The Oberlin Stories Project

On playing Poppea

Lillie Chilen ’08

“It’s still hard to believe that as a lowly undergrad, I got the chance to play Poppea - opera’s earliest gold digger - and find the music that truly fits my voice.”

Lillie performs a role on stage

You may or may not be considering a career as an opera singer, but let me tell you: it is hard. In my first nine semesters at Oberlin (I was double-degree), I had performed in two choruses, but hadn’t been cast as a lead. There are more sopranos in the opera world than any other voice type, meaning far stiffer competition among the high-voiced ladies than the other singers. Had I attended a conservatory with a graduate voice program, however, I wouldn’t have been in the running at all. Most conservatories only cast grad students in the principal and supporting roles of operas - I would have been lucky to make it into the chorus of Poppea at a different school. At Oberlin, though, I was in competition with my fellow sopranos for the crown (literally).

In preparing for my Poppea audition, the music felt more natural in my voice than I had expected - I didn’t have to work for months to make it comfortable. It was just there. My hopes were as high as they’ve ever been, but I had years of rejections telling me not to get too excited. After I sang my best at the audition, it was out of my hands, and I had to trust the director and conductor to make the best decision for their production.

To my shock and delight, I was cast as Poppea, the mistress of the Roman Emperor Nero who claws her way to the top, and in the end of the opera is crowned Empress of Rome to some of the most unearthly, gorgeous music ever composed. (You should go listen to “Pur ti miro” on iTunes right now. Really.) I would spend Winter Term learning and rehearsing the music and the text (in Italian, mind you), and by the end of January we would begin staging - adding the blocking, or movements, to the music. This is where my personal difficulty with opera comes in: moving, acting, and singing musically all at the same time.

Of course, as my first real role, I was learning the process as I was learning the music and the movements. I had taken three years of Opera Theater classes in which I had performed individual scenes from operas, but I hadn’t before had the opportunity to perform a character from start to finish, and not with complicated sets, fantastic costumes, and a pit orchestra to boot.

Picture this: take a scene from a play, and learn to act it really well. Now slow all of the words way down, so instead of a ten-minute scene, it’s a forty-minute scene. Now, put those slowed down words to music. Now, regularly repeat snippets of text that you’ve already said, maybe 20 or 30 more times. This gives you an idea of one of the challenges of expressing a character in an opera - you’re often repeating yourself ad nauseum, in a foreign language, all the while trying to harmoniously balance the drama and the music.

This is not to say that performing in an opera isn’t fun - the cast, the crew, and the pit are one big team, trying to pull off this ridiculous, grand art form. Once I got into my knee-high stiletto boots, I became a little less like Lillie and a little more like Poppea - conniving and manipulating my way to the top, destroying whoever was in my way. Although it was fun to be, well, evil, my real pleasure in the performance came from the music itself. Once I was comfortable with the blocking of each scene, and walking in those four inch stilettos, I tried to step back and remember how the music informed the drama - that the music really is why I was there, why I was singing at all, and not acting.

Although there are parts of my performance that I would certainly change given a second go-around, it’s still hard to believe that as a lowly undergrad, I got the chance to play Poppea - opera’s earliest gold digger - and find the music that truly fits my voice.