Fach It!!!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Since being in Germany and spending time in Vienna, it has become much more apparent to me that fach is incredibly important here.  It is important if you consider you and your voice a product; you have to have a selling point which you can pitch to prospective employers (agents, music colleges, competitions etc).  Rep houses here in Germany employ singers according to their fach, using the system to make sure they have enough house soloists for each opera, before they contract in guests for other roles.  There is (usually) always someone in the house who can sing each role in the operas they are doing.

The next section is hard to explain, and a bit specialist.  I am presuming a little bit of knowledge of standard rep from my readers…!  And I also apologise in advance that I focus on soprano rep.  It is what I have done most research on and can speak about with confidence.

What is fach?

I have read some fantastic books on fach (Pearl Yeadon’s ‘Guide to Understanding the Fach System in Europe’ is extremely helpful, as is Richard Miller’s ‘Training Soprano Voices’), and the definition of how you categorise fach seems to be a combination of factors.  Age, colour, weight of voice, squillo (ring that cuts through an orchestra), amount of performance experience and desire – ie what you want to sing and which characters you instinctively have an affinity to – all play a factor.  But what seems most important to me, is that fach is what is EASY for you.  If it is hard for you to sing in a piece that consistently moves over the upper passaggio, or you are consistently tired after practicing, then chances are it isn’t written for your fach; the composer wrote that because someone found it easy.  Mozart refused to even begin composing until he had met the singer he was writing for.  For some sopranos, although they are rare, the Queen of the Night is the easiest thing in the world to do (Aloysia Weber is the soprano Mozart wrote it for), so voices shouldn’t be forced to do what is not natural for them.  It is unlikely that that same soprano would find singing Susanna in Figaro a walk in the park.  The role sits lower and is much more chatty with fewer moments of high sustained singing.  This does not make it better or worse to be able to do one or the other, and there’s a chance that some singers can do both, but one of them will certainly be easier.  They are different and that is OK.  We don’t need to constantly be versatile, sometimes, knowing your market is a very good thing!

Size of voice is also important.  The houses here in Berlin are big, so a much more lyric soprano than I was accustomed to in the UK will normally be employed to sing Pamina and Susanna – the same soprano will also sing Micäela in Carmen.  The current taste for Countess seems to be actually more of a spinto/junglische dramatisch sound rather than a true lyric; pure tone with a lot of bite.  This is simply to make sure the voices can be heard without pushing over big orchestras in bigger houses.  So if you ever audition here in Germany, consider what their ears are accustomed to for different roles.  A young lyric in the UK might prepare Countess (and expect to sing it), but in German reality, she’s more likely to sing Susanna…

How can you hear what fach is?

Some of it is taste; listen to repertoire and listen to different singers singing the same repertoire – see what you like.  What weight of voice do you like singing the music?  What sounds like music to your ears?  The easiest to compare to begin with are different singers, singing the same pieces of a composer like Mozart.  Try comparing a Sally Matthews/Dorothea Röschmann/Miah Persson interpretation of Fiordiligi.  What do you prefer, and what fach do they all fit under?  I think Miah Persson is a much lighter voice, Dorothea Röschmann has the fuller, more lyric sound.  Do the same for Pamina, or in the baritone world different interpretations of Figaro or Papageno.  A tenor could compare Ian Bostridge to Juan Diego Florez or Rollando Villazon.  Some will sound lighter, some richer, some more brilliant.  It all makes up their fach.

Lots of people sing cross-fach now, or sing different rep according to the size of the house and the orchestra.  As long as it feels like a good fit in your voice, don’t feel completely pinned to one ‘type’ of repertoire.

How do you know what fach you are?

From a personal point of view, I have spent SO much time singing unsuitable repertoire.  A few months ago my singing CV looked haphazard and confused.  Who on earth would even consider inviting a soprano to audition who has a mixture of big lyric repertoire and soubrette pieces on their CV?  What is she?  What roles does she sing and excel at?

So I’ve slowly been figuring it out.  And learning that it is OK (!!!) that my voice does not happily sit low and that I should sing repertoire that sits higher.  It is alright that Susanna is hard for me, and that Zerbinetta is easy.  As I mentioned above, fach is what comes naturally, or easily to you.  We aren’t all made the same, but it is so common that every sop sings Deh, vieni at some stage that it is surprising and sometimes disconcerting not to fit with the norm.  I tried working on this piece recently in Vienna, just because I thought I should, and my teachers could NOT figure out why I couldn’t sing it.  Now, I am certainly not a Countess, but when we tried singing through Porgi amor (given how frustrated I was getting with Deh, vieni we decided to change tack) and it was like ‘night and day’.  It is easier for me to hang about the upper passaggio.  But in terms of fach, I am not a Countess, I don’t have the lyric lines, or weight of voice, but it sounds better than me singing Susanna any day.  It does not mean I am a lyric or lyric spinto…  I have to explore repertoire to figure our what does suit me.

I think we can begin to know what fach we are when we have a good knowledge of standard repertoire, what suits what singer (in general – by listening to fellow students as well as professionals) and then through time, we can feel what sounds good and feels good in our own voices.  It is also likely to change over time, as we develop and grow in maturity.

What I would hope any young singer reading this post could take from it… Is that it is important to know what you are, and sing fach appropriate repertoire for your age and stage.  Present pieces that you can sing NOW – not some thickly orchestrated Puccini or dramatic Donna Anna that will be perfect in a few years time.

Once more: If it’s awkward and you don’t feel good singing it – don’t do it!!

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