One thing I say to my students frequently is that you have to sing with, and love, the voice you have, not the voice you wish you had. This doesn’t mean that you simply sing whatever comes out of your mouth unexamined and don’t work on improvement, but you also have to love your voice. Loving your voice means letting it tell you what you should be singing.
Naturally I need to apply this to myself as well. I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a “recovering coloratura.” I used to have lots of high notes. Now, not so much. But I don’t know that I was ever really a coloratura soprano. Sure, I got an encouragement award at the district Met Auditions singing “Juliette’s Waltz” when I was 21, but I never got work singing that repertoire. I got work singing Bach and Handel, and small opera roles, and realized where I really excelled was in Baroque repertoire, and that in opera terms, I was a soubrette, the most common voice type for young sopranos, therefore the most competitive.
Years later, when I was in my 30s and at the age when one might graduate from soubrette repertoire to something a little heavier, I studied with a voice teacher who experimented with giving me some heavier, full-lyric repertoire. It never really suited my voice, and as I got into my 40s, watching younger folks get the roles I used to sing even though I felt in many ways I was singing better than ever, I realized that I was basically a middle-aged soubrette, and I wasn’t likely to get cast, as those are generally considered young singer roles.
Then I discovered my other super power—singing atonal music. While still in high school I drilled intervals in an Advanced Placement music theory class and got very good at them. It doesn’t matter if it is a tritone, major seventh, if it is in the scale, chord, or anywhere in the instrumentation. If I can relate it to the pitch I just sang or one I hear in an instrument, I can sing it. I also discovered that though I wasn’t likely to get cast in the opera roles that best suited my voice, there were other theatrical pieces that suited me very well—anything by Kurt Weill. Sondheim.
Now I do more teaching and directing than performing, but I still love to sing and want to continue to perform. It is frustrating that I have reached the age where I have lost a bit on the top of my range. My voice hasn’t dropped enough or darkened in color that I could reasonably consider myself a mezzo, and fast, melismatic pieces like “Rejoice Greatly” from Messiahstill feel great to sing, though the optional high notes are less reliable. So I am more or less a middle-aged soprano without much strength in what were once my “money notes.”
I am a more intelligent singer now, though, and I can relax and enjoy singing in some ways more than when I was younger and stressed more about making it perfect. There is a lot of repertoire I can still sing, including some very beautiful art songs, musical theatre, contemporary works, and yes, still a lot of my beloved Bach and Handel. My low range is stronger. I am a better interpreter.
I’m not going to lie—sometimes I feel like I would give anything to have the voice I had twenty some years ago, when I could soar up to a high E-flat with ease, when I was spending so much time performing that I kept my voice in tip-top shape, when now I tend to get out of practice because I am devoting so much more energy to other things besides performing. But I have to say, I do still love my voice. And, as my husband can attest, I still dance around the living room for the sheer joy of singing when I practice “Rejoice Greatly.”
A young singer must learn how to sing a wide variety of appropriate repertoire in order to master technique and explore different types of music. Eventually you will want to specialize–find the repertoire that really makes your voice dance! It may not be what you think, or what you started out with, and it will change over time, but it is out there, just waiting for your beautiful voice to bring it to life.
Here is an audition recording I made a number of years ago, with Dan Peelor at the piano, singing Juliette’s Waltz. I remember feeling out of practice—I hadn’t had a regular voice teacher for a few years and wasn’t spending as much time singing as when I had finished my MM degree a few years before. But now I am glad to have this recording—a snapshot of the voice I used to have, like an old photograph. I notice things that were easier for me then, as well as things that are easier for me now.