As you may or may not know, my Summer has been dominated by contemporary opera. First there was my London operatic debut (it wasn't quite as glamorous as it sounds :p) at the Tete a Tete Festival, performing my friend Tom Floyd's opera The Shadow of the Wave. Now I'm in rehearsals for British Youth Opera's production of Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera, where I'm covering the role of Tenor Actor (as if I wasn't confused enough about my voice type, everyone in the company assumes me to be a tenor until I set them straight).
It's all calmed down now, with Shadow out of the way, but the last month or two have been hard: there was a fair amount of difficult music to learn. And on the topic of learning contemporary music, there were conversations in both casts about how singers actually approach music that doesn't really 'roll off the voice', and if it does... You're probably wrong! For some people it's simply a question of repetition under the guidance of a 'mistake controller', others just have a knack for memorizing complex rhythms and melodies that have little to do with what's going on around them.
My personal approach is as follows:
The most important thing is time. While I can learn quickly, I avoid it if I can with anything more difficult than Mozart. With a lot of contemporary pieces, half the battle is tuning into the musical language of the composer. They're all quirky in their own way, and if you can absorb the quirks, you can feel more secure in your surroundings, so to speak, and this takes time. I don't mean months of daily work, but rather starting as soon as you get the score, and working little by little, even with big gaps between sessions for other things, but keeping the new piece as a recurring theme in your practice.
I also tend to write in beats in my score A LOT. Even for a basic 4/4 or 3/4 rhythm, but especially for tricky phrases. However what I don't do is memorize the counting (unless it's unavoidable), but rather practice a bit of conducting myself while speaking in rhythm. This helps me build an association in my mind between what I'm meant to be doing and what I can expect the conductor to do, which has one advantage over counting for myself: if something does go wrong (and to be honest, these things very rarely go perfectly), I can catch the conductor more easily than when I'm ploughing on ahead. In pieces where the rest of the music is more often than not more confusing than helpful, the conductor is usually your only friend, hopefully the friend least likely to make mistakes.
As for pitches and 'tunes' (if there are any), I don't really have a sight-reader's mind for intervals. What I rely on is what I'd call the 'colour' of the music. I can quite often pitch tricky notes out of seemingly unhelpful chords, if I get used to how they correspond, what colour they have in my ear. Oddly enough, when in that frame of mind it sometimes gets bizarrely difficult to sing notes that I'm spoonfed by an instrument or other singer (especially if you have to transpose by an octave! Who knew octaves could be so difficult?). This ear and memory for colours comes in handy in conjunction with a bit of muscle memory for getting back on track when I go off piste, because firstly I quickly know when something's wrong, and also sort of know how it should sound when it's right, so I can get it back even in the strangest of phrases.
I am by no means a particularly good learner or performer of contemporary music, but I enjoy the challenge and can feel myself getting better at it with every project I do. The approach I've described here has evolved over the past 3 years, and will probably require further tweaking next time I have some unnecessarily difficult music to learn.
As a parting thought: between Bernstein, Floyd and Weir, I have never found simple time signatures so difficult. The most mistakes I've made in rehearsals was in 4/4 phrases where I'd have to sing on the beat! That and those bloody octaves...