On Scansion and Coloratura Writing (plus a dose of Improv)

Sidney Boquiren Sidney Marquez Boquiren, Guest Blogger
Composers & the Voice composer, 2011-12

This was the first session in which each of us shared our role analysis. Basically we each selected a role that AOP singers had identified as one that they had performed/sung or anticipate as one that they should know for their voice type. Our selection was purposefully based upon the voice type for which we had written our first song (also due that same day).

In our discussion, we each commented upon various aspects of each role, such as absolute range, general tessitura, deployment of the voice in the opera, appearance of the character in the opera, etc. By the end of our third and final role analysis we’ll have gathered a lot of information with regard to the vocal writing for these operatic characters. I anticipate that I’ll be turning to these notes as I write my next songs.

There were two points of somewhat more extended discussion. The first was that of scansion. This issue came up in the vocal writing of Stravinsky, particularly in The Rake’s Progress. He and Sara observed that Stravinsky generally did not pay attention to the scansion of the text. This then led to the question of “Why would a composer not observe proper scansion?” We* speculated that perhaps a composer would do so for a specific effect or perhaps simply to be contrarian (following Stravinsky). I am most certainly curious to hear from our readers.

The other point of discussion was the paucity of coloratura writing in contemporary opera. We noted that most of the AOP singers are very solid in coloratura technique—but how can we take advantage of this strength if this is not part of contemporary practice? Will such an aria sound outdated? This depends on the character singing the coloratura aria. In brief, if there is enough dramatic reason for the character to have such an aria, then why not? There and then we all pledged to write one coloratura aria.

Ok, that last bit I completely made up, but it would be an interesting challenge. As an aside, I note that in popular music, melismatic singing is rather common. Heck, I don’t think a contestant can win American Idol or X-Factor without throwing in 3-5 melismas at some point during their performance.

Our role analysis presentations/discussion was followed by Improv 3, in which we learned that we should not only always say yes but also in fact add something extra, building upon each offer. Responding in the negative immediately limits one’s options for improvisation.

Me:      Let’s make breakfast for Mom.

You:    No.

[End Scene.]

As my second aside, I note that in non-improv scenarios (i.e., the rest of my life), I am actually trying to learn how to say no—or at least, to say “Let me get back to you on that.” Needless to say, I did rather poorly in this exercise, but I am eternally hopeful, if not helpless.

You:    Let’s make breakfast for Mom.

Me:      (After a pause) Let me get back to you on that.


We did a few more exercises, including warm-ups. We started with “Zip Zap Zop”, but we were doing this so well that Terry decided to add an extra layer of difficulty. We could now replace any of the three original syllables with any word from the following phrases, but only in the order they appear: “Martin Luther King” and “Kentucky Fried Chicken”. So “Zip Zap Zop” can come out as “Kentucky Luther Zop” or “Martin Zap King” or “Zip Fried Zop”. And yes, you guessed it: I was one of the first to mess up. I am finding that I have a talent for finding my weaknesses in these improv sessions. My fellow AOP fellows can all recount such moments, I’m sure—but of course, all in good spirit.

One of our last exercises involved creating and filling an imaginary space with imaginary objects then improvising a fully acted (partner) scene in this space while—yes, you know by now that there would be an added layer of difficulty—keeping two goals in mind. Firstly, both actors had to touch all the objects in the defined imaginary space. Secondly, neither actor could ask questions.

Me:      (Voice over) Wha-wha-whaaaaaaaaaaaa?

The rationale here is that when we ask a question in an improv scene, we relinquish and lose control of the scene. Deciding to completely throw myself into this activity, I volunteered. Ronnie then volunteered to be my partner for the scene. Terry describes the scene for us:

Terry:   You are making breakfast in your kitchen.** You are a married couple about to divorce but still living together. Go!

I will not go through the dialogue (I use this term loosely) that Ronnie and I improvised (also loosely used)—and by the way, this is the second time that she and I have ended up playing a couple! Are the Improv Gods trying to tell us something? Are we the next Lucy and Ricky? Not at the rate we were going. I found myself breaking character numerous times to comment upon the difficulty of the challenge or beginning to ask questions that then magically transform into demands, which interestingly was appropriate for the scene.

I will, though, share one line that Ronnie delivered:

Ronnie:      There’s no table.

In the moment, I heard her say this but I was so caught up in making sure that I didn’t ask any questions and that I hadn’t yet touched the window or the door (I’m fairly certain I touched everything else)—her comment registered, but my brain didn’t process it as something to which I could respond. Terry pointed out (after the scene) that this had so much potential for development of further dialogue between two people about to get a divorce.

Me:            Doh! (Doing my best Homer Simpson impersonation—in my head.)

Methinks I have much to learn.

NEXT WEEK: Silent Etudes.

*The use of the plural here does not imply a collective pronoun, but rather reflects my faulty memory—I can’t exactly remember who said this!!!

**This was the imaginary space that we had decided upon as a group, with a stove, a fridge, a sink (on an island, no less), a window, a door, a coffee maker, a hutch, and a countertop—all items that we had to touch with reason during the course of the scene.

2 Responses to On Scansion and Coloratura Writing (plus a dose of Improv)

  1. srosgood says:

    Oh Sidney, please tell me I do NOT have to watch American Idol and X-Factor now to chase out your observation on melismatic singing!!!! Actually, this is a quite interesting thought, and could just be the thing I need to get me through a half-hour or so…. Very intriguing.

    It was nice to return to some of the same games we had played in earlier sessions. Zip-Zap-Zop of course, but also Mind Twist– which I think we all were shocked at how much better we were at tackling. Our ability to compartmentalize our individual tasks, and not get swamped by the craziness around us is building.

    A question for the composers and librettists– what roles have you chosen to study for this composition cycle? So far we have looked at Ann Trulove, Baby Doe, Anna Maurant, Carmen, Don Ottavio, Papageno, Leporello and Masetto. Who do we get to add to the list in Role Analysis 2?

  2. AC says:

    I love everything that Sydney does. Let’s hear more about him soon.

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