A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations. Please note, if I write something that seems pessimistic, it does not mean I'm depressed, just realistic. I'm pretty sure if you saw me that day I'd be smiling...

Friday, 4 April 2014

Context isn't always helpful

I recently sang my first ever Messiah. It was in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, India. While it was my first performance of the piece, I had been working on it for a few months prior to the trip, so I was more than familiar with it... unlike the audience, who turned up in their hundreds (we estimate the audience was 800 strong) to hear the first ever full-length performance of the Messiah in Goa. The following concert on the trip was in Mumbai, where Handel's best loved oratorio had not been performed since 1962, and the audience turnout was even stronger (around 1000).

Over here in the UK the Messiah seems to be done everywhere and all the time (especially around Christmas), to audiences that will most likely join in the singing or at least hum along. One of my fellow soloists from India suggested I start a tally in my score to see how many Messiah notches I can amass. To say it's a familiar piece here would be an understatement.

In India however we had (for the most part) a virgin audience. Not only that, but in Goa we were performing to people who didn't have much to do with western classical music before. Watching their reactions to the performance was priceless. Sure, there were people with puzzled looks on their faces, obviously not really sure what to make of the whole thing - strange music being sung in a bizarre way (while we were setting up for rehearsal some of the locals asked when the microphones were going to arrive... well we showed them!). But there were also people who reacted to the music in ways that we would never see here in Europe (burdened as we are with our sense of propriety and respect for the hallowed art of classical music), and yet were so organic over there. A lady in the front row danced to the Hallelujah chorus. A gentleman came with his Bible and prayed with the music. A few people were listening so intently you would have sworn they'd fallen asleep if you didn't later see the tears in their eyes during He was despised. You could see the audience be literally moved by the piece and the performance. 

It was a fantastic thing, and an experience I will recount to people whenever they mention that classical music (or opera in particular) is elitist and unaccessible. It isn't... and if it is, it's only because we have made it so. 

Yes, the fact is that classical music relies heavily on the generosity of a certain class of private individuals (with public funding being cut every year it's no surprise!) and therefore these wealthy people will naturally be a part of the audience, and quite a visible one... But why should that stop anyone else from going to experience the same performances? Cheap tickets can always be found! Yes, there is also a very visible group of people educated in music, either at university or on their own fuelled by a fierce passion for the art. Many critics will hail from this group and then seem to write only for the benefit of their own kind, leading the uninitiated to believe that if they were to want to join the audience they have to make up for their lacks in education or risk 'not getting it'... But the people in Goa definitely got the Messiah without reading up on Handel. 

I'm not saying that research and preparation is a bad thing. It can help you appreciate what you are seeing and hearing more, but it's rarely essential. Music or opera can also be taken at face value and very often it will work! It will move the audience. Of course, there are bad concerts and shows, just like there are bad books, films and tv programmes. 

Anyway: economy, history, politics, education, etc have made classical music what it is today - a very polite and civilised way of spending an evening, an excuse to dress up a bit, a bit of a middle-to-upper-class thing. But the essence of it isn't that at all! Stripped of its context the art stands on its own and has the capacity to move, fascinate, challenge, reward and please. I wish everyone the curiosity that drove our Goan audience to the church that night, and may it drive us to try things we wouldn't normally call 'our cup of tea' and let us experience them unashamedly.

One of the audience in Goa sketched all the way through the concert, 
capturing the soloists and conductor.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The language barrier - breaking the spine

As opera singers we are expected to sing in foreign languages. This is a fact. The degree to which this expectation stretches varies: I have heard some questionable pronunciation from non-native English singers in British houses, I've also had the comic pleasure of listening to non-Polish singers attempt Górecki or Chopin, and I'm sure the Italians have to put up with a lot of butchering of their language. Some people will settle for intelligible, others will strive for the idiomatic/vernacular.

