships did they have? Who were their adversaries? What kind of family did they come from? Who and what events influenced them and why? Investigate thoroughly what was going on in the rest of the world when the composer wrote this particular opera or song. Identifying the timeline will help put the opera, aria or song in true perspective.

3. Whether you are learning a role, aria, song, etc., fill out a character chart so you thoroughly understand the character you are playing. This means engaging your imagination, as all of the information on most character charts is not given in the story line itself. You have to make it up. (If you don’t have a complex, complete character chart, there is one available in my book, which you can buy from my web site.)

4. Think about what you and your character have in common. What are your similarities and differences? Is their walk or pace of doing things different from yours? Find the discrepancies within your character as well. Is there any semblance to situations and experiences in your own life? If not, can you imagine being in a situation like this one?

5. Know what the text means word for word and how your character feels about that text. Bring your character to life through what is rooted in the text and layer that with your own choices based on sensibility, intuition, imagination, and reason. Engaging your imagination as well as your rational analysis of the text will allow you to embody the character completely – mind, body, heart and soul – and keep you from acting from the neck up. Make the character you are playing real, make him/her your own. Know exactly what the text means to your character.

6. Listen not only to the text, but also to the music with both your mind and your imagination. This allows the style, atmosphere, and energy of the piece into your consciousness. Often times, the music communicates something quite different than the words or situation. It’s like thinking something different than what is coming out of your mouth. It could be a dark thought, yet your words and demeanor are bright and happy.

7. Reflect upon your first impressions, your immediate intuitive responses to the whole piece.

8. Create your surroundings. Paint the landscape, in which you are acting. Draw upon your memory of how a certain place, season, time of day, etc. made you feel. Arouse your senses to affect your state of being. Triggering your own personal memories, gives your interpretation extra texture and dimension – like having an inner secret. Once you determine the visual and sensory images of your surroundings, add another layer to your character by identifying a unique quality and tone to the action. Things like:

  • How does the time and place affect the character’s physical life, speech, manner, and point of view?
  • What is the social class of the character and what does this mean in ones’ physical stature? How often do you take a bath and wash your hair? How often do you change your clothes?
  • What does the furniture look like? How does it feel to sit on the furniture of that period?
  • How does the clothing feel against your skin? Is it loose or constricting? What is the texture, is it rough muslin or wool or soft, smooth silk or velvet? What type of shoes do you wear? What underclothing is required? How does your clothing affect your behavior when you walk and sit?

9. Know what each scene, aria or song is about within the context of the opera as a whole. What are the given circumstances? What are the events that lead up to what happens before you begin the scene or aria? Does any of this help define your purpose within the scene or aria? Summarize your purpose in a very short, descriptive sentence – a one-liner.

10. Know the character’s overall objective. What does he/she want in this scene, or aria? Be aware of your sensory and visceral responses to what the character wants to do. It gives clarity of purpose and often reveals the driving force in the action of the scene, aria or song.

11. Identify the obstacles to achieving the objective(s). Theater is not theater without conflict. A conflict can be between people or a desire to possess a seemingly unattainable thing; it can be either external or internal. Obstacles and conflicts are the motivating force that leads your character to fight for his/her objective.

12. Define the relationships between your character and the other characters present or referred to in the opera or song. Find the “heat” in the relationships, the emotional buttons that make them psychologically charged, and convey that knowledge whenever appropriate.

13. Find the “aha” moment(s). Choose the moments that light up the character in the scene, aria or song. These exciting moments are enlightened transitions leading your character to another place, either emotionally or psychologically. It is often effectively reflected in the movement and/or behavior of your character. It will also ensure that you don’t make every moment exactly the same by investing each line of an aria or song with equal importance.

Doing this detailed and ongoing type of sleuthing allows you to own your character. It takes the guesswork out of the equation and leaves you with a decided, honest, from-the-gut portrayal that ultimately breeds confidence because you know your character from the inside out.

Getting to know your character is a process, a never-ending quest. Let all of life become your research playground. Remain curious, flexible and present. It will serve you well.


“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love hearing from all of you, so please keep your stories coming. If you have a subject you would like me to cover, email me at [email protected]

Avanti, Carol


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