What’s So Hard about Singing Russian? (And Why I Love It)

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As Prince Yeletsky in Queen of Spades, Lyric Opera of Chicago 2020 © Cory Weaver

I don’t speak Russian. I’m not a language expert. Yet, I sing hours of music in languages that I don’t speak fluently for my profession. All opera singers do!

As a native English speaker, I sing operas in Italian, French, and German—as well as Russian. Now, I’m not here to tell you how to sing in Russian. There are many amazing coaches out there much more proficient than I.

Instead, consider me your English-speaking friend who’s giving you my personal insight on what it’s like to sing in Russian, and potentially enlighten your Russian vocal music experience.

I’ve sung numerous roles in Russian operas and the music is stunning. Tchaikovsky is actually one of my favorite composers of all time, so I’ve been quite lucky to sing several roles of his. Once you tap into this repertoire, another world opens up for you, so I highly urge all singers to dip their toes into the Russian pool.

I’ve studied Russian diction a great deal, in college and also on the job. Through the years, there have been several things my first-hand experiences have taught me that I want to share, and hopefully by the end of this post, you’ll be saying “Spasibo!”

1. What are these symbols??!!!

Cyrillic, y’all. This is by far the most daunting aspect of singing in Russian: it’s in a different alphabet! This makes it difficult to follow along in an operatic score as one usually does since you may not recognize the symbols.

Some understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet is highly useful when conquering Russian vocal music but I’m going to be honest: it’s not absolutely necessary that you learn every symbol by heart. It just makes things easier…

A number of these symbols indicate a specific diction alteration, for instance, whether or not a consonant is “hard” or “soft”. Those symbols are extremely important to know (I’m not going to go into all of them or explain them, you can chat with a diction coach about this).

Looking at Cyrillic for the first time can be incredibly intimidating. Once you go down the track a little bit, you’re in good shape. So, don’t let this stop you from exploring Russian music.

2. Hard vs. Soft

No, I’m not describing cheese consistency!

What’s unique to the Russian language is the differentiation between certain consonants where you either bring the consonant “forward” in your mouth (soft) or “backward” (hard). The difference is so specific that it takes time and effort to learn these. The best way is through studying and working with a native Russian speaker.

If the placement of these consonants isn’t exact, it can be a dead giveaway that you’re not a Russian pro. That’s why I strive my utmost with these “hard” and “soft” consonants so that my singing sounds as Russian as possible.

3. Placement

Many non-Russian speakers can falsely hear a guttural quality to the Russian language, as in the language “sits” in the “throat” or the language is in the “back” of the mouth (or think of a “swallowed” sound). We have many bad guys from action movies to thank for this misconception!

Sure, some consonants like the hard “L” require a bit of manipulation to give it that Russian flair. However, overdoing this as a singer can be a detriment to your singing. Get that out of your head and sing with your beautiful, forward sound. Don’t close things down.

The trick is to go to that swallowed, backwards place for just a second, then quickly bounce back to your forward sound. Your vowel is your resonance so keep those vowels pure and don’t change anything about your technique to achieve accurate diction.

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As Prince Yeletsky in Queen of Spades, Lyric Opera of Chicago 2020 © Andrew Cioffi

4. [j] glides

There is a special, “Goldilocks” zone with the [j] glides in Russian singing. Personally, this is my biggest saboteur. I either go too far one way or the other. My coaches work with me extra hard on this and I give this special attention in the practice room. It’s worth it in the end when you finally get it right! 🙂

5. [ɨ] versus [i]

[ɨ] once you nail this vowel, you’ll be ready for a bowl of borscht and blinis with your babushka in no time! It’s tricky for non-Russians to understand and I’d say don’t go too far with trying to sound Russian with this unique vowel.

If you try saying “Uncle Bill” with a Southern account, that’s just about it.

In your middle and lower register, keep this vowel the same. As soon as you enter your higher register, I’d suggest singing this vowel on the high note and then immediately switching to a [i] vowel.

6. You Can Take Opera Out of Russia but You Can’t Take Russia out of      Opera

Just like singing in any language that’s not your own, we as opera singers don’t necessarily have to learn the language. We learn the rules for diction of the languages, IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and learn how to translate. The reason that we can do this is that no language has a monopoly on understanding emotion through words. Though to be fair, learning the languages that you sing in can only help.

Most of the Russian operas have already been translated and transliterated but don’t fully rely on these editions because there is the occasional mistake.

To this day, I work with Russian coaches and diction experts because that’s just what it takes. This is a necessary expense that I am happy to undertake to achieve the level of Russian proficiency this music demands.

This repertoire shouldn’t be missed.

Like every language, Russian has its own unique attributes. Join us in the comment section with comments or advice of your own.

For those wanting a taste of my Russian singing, you can listen below:

 


What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in with a comment below.


3 thoughts on “What’s So Hard about Singing Russian? (And Why I Love It)

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