However high or low you aim, you will need help. Speaking the language you're trying to sing in helps, and one of the things I'm thankful to the Academy of Music in Kraków for is that they tried to teach us exactly that. 3 hours of Italian a week for 3 years, 2 hours of German/French for 2 years, if I remember correctly, and that was all vocabulary, grammar, writing, conversation, etc (not much singing though). Over here in the UK it's all about phonetics, which is also great, because unlike in Poland my tutors here would not settle for imperfect pronunciation. The ideal from a student's point of view would be both approaches, but sadly with fees rising and what's on offer at colleges shrinking it's left to us to find the time and funds to make up for lost ground.

And here I am learning a role in Czech. It's a language I have never had to work in before. I've been to the country, but gotten by just speaking Polish. It has made me realise how hard it can be to get into a new language. My parents had me learning German and French as a child, not to mention a few years living in England, and Italian just naturally comes with the territory of singing, so as a fifth language it came quickly (not that I'm fluent or even far beyond basic in any apart from Polish and English). Tackling Janáček (who in terms of word-setting is the Czech equivalent of Britten) was initially a very steep uphill climb due to my lack of previous contact with the language (except an hour in Banff, which I foolishly didn't have the sense to record). A few months in I feel I've broken the spine of it and I'm not relying so heavily on the phonetic transcription I copied from a book (by the way, if you think Castel is overpriced, try buying the Czech equivalent!).

Why am I writing this? Everyone knows languages are hard. We just deal with it - get recordings of native singers, get phonetics books, get coaching... I'm writing on the off chance that people who can make decisions that will help young singers will read this and see our need. How could they help you ask? Well:

Colleges could make the effort to help in familiarising students with more languages. Perhaps rather than hammer away at Italian for 4-6 years sacrifice some of that time for a term each of Russian and Czech (any other rare-in-the-UK but regular operatic languages out there?*). Before you attack me, I know some colleges do offer coaching in those languages, but some do not, and they should, and not just as one off sessions. A term of regular input would go miles towards familiarising our ears with how it should sound and how to read it.

Companies helpfully tend to bring in language coaches. The problem is that by the time you get to work with them in rehearsal it becomes fixing ingrained mistakes (because you need to be off copy by the start of production), while trying to deal with the staging side of things. Now I know offering language coaching to a chorus is not always going to happen, but many companies take the time to teach their choruses the music (so everyone is on the same page and learning to be a unit from the word go) and it's great if the language coaching happens then. Principals and covers aren't so lucky. Now I'll be honest - I have not asked Garsington if I could have some Czech coaching from them, not because I don't think they'd provide it, but because by the time I thought of it I'd pretty much figured out a process of doing it myself. A slow, painful process (involving books, recordings, youtube, coaching, etc)... So I don't know if companies practice offering their contracted singers access to language coaching before rehearsals, but if they don't, they should at least consider it. Take a few of the hours that coaches come into the rehearsal room and use them to give principals some 1:1 time. Even an hour on just the language would be invaluable, and singers would feel they get some excellent support.

There are probably very good reasons these things don't happen - organisational, priority-managment, things I haven't thought of... But speaking as a singer, it would be nice to be prepared by college to deal with the less common languages, or to get offered support from an employer (in hindsight I should have asked - tip to all of you who have yet  to face a new language).

In the meantime, for all of you who didn't get the generous steeping in foreign languages that I have been given (thank you Mum and Dad!!!), I now feel your pain! Keep at it ;)

*Sanskrit doesn't count, no matter how popular Satyagraha becomes...

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The grass is always greener

It gave me quite a buzz seeing how popular my post on training and audition opportunities in the UK was. It also drove home the point that there is a serious gap in how colleges prepare young singers for the realities of the big bad world. I suppose this means that those of us who are enterprising enough to go out looking for a break, rather than waiting for it to come, have an advantage. Maybe, maybe not. I know quite a few singers who run themselves ragged going from one audition to the next, or from one small company to another, never taking the time to think why they aren't doing as well as they think they could be. So while you may think 'great! this guy has done all the hard work for me, I just have to go for everything now', trust me, it's not that simple. Statistically speaking, for most of us, the more things we go for, the more rejections we will get. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger... but they don't know what it's like to say 'here I am' and continually get told 'no, that's not what we want... we don't want you'. And then to see your friends be the person that is in fact wanted. So before you rush into applying everywhere, stop and think how much failure you can handle, as at this stage in our careers we are quite fragile creatures, and no matter how strong or oblivious you think you are, there will be a point at which it can get to you.

