A Career in Comprimario : Is It for You?

Does singing a comprimario role mean compromise? After all, by definition, comprimari are secondary characters to the leading singers. Must you compromise your career, your image, or your vocal technique to sing comprimario roles? Are they simply stepping stones to larger things or might they be the ultimate goal? How do you begin such a career? And is it a viable option, both artistically and financially?

Perhaps at some point you have been offered comprimario roles or considered a career as a character singer and have asked yourself some of these questions. I interviewed two of the foremost character tenors in the world, Anthony Laciura and Dennis Petersen, and also corresponded with Claudia Waite, a Metropolitan Opera soprano who has sung comprimario roles at the Met but has also sung many of the leading ladies of the soprano repertoire. They offered their insights on these questions and more, giving a glimpse of what is required to sing these roles.

Comprimario Singer vs. Character Singer

Attitude plays a large part in a singer’s success, especially with comprimario roles. A mezzo-soprano cast as Mercédès in Carmen may spend the run of the show wishing she had been singing the role of Carmen and never realize the opportunity that had slipped through her fingers to truly portray a character and explore a psyche. While it is true that comprimario roles are secondary to the lead, they should still be fully developed characters.

In the United States, many have come to use the terms “comprimario” and “character singer” interchangeably. Anthony Laciura, who has sung 860 performances in 59 roles with the Metropolitan Opera, including many recordings with some of the greatest artists of our day, explained that we have stretched the use of the term “comprimario.” To him, a comprimario role can sometimes be limited to “La cena è pronta,” whereas a character role is one that is integrally tied to the events of the opera, such as Beppe in I pagliacci, Mime in Siegfried, and Goro in Madama Butterfly. These characters have a history and play an important role in the denouement of the opera.

“A character singer is not necessarily a vocal category,” agreed Dennis Petersen, “but the ability to give equal weight to singing and performing. The character role brings information to the story and changes or furthers it, or provides comic relief.” The lead roles often react to the character singers and the information they bring or situations they create. Petersen is also very familiar with the influence of character roles, having sung as a character tenor beginning in 1984 with the San Francisco Opera. He has since gone on to perform 86 times at the Met and many more times with most major and regional American opera houses.

The key for these successful singers is to approach comprimario roles as essential to the opera, both dramatically and vocally. Claudia Waite explained that she approaches leading roles and comprimario roles in the same way, “with due diligence to the score, an eye to the dramatic arc, and by always working to be the best singer I can be—coachings, lessons, language work, acting classes, you name it.”

Vocal Considerations for Comprimario Roles

A prevailing notion is that character singers are vocally bad or very short. Perhaps they just weren’t good enough vocally to get the lead roles, so they settled for the comprimario roles instead. After all, don’t they just sing through their nose or alter their voice, and does it take a great singer to do that?

“You must have better technique than anyone on stage,” said Laciura in response to this question. Petersen said he didn’t really develop a classically beautiful vocal technique until later in life, but decided he must. “I didn’t want to end up with a wiry, shrill, worn-out voice.

“Just because you’re singing roles that don’t require great vocal technique, you will serve your life and art better if you take it seriously with technique,” he continued. “Don’t get seduced into being a caricature. The text and the music should do everything for you. You don’t need to create a voice, because then you are going beyond the character and creating an over-the-top caricature. There is room for the slapstick Jim Carrey-types, but it will disintegrate the voice rather quickly. You should be able to act unctuous and oily without singing through your nose.”

“Don’t do more than it says in the score,” cautioned Laciura. Historically, some singers have sung character roles with bad technique, but, he insisted, “the composer didn’t want the voices to not sound good. If there is no abdominal energy, the voice will come from the throat. When I chose to do character work, I decided to lead away with good technique to encourage young tenors that character roles are really worth it.” He pointed out that comprimario singers must have a very strong middle voice, produced easily and loudly, since comprimario roles rarely rise above the staff. The diction and language must be very clear, but the breath and legato must continue through every syllable and the sound must not be from the throat. “The secret of patter is singing through the vowels.”

Laciura also advised that you should not sing with a high larynx because, first of all, it’s not pretty, and secondly, the voice will wear itself out. “You have to imagine what the composer wanted, and the music tells you that. The proper technique and singing of the music is what really brings magic to the role. You have to be able to do the style without hurting yourself vocally. It all revolves around technique.”

Must the lighter voices always be those cast as the comprimario roles? Often it is those with voices suited to Mozart that are cast as the comprimari―but because of the tessitura, dramatic voices frequently thrive in those roles. A singer must be able to really project in the middle to upper-middle range of the voice and do so in a healthy way. When casting these roles, Laciura said, “We have to go back to the composers to see what these parts really are. What was it that they wanted to get out of it? When it’s the right voice, you say, ‘Ah ha!’”

Making a Career with Comprimario

If a career in comprimario roles interests you, you will have to set your sights on the top companies. A character singer can make a financially viable career only at the major houses where character singers are valued and paid. Regional companies try to get comprimario singers at a lower price and, if you are local, they might discount the fee even further. In addition, these companies often draw comprimario roles from their Young Artist Programs or from local chorus members.

“The reputation of an A-level company is defined by its class of comprimario singers,” said Claudia Waite. “It is a given that the Met will have huge stars like Plácido Domingo, Karita Mattila, or René Pape. But what makes the overall level of the Met’s performances so high is that their secondary singers are great singers in their own right. They are the backbone of any major opera house. A small regional company simply doesn’t have the depth of budget to hire world-class singers for those level roles.”

