Opera Arias for the Twenty-Something Soprano: Dramatic Soprano

Spring EquinoxOur guest writer for  “Opera arias for the Twenty-Something Opera Singer is Barbara DeMaio.

Cate: Barbara, please give us an overview of your work as a dramatic soprano, so readers can see why you are a good person to write this post.

Barbara: I’ve been singing professionally since my late 20’s. I started out in a couple of YAP’s – Des Moines and Cincinnati Opera – and while I was in Cincinnati James de Blasis started assigning me “big girl” repertoire; Fiordiligi, Rosalinda, Norma, Odabella in Attila (the role that was my debut at La Scala). After Cincinnati I started studying with Nancy Stokes Milnes in New York, who suggested that I specialize in the Verdi and Puccini heroines. Through her connections I was able to coach with Paola Molinari (pianist coach for Mirella Freni and many others) who arranged for an audition with Fedeli Artists and that’s where it started. I’ve sung the Verdi and Puccini ladies all over the world. In Italy; La Scala, Verona, Caracalla, Genova, Torino, etc., and also Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, Japan, Korea, Argentina and Norway.

I was invited to teach in the Fondazione Toscanini YAP in Italy in 2000, between gigs. After 9/11 when tourism in Italy fell off, and less work was available in Italy, I began to travel more and more.  Then I decided to start applying for teaching jobs in the US. I enjoyed teaching. Traveling all over the world is a lot of fun when you’re 30 and a lot less fun when you’re 50.

In 2003 I started teaching at Salem College in Winston Salem, NC; I was constantly attending workshops and learning all I could about voice science and modern pedagogical methods. I pondered going back for a doctorate. In 2009 I attended the LoVetri Somatic Voicework ™ workshop at Shenandoah Conservatory, and fortunately was accepted into the Shenandoah DMA Voice Pedagogy program the same year.  The topic of menopause in elite singers became my thesis topic.

Cate: Many teachers and singers will be interested in your opinions as to what to listen for in a 20-something singer when it is not yet clear if she will grow into the fach of a dramatic soprano.

Barbara: Does the singer have a large chest voice? Is the voice large, not necessarily throughout the range but at least in the top and/or bottom? Does the singer have a large chest cavity and bone structure in general? Small-boned people are rarely Dramatics, although short and stocky is a possibility (look at Birgit Nilsson, for example.) Usually a big voice goes along with a big body. Young dramatics often have trouble with the primo or secondo passaggio, or both, because they have a hard time unifying their large chest voice with their head voice. Often young dramatics will have a big chest voice, a large break, and a disconnected top. Their voices take longer to develop, and sometimes don’t begin to bloom until well after their mid-30’s.

Cate: What are some common mistakes in repertoire choices for a young dramatic?

Barbara: Young dramatics should not be given material that is too light, because music that is too light is just as damaging as material that is too heavy. Dolora Zajick once famously said that her teacher treated her as a “baby elephant” and this is, indeed, what needs to be done with a young dramatic. Keep the voice moving, but don’t assign Donizetti and Rossini arias that take her into coloratura territory, as those arias “hang” in the wrong place in the voice for a young dramatic voice. Also avoid assigning arias that are too heavy; stick with the lyric “big girl” roles such as the Mozart heroines, lyric Wagner such as Meistersinger and Tannhäuser, Puccini heroines (Mimi, not Turandot), and arias such as “Ebben, ne andro’ lontana” and “Voi lo sapete.”

Cate: What recommendations do you have for a budding dramatic sopranos in their 20’s?

Barbara: LOTS of Mozart, Fiordiligi, Countess, First Lady (not the Queen of the Night, even if she has those high notes). Pieces that allow her to work on unifying the voice, such as the Bellini, Verdi and Puccini liriche as well as the lighter Strauss and Wagner lieder, Duparc and Berlioz. Encourage what I call a “narrow” or “focused” production, head dominant, of course, but connected to “classical” chest (chest with a high soft palate production). Watch that she doesn’t develop tongue and neck tension in order to artificially darken the voice. Often young dramatics have trouble understanding that their voice will sound “light and lyric” to them when they are singing correctly, while it sounds “dark and round” to us.

Cate: That was my experience! I performed Fiordiligi, Countess, First Lady and the aria from Ebben..? starting at about age 27/ However,  the recording of me singing Ebben?…  at age 29 shows that I am not quite ready for it!

Please share with us a brief overview of your recently completed thesis, especially as it pertains to things a young singer might want to know about as she ages.

Barbara: I interviewed 14 elite singers from opera and broadway and 5 singing voice specialists about the effects of menopause on the elite singing voice. I found in the literature and also in my interviews that the changes of menopause often cause, among other things, an overabundance of chest voice, which disturbs the passaggio areas of the voice. Interestingly, I found that some operatic mezzo sopranos actually lost low notes, but most of the singers reported gaining low notes and losing the top notes. Despite the common perception among singers, none of the singers I interviewed quit singing because of these changes. Some changed repertoire due to age and appearance, others started teaching as a life choice, still others left singing for family or personal reasons, but none of the women I spoke to stopped singing because of menopause. One of the singing voice specialists reported a client who stopped due to menopause, but she credited that to the singer’s reluctance to make the adjustments needed to keep singing. On a personal level, I now sing dramatic mezzo roles, character roles, and lots of recitals, specializing in the liriche written in Italy between the two world wars, one of my passions. I also sing musical theatre more often, since I am now the right age for the belting roles like Mama Rose.

Cate: Thank you Barbara! And congratulations on a long and varied career!


  1. Thanks for your incisive advise! I am now working with a student who is 22. Is 6 ft tall.
    I agree with you completely not to sing rep that is either too light nor too heavy at her stage.
    What bel-canto repertoire would you recommend or even song literature. I want to work on her flexibility as well.


    1. Hi Valerie,

      Try Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder,” which is a 5-song set frequently sung by young dramatic soprani. All of the Swedish and Nordic art song repertoir, which is incredible but not pursued often because of the languages, is perfect training ground for a young dramatic. It is what Flagstad, Nielsson and Bjorling sang. Both Puccini and Donizetti have volumes of art song and piano out, which would be great for a young dramatic to keep them flexible and singing lyrically. Thanks for the question! Cate

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Cate! I tried to leave a comment yesterday but I think it didn’t save! Just wanted to say thanks for this article and interview – and your site as a whole! I haven’t had a lesson in years because I feel I haven’t found a teacher who understood my voice. This article alone shows me that there is hope for me yet! Super inspired to continue singing, thanks so much 🙂


    1. Hi La Toya,
      Thank you for your comment and I am glad you found some inspiration! Finding the right teacher can be a challenge for sure, especially for bigger classical voices. Build very slowly and do not take on things that others tell you you “should” until you feel ready. You can contact me through my website if you want a teacher recommendation in your area. I may not know of someone but then again, I might! Cate


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