Sermon over, and on to the good bits. I promised a list of German opera studios, and I intend to deliver. The UK is pretty saturated with young singers, and there simply aren't as many proper opera houses over here as there are in German speaking countries. Many German/Austrian/Swiss houses have opera studios, and these work a lot like the Jette Parker YAP at the ROH: a small group of young singers are on contract with the house for a year or two to sing small roles, cover medium or main ones, and receive coaching and professional development advice. They are usually paid a modest monthly fee for this, enough to get by. It works like an introduction to the world of fest contracts (normally 2 year full-time engagements to join a company's ensemble of soloists).

The way these studios and fest contracts work is very closely tied into the fach system, which governs pretty much all casting in Germany. So if you don't know what fach you are, or your audition package is geared towards showing variety and flexibility rather than one particular selling point, you almost need not bother going for them. To see how the fach system is interpreted by each house, you can explore their ensemble on the website and see who sings what and which roles tend to be bundled together. It's a rather impersonal approach to singers, but it works for the houses and for safety's sake they simply stick to it. In the UK things are a lot more fluid, and there are more chances you will find yourself singing varied repertoire (provided you have the notes) rather than be type-cast straight away.

All of the studios pre-select applicants based on a recording, then invite chosen singers to audition. I have only auditioned live for one of these studios, but it's worth noting the process was completely different than in Britain. The singers were heard in blocks according to voice type (45 sopranos in a row!) singing one chosen aria each. We did have the opportunity to rehearse with the pianist. Then after all singers of one voice type were heard, a list went up detailing who the panel wanted to hear again, along with which aria (from your submitted list of 5) they wanted. There was then a break to allow the singers to prepare and the panel to recover, and then they listened to the second aria from the recalled candidates. Out of the 45 sopranos, only 6 got recalled. Of 11 baritones, only 1 was heard again. It's a hell of a trip for one aria ;) But I suppose that since you only get invited if they like your recording, it at least means they gave you due consideration, and there normally isn't an application fee (however the cost of recordings, recorded post, etc does add up).

Other considerations include age limits (30 seems an average, but for men it can go as high as 34, and for girls as low as 28), language (some studios require a certificate attesting to your level of German with the application), travel costs (can you afford to go audition, and how many studios can you visit), etc.

So here we go, a list (probably not complete, but it's a start)! Have fun, I'm too old to go for most of these anyway ;)

Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich)
Deutsche Oper am Rhein (Düsseldorf)
Semperoper Dresden
Staatsoper Hamburg
Komische Oper Berlin
Oper Frankfurt
Oper Köln
Opernhaus Zürich
Staatsoper im Schiller Theater (Berlin)
Staatsoper Hannover
Oper Stuttgart
Oper Nürnberg
Theater Basel
Oper Graz
Theater Lübeck
Opernstudio Niederrhein
Theater an der Wien 
Thüringen Opernstudio (Weimar)

So that's 18 German-speaking YAPs compared to 2 in the UK (3 if you count the NOS). Go figure...

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Shrug, smile and keep going

There are some lucky singers out there who just seem to float through life from successful audition to rave review. I think it's worth appreciating the fact that that is not the case for most of us, and anyone who reads opera periodicals will know that some of today's greatest stars went through periods of serial rejections.

Still, that does not serve as much of a comfort to those just going through the experience. Statistics are not kind to us singers. Many of us will not get to work at the level we dream of, and those rejections are like splashes of cold water in our faces, reminders that perhaps now is the time to reavaluate where we think our place is in the grand scheme of things.

