Enrico Caruso.Image via Wikipedia

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Alex Ross writes about Will Crutchfield‘s survey of recordings of the tenor aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’elisir d’amore by Donizetti. The focus of Crutchfield’s survey and much of Ross’s article is on the cadenza.

Before Caruso, singers wrote a wide variety of cadenzas. Then Caruso came along, and since that time, most tenors use his cadenza. In fact, most people think Caruso’s cadenza, now heard so often, is Donizetti’s! Not true!

What happened? Performance has become standardized somehow. (And this is far from being the sole example.)

Cadenzas exist for the soloist to showcase what s/he does very well. So striving to perfect someone else’s cadenza, written to fit their specific strengths, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Why would you settle for someone else’s cadenza?

What do you do best? Everyone has a different answer. Some possibilities:

  • trill
  • coloratura
  • high/low notes
  • quick register changes (like Marilyn Horne)
  • expressive color changes
  • tremolo (i.e., in Monteverdi ~ fast repeated notes)
  • ability to sing long phrases
  • floating high notes (like Caballe)
  • fioratura

A good coach can help you find a great cadenza. Not someone else’s, yours. After all, isn’t your goal to present yourself in the best possible light?

Perhaps you would like to improvise a little as a way to begin composing a cadenza, but haven’t tried it yet. I recently had this discussion with a non-musician, but curious friend. She suggested that I write about this topic in the terms I used to explain improvisation to her.

If improvisation seems difficult, try experimenting with something tangible.

  • Spread out some colored toothpicks, then reorder them, make different shapes, build a house ~ build anything!
  • Find a room with a black and white tiled floor. Large tiles work best. Walk on the black tiles only. Then try the white ones. (Credit goes to Candid Camera for this idea.) Then dream up your own variations.
  • Go to the park, find a bench to sit on, and watch children walk. (They don’t, in adult terms.) You’ll see them skipping, going backwards, and going sideways, going in no particular direction, changing their approach on a whim, always making it up as they go along.
  • Try singing/playing something you make up. Maybe something you try will sound “wrong.” (Who said that?) That’s terrific! It’s only by making the attempt and playing around that you’ll arrive at something that works.


  • nothing broke
  • that “wrong” note has NO consequences
  • you’re just playing!

Feeling risk-averse? Why?

Are you locked into past teachers’ ideas? We all know different things. You are more knowledgable about certain aspects of your field than any of your previous teachers.

What rep did your previous teachers sing/play? What did they ask you to do/discourage you from? What does each of your answers tell you?

What can you incorporate from concerts? Recordings? Master classes?

To paraphrase some well-known words from our wonderful president, “Yes, [you] can!”

Go for it!