“It used to be that people specialized,” said Laciura. “Nowadays, people are cast in supporting roles but they’re always looking to become the leads.” Comprimario artists today are usually the understudies or the studio artists. It is seen as a stepping stone. He added that in the past, it wasn’t that the singers in comprimario roles didn’t have good enough voices, it was that their personalities were more geared toward those roles.

Petersen pointed out that opera companies are always looking for younger, prettier versions of you and, thus, you can’t rest on your laurels. “You are responsible for creating energy and changing the atmosphere as a character singer. The way you look makes a big difference these days.” Because of the physical nature of character singing and the increased competition, Petersen finds it essential to keep himself in great shape—meaning two hours at the gym every day with weight lifting, stretching, and aerobics. This is especially important because as a character singer you may have to sing for 30 to 40 years for it to be financially viable.

Besides exercise, the knowledge of languages is essential as a comprimario singer. Laciura articulated that language is so important, “how it moves, the bounce, the give and take. You have to feel the words and the music.” The singing comes alive, and when you listen to a recording of an artist who uses the language correctly, the voice jumps out and it almost feels as if the singer is standing before you.

Female vs. Male Comprimario

It is common to meet a character tenor or a basso buffo, but what about comprimario roles for females? Is it possible to make a career in it for women as well? The answer is yes, especially for the low contralto roles, which are always in demand. For sopranos it is more difficult, and comprimario roles are viewed more as stepping stones to loftier aspirations. However, a career is possible, even for comprimario sopranos.

Again, this kind of career is viable financially only at the largest houses. Many comprimario mezzos and sopranos have sung hundreds of performances, and sometimes more than a thousand, with the Met—most notably, Carlotta Ordassy, Thelma Votipka, and Mathilde Bauermeister.

Waite, who has sung over 161 performances with the Met, humorously related how she began to be called “The Berta of Seville” after singing Berta in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. “One season, when there were 27 performances scheduled of the old production of the show with four different casts, only the horse and I remained constant.”

What Is Your Next Step?

What should a young singer do if trying to launch a career singing comprimario roles? “First and most important is that you need to have technique and a beautiful voice with a strong middle that projects,” said Laciura. “You have to be able to go beyond yourself as the singer and utilize what you’re singing in your movements as an actor. Assess that and decide if that’s your gift.”

Next, he suggested you go to a good teacher with a comprimario aria and ask if he or she thinks it is right for your voice. Go work with one or two reputed character singers and see what they have to say. Finally, go to agents and present five character arias, no leading role arias. Laciura insisted that you have to be able to say, “This is who I am! I am a character singer.”

Petersen came through San Francisco’s Merola program and suggests that getting into one of the major studio artist programs is necessary to begin a career because of income, exposure, and connections. “Studios are now realizing they need character singers to fill their needs. As a character singer, you will be on stage every night if they promote you as such.” Petersen suggests this route especially because of its résumé-building qualities. “Regional companies won’t pay you anything without a reputation, and big houses require you to have a reputation in a role transferred from another large house. You need to get an agent and that’s a catch-22, because you need to have a career to get an agent and you need an agent to have a career.” Again, with the Young Artist Programs, a singer’s technique must be top notch because of the demands placed on the voice. You are also often covering the lead roles and must be capable of singing them.

Is It for You?

How do you know if comprimario roles are right for you? Laciura knew by the time he was in his teens that it would be his career. In contrast, Charles Anthony, who holds the record for the most performances at the Metropolitan Opera after singing there for 54 years, began by singing leading roles at the Met and then transitioned to character roles. Again, Laciura insists that singing comprimario roles successfully is all about personality. “You must have the personality for it and be a character singer. A lot of it is attitude.”

Petersen agrees, “If you’re doing a good job with a character role, you should sound like that part. There should be no mistake.” Often, the audiences have no idea who you are, even after a long, successful career. But good comprimario singers are respected. Directors and conductors are often your greatest fans because you can abandon yourself to a situation and bring life to a character and, indeed, to a whole opera. Petersen is grateful that as a character singer he has been able to watch some of the great artists of our day and learn from them.

Whether you are considering your career possibilities, have recently been cast in a comprimario role, or are working with a comprimario singer, take into account the artistic possibilities inherent in the comprimario role. No matter what role we play, our goals are the same: to be complete artists—vocally, dramatically, physically, and emotionally. If being a character singer seems to befit your personality and you have solid vocal technique and dramatic talent, explore your options and know that a career in comprimario is both possible and rewarding.

Jason Vest

As a soloist, tenor Jason Vest has been featured with Amarillo Opera, the Stara Zagora and Plovdiv opera houses in Bulgaria, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, and many others. Vest has worked with composers to premiere their works in roles he originated or debuted, such as Douglas Pew’s “The Good Shepherd” and Bradley Ellingboe’s “Star Song.” As a recitalist, Vest has performed for the Mexico Liederfest in Monterrey and the Vocal Artistry Art Song Festival in Albuquerque. He is a member of the Grammy award-winning choral group Conspirare, under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson, and the Vocal Arts Ensemble in Cincinnati. Vest is assistant provost and associate professor of voice at Northern Kentucky University.