We react in what I'm sure is the least healthy way: by resenting those who made the cut, those who are living our dream, especially that immediate one. We question why these peers of ours are better? We convince ourselves that they aren't, that the system is broken, that they have connections, that they don't deserve what they have, and the world would be a fairer place if it was us there instead of them... Now hang on, even if some of that were true, it's not their fault. And if it was us there, would we want that resentment being directed at us by others? Besides, how do these feelings get us closer to achieving our goals?

They don't, but at the same time they are unavoidable. It's a horrible world we singers live in, because most of us deal with these feelings every couple of weeks. Of course, they aren't always as overpowering as when we fail to get something we were banking our lives on, or at least gearing up to for months. You'd think it would get easier with time, that we'd have so much practice of getting rejected that it'd just wash over us and we could shrug it off. And some people do, or pretend to.

I am not one of them. I don't even think I want to be. I think these lows are what makes the highs in this calling all the more special. And we can get highs at every level of the 'profession', so we should learn to appreciate them, rather than let the feelings of resentment and entitlement convince us that we can't be happy until we achieve great things. B*llocks! If you can't be happy singing where you are now, chances are you never will be. If things don't go your way, all you can do is feel bad, vent, shrug, smile and keep going. We aren't in this to follow a plan and do it the one right way. Sometimes getting lost because of all the big avenues to success are blocked to us means discovering narrower, more obscure paths that are great fun and very rewarding. Who knows, maybe more so than the standard factory-belt that we all somehow want to be on because we think it offers guaranteed results.

So did writing this make me feel better? Not yet, but I just think back to what Barbara Houseman told us in the last Opera Works weekend: what is needed is a healthy dollop of f*ck it. Shrug, smile, and carry on doing what you love.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

John McMurray (ENO Head of Casting) Q&A session

One of the perks of ENO Opera Works is the time we get to spend with the main company's casting department. From the entrance auditions, where we sing to (among others) Sophie Joyce (Casting and Harewood Artists Manager), through initial consultations with John McMurray, Sophie and Jane Robinson (Head of Vocal Training and Opera Works Course Director), up to a final mock audition for the casting department. Part of this face time is a Q&A session, which for our group took place yesterday. It was (quite predictably) very informative, but what we weren't expecting was how informal, relaxed and pleasant a chat it was, with John and Sophie very quickly putting all the eager-eyed but slightly intimidated singers in the room at ease and answering even the silliest questions with good humour and understanding.

We started off by talking about the dress rehearsal of Rigoletto we'd just seen, and following a question about how this particular opera was cast, John launched into the story of putting on a big Verdi opera at the Coli. It being a tough sing for many of the roles, and the house being so big, means that it becomes problematic for a company like ENO to cast. There aren't that many people in the world who can sing the lead roles anyway (and as many articles in operatic press and blogs point out, there are fewer and fewer big voices out there, for various reasons), and of those few how many will want to take the extra effort to prepare it in an English translation? So you're left with a pretty small pool of singers from which you need to secure a cast. This does mean they tend to stick to singers who are tried and tested, preferably by ENO themselves.

This brings me to what I felt was the most valuable insight I gleamed from the session (worry not, a full list of notes will follow below): the way the casting departments think means that getting into a big company is not just a question of auditioning well once or twice. To quote John:

What we at ENO are trying to avoid is making snap decisions about people.

This makes sense, as this is a prestigious house that can't allow itself to take all that many risks with casting. They do take some risks, giving opportunities to young or untried singers who they feel are ready, or could be special. These don't always turn out as expected, but that's just part of life, and it's not the mainstay of day-to-day operations. Mostly they prefer to get to know people over time before casting them. This is done either by following their progress after an initial general audition, or seeing them perform somewhere, or by giving them some covers to see how they cope with it.

When talking about the season in general, it struck me how few people actually went through an audition process per se in order to be cast. Of course, you have to audition to get yourself on file, but when they're actually casting they seem to instantly start thinking of names and checking availabilites, rather than putting out a call for applicants. The names that stick get invited to sing or present themselves to the conductor and director , and if all goes well that's that. No 5-round audition and recall process.

