I find it fascinating and inspiring to talk to that top 1% of singers who are “making it” in the incredibly difficult field of opera singing. Janai Brugger is a member of the the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program at LA Opera. She’s won spots in training programs like the Steans Music Institute and Merola. Next month Janai will sing the role of Juliette with Palm Beach Opera and she’ll sing Musetta at Los Angeles Opera in May. I asked Janai questions about how a singer finds ideal repertoire for his/her unique voice and how she works to share her own unique gifts and talents.
JB: When I was in undergrad, finding my voice was intimidating, frustrating and exciting all at the same time! I knew I had a gift, and that gift happened to be singing. As singers, we have one of the most valuable instruments of all, our OWN voice! No one else will create the same sound that you do, because it is your own, and that is fascinating to me!
I’ve always loved being on the stage and performing with my colleagues and sharing my voice with an audience. But it takes a lot of work and patience, and it also takes finding the right kind of repertoire. Without the guidance of excellent coaches and teachers, I would not have developed the kind of technique that I have today, and it is something that I still continue to work on and change as I get older and have more experiences.
As a young singer, you really have to start to understand your voice, how it works, what feels right , and not only does technique help with that, but also in choosing the right repertoire as well. I remember wanting to sing The Ballad of Baby Doe at the age of 19, and my teacher said, “ABSOLUTELY NOT!” Even though I knew I could sing the high notes comfortably, it was much too advanced for me at the time. My teacher actually wouldn’t let me sing any arias until I was a Junior and Senior in undergrad. Instead, she had me sing tons of art songs and song cycles until I got my technique down well enough that I could start on arias. I found that to be the best thing in the world she could’ve done for me because by the time I started arias, I was approaching them with more sound, more stability in my voice and with the proper technique.
Singing arias, or any music that is beyond your ability can be harmful. I know it’s exciting to sing Norina’s aria, Je veux vivre, Queen of the night, ect. but unless you are very strong technically, it can hurt your voice and create bad habits that are very difficult to overcome. You should always try to choose what suits your voice at particular stages in your life. What you sing as a 22 year old will be different from what you sing as a 30 year old. As your voice matures, many things change and you’re able to handle certain arias with more maturity and skill. Many of us think that if we aren’t singing an aria that has all the “money notes” or “fireworks” at the end, then judges or audiences won’t be interested, however that is NOT the case! Judges would rather hear how well you master an aria without all the “glitz and glamour” as long as you sing it well, demonstrate a solid technique, and add your own unique voice to it.
So for me, I started slowly and with art songs and then I moved on to arias like, Zeffiretti Lusinghieri, In Uomini, Piangero la sorte mia, ect. and those are not easy arias by any means! But it was easier for me to sing through those and keep myself grounded where I wasn’t straining to get through a passage or melisma and I was able to keep my air consistent and get through longer phrases without running out of gas. And, I’m still singing those arias today, just with a different sound since my voice has matured since I was 22 years old.
So, that is how I approach learning repertoire and even deciding what roles I sing. If I can get through it safely and elegantly without putting a strain on my voice, then that usually means it’s a good match. But always confide in a teacher or coach you trust, and who knows your voice almost as well you do, before you attempt any kind of aria or role. Being an opera singer takes a great deal of patience with yourself, and your voice is delicate so treat it well and don’t be in such a hurry to do everything. There’s only one YOU and you only have ONE voice, so make smart decisions when choosing appropriate repertoire. If you treat your instrument well, it will grow and develop and pretty soon — FIREWORKS!!