An Opera Singer's Tips For Hitting High Notes

At the Metropolitan Opera last spring, in a show called "The Exterminating Angel", soprano Audrey Luna sang a high A, setting a new record for the highest note ever sung at the Met. You might be more familiar with the phrase "High C", a very typical high note at the Met - the high A is several notes higher. And it's the first thing Luna sings in the show. She spent years working her voice up to that pitch. So we asked her how she did it.

Photo by Clive Barda for the Royal Opera House

Be Born With It

The Times calls the high A "a combination of genetic gifts, rigorous training and psychological discipline over two fragile vocal cords". And Luna tells us she "had" the note when she started vocal lessons at age 15. That didn't mean she could perform it onstage any time soon, but it did mean she could work toward that. Not everyone's vocal cords are physically capable of that. But whatever your range, you can extend it with years of practise.

Get a Good Voice Teacher

If your voice isn't anything special, there's an upside: Any competent voice teacher can help you extend your range. "You need the outside set of ears," Luna says, and you need them to get familiar with your voice. Luna has worked for 15 years with voice teacher Barbara Honn, and they have developed a close connection: "Barbara can just place a finger on my shoulder or jaw, and I know what she means."

Rediscover Your Range

Before "The Exterminating Angel", Luna hadn't sung the high A in years. She worked her way back up to it by singing scales, and was relieved to learn that she still had it. But she still had to get back into practice.

Last year, Luna took a month off to plan her wedding. When she returned, she needed a few days to practise, "but everything was right there where I'd left it". Even when she's active, sometimes she'll return to a particular role after a year or more, and notice changes. "It's so interesting to see what has happened to your voice in a year's time, what's matured or developed. You can really hear the difference."

Shape Your Sounds

Just hitting a high note isn't enough to make it pleasant, or transcendent, to listen to. Luna works on modifying the shape of the vowel, maintaining her breath, and keeping notes from getting too tight. This is where you need good communication with your voice teacher.

There are different tricks for different versions of a note. In "The Exterminating Angel", Luna has to start with that high note, so she puts a "Y" sound at the front of the vowel sound to help pop the note up. In other cases, she might have to sustain a high note longer, or reach it several times over the course of an opera.

Learn the Science

"The human voice is an incredibly complicated instrument, that unlike any other you can't see or touch," says Luna. "So there is a lot of imagery and muscle memory involved in training an operatic voice, most of it involving the breath. The mechanics behind how it actually functions are fascinating."

She shares some videos that "spread like wildfire throughout the opera community because they are so spot on in showing and explaining how the voice functions". In the one below, a soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass sing together with an internal camera fixed on their vocal cords.

Luna also recommends this MRI footage of baritone Michael Volle performing an aria by Wagner, and "The Physiology of Opera Singers", an hour-long talk by soprano Sheri Greenawald. ("8:30-10:30 is good stuff," says Luna.) Greenawald describes the operatic voice as "controlled screaming". "I agree with her," says Luna. "Especially when it comes to the A."

Protect Your Voice

Unlike a Broadway actor, an opera singer can't do eight shows a week. Opera singers work without microphones, so their training focuses more on amplifying their voices. The Met staggers its performances to preserve the singers' voices. The physical stress of singing hits sopranos the hardest. Luna schedules voice-heavy activities, such as press interviews, for off-days.

We asked Luna if she sings "Happy Birthday" the same as everyone else, or if she ends up sounding like an opera singer. "I think I do," she says. "I'm a default opera singer." And just because she's an excellent singer doesn't make her every kind of excellent singer: "I don't know how to sing like a pop singer. I can't belt."

Learn the Words

An opera singer needs to sing in several languages, so Luna took two years each of Italian and French, and four years of German. "I'm not fluent in any of these languages," she says. "I get by pretty well when I'm in Germany. There's a lot of work there for opera singers."

When Luna gets a new score she's never heard before, she buys a translation (she recommends books by former tenor and vocal coach Nico Castel, but notes they aren't cheap) or sits down with a dictionary and translates it herself. Some of the older operas use antiquated words and syntax, so she can't always reach a precise translation on her own. By the time she goes to rehearsal, she's thought about her character, and she knows what everyone else is singing.

Get in Your Head

During a performance, Luna is paying attention to a lot at once. If she's singing in Italian, she still isn't thinking in Italian: "I'm translating in my head into English." She's interpreting the line, as well as concentrating on certain sounds, such as doubling the t in notte. At the same time, she's listening to her scene partners. "It's layer upon layer. And while that layer's going on, I'm thinking, 'I can't see the conductor,' or 'Did I remember to pour tea for myself at the intermission?'"


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