On Diction and Evocation: In Dialogue with Nadine Sierra

On Diction and Evocation: In Dialogue with Nadine Sierra

Boston, Mass. - A dress rehearsal for Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Schubert Theatre. Photo by Erik Jacobs for the Boston Lyric Opera.
Boston, Mass. - A dress rehearsal for Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Schubert Theatre. Photo by Erik Jacobs for the Boston Lyric Opera.

Nadine Sierra (Adler Fellow alumna; BM classical vocal performance, Mannes) and Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein (MFA poetry, The New School; BM classical vocal performance, Mannes) discuss the uses and worth of diction and expression in poetry reading and classical voice.


Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein: So, the long-standing conversation is that poetry is music. Then there’s a lot of contention about how much that’s true, in which ways it’s true or not, the limitations of poetry that music doesn’t have, etc. Let's start there.

Nadine Sierra: I think that even with just the voice, which is a vocal instrument, it’s the most vocal that you can get (laughs), even if you’re not singing text, just speaking text, for some reason the voice gives words, sentences, stories, it gives it what music can give.

AMG: Are you saying that the voice can be thought of as a musical instrument even in the context of speech?

NS: Right. If you use your voice in that way you can make what you’re reading have a different meaning, or even a very different impact on the listener. In a way there is still music in speech, the music that we as human beings already have in our voices, it’s language. Some people know how to say things in a way that makes people listen. Music has the same impact.

Remember in Cristina’s (Stanescu)(1) class, she always talked about the accents being at the end of the line in French music?

AMG: Right, that’s the way we’re all taught to sing in French.

NS: Yeah, and we all loved Cristina, she was wonderful.

AMG: Totally, she was my coach(2) senior year.

NS: Well, I recently met a woman named Denise Massé. She works at The Met (The Metropolitan Opera, NYC) and at Juilliard - she’s an absolute genius.

AMG: She's a vocal coach?

NS: Sort of. She coaches on French music, that’s her specialty, specifically French art song. She came up with this new way of singing it in which she actually emphasizes a lot of words, she doesn’t necessarily just emphasize that last syllable in the line.(3) The reason she does this is she thinks it makes it more evocative. If we’re going to create an image, then we have to overemphasize certain words like we do in English, so that not only French people can understand what we’re saying, but that people who speak other languages can feel what’s happening as well.

So, we worked on a line from Pantomime(4) (sings, placing a stress only on the “an” of “Clitandre”):

Pierrot, qui n'a rien d'un Clitandre (Pierrot, who is nothing like Clitandre)

So, I was doing that, right, and she was like, “No, no, no. You need to emphasize the words that we need to know about.” Like, you need to make it evocative with your voice to get the meaning across, to make it apparent. And I was like, “Well...what am I supposed to do?” ya know, we’ve all been taught this one way of singing French song. And she says, “You have to emphasize certain consonants, and you have to make certain vowel sounds longer. (sings example of this, in which many syllables throughout the line are emphasized, something common in many languages, but not French.)”

AMG: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it done like that. Except, maybe Dawn Upshaw, which is the recording of that piece I used to listen to as a teenager.

NS: Yeah! I know! That’s how she wanted it. So, I did it, and Bryan (Wagorn, collaborative pianist) speaks French, and he says, “I understood every single word that you said.”(5)

AMG: Do you think that when you’re focusing on this sort of “overemphasized” diction, that, in reality, you’re not doing it to the extreme that you think you are, because you’re starting at a point of hardly doing it? I mean, that you had this idea in your head that it was coming across much more to the audience than it actually was?

NS: Yes, exactly! I started from a place of not doing it at all, because I thought, well, I’m supposed to be doing it this other way. But what she’s trying to say is that if you want to emphasize poetry, if you want to emphasize meaning, and not even just meaning but what you’re supposed to be feeling in that phrase, or in that stanza, you have to be actively evocative.

AMG: So, if it was a poetry reading she would be saying that you’re not a good reader of your poetry, because you’re not conscious of being evocative, not bringing out the meaning, you’re just sort of saying it the way you’ve been taught to, or pretty much the way that you would in normal speech.

NS: Yes. It’s not going with the language. It was like (name of poet), when she read her poetry with her pages in front of her face, in that forceful, loud way with hardly any variation. It had no meaning for me, it wasn’t enjoyable to listen to, because she wasn’t giving it colors, she wasn’t giving it a reason to be interesting, because she wasn’t making it evocative enough with her voice.

AMG: Exactly. If you’re reading up in front of people, you have to give a reason for them to listen to you. That’s what they say to us as singers. There has to be something about the way that you are on stage that says what I’m saying right now is important. If you get up there and hardly look up to engage us, let us know you are in fact talking to us, if you stand up there just reading us what’s on the paper, or with a prosody you've just appropriated and not thought anything about, why would you expect anyone to be engaged or to listen? Most people love Mozart because his work is genius, but you don't go to a concert to hear someone play all the right notes with the given dynamic markings; you go to experience someone illuminating the incredible thing that's written on those pages. I mean, they're intertwined, they're dependent upon each other, but poetry on the page is one thing - poetry vocalized is another.