The other valuable thing I learned was that CVs don't figure all that highly on their list of priorities. All they serve as is a guide for them to place you within 'the system' - ok, this is where this singer is at in their career. The nitty gritty either doesn't interest them, or in fact muddies the picture for them. All they want to know is where you are now, so they can judge your singing according to that. One page that clearly shows where you worked recently and gives an indication as to what level you'll be working at soon is enough.

When asked about people auditioning for ENO 'too early' in their career, John said it isn't that big a problem, as they judge singers according to what standard they'd expect them to be at the stage the singer is at. If you're a recent graduate of an opera course, you will be compared to other recent graduates, and probably not get cast then and there, but the impression you make will be according to your level of experience. So it isn't a question of auditioning too early, but rather being sure that you do yourself justice when compared to your peers. If you feel you need a bit more time or work to get up to the standard expected of the tier you're on by virtue of age and training, don't audition fo the big boys yet. This means you need to know what the standards are across the board, and for college students from outside London it may mean a trip to see some student shows in the capital and measuring yourself up to that, because those will be the shows that companies like ENO will be going to see and forming their opinions on.

That's enough personal insight from me for now, over to John and Sophie:

The career in general

A lot of things in this business are based on other people's taste - things you can't control. But those you can, you need to work hard at - be organised, punctual, etc.

It's unforgivable to fail an audition because of something you can control:
What you sing
How you look
When you arrive
The state of your sheet music
How you treat the pianist
The first impression you make
What your CV looks like
How you treat the stewards

Self awareness is a big deal in this business.

Your reputation will precede you - professionalism, being a colleague, etc.

A bit of bitching and moaning is fine, it's natural. But a lot - wears everyone down and mmakes people dislike you.

Being mean to stage managers is never a good idea.

Persistence is a good thing. Just know the difference between persistence and being annoying.

Make the most of every step of your education and career. Nurture the contacts you make.

If you have a relationship with an important person, they have show an interest, keep them appraised of your career.

Don't get annoyed if people don't reply. See it from their perspective (there's only so many times they can write 'well done, we may come see your show, we may not').

You can get stuck covering. It can also be the level you are and you'll never go above it, and you need to be able to deal with that. For some repertoire (the big stuff) you will notice that covers tend to be of a much lower standard than principals, because if they were good... they'd be singing it themselves somewhere.

Chorus work can be good, but in terms of furthering a solo career it depends on what opportunities you get as a chorus member, as well as if your workload will allow you time to become a better singer.

It has become very hard to have a career these days without having come through conservatoires. To get opportunities to audition, you need to fit into the system.

Mid thirties are the hardest time in your career - you're getting more established and expensive, but the young singers on your heels are comparable and cheaper.

Having an agent just for the sake of having an agent doesn't work.

Websites: You have to have a website. Aim towards having recordings on, not necessarily a huge amount. You need to be happy with them, and also with recordings of you not put up by you (youtube, etc). Keep it up to date. An up to date schedule tells companies if you're available. If it's not up to date, you may end up pissing companies off with them wasting their time chasing you when you're not available. It's better to have no information on than wrong information.

Directors tend to google their casts. Casting directors google if they are searching for solutions to problems that arise.

Social media - twitter can be useful for building profile. Be careful what you put on facebook.

Being diverse in what you do (gigging, crossover, additional careers like photography and knitting) is ok, but don't be so diverse (or look as though you're so diverse) you no longer look serious about classical singing.


You can do the best audition of your life, but if the people listening to you don't need what you are, nothing may come of it.

Sad truth - the negative impression of a bad audition lasts much longer than the positive impression of a good one.

You have to figure out how to audition!

Don't audition if you're not well, unless you can't avoid it. It usually only works when auditioning for someone who already knows you.

If you're singing an aria that you can sing from a role you may not be ready for, flag it up in the audition - show you've thought about it and are aware of it.

Acting in auditions - reduce your acting choices. Don't stand and deliver, don't act it out. You want to show you know the dramatic context of the aria. Eyes are important.

Where you look - acknowledge the existence of the panel, but don't stare at them. Judge each panel separately.

Singing down is rarely a good idea.

Say hello.

