Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Recently, I celebrated Thanksgiving dinner with my landlord’s family (I am one of the few lucky souls in New York to have a fantastic landlord). Their son made name tags with nicknames for all the dinner guests, and this was mine:
Moral of the story: they can definitely hear me practice (AND they still invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner - as I said, I hit the landlord jackpot!). Also, they definitely know what I’ve been working on!
For any of the non-opera folk reading this: the Queen of the Night is the high coloratura soprano role in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), one of Mozart’s most famous and beloved operas. Even if you don’t consider yourself an “opera” person, you’ve probably heard her music before. One of her arias, “Der Hölle Rache,” is used in everything from movies to tv to children imitating opera singers in talent shows.
In you’re a Game of Thrones fan: The Queen is basically a fusion of Cersei Lannister and Margaery Tyrell. She has two arias: “O Zittre Nicht” is her big entrance aria, where the Queen persuades/manipulates the Prince Tamino into doing her dirty work. Then there’s “Der Hölle Rache” in the second act, where she threatens to disown her daughter if she doesn’t agree to do her next round of dirty work (like everyone in Game of Thrones and most operas, the Queen needs a lot of therapy).
When I started working on the Queen, Stephanie (my teacher) and Riley (my coach) had me start with O Zittre Nicht, NOT the more famous aria. Why? Well, in a nutshell, it’s the harder aria of the two. I’m not saying the other aria is easy: it’s not. But, O Zittre Nicht gives you a better feel for what the full role will demand of you both technically and artistically. If you can sing O Zittre Nicht really well, you’ve got the blueprint to successfully tackle Der Hölle Rache.
O Zittre Nicht has three parts:
1) The accompanied recitative intro
2) The Andante
3) The Allegro Moderato
Each of these three parts form a cohesive musical unit, yet are distinctly different. The recitative and Andante require a lot of middle voice singing and long legato lines, with brief trips up into the upper passaggio. The upper passaggio isn’t the tip-top of a singer’s vocal range - it‘s the few notes on the way up to the top where if things aren’t really well lined up technically, the margin for error is next to nothing. It’s not uncommon for the notes in a singer’s passaggio to freak them out way more than super high notes (I happen to be a singer who freaks out at both LOL).
One of the fun “let’s say a prayer as we go through the upper passaggio” places in the aria
Then, after all that, you get to the really crazy stuff in the Allegro Moderato. This is where the Queen turns on her “I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and I’ve learned a few things from those Queens” levels of fierceness and becomes an all out coloratura monster machine. Oh, and after 4 minutes of essentially middle voice singing, all that coloratura ends on a high f. It’s one thing to have a series of high notes and just stay up there and hang out; it’s a whole other mindf@%k to have one super high note at the very end of a ton of crazy that was in a completely different part of your voice.
So, it’s hard. But, the process of learning this music is incredibly exciting and thrilling. As someone who has had a lot of technical hurdles to overcome as a singer, I really wasn’t sure if it ever would be possible to sing this repertoire. I feel very lucky to get to sing this incredible music in the first place.
This all begs the question: if it’s so hard, why on earth would anyone be insane enough to CHOREOGRAPH it?
The simple answer is, I had an idea and I wanted to see if I could make it work. Over the years, I have come to realize that music makes the most sense to me through movement. Choreographing the arias I sing makes the music, the text, the story, and the interplay between the voice and the piano/orchestra come to life in a way that‘s unlike anything else I’ve ever done. I can’t entirely explain it: it just makes sense.
I had this idea that the Queen, being the manipulative, cunning, over-protective mother figure with ulterior motives that she is, would be well served with snake like, animalistic movement. That style of movement also meant the choreography would have a lot of fluid, “legato“ like qualities, which work with, rather than against, the tenants of consistent breath support, which would enhance the singing and story. So, I started experimenting, and loved it!
Does it add additional layers of technical and physical challenges? Absolutely. I’ve had to do a lot of trial and error over the past few months. It certainly does not make it easier to sing (I wish that were the case!). Do I think it’s “complete” and that there is nothing left to add or learn or develop with the aria? Definitely not - I’m a constant work in progress! What it does do is create an artistic and creative vehicle that is uniquely my own.
So, here’s a link to one of my Queen performances this fall. This is early October, at the WaxWorks showcase at Triskelion Arts in Brooklyn. Note: yes, this is a cappella. Technical logistics required it, and in the dance world, they’re more forgiving when you futz with tradition :). I hope to have footage of the aria with piano soon!
Until then, enjoy this iteration of O Zittre Nicht!