The Eight Ingredients for a Perfect Vocal Recital

Kate Lowe | July 2022 | London

Can you remember the last time you cooked up your favourite meal? Whenever it was, I am sure that the preparation, cooking and subsequent delight of eating said meal was a fulfilling, enjoyable process. I have a passion for cooking, and regularly find myself experimenting with new, exciting flavours and ingredients in the kitchen (with varying degrees of success…), with the aim of expanding my culinary skills and keeping my tastebuds tickled. As well as being a keen cook, I am also an aspiring freelance mezzo-soprano, having recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and as I journey down the wonderful, often unknown path of a professional singer I regularly find myself having to put together and perform varied, interesting vocal recitals that will entertain, move and challenge an audience. Although it might not be obvious at first, I have come to realise that vocal recitals and cooking are oddly similar, both in the process and final outcome. To bring together both the culinary and musical worlds, I have therefore compiled my top eight ingredients for a delicious, well-cooked (or well-organised) vocal recital.

1. Venue

When preparing for a vocal recital, one of the first ingredients to consider is the venue. Will you be performing in a small, dry venue such as a village hall with lots of soft interior decor such as curtains, cushions and carpet, or will it be a grand, sturdy stone building such as a church or cathedral with a large acoustic? As a singer, I have often been told that it is not so much about the volume of your singing but about the sound you produce and how you project this across the room: the aim is to fill the space with your sound and not to push. This is sometimes called “accessible singing”. During my time as a Vocal Performance Master’s student at the Royal Academy of Music, I was extremely grateful to have the opportunity to perform in a wide variety of spaces, including the wood-panelled Angela Burgess Recital Hall, the majestic Duke’s Hall, and the larger, also wood-panelled, Susie Sainsbury Theatre, and it was important to remember the key point of filling the space with the voice. Wood will absorb sound and allow for a clean tone without reverberation, and stone will deflect the sound and allow for more reverberation – and this will affect both how the audience and the singer experience the sound. If you are singing an operatic aria in a small hall, you must alter the expectation of how you hear yourself: the sound might not seem as full as the audience will experience it. If you are singing in a dry hall or room then you might not hear yourself as clearly and fully as you would in a large church. Furthermore, different venues have different repercussions on your voice, which then impacts on your vocal health. In a church or large cathedral, it is advisable not to sing into the reverb as the venue will naturally enhance the sound without you having to try too much. It is therefore essential not to push or over-sing in this type of space.

2. Squillo

On a first reading, this term might be mistaken as a type of pasta – but, although this food is a key ingredient for many a delicious meal, it means something quite different in a vocal recital context. It comes from the Italian verb squillare, meaning to ring or to buzz, and is often defined as a loud, resonant, trumpet-like sound. The noun “squillo” is therefore best translated as “the act or sound of ringing”, and it is an essential piece of vocal technique in order for a singer to be heard in any (but mainly large) spaces and concert halls. It can be developed by using good breathing technique (e.g. by using the “expand and retract” technique, which is upheld by expert teacher and Royal Opera House vocal coach Paul Farrington, whereby you use your diaphragm and muscles in a way that represents an elastic band being pulled in and then springing back out in order to take in more air), by working on the natural resonators in the body (e.g. near the temples on the forehead and in the chest cavity), and also by understanding that the effect of squillo is made by a constricting muscle in the throat. Therefore, squillo is the key for allowing singers to be heard in a space without the amplification of a microphone, giving the sound a biting edge that will cut through the air, be heard over an orchestra, and reach the audience in a clear, resonant and expressive way.