Be able to do what they expect you can do. Be sure you are the level you should be.

Audition rep - sing what you think shows who you are, not what you think they are looking for. Don't take role specific arias unless asked, or unless you think they are 'your' rep. Don't second guess yourself too much. Don't get bored with your audition package - the panel don't know you sing it all the time. Just because you're bored doesn't necessarily mean you're boring.

The whole thing about auditions - you don't want to intimidate the panel. Odd rep choices (non-standard) intimidate them, they think about what they're listening to, not who they're listening to.

Which piece you start with - it should almost always (95%) be the same one.

Your audition package - 5-6 arias (even if they ask for 3). Make sure you can sing them in various orders one after another. Especially each of the other 4 after your go to first choice. It should last you 2 years, and never bin the whole thing, change them one at a time. Be sure you can sing your whole package even if you're only 70% fit. Don't restrict language choice, but don't panic just because you have nothing in a particular language.

It can be worth doing an audition you're not bothered about just for the audition experience and to practice your arias under pressure.

You need to specialise your audition package. Don't give the impression you don't know what fach you are.

Getting the tone of an audition right. You want to suggest you're ready to work, you've put effort in, you know it's an audition not a concert, that you've thought about what you're doing and why you're there.

Audition dress: Look smart, professional, ready to work (not go out to dinner). It doesn't have to be a suit, a jacket is a good idea, you can take it off after the first piece if it's appropriate. Ties aren't necessary, nor are collared shirts if you have a smart t-shirt. Black is NOT a good idea (that's one I figured out for myself). Tight clothing can draw attention to your technique in a bad way. Practice wearing what you're going to wear to be comfortable in it. No jeans! Women can wear trousers, they don't have to (trouser roles don't necessarily need trousers). Don't wear distracting colours, jewelry, shoes, cuts, patterns, etc. No bare legs (Sophie says fleshy tights are fine ;) ).

CVs and experience

Doing a role that you don't think you're vocally ready for (say in small house) can give people who come to see you the wrong idea. Be careful.  Age-appropriateness is a different concern, especially for male voices (basses and baritones are often expected to sing older roles), and is usually less problematic as long as you can actually sing the role healthily.

CVs aren't what casting departments are basing their opinions on. You do need stage time, you need to find opportunities that give you what you need - how to pace a role, deal with touring, how to rehearse. But don't do stuff just to 'beef up' a cv.

If you include directors and conductors on your cv, treat them almost like references. Don't include people who hate you.

CVs are a rolling thing, keep them up to date, get rid of the less important stuff as more relevant things come up, keep them a page long.


Sometimes what gets you cast has to do with things other than singing - height, build, availability.

What ENO are trying to avoid is making snap decisions about people. They prefer to get to know people over time before casting them.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Life outside college - a beginner's guide

Spending a bit of time in Cardiff has been nice. I nominally still live here, but I find myself in London for increasingly long spells. I've been catching up with various people and invariably get asked what life out of college is like and if I've conquered the world yet. Not only that, those who can see the end of their conservatoire journey on the horizon listen very intently to my tales of moderate success and undending attempts, making mental notes on ideas they might want to pursue. I thought I might as well try and make it easier for everyone. You may also want to read my notes from Sarah Playfair's talk on professional conduct when contacting opera companies.

As a disclaimer, I'd like to point out that what follows is a hefty part of my own research and experience, but is by no means a complete list of opportunities out there. This is also very much a UK-specific post. I will attempt one on German YAPs soon. Unfortunately the deadlines for many opportunities have passed, but feel free to revisit this over the Summer to make sure you get in there in time.

So you're about to leave college and don't even know where to begin? Here are a few ideas, depending on what you want to achieve, along with my thoughts on them. I'll do my best to update whenever something new catches my eye, so if you find this list useful, you may want to bookmark and revisit every now and then...

