Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Themed Recitals: Now It’s Personal!

By Andrea Hansen

In April 2014, I proudly presented my baby to the world – not a flesh-and-blood baby, but one born of research, creativity, vocal strength, and okay, a fair amount of blood, sweat, and tears. It may seem strange to call my Masters recital my “baby,” but that’s honestly what I considered it. I spent ten months developing a recital program that would not only fulfill those pesky degree requirements, but also display the artistic integrity I spent countless years cultivating in academia. The end result: a themed recital dealing with the concepts of mysticism, religion, and fantasy.

I first learned about themed recitals in an undergraduate vocal Literature course. Since the requirements for a Senior recital can be daunting enough for an undergraduate – multiple languages, varying styles, repertoire appropriate for our level of study, and so on – I didn’t give much thought to a theme. I was much too focused on simply surviving my senior recital. At the same time, the ideas presented in class lingered with me and I found myself giving them serious consideration during the first year of my Masters. Fortunately, I had great resources to help me plan a themed recital! I suggest: “Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature” by Carol Kimball and “The Art of the Song Recital” by Shirlee Emmons and Stanley Sonntag. With these texts, I sat down and sketched out my theme. Whether it is for your graduate requirements, a fundraiser, or just for funsies, here is a very basic guide on how to compose your very own themed recital.

1. START PLANNING EARLY. You never know what twists and turns will occur while putting together a themed recital – you might find new repertoire; if you incorporated an ensemble, someone might drop out; maybe a language is giving you trouble – not to mention trying to keep the central theme with these curve balls coming your way! Planning early allows you to fix these unpredictable problems without getting too stressed. In addition, the earlier you start planning, the sooner you can actually start rehearsing the music with your collaborators, which will allow you to be in the best vocal and mental shape for presenting a themed recital.

2. CHOOSE YOUR THEME. This is where your imagination can run wild! What sort of ideas do you want to communicate? Do you have an affinity for female composers or have a great love for Russian Romances? Are you looking to explore the depths of love and passion or do you want to tell a story with complementing song cycles? The possibilities are endless and no theme is wrong. It all hinges on what you, the artist, want to communicate to your audience.

3. SELECTING YOUR REPERTOIRE. Now comes the hard work. I had decided ages ago that I wanted to sing Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs,” and they became the cornerstone of my recital’s theme. If you’re putting together a themed recital for an academic milestone be sure you know what requirements are expected of you: languages, time periods, compositional styles, etc. Once you have those in mind, it’s time to research your composers and texts. This is where Carol Kimball’s book “Song” can really help you! There is an incredible amount of art songs featured that are cross-indexed by composer, time period, and country of origin.

Note: be sure to keep your own abilities in mind as you select your repertoire – you don’t want to sacrifice your voice just to fit a theme! It’s easy to let emotion creep into the voice when we are passionate about what we’re singing, so be sure your choices are within your abilities. You want to have FUN with the theme and not worry about your technique.

4. RESEARCHING THE REPERTOIRE. Does the music or the text come first? It’s an eternal question for singers, but one you must consider when finding a theme. If your theme deals with an emotion like love or rage, or an abstract idea such as the earthly elements, you’ll need to read your texts thoroughly before deciding on the music. When your theme is a specific composer, you may want to chart his or her development by taking into account what poets he or she used while composing. If it’s a language-based theme, explore how the language changes depending on the time period. Working with a specific emotion as a theme may seem easier, but just think about how many love songs are out there! What aspects of love do you want to present and what text works best to demonstrate this complicated feeling? How did the composer’s life affect his compositions? The added bonus to this extensive reading and research is that your program notes will practically write themselves, because you’ve already given thought to the historical and musical importance of the piece.

5. SELECTING VENUES AND ATTIRE. If you’re lucky enough to have more than one performance space at your university or if you’re presenting this recital on your own terms, you can select a venue that will best complement your theme. A recital focusing on a composer who specialized in sacred music would be wonderfully suited in a lovely church setting. A venue that has modern architectural significance would be perfectly paired with stream-of-consciousness music from the 20th century.

With all the logistical work done, here comes the next huge question: what are you going to wear?! What colors and textures come to mind when thinking about the music, text, and how it makes you feel? For an elemental-themed recital, earth tones such as brown, grey, or gold might work best. Do you see yourself in a corset and full skirts when singing music by 19th century female composers? Are you working with pieces that incorporate movement and need a gown or suit that allows for freedom of movement? Your audience wants to hear the themed music, but also WATCH you perform. Allow yourself to get creative and pick an outfit that pairs well with your theme!

Although planning a themed recital requires extensive work, what better way to showcase your vocal abilities than by presenting a program that tells a story? It is incredibly rewarding to know that your performance has cohesion and consideration, and your audience will love and appreciate your creativity! 

Happy planning!

Photo courtesy of kommi8282 via