Beethoven 9: a soprano’s survival guide

The appearance of Beethoven 9 on a choir’s schedule does, in my experience, elicit an interesting response. On the one hand, lots of people love performing it, for the CBSO Chorus it is core repertoire which we know by heart and a great concert can be exhilarating. On the other hand, no one wants to spend lots of time rehearsing it.

For the CBSO Chorus Beethoven 9 was scheduled for the first five(!) concerts of the season. We took the choral classic to Bonn, Paris, Birmingham, Stoke and Manchester along with the CBSO under Andris Nelsons and the BBC Philharmonic with Juanjo Mena. Amazing venues, great orchestras and conductors and what turned out to be a somewhat varying quality of soloists. I performed in three of these concerts (should have been four but an encounter with a mosquito when working in Budapest meant I couldn’t actually put a shoe on my foot for several days and I missed the Birmingham concert), taking me into double digits of B9 performances. Using my experience, I have therefore compiled my guide to surviving Beethoven 9:


Other than the amount required to actually learn the piece, try to do as little as possible. It’ll only hurt. Even the most fantastic singing technique gets strained by that many notes that high for that long. The 13 bars of “der ganzen Welt” on a top A sound thrilling in a concert, but not if you’ve wasted all your firepower in the rehearsal. Rehearsals are for finding out what that particular conductor wants to do with the piece not how marvellous your top range is sounding (or not as the case may be).

Different conductors

One of the trickiest things can be not singing on autopilot. Conductors do ask for different phrasings, articulations etc. and if you’re performing it without the music you really do need to pay attention. Otherwise it’ll soon become obvious when you’re the person singing a legato “Ihr stürzt nieder” and everyone else has left a gap…

The language

Top tip: Don’t pronounce ‘Elysium’ like the soloists do. The chances are it will be wrong. Unless a soloist is actually German. Other than that, you will always be asked to enunciate the text more clearly. Mind you, that’s true of every other piece, ever. You can never emphasise the word “Brüder” enough.

The bit you don’t sing in

The challenge is to successfully sit still through the first three movements. Why wouldn’t you be listening intently to the wonderful orchestra in front of you, you ask? Well, that probably depends on how many times you’ve performed the piece (my choir has some members who must be nearing their 50th performance). And on whether the orchestra is in fact being wonderful – I really have heard some pretty bad renditions of the symphony. Sometimes the venue is not conducive to concentrating on the music; I really would be happy not to have to spend another concert trying to make myself as small as possible on uncushioned risers, as in Bonn.

Overindulging at dinner can be a fatal mistake as this can lead to drowsiness. Now I have witnessed some people who have mastered the art of closing their eyes with an expression that suggests they are listening with fervour. This is definitely a skill worth acquiring. A good game though, if the music is not holding your full attention, is trying to spot the full-on snoozers. These can usually be identified by a certain slackness of posture, a hint of sliding off a chair, or in extreme cases, snoring. If you see anyone you think might be dozing, keep an eye on them in the second movement – any timpanist worth their salt will be making their instrument resound to the roof and can cause the unsuspecting to start out of their chairs. Of course, if you happen to find yourself sitting next to someone who might be exhibiting these symptoms, it might be kinder to give them a little nudge before they are spotted by eagle-eyed chorus management…

The bit you do sing in

Take a breath. This piece is definitely a marathon to sing but it also has a sprint at the end which you need to save your energy for. Yes, you do have to sing that high.

Women, you’re definitely at an advantage at the beginning. Not only do the men come in first, the soloists also sing your section before you do, which ought to help with remembering the words (assuming that the soloists are standing somewhere near the choir and in fact are singing the correct words).

Try not to bob along when the men start singing ‘Laufet, Brüder”. It’s tempting, but frowned upon.

Teamwork is the key. There’s a reason choirs like to sing with the same people in concerts and it’s not just because we want to sit next to our friends. You get quite good at working out a system of keeping the sound going, without all of you actually singing at the same time (very handy when your chorus master has decided that breath marks are for wimps). No one is going to sing 13 bars of a top A without taking some substantial breaths – if you did a) you would turn an unattractive shade of purple and b) it would probably be flat. Therefore you just work out a nice system with your neighbours about who is having a breather where.

The presto. I mean, it’s just bonkers. Particularly if your conductor is Andris Nelsons, who when he sees a prestissimo tempo on the horizon really goes for it. Hang on tight because there’s no time to think – just sing!


Phantom of the opera

Flying Dutchman Phantom

Flying Dutchman Phantom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The phantom in question this week being the ship, not a chandelier-dropping masked man. We’re a few rehearsals into The Flying Dutchman project, and I can safely say that I have no ambition to be a member of an opera chorus. I do love opera in general, but singing it presents quite a number of challenges different to traditional choral works.

Now it may be that I’m just not a big fan of Wagner. Having acquired a transcript of my university degree I discovered that I took a Wagner course. This was news to me. I have no recollection of it and I can honestly say I know very little about Wagner. So apologies to whoever taught me, but I fear I may have snoozed through your lectures. I have sat through a couple of Wagner operas before – we performed Lohengrin a couple of years ago, which I enjoyed more than I thought, considering I was not best impressed at performing in a concert that started at 4pm and included a dinner break. I have also seen Valkyrie, courtesy of a friend with a minor Wagner obsession. The well known sections were spectacular. The first act had me wriggling in my seat.

I won’t have that problem in Dutchman, as the women aren’t in the first act. The women have considerably less music to learn than the men, which at the moment feels like good news for us as we’re having trouble with what we’ve got. On Wednesday we spent over an hour rehearsing what turned out to be 3 minutes of music. It’s a painful process.

We begin Act II in a spinning scene, with the leading female mooning over a portrait of the Dutchman. As one of the other sopranos commented, we seem to have spent a lot of time recently sitting around sighing over men (Lerner and Loewe’s Waitin’ for my Dearie springs to mind). It doesn’t improve in Act III where we hang around offering food and drink while the men point out we’re talking to ghosts. It does make you wonder what some composers thought about women (yes I know these were written a while ago but still). I think that if I’m required to portray a character on stage, I’d like a less drippy one please.

Now the notes themselves aren’t difficult. It’s the notes, plus the language plus the tempo that’s the trouble. This week’s German issue was resolved by an agreement to make a Muttley-type sound in the middle of a word (a reference I suspect was completely lost on the poor girl trying to get us to pronounce it correctly). Text is always drummed into us as being important (otherwise you might as well sing everything to la), but of course opera has much more of a story. There are corners that will trip you up – what sounds like perfectly reasonable pronounciation to you may in fact have changed the entire meaning of the phrase. And yes, there are usually surtitles, but the point is to make sense of the text. We also have our fingers crossed that the speeds are not going to get much faster. We are assured not. Although this is being conducted by Andris Nelsons, who is not noted for slacking with a baton.

Now as much as sectional rehearsals on small amounts of music are tiresome, the one thing I do look forward to is concert week. Not all the rehearsals. But the chance to hear all the music together. Rehearsing the female chorus part of an opera for several weeks is not much fun. Add in the rest of the chorus, the soloists, the orchestra and a conductor known for his Wagner and it should be something special. My Wagner-obsessed friend is coming to the concert. I really hope he enjoys this particular phantom of the opera.

The CBSO is performing The Flying Dutchman on Saturday 16 March in Symphony Hall, with James Rutherford as the Dutchman and Andris Nelsons conducting.