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Opera 101: Conducting Singers

Opera singers are not like other musicians. Musicians sight-read; singers rehearse and perform from memory. Musicians spend a few days or weeks rehearsing a piece; singers spend months or years with each role. Musicians sit while performing; singers act and dance and emote. Musicians’ instruments work at any time of day or night; singers’ voices do not. Musicians show up, unpack their instruments, and are ready to perform; singers show up hours in advance for costume and makeup. Musicians have instruments; singers are instruments. All of this means that we conductors have to approach our opera singers in a completely different way. Here are a few practical guidelines…

Shaping Interpretation

When it comes to a singer’s interpretation of their role, the very first vocal coach they work with has the greatest influence. The conductor, who joins the process much later, unfortunately has the least, even though he is in charge of the production. This means you should take advantage of every opportunity to work with your singers at the piano before staging begins. If you are a pianist, play some of their coachings yourself. If not, coach them together with a pianist. This way you can encode things into the DNA of their interpretation which may prove impossible to achieve later on in the process.

Giving Notes

Correcting orchestra musicians is easy. If you announce the correction, the players pencil it into their parts, and that’s it. Often you don’t even need to repeat that section. Singers don’t work this way. If you simply tell them what you want to change, it won’t stick. This is not because they are stubborn, lazy, or unintelligent. It is because they have spent months memorizing and repeating their parts—mistakes and all. By the time staging rehearsals come around, they aren’t just singing; they are executing a complex sequence of sensory-motor tasks stored in their muscle memory. In addition, singers code their singing to their staging to form a 3D mental composite of sound, text, emotion, and movement. That’s why changing a single rhythm or pitch is like replacing one small chip in a massive hard drive.

It’s best to give notes after rehearsal or during the break to avoid interrupting the stage director. A five-minute brush-up at the piano at the beginning of a staging rehearsal is also very effective. I used to give each singer a miniature index card with a small (!) number of corrections at the end of the day. This enabled them to consult their scores at home, bang it out at the piano, and re-learn the correction on their own time. An even better way is to send a voice message with your corrections to each singer’s phone so that they can actually hear what you mean—the proper pronunciation of the word Verzweiflung, for example, or what that tricky inner voice is supposed to sound like with the missing double-flat. If this whole process sounds silly, don’t write it off. Even the finest singers in the world get daily WhatsApp messages saying, “Hey, Famous Soprano, you sounded great this afternoon, but please double-check the rhythm 3 bars after rehearsal J. It should sound like this…”

For performances, I only give notes immediately beforehand. Correcting things after the curtain falls feels anti-climactic. Besides, the singers are tired and forgetful. If something goes wrong during a performance, make a mental note to find that singer backstage before the next show to give the correction. I always phrase things positively so I don’t sour the mood or bruise the ego. Instead of saying, “You did it wrong last time,” try, “Be careful of that one entrance. Don’t worry—I’ll cue you.” If a small mistake persists from night to night or a big mistake nearly derails the performance, schedule a brief rehearsal at the piano immediately before the next show, being sure to take the singers’ call times for costume and makeup into account.

If a bass makes the same mistake over and over even though you have given him several notes about it, casually ask him about his favorite recording of the opera. Often you will find that the very same error just happens to have been immortalized on the CD.


This is a delicate affair for singers. Never try to adjust intonation with your left index finger while conducting. When singers are out of tune, they usually do not realize it. Their voices sound different to themselves than to other people. You can demonstrate this for yourself by singing a long tone and alternately plugging and unplugging your ears. Sometimes the pitch changes as much as a quarter tone depending on whether you are hearing the sound coming out your mouth or just the sound vibrating inside of the passageways of your own head. All of us also know the experience of hearing our own voices on tape for the first time and thinking, “Who’s that?!” As with all corrections, simply telling a singer, “You’re flat,” almost never works. Inside of their own resonating heads, they may indeed be perfectly in tune.

I try to solve intonation problems by addressing related issues. Sometimes repairing a diction faux pas will improve the pitch. Sometimes asking for a lighter high note will keep it from being sharp, or asking for a bit more body in the lower register will help it from sagging. Although the index finger pointing up for sharp and down for flat is a terrible idea, you can nevertheless support good intonation through body language. If you hear your singer’s pitch sagging, try lifting your chin and eyebrows, elevating your plane of conducting, and incorporating upward circling motions into your beat pattern. If things are getting too shrill and sharp, lower your hands and chin and make your arms look heavy. Many times I will simply ask the vocal coach to work out the kink at the piano outside of rehearsal. Putting a mezzo on the spot in front of everyone often stresses her out, thus worsening the intonation you were intending to improve.


