Dear Composer... Dear Singer
A new Opera Canada series: Dear Composer... Dear Singer, with advice from Krisztina Szabó and Cecilia Livingston. (Photo: Opera Canada)

When you really think about it, the communication between an opera composer and an opera singer is a bit odd: each artist has spent years honing their very specialized craft, and they come together when it’s time to do something extra-specialized – create a new opera. In reality, it’s rare for a composer to fully understand how a singer uses their instrument, and it’s equally rare for a singer to grasp the process of writing new music. We reached out to some Canadian new-opera creators – in this case, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and composer Cecilia Livingston – to find out what they wanted their respective collaborators to know about how they work, and how singers, composers can best work together:


What do singers wish composers understood better about the voice?

Krisztina Szabó: “I wish composers understood the passaggio of singers more – the challenges of singing in my passaggio [the transition area between vocal registers] and that I don’t necessarily want to live there for too long. I also always appreciate a composer who really understands the difference between the range of a singer and where a singer likes to ‘live’. Text on the upper end of a singer’s range should be carefully considered, and also scansion [the metric pattern of text, based on the syllable length]. And for me personally, as my voice warms up, it also moves up, and notes on the lower end become more challenging.

singers composers
Canadian mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó. Photo: Bo Huang.

KS: “I would encourage composers to sing what they offer us as best they can and work with the voice-type they are composing for to get feedback along the way…and to be genuinely open to that feedback. A couple of times, I’ve done pieces that were being workshopped only to have my feedback rejected because the composer was attached to how it was already written and unwilling to make changes.”

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

Cecilia Livingston: “I will never forget this story: I was working with a fantastic young singer back when I did a lot of aural skills coaching. She was struggling with the ‘contemporary work’ for her recital: it was in C-flat major or something – but not tonal, and bristling with accidentals – and she was learning every interval. I suggested she email the composer and ask if he could transpose it a semi-tone, just so it was easier to read. A couple of emails later, a stressful new music experience had become something collaborative. She sang the heck out of that piece, too.

“I hope I can speak for most composers when I say we want to hear our music performed, and performed without fear. We want to help that happen! Any time a performer comes to me and says, ‘Look, I see the gesture, but it would be easier for me to do it this way’, I want to know. Singers, if you need an ossia [an alternative option, perhaps with preferred pitches or rhythm], or clearer pitch support for an entrance, or more time to breathe… please tell us. (And yes, most university composition programs have a shocking inattention to writing for voice.) I’m hopeful that our creative culture is shifting to embrace singers’ expertise and agency. I won’t get into the reasons for the cult of the composer-god, which tells singers to shut up and do what they’re told, even when that’s vocally damaging or absurdly, pointlessly difficult. If a composer is being a jerk about their piece, that’s because they’re a jerk, not because they’re a composer.

Cecilia Livingston
Canadian composer Cecilia Livingston. Photo: Daniel Denino.

CL: “Tempo can be really revealing. The right tempo depends on the acoustic, the rapport onstage, the ambience in the audience, what you’ve sung before, what you’ll sing next… I’m concerned when performers get hung up on the metronome marking, despite what feels natural in their bodies, what helps the music to flow across the stage. Tempo is the first thing I’m listening for: if the tempo has gelled, that tells me the piece has probably clicked in for these musicians. If it sounds awkwardly slow or strangely fast, that tells me that I should be really clear in our conversation that the score is an opportunity to feel at ease, to make the music their own.”