I did a dumb thing today and started a comment fight on a Classic FM post because I just couldn’t handle their ludicrous claim that Olympia’s “Doll aria” aka “Les oiseaux dans les charmilles” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman was “the most insane piece ever written for soprano“.
So I’m writing a rebuttal. You guys, honestly there are SO MANY arias that could have been on here and I didn’t even want to start comparing arias from other fachs. Fach is a German word for…compartment/area. It’s your very specific voice type and this one comes from the coloratura sopranos, the highest/fastest singin’ types*. Their arias are usually extra AF
Real quickly I want to talk about why I’m mad. Olympia’s aria is not easy per say, but what makes some standout videos of this aria so remarkable is that the singer CHOSE to add a decoration to the music and insert higher notes. That’s an insane (and awesome) choice, but it’s not the aria. The actual aria is at a comfortable speed only has two noted E-flats (although more are usually added), and as we will soon see, two high E-flat is child’s play in coloratura land. Plus you get to be a robot. Most people spend all of their time in voice training trying NOT to look like robots, so this is very exciting.
Decorations or ornaments (see it’s a holiday post after all!) are when singers get to put their personal stamp onto the music of very old dead guys music, primarily Baroque and Bel Canto era arias. For various reasons this was the style then, including a common ABA form, meaning that material from the beginning comes back a second time. That second time is usually an open invitation to decorate the melody as much as you’d like within stylistic guidelines.
Very few singers improvise live, although I seem to recall reading Natalie Dessay would add ornaments live which seems right… Most singers do copious research to previous recordings or consult ornamentation books and then try out a bunch of options, possibly modifying them to fit their voices. Then they probably also run those ornaments by a vocal coach to make sure they’re stylistically appropriate, and some may just skip any research and get their decorations from the coach straight up.
Secrets of operaaaaaaaaa. So, if you ever hear that someone’s improvising live baroque ornaments in town you should GO! Because that’s impressive and rare. But yeah, basically I didn’t put any Handel or Hadyn on here because the performer can make them as insane or meh as they want. You could even make an aria easier with decorations if you wanted to (like just sustaining an easy note for endless measures instead of complicated 32nd note patterns written).
ANYWAY, YOU KNOW WHAT? Classic FM didn’t even use the recording I assumed they would where Rachele Gilmore just sticks some high Gs in there like a champ. So extra shame on that selection guys. It’s at the bottom of the post but I urge you to save it till the end (like dessert, it is also sugary and pink).
ANYWAY, LET’S GET TO SOME ACTUALLY HARD AF ARIAS
In no particular order at all and also with the caveat that some of these arias come from operas I believe need some serious re-examining as performance pieces in 2018, but they are still being performed so they are on this list.
1. “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, Bernstein
Don’t nobody start harping about this not being an opera. PSH. How many E-flats did I say Olympia’s aria had? 2? THIS HAS FIVE and one of them is SO LONG and over a really brassy, loud orchestra. It plays with the same sort of arpeggiated motifs as Olympia except they are weirder/cooler in this aria. Not to mention, Bernstein requires this singer to blast out some really intense middle voice volume, lengthy speaking sections and some convincingly whiny weeping in between her jaunts above the staff.
Here’s Bernstein’s own chosen soprano, June Anderson (he’s conducting too!)
2. “The Bell Song” aka “Où va la jeune indoue” from Lakme, Delibes
Another bouncy one for ya. After a VERY EXPOSED (little or no orchestra support to keep you in key or hide any little mistakes) opening, the soprano is treated to an endless stream of staccato triplets all up and down their range. Emphasis on the up. Sumi Jo’s voice sounds like magical bells all the time so natch she’s my pick.
3. “Der Hölle Rache” from Die Zauberflöte, Mozart
This aria earns it’s goddamn place on these lists.
Hey, so, I know you’ve been sitting backstage for a few hours but now that you’re here, hopefully still warmed up, could you pop out a whole bunch of staccato and FAST high Fs? K thanks, oh right and when you’re done with that I forgot to mention that there are some really hard triplet motifs we’re gonna need you to run through and then pop out a few more high Ds, xoxo Mozart.
Cristina Deutekom, who has perfect robot vocal control, provides an extraordinarily clean example here. This is almost upsettingly easy sounding.
Wait you say, that’s not an aria. What is a Mado Robin?
Prepare to have your minds blown. BLOWN I SAY!!
Mado Robin had an insane vocal range. I just googled Mado Robin knowing whatever I found would be nuts and, yep here she is singing Lucia’s mad scene (see 4). Even though it’s one of those old recordings where everyone has Snow White sound…that high note is stupid. STUPID. Bb above the high Eb Classic FM is crowing about. A FIFTH ABOVE IT. MADNESS. TRUE MADNESS.