Marking is when singers adjust their part to avoid straining the voice in rehearsals, typically by singing lightly and transposing higher passages down an octave. This is especially useful when a stage director repeats a difficult passage several times in a row. Singers mark liberally at staging rehearsals (especially in the morning), never mark at the Sitzprobe (first rehearsal together with orchestra), and rarely mark during onstage rehearsals with orchestra. Often they also mark the first dress rehearsal so that they are in top form for the final dress rehearsal and opening night.

Unfortunately, most singers have never learned to mark properly. There are two common marking mistakes. The first is when a tenor sings everything one octave lower, meaning he spends most of rehearsal grinding away down in the basement of his range. This strains the voice, which is the exact opposite of what marking is supposed to do. I don’t interrupt rehearsal and say, “You’re doing it wrong! Stop it!” Instead, I pull him aside in the break and say, “It sounds like you are working awfully hard in the bottom of your range. Why don’t you try taking the high notes down an octave and singing everything else very lightly at pitch? Your low notes are amazing, by the way. Were you a bass-baritone in a former life?”

The second common mistake is when a soprano sings quietly and marks the diction as well, softening or omitting the consonants so that it is impossible to hear where she is. This type of marking usually leads to low-energy stage action as well, which frustrates stage directors to no end. I correct her by saying, “I’m having a little trouble following you. Feel free to keep marking, but could you spit those crisp consonants right in my direction?”

When rehearsing singers and orchestra together, balance is priority #1, and you can only rehearse that when the singers are singing full out. But whenever I am dealing with other musical issues or repeating a section after already having perfected the balance, I explicitly encourage the singers to mark. This way, their voices are rested and fresh by the time I need them to sing out again. “Feel free to mark when we repeat that section of the aria. I just need to double-check the bowing or the woodwind intonation.”


When singers learn their parts, they often spend all of their time with the notes and none of it with the rests, rendering them completely dependent on the conductor for entrances. I once worked with an experienced Heldentenor who was always early. He didn’t just rush a little; he invariably started singing multiple beats or even bars before he was supposed to. He was exhausting to conduct. If I hadn’t reserved my left hand exclusively for him from start to finish of every performance, he would have been done with the opera a good 30 minutes before the rest of us. I pulled him aside after one rehearsal and delicately suggested that he count his rests. “What?” he said. “You want me to memorize ALL of the rests in the entire opera?!”

Resting is not always easy for singers. It feels like waiting in a vacuum that desperately wants to be filled by whatever comes next. When I conduct a singer who is especially jumpy during rests, I often raise the thumb and first two fingers of my left hand shortly before the next entrance, kind of like Jesus in medieval artwork. This means, “You’re doing just fine. I’ll cue you in a second.” If the singer starts singing too early, I make and hold the STOP sign with my left hand, which means, “It’s not your turn yet. Wait for my cue.” When I conduct a singer who treats each rest like a mini vacation, on the other hand, I raise my left index finger shortly before entrances to say, “ATTENTION! You are about to receive a cue.” This sign is especially useful for the opera chorus as well.

Ensemble Rehearsals

These take place in the days right before the first staging rehearsal. Depending on the length of the opera, you may need as little as one day or as much as a week or two. Your goal is to present and rehearse your vision for the entire opera with piano while getting to know the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of each singer, many of whom will be meeting you for the very first time. Before the singers arrive, discuss your tempi and beat patterns with the pianist so that you don’t end up rehearsing him instead of them. Distribute a detailed rehearsal plan at least two weeks in advance to avoid having an out-of-town Contessa show up and wait for three hours while you polish Act I. Don’t rehearse the opera in chronological order. Plan to do all of the complicated act finales when the entire ensemble is present. Reserve plenty of time for the two leads to work with you on their various duets. Make sure that each singer also has time alone with you and the pianist to refine the arias without the pressure of everyone else listening in. If you have assistants, they should sit in on these rehearsals and take notes so that they can help keep the singers in line during the staging phase. Also invite the prompter or diction coach to attend and speak up as soon as an issue of pronunciation arises. By the way, NEVER prompt while conducting if a prompter is present. You wouldn’t want them jumping up and grabbing your baton to give a cue!

May 14, 2020


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