3. Repertoire

Much like an imaginative and well-considered set menu of a starter, main and dessert that all complement each other, a recital must also have carefully chosen pieces that, put together, tell a story and create an emotional arc. Though the order of your songs is, of course, vital, chronological order does not always necessarily need to be followed: so long as your recital contains a broad variety of pieces of different tempi and musical colours, and takes the audience on a coherent emotional journey, chronological order is not a priority. Renowned mezzo-soprano Mary King strongly advocates a varied musical colour palette in a recital, stating that recitals are a time to explore different languages, styles of singing and styles of music. In addition, she mentions that, as opposed to the larger-scale drama of an opera, recitals are full of “little mini dramas” that might only be about three to four minutes long but are fascinating to explore. It is quite common for singers to choose a theme for their recital (such as “Nature”, “Relationships”, “War”), which can give a focus to the recital, help guide the emotional narrative and allow the singer to express their own musical interests and passions. For my own final recital at the Academy, I chose the following theme: “From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive: An exploration of women as performers, subjects, and composers”, and included several of Clara Schumann’s songs, Sesto’s aria “Svegliatevi nel core”, taken from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and the unsettling “Give him this orchid” from Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. A theme can therefore highlight a topical or political debate that the singer strongly supports and that should be given more public attention (in this instance, the topic being the promotion of women in music, with a nod to the ongoing fight for women’s rights). A recital should be similar to an artist’s painting palette: it must present many different musical colours and characters – fast and slow; sad and light-hearted; grand and petite.

4. Programme Notes

This is the menu for your recital, and essentially a mental map for the audience as you take them on your musical journey. A programme should of course contain details of the repertoire that will be sung, but must also contain some context and background. Your programme notes should not be overly detailed (eight to 10 lines per pieces is ample) but should state the composer, their dates, period of classical music, the title of the piece (and of the work/opus from which it is taken if need be), some information about the style of the piece, any specific musical features to listen out for, and a short summary of the story of each piece. Try not to give away the story completely – it is always a good idea to let the audience use their imagination to interpret each piece in their own way. If a piece is written in a language different to that of the country in which you are performing, it is always a wise idea to have a translation in the programme. Keep as close to everyday language as possible to make the piece accessible, and take into account the nuances and idioms of the original text. When writing programme notes, it can also be helpful to put yourself in the shoes of the audience. Bachtrack contributor Jenny Camilleri recommends that the audience get to the venue in time “to read texts and translations before the concert starts. Do not follow the text on the page during the performance.” With the above being said, it is nevertheless important not to be completely absorbed by the programme notes – just as one must not be completely at the mercy of a meal recipe. Some personal input, creativity and, of course, individual preferences of taste must come from the cook – just as an audience member in a recital should develop their own interpretation and opinion of the recital programme.

5. Timings

In life, timing is often key. For example, it is especially so when it comes to waiting for a lamb casserole in a slow cooker. It is also vital to get your timings right in a vocal recital: you do not want to make your recital excessively long or too short. A recital should not be the length of an opera performance of two hours or more, nor should it consist of just a few songs. Having attended many recitals, I would suggest an optimum length of approximately 45 minutes to one hour. If you decide to create a longer recital, you may want to include a short 10-minute break to allow the audience to digest the first half, and then return refreshed for the second half. In addition, it is common for singers to perform what is known as a song cycle (a set of individually self-contained songs to be performed in sequence, creating a whole – some popular examples including Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben and Poulenc’s La Courte Paille), which can last between 30 minutes and one hour. A recital can therefore often be more taxing than an operatic role, as it requires continual singing rather than rests in between scenes, as is the case in opera. However, the preparation of a song cycle in recital can be easier on the singer since the pieces are already pre-set and are in a specific order. In the kitchen, it would be the equivalent of a pre-prepared kit meal: you are given all the ingredients in a packet, and all that needs to be done is for you to cook it up!

6. Accompaniment

A side dish – although it may not be the key focus – can be a necessary accompaniment to any meal: where would your Christmas dinner be without the stuffing? Accompaniment for a vocal recital must therefore be very carefully considered and experimented with prior to the recital for several reasons. Firstly, to make sure that the blend of instrument and voice is suitable and suits the recital programme: what works best for your recital – a trio of string instruments, a harp, or a lighter woodwind instrument such as a flute or clarinet? Furthermore, will the musicians be on the same platform as you (as is often the case in oratorios) or will they be on a lower level to the stage or podium on which you are stood? This must all be taken into consideration. Secondly, it is vital to double-check that the musicians all have correct orchestral parts to accompany the singer and are comfortable with the musical score (these parts may well have had to be written from scratch and modified for the specific instruments in question). Finally, the singer must make sure that any accompaniment does not become the focus of the recital: it is essential to keep the narrative and emotional arc in mind throughout. While you want to provide a variety of both aural and visual entertainment for your audience, you must consider if this will enhance or detract from your own performance.