But see, this is what I was saying about ornaments…nobody else in the universe would ever sing this aria with a high…high B-flat. That’s just what a Mado do! But in this case, the aria itself is plenty impressive without adding in stratospheric whistles…
4. Lucia’s mad scene “Il dolce suono…” from Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti
Ah madness…it makes the best of us sing very very high notes. Lucia was tricked into marriage and she
sort of reasonably responds by murdering him when he tries to do wedding night stuff. This aria is nuts. I mean, for one thing, it’s not just an aria, it’s an entire scene. The length alone is formidable and then Donizetti basically runs the soprano through her paces. Oh also you have to be acting REALLY hard. This is a bel canto aria so every recording has a slight difficulty variation depending on the decorations/ornaments a singer inserts, but there’s no way to get out of how hard this scene is. Also, an audience would probably throw tomatoes at you. Donizetti adds in a GLASS HARMONICA and as is the official political position of this blog, everything is better with glass harmonica.
No one does madness like Dessay. This recording has chopped off subtitles but it’s got the glass harmonica and Dessay and that’s all I wanted in the world.
Here’s another recording that uses a flute (pah) instead of g.h. but does have subtitles. It also has Anna Moffo’s ACTING FACE, (a gift to us all)and her voice is rich, syrupy goodness.
5. Ophelia’s mad scene “A vos jeux mes amis…” from Hamlet, Thomas
This opera does not get done often but HOH BOY THIS MAD SCENE. I don’t usually discuss my own performance preferences, but there is nothing more fun than singing this thing. It’s so loud and SO long and genuinely feels a little mad when you’re singing it. This marathon ends with a chromatic run from the low/middle of your range up to a flipping E natural. That’s so hard. THATS SO HARD. You gotta have every single muscle in the right place simultaneously working so hard and doing nothing at all. Amanda Woodbury makes it look easy and I have watched this video a million times.
6. “Marten aller Arten” from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart
This aria is about torture and Mozart seems to be playing some sort of cruel musical joke on sopranos by making the aria torturously hard. It sits so high, requires so much breath control for ENDLESS phrases, it’s so exposed and oh yeah, it’s SO FAST. Don’t forget that sustained chesty B, right before a run up to a high C! And that’s why it’s on this list folks.
7. “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata, Verdi
This aria requires so much damn SOUND in addition to all the other technical fireworks going on. Plus you’ll need audible emotional tone color changes because this is Verdi and feelings are of the utmost importance. Oh, also there’s a monster Eb at the end after you’ve like, entirely spent all your energy. I have personally seen this aria take some fine singers down. Here’s someone doing a great job. I first saw this wonderful video of Lisette Oropesa probably-not-drunk-because-shes-a-vegan-who-runs-marathons(sigh) singing this at a party. This video is so gosh darn fun and brilliant although obviously not the most dramatic… Find more formal recordings easily on your own on YouTubez (including official videos of L.O singing this in concert now!).
8. “Ombre leggere” aka The Shadow Song from Dinorah, Meyerbeer
I feel like this one has fallen out of rotation a little but it’s a strange little Golum moment from what is easily the most goat-centric opera in the canon. Dinorah has gone mad (obvi) and begins talking to her shadow which in opera means, ya gotta sing with yourself! So here is Maria Callas singing a very hard technical phrase chock-full-a high notes, nailing it and then repeating it just as perfectly at half the volume.
9. “Großmächtige Prinzessin” from Ariadne auf Naxos, R. Strauss
Okay. If I really had to put forward ONE aria as most insane on paper it might be this one. A lot of people brought this up to me as their personal vote and it’s a DOOZY.
Anything by R. Strauss is just a little extra difficult thanks to his signature fluidity between keys. The soprano line alone outside of it’s orchestral context sounds almost a-tonal. Plus this thing is WORDY and Germans love their consonants so you gotta think about spitting those out all the time while you go on a little tour-de-vocal-range that gets higher and higher and then oh my gosh it’s still going…
Keep an ear out for a high E that Strauss just sort of casually throws in half-way through and an endless sustained high D that adds a TRILL (so D and E alternating) right at the end. Go on Morely…
10. TWOFER: Ariel’s arias from The Tempest, Adès
Haha remember back when we started and I was like, sure 5 E-flats is hard.
This role is just incredible/SO HIGH OMG. I am not even going to say anything. These videos speak for themselves.
Okay so now
Let’s listen to Olympia’s Doll Song. Again, I’m not saying this isn’t hard, and this recording is an amazing musical feat (Rachele Gilmore giving 110%, 3 high Gs and a high A-flat in her Met Opera debut) but while this aria may be able to stand among giants, it’s no landslide victor. Let us know in the comments what you think…does Olympia make it into the top ten? What else did we miss?
*Do not come @ me about what fach these arias really are in. Fachs are like, 95% made up categories based on a time before we had microphones and modern instruments.