Alexandra Smither Monica Pearce

In the latest instalment of our advice series, “Dear composer…dear singer”, we pair the wise words of Canadian soprano Alexandra Smither, with some enlightenment from Canadian composer Monica Pearce:


What do you wish composers better understood about the voice?

Alexandra Smither: “What I wish composers understood better about the voice is twofold. The first is how deeply personal the voice is. Just as everyone’s personality is distinct, each voice is completely unlike another. If you have the opportunity to talk to your singer and become comfortable with them, you can discover not only the ‘things they do best,’ but also what they enjoy doing most, and what they are excited to showcase. If you create a space of trust to enable your singer to share that information, and then you use it in your process, inevitably the resulting piece will serve both parties in a truly symbiotic and glorious way! If you use this knowledge to write specifically for your singer, how could the piece not sound its absolute best?

Alexandra Smither
Canadian soprano Alexandra Smither.

“Second, I wish composers understood the number of things that go into being a singer. When I give composition seminars around writing for voice, I always say that insecurities go both ways: singers are not only juggling the score, they are juggling rejections and deeply personal criticisms, on the daily. It’s easy to make a ‘singers are dumb’ joke when your soprano misses a beat, but also consider the other things that might be swirling in their head. I tell singers the same thing in reverse: you don’t know what your composer might be worrying about. It’s the same as any other relationship, you should want to make the other person feel loved and appreciated, and that means taking the time to put yourself in their shoes. I think if we all show up to the point of creation with greater empathy for the others experiences, not only will we all have a better time, the end result will highlight BOTH of you in the best possible way!

“I think it’s the responsibility of both parties to show up and being these dialogues. I have been so lucky to have many wonderful relationships with composers where we made this special effort to trust each other and explore together – they are some of the most special relationships in my life!”

Alexandra Smither
Alexandra Smither, running to hug composer Theo Chandler after premiering his work at Tanglewood. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Smither.

What do you wish singers understood more about learning and interpreting new
music?

Monica Pearce: “Venture, bravely, into the unknown. Learning anything new–whether it’s a new piece of music, a new language, a skill–requires embracing the idea of not being perfect right away, and that people could see you fail along the way. This takes vulnerability and courage, something singers, in my experience, usually have in spades. Singers have to be so tough and so vulnerable at the same time, it never ceases to amaze me.

Monica Pearce
Canadian composer Monica Pearce. Photo: Sean Gasser.

“The best feeling is when a composer and singer establish a beautiful rapport and start tackling a piece together as a team. This takes trust to develop and I don’t think either a singer or composer should expect that this will happen immediately (though it’s wonderful when it does!). A singer might feel nervous to bring up a certain passage because even though it might ‘on paper’ fit his/her/their range, for whatever reason, it’s incredibly difficult to pull off in a way that feels satisfying or musical to them. And whether that section is easy enough to change, in some cases, a composer might be completely fine to change it, and other times, they might want to keep it as is but write an ossia (an alternative musical option), or find another compromise.

“I am truly in awe of singers and the work they do. The diligence and detail they put into learning music continues to astound me, and I feel lucky everyday to have some part in it. I never take it for granted–to have singers sing my music feels like one of the greatest privileges of my life. I wish and hope that all singers know that most composers feel the same way!”


Readers, if you enjoyed the advice out of Alexandra Smither and Monica Pearce, let us know! Which composers and singers do you hope to see included in “Dear composer…Dear singer”? Let us know in the comments, or get in touch at outreach@operacanada.ca.

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