1. Summer Festivals

These are always a good starting point. Opportunities are plentiful, the commitment is relatively short, the money relatively good. If you get in on the ground floor you're looking at chorus work, maybe covering, or if you're lucky some small roles as well. The best thing about them is they are used to having students or recent graduates working for them and they will take care of you. It's a painless way into the profession, and you get to watch some fantastic principals very closely during rehearsals and fairly long runs of shows. Some of the festivals run young artist schemes that are a great way to get some repertoire under your belt and be heard by agents, critics and other companies. There are plenty of festivals to choose from, so here is a list of the main ones to get you started, google can handle the rest. In terms of deadlines, it's a good idea to get your CV to them in the Summer, when the respective companies' current programmes are up and running (that's when they can start thinking about auditions). Auditions are normally in the Autumn (Sep-Nov).

Glyndebourne - let's face it, it's the most prestigious, well-paid, offering the highest standards of opera making. With money tight and fees being capped all over the place, the other festivals are catching up and often employ comparable casts and standards, but usually for shorter seasons with no touring company. The problem with Glyndebourne is that with people auditioning from around the world, the auditions can be a bit of a cattle-market, and they have been known to send out the dreaded 'we never want to hear you again' email. If you apply for an audition, make sure you're ready.

Garsington Opera - I am happy to call this my Summer home this year. They do their utmost to cast their covers and tiny roles from the chorus, and covers get a showcase to which agents and representatives of other opera companies are invited. Every other year they put on a production featuring their Young Artists (usually former covers). The company has a family feel to it and Wormsley is a beautiful place to rehearse and perform in.

Grange Park Opera

Opera Holland Park

Longborough Festival Opera

Buxton Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera - the nice thing about this one is that it is actually in the Autumn, so can be combined with a Summer contract for a nice 6-month spell of work... if you get in of course.

Tete a Tete - a testing ground for new works, it's not something you can audition for really, unless it's for their main shows (worth writing to them), but rather you may end up there if you know a composer whose work is being put on. Worth a visit if you are interested in where opera is going, and networking opportunities are good.

Grimeborn - again, not one that auditions for its season, but rather acts as a venue for independent productions. Worth googling every now and again in case someone is holding auditions, as it is a good place to perform to get a foothold in London.

2. Further training and YAPs.

If you feel you need an extra bit of input and structure, here is what you could consider. Regardless, never stop having singing lessons!

Opera courses - most colleges run these, usually for people who have completed a post-grad course in singing. They get you performing roles on stage with orchestra, seen by press, opera companies and agents. Apart from that you get the normal college fare of lessons, coachings, languages, movement, drama, etc. London opera courses are supported by full scholarships, so you don't pay fees, but are hard to get onto, and have a slight tendency to take people from within the college itself (upgrading postgrads, or taing on their own graduates). Outside London you'll be looking at high fees (with some scholarships available), but much lower living costs, and a slightly less rat-racey atmosphere (however you will also get less exposure to the London scene, see point 6). Applications start Sep/Oct, with auditions Nov-Jan.

British Youth Opera - offer workshops and mainstage opera productions with orchestra. BYO is a great avenue into the London scene, a great place to meet people, and the workshops are always inspiring.  Applications open in Autumn, auditions are usually Jan/Feb.

National Opera Studio - offer a tailor made course for every singer they take. The NOS is supported and closely monitored by the Big 6 (see point 4), so you get great exposure while on the course. It is very hard to get in, with hundreds of singers applying (and it's an expensive application) for a dozen places, but even getting to the final round is a fantastic achievement and means you get heard by the casting departments of the main British opera houses. Apply before Dec, auditions Feb-April.

Opera Works - is ENO's professional development programme. Not to be confused with the Harewood Artists, it is not a YAP. This is a part time course that offers fantastic training in acting for singers, musical input from ENO music staff, consultations with their casting department and various other classes and opportunities. One word of advice - when considering this course, don't think of it as a way to 'get in with ENO'. It doesn't work like that, it's a training programme that you should be on for your own development as a performer, not as a short-cut. Apply by Jan, audition Feb/Mar.

Jette Parker - the best British YAP you can apply for. Competition is fierce (over 400 applicants for 5-6 places) but the rewards are great, you join the staff of the Royal Opera House, receive in-house training and perform small roles on the main stage, as well as bigger ones and scene productions in the studio theatre. Apply in the Autumn, audition in Nov/Dec.