NS: Right. And then I thought, if I can do that in French then what can I do in Italian!(6) How can I make the Italian stick out like that! So, I started doing that with Gilda(7), and my Italian people(8) in San Francisco were like, “Wow...I can understand every single word you’re saying.” And the reason is, I thought, it’s not enough to just go with the typical flow of the language.


AMG: When you say “typical” do you mean the way we speak every day? Our regular speaking voice?

NS: Yes.

AMG: But do you think that it’s just that your diction is heightened, or do you think that it’s that shooting for a more expressive diction causes you to also be more expressive and engaging in general? Do you think you wind up being more in the moment yourself while you’re up there, engaging yourself?

NS: Yes, I think it’s all of those. It’s the diction, but it’s also creating a sort of music with your voice to emphasize certain words which evoke certain emotions.

AMG: Right. You have this voice that you use to speak every day, and when you read you want to sound like yourself. But if you’re engaging in art, no matter what kind, you’re automatically taking that everyday activity and adding an importance to those words that’s not commonplace. You’re adding something to everyday speech, which necessitates the expression of it being different. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing sonnets, free verse, emoji poems, those words (or pictures) are all there in that order for a reason, making the sounds you told them to, and that’s what makes the language (and therefore the expression of that language) necessarily different.

NS: Absolutely. There’s a difference between singing text and speaking it, but there are also things about them that are really the same.

AMG: Right. I’m not advocating for a poet to actually sing or use strict vocal diction etc. the entire way through their poem. What I’m advocating for is some use of that, an awareness of it and its effect, so you can pick and choose and understand the acoustic things that you’ve done well enough during the writing process to really be able to share your poem with your audience.

Maybe you hear these things, maybe you don’t, maybe it’d be great for your poetry if you just had more of an awareness than you do right now – it just depends upon the poet. Very few people can just do this. Most people can’t hear what they sound like, so rehearsing, recording your voice, taking video and watching it, those are all necessary steps in being able to hear and hone the most evocative, communicative, and fulfilling reading of your poetry. It’ll help sell your book too!

NS: Yes!

(April 2013)

Featured Image (headshot) by Kristin Hoebermann


1 - French diction teacher and vocal coach 2 - A vocal coach helps singers with acting and expression, whereas a voice teacher works predominantly on the actual production of the voice (I.e. vocal technique). 3 - Although both English and French are said to have prosodic stress, meaning a stress is put at the end of a string of words, French does not have lexical stressed and unstressed syllables. Its individual words have no dynamic shape. 4 - Claude Debussy, composer; Paul Verlaine, poet (Upshaw recording; text) 5 - Particularly when a language is being sung, it becomes difficult to understand the words, creating all sorts of vocal technique focused on diction. 6 – The way the Italian language is pronounced makes singing and comprehension very easy in comparison to other languages. 7– Main soprano role from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto. 8 - Vocal coaches, diction teachers etc. for Italian


Nadine Sierra (soprano) returns this season to Boston Lyric Opera for Rigoletto and makes her debut at the Virginia Opera as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte. She also appears in a performance of the Brahms Requiem, and will be presented in recital by the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts in New York. She recently made debuts at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples as Gilda in Rigoletto, the San Francisco Symphony in concerts with Michael Tilson Thomas, and the Glimmerglass Festival in staged performances of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater.

A graduate of the Adler Fellowship program at the San Francisco Opera, she appeared on the San Francisco Opera's main stage in The Magic Flute and Heart of a Soldier. Other recent engagements have included her debuts at the Florida Grand Opera as Gilda and the Boston Lyric Opera as Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the title role in Orfeo ed Euridice at the Palm Beach Opera, and the critically acclaimed production of Montsalvatge’s El gato con botas at the Gotham Chamber Opera.

A graduate of the Mannes College of Music, Ms. Sierra is an alumnus of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program, where she appeared as Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore. Ms. Sierra has also participated in the Palm Beach Opera’s Young Artists Program, the International Vocal Arts Institute, and The Music Academy of the West. Her roles have included Sandman in Hansel und Gretel, Beth in Little Women, and Despina in Cosí fan tutte. In recital she has been presented in New York City by Carnegie Hall, the Marilyn Horne Foundation, and with Thomas Hampson at the Supreme Court in a program of American song.

Ms. Sierra was recently named the 1st Prize winner of the 2013 Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in Ireland. Her other many awards include winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (2009), second place in the Mirjam Helin International Vocal Competition (2009), a winner of the George London Competition (2010), first place in the Gerda Lissner International Competition (2010), and first place in the Loren Zachary Competition (2010). http://nadinesierra.com

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