7. Starter and dessert

First impressions always count – and this is also true of a recital. A watery, sad-looking soup is often a warning sign for a subpar main course and potentially disappointing dessert – just as an unimpressive or lacklustre opening song or aria can be an indicator of a poorly thought-through recital programme. It is therefore crucial to think carefully about the opening and closing pieces of your recital. Begin with a piece that will hook the audience immediately, be slightly on the shorter side in length (between two and three minutes), and clearly set the tone and present the theme of the recital. There is slightly more freedom in the choice of your final piece, but it should still nevertheless perfectly tie in with the tone (or potential theme) of the recital. That being said, it is quite common for singers to finish with a comical or light-hearted song or aria in order to send the audience home smiling, as well as to display vocal playfulness and versatility. This can also signal the end of the more “serious” main section of the recital and provide a tidy “ending” for the narrative of the recital. Like the starter, this final piece should be on the shorter side (possibly three to four minutes in length), reinforce the tone or theme of the recital and be sung with the same confidence as the starter. Singers are also encouraged to end with a piece that displays something special and unique about their own personality: it is an ideal opportunity to show the audience what makes them stand out as an artist, and adds a personal final touch.

8. Entertainment!

Finally, a singer must not forget the main aim of a recital: to move and entertain an audience. This is often overlooked by singers in the preparation of a recital, but – as mentioned by leading baritone Martin Hässler – it is vital. As a mezzo-soprano, I often like to showcase arias from trouser roles such as Cherubino, Sesto or Smeton, and I adore French art songs, but I am also aware that I cannot always put these in a recital programme: I need to tell a story with my pieces rather than shoehorn my own preferences into a concert. Whatever repertoire you choose, you must entertain. Recently, the up-and-coming soprano Ema Nikolovska presented a wonderful recital at Wigmore Hall, and surprised the audience in her final song by flourishing a cabbage during her last aria, which she then placed on top of the Steinway. Although tenuous, there was certainly a link between the cabbage and her final aria (a joke made about giving it as a gift to a lover) – but mainly it was a unique and highly comical (and memorable) way to close a concert. However you decide to end your recital, it is vital to keep the performance current and relatable, as there is still very much a stigma attached to recitals – something that Camilleri summarises well:

Of all vocal classical formats, song recitals seem to be the least popular. While venues with international cachet, such as Wigmore Hall, retain their devoted audiences, there is concern about the future of this seemingly genteel formula, with its old-lace, highbrow aura.

(Take me to your Lieder: The Delicate Art of Song Recital, Bachtrack Online, January 2016)

We must therefore keep the above in mind and carefully balance modernisation with tradition and emotional truth. In an age where, through technology, we are sadly becoming more emotionally distant despite being more connected than ever, it is vital to heed Camilleri’s advice once again: “emotional openness and genuineness are obligatory”. A vocal recital should leave you feeling fulfilled – which is just what you would expect from a hearty, well-cooked meal.

Mezzo-soprano Kate Lowe recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Music with an MA (Distinction) in Vocal Performance (2020), where she studied with Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Chad Vindin, and received commendations in two Academy competitions. Prior to RAM, Kate read Education with English Literature (BA) at St John’s College, Cambridge, where she was an alto in Queens’ College Chapel Choir, and regularly performed principal roles with the Cambridge University Opera Society and the Gilbert and Sullivan Society (including Fillipyevna, Eugene Onegin, and Ruth, The Pirates of Penzance). During her time at the Academy, Kate performed roles in the RAM Opera Scenes including Nancy (Albert Herring, Britten) and Smeton (Anna Bolena, Donizetti), and Chorus for Royal Academy Opera’s Semele (Handel), and was also on the Philharmonia Chorus Student Scheme alongside her studies. Kate recently performed in the chorus of Regent Opera’s La Forza del Destino, and during summer 2021 toured with the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company (Lady Saphir in Patience, and Chorus in The Mikado and HMS Pinafore), who she will be joining again this summer in the chorus and two principal roles. Kate is currently a Foundation Singer at St Nicolas Church, Guildford, and an online English language and literature tutor.