Opera Daily 🎶 — Horrifyingly Difficult Opera Arias
This week's Opera Daily features The Star Spangled Banner and Konstanze's three arias from Die Entführung aus dem Serail
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Even for a trained singer, the Star Spangled Banner is one of the most challenging songs to sing.
It calls for an enormous vocal range and the conditions you are signing it are usually less than ideal (outdoors, noisy, cold, hot, poor sound).
It is usually performed a cappella, so there is no accompaniment to help the singer find a pitch they can manage, so some start in the wrong key.
My personal horror story with the US national anthem is when I didn't have a pitch pipe and didn’t start the piece low enough. Given the piece goes from the lowest extreme of the voice to the highest extreme of the voice by the end, this is vocal suicide!
When people ask, “What are the most difficult operas arias to sing?” it’s always a tricky question to answer.
Honestly, it’s very subjective. Many operas are profoundly difficult for different reasons.
Zerbinetta has one the most difficult arias called “Großmächtige Prinzessin” (Zerbinetta’s Monologue) from the German opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It’s super long (12 minutes) with extremely difficult coloratura passages with dozens and dozens of high notes. There are very few breaks of even a measure to swallow or breathe—it takes tremendous strength and stamina to make it through.
On the page, Pamina’s aria “Ach, ich fühl's” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute doesn’t look nearly as challenging as other arias mentioned in this email—it’s not crazy-high or crazy-low, and it doesn’t have intense coloratura. But as every soprano who has ever sung it will tell you, it’s unforgiving in every way.
The tenor aria “Ah! mes amis” from La fille du regiment by Donizetti is another doozy. What makes this scary to sing is the nine high C’s required of the tenor. The singer must be completely vulnerable and trusting to get through it.
Don Carlo by Verdi has one of the most difficult dramatic mezzo roles: Eboli. It uses the whole mezzo range and requires a crazy amount of power—and a high B-flat at the end.
But there is no denying that the three arias that Konstanze sings in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) are brutal.
“Martern aller Arten” in particular.
Superhuman breath control is needed to get through the phrases. It requires strength for the long dramatic passages, the coloratura is insane, and it uses a considerable range of voice. Intense stamina is needed because the singer has already sung another difficult aria directly before this aria (“Traurigkeit ward mir zum Loose”).
The role is traditionally for a dramatic coloratura soprano, but I like it with a slightly heavier soprano voice. The extra weight makes it more challenging for a soprano to navigate as it’s a role that demands agility and force, but I think that’s what makes it exciting.
What’s happening in the opera?
With the help of their lovers, Konstanze and her maid plot their escape from Pasha Selim’s harem. But when their plans fall apart and punishment looms, help comes from an unlikely quarter.
"Martern aller Arten”, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Konstanze was captured and sold to the Turkish Pasha Selim together with the servants Blonde and Pedrillo. Selim took her into the seraglio and repeatedly declared his love for her. He could be cruel to her, but he wants her to love him freely. His patience is thin, and Konstanze asks him for the last time to be patient, for she cannot forget her lover, to whom she has sworn allegiance. Selim gives her an ultimatum and expects Konstanze to belong to him tomorrow. But Constanze would rather die than give herself to him. When Selim threatens her, she shows herself willing to endure torture.
🎧 Listening Example: (10 minute listen): German Soprano Edda Moser singing “Martern aller Arten” from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Edda Moser is fierce and fearless throughout this piece.
🎧 Listening Example: (10 minute listen): Lisette Oropesa singing “Martern aller Arten” from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Wiener Staatsoper, 2020
🎧 Listening Example: (10 minute listen): Edita Gruberova singing “Martern aller Arten” from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Bayerische Staatsoper, Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Karl Böhm, Munich, 1980
"Ach ich liebte”, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail
The Pasha finds Konstanze weeping and asks her why she is sad. She responds with this aria, saying that she once was in love and happy, but now she has lost that joy because she is separated from her love and is now in complete misery.
🎧 Listening Example: (5 minute listen): Renée Fleming singing “Ach ich liebte”, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, from her Mozart Arias album, Orchestra Of St Luke's, Sir Charles Mackerras, 1996
"Traurigkeit ward mir zum Loose”, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail
In this recitative and aria, Konstanze sings of the depression and despair she is undergoing because of her separation from Belmonte. She cannot even tell her pain to the winds because others will also know of it.
🎧 Listening Example: (8 minute listen): Lisette Oropesa singing “Traurigkeit” from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Wiener Staatsoper, 2020
Thank you for reading (and listening),
PS. If you missed last week's selection, we featured Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and talked about what we can learn from craftspeople
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Gruberova even in this early 1980 performance did her best with panache and intensity. Her career evolved over many decades as she grew as an artist and singer.
Goodness, Whitney Houston's delivery of the Star Spangled Banner took my breath away - amazing