Sing me a story: Creating your backstory

Tonight I will be holding a studio class for my private students about creating a backstory.


When I played Mother Abbess in Sound of Music, my back story was that my character’s name was born Johanna Schmidt and was from a relatively prosperous and devout Catholic family in Austria. She was trained in piano and was active in her church’s music program, and after joining the convent, changed her name to Sister Maria Erentrude, and directed the choir. (Erentrude was the founder of Nonnberg Abbey, so I didn’t just pull that out of my hat.) She had been the Mother Abbess for about 7 years, and was well-liked by the other sisters, who had elected her to that position. Was any of that in the script? Not directly. In the stage version, she does lead the choir at the beginning. I did some research about how Abbesses got their positions (election, not appointment), and figured she must have been well-liked.

I like to give my characters names. No matter how small the part. If the character is just “housekeeper” or has some honorific (Marquise, Countess), I want to know what people call them. I’ve had a few castmates who thought that was silly. When I played Marquise de Cathé in Un giorno di Regno, I decided her name was Madeleine. And I asked the actor playing her lover, Comte de Belfiore, what he thought his name was. What did they call each other privately, when no one was around? He rolled his eyes and said, “Bob.” In my mind, I translated that as Robert (pronounced /ro ‘bɛr/), because even if he was not taking this seriously, I was.

Whether you are in a musical, an opera, a straight play, or you’re singing a pop song or an art song, having some kind of context in which to tell your story is extremely valuable and will help inform your interpretation. In fact, if your song is not from a show, you might benefit from this even more, since you don’t have a character described in a script. You need to create your own script and your own backstory in order to develop the character. Because you’re still telling a story. And the more specific you can be, even if it’s only for yourself, the more you can bring to the song.

The acting coach Stanislavski created seven questions for the actor to consider:

          1. Who am I?
          2. Where am I?
          3. When is it?
          4. What do I want?
          5. Why do I want it?
          6. How will I get it?
          7. What do I need to overcome?

While I don’t put myself in the same league as Stanislavski by any stretch of the imagination, here are the questions I want my students to consider in preparing a song:

          1. Are you in a show or is this a stand-alone song?
          2. Do you have a name? What is it? If you have a last name only (i.e., Marquise de Cathé), what’s your first name? What do your friends/family call you? If you only have a first name (i.e., Fantine), what is your last name?
          3. In what time period do you live?
          4. Where do you live now? Is it the same place you grew up?
          5. What’s your socioeconomic status? (i.e., are you rich or poor?)
          6. How much education do you have?
          7. Who are/were your parents? Were you close to them? What do/would they think about the choice you’re making?
          8. Do you have any siblings? If so, where are you in the family? How do you get along with your siblings? Are they all still alive?
          9. What do you like to do?
          10. What happened right before you started to sing this song?

We’ll be talking about these things tonight, as well as crafting an inner monologue for a song – which takes on an added dimension if the song is in another language.

I see this all as part of Curiously Strong Performing – having that innate curiosity about your character to bring an extra element to your interpretation.


If you’re interested in knowing more about Curiously Strong Singing AND Performing,
contact me and we’ll talk about how to become part of Mezzoid Voice Studio.

FYI: I’ve decided to cut back my blogposts to twice a week. So look for posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If I have something pressing to say in-between, I’ll write then too, but as far as regular posts, expect them then.  

Published by Mezzoid Voice Studio

Christine Thomas-O'Meally, a mezzo soprano and voice teacher currently based in the Baltimore-DC area, has performed everything from the motets of J.S. Bach to the melodies of Irving Berlin to the minimalism of Philip Glass. As an opera singer and actress, she has appeared with companies such as Charm City Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Theater of Northern Virginia, Opera North, the Washington Savoyards, In Tandem Theatre, Windfall Theater, The Young Victorian Theater of Baltimore, and Skylight Opera Theatre. She created the role of The Woman in Red in Dominick Argento’s Dream of Valentino in its world premiere with the Washington Opera and Mary Pickersgill in O'er the Ramparts at its world premiere during the Bicentennial of Battle of Baltimore at the Community College of Baltimore County. Other roles include Mrs. Paroo in Music Man, Mother Abbess in Sound of Music, Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte, Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, both Hansel and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, and many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Her performance as the Housekeeper in Man of La Mancha was honored with a WATCH award nomination. Ms. Thomas-O'Meally received an M.M. in vocal performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She regularly attends master classes and workshops in both performance and vocal pedagogy, and is certified in all three Levels of Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method. Her students have performed on national and international tours of Broadway productions, at prestigious conservatories, and in regional theater throughout the country.

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