Samling - a week locked away in a remote hotel with some of the best teachers and artists out there.

Britten-Pears - a bizarre application/audition process, and you need to sift through the programme to find things worth applying for, but a very prestigious scheme

Co-Opera Co - a bit like BYO in that they proide training opportunities (workshops, audition classes, etc), but also have paid touring productions. The structure and what's on offer in this company changes quite fluidly, so visit the website to see if there's anything for you.

3. Small-medium opera companies

These vary so much I feel I can't really go into that much detail. The money varies a lot, but chances are you will find yourself pursuing some or all of these, because outside Summer it's between the big houses and this lower tier of companies that the opportunities lie. There are many more out there, the best way to hear about them is through audition notification services (see 5), or by looking at biographies of young up-and-coming singers. Some may not pay well, but offer benefits like doing long runs in London and attracting important visitors or press. If you need help deciding whether to take poorly paid work, I wrote about this problem here. Also, make sure you explore every opera company before blindly sending out CVs, get a feel for what they do and think if that's what you need  to go for (see 8).

ETOOpera Project,  Mid Wales OperaDiva OperaOperaUpClose, Opera de BaugeBampton Classical Opera, Clonter Opera,  Winterbourne Opera, Chelsea Opera Group, Opera LokiSurrey OperaHampstead Garden Opera, Kentish Opera, Midsummer Opera, Riverside Opera, Charles Court Opera, Pavilion Opera, Guildford Opera, Opera in Space, Opera Lyrica, Pop-up Opera, Silent Opera, Opera della Luna

Contemporary/new works: Music Theatre Wales, Size Zero Opera

4. The Big Six and general auditions

The Big Six are: Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera North, Scottish Opera and Glyndebourne (which I've covered). They are where all singers want to be working. The first four have full-time choruses, which are the most stable form of employment a singer can find in this country.

General auditions are held regularly, but waiting lists are long (around 6 months), and don't expect feedback or offers straight away. They are there so that the opera company can put you on file, and from there they may invite you back to hear you for something specific. This can take several months. If you don't hear back, you can normally try for another general audition after 2 years to give them an idea of how your voice is developing. As you can see, it's a long game, so maybe wait until you feel ready to impress. Either way before you go, get acquainted with what operas they do, how they are cast, what the venue is like, just to make sure you show them something they may find useful in you. While general auditions are the standard way in for most agent-less singers, it's always good to be seen by the companies in performance, so if you're in their neck of the woods, ask the company you're performing with if they've invited casting departments from other houses.

A note on chorus auditions. These come up quite infrequently, are very popular, but it's worth noting - the panel for these can be different than for general auditions. If you are thinking of having a go at a chorus audition with the hope of being considered as a soloist, you may be wasting your time (and the panel's), because the big wigs from the casting department won't be there until the final round. Rule of thumb - don't go for it if you don't want a chorus job at all. That being said, extra chorus lists (called in for the bigger shows) are a good thing to be on file for, as it is 'a way in' and normally good money for work at a high level of music making. And as Richard Monk commented on Opera Talk, with budgets getting squeezed, many companies cast small roles and covers from within their full-time chorus, so a few years of such work can be a great start on the road to becoming a soloist, an opportunity to pay off student debt, work with the finest musicians on a grand stage, and get some roles under your belt.

5. Agents and audition notification services

I'm not going to waste space by pasting a list of agencies. Google 'artists management' or your favourite singers to see who represents them. Auditioning for agents is hard, they normally invite people they've seen on stage (another group of people to make sure are invited to your performances).  If you are being courted by an agent, ask around about them. Various agencies have varying levels of intimate contact with opera companies, so different agents will be getting tips on different opportunities. You can start a career without them though, it just means a lot more work on your part organising yourself and making sure you're applying for as much as possible. At least then you get to keep all the money you earn.

Speaking of which, before you sign anything, carefully establish the ground rules:
- What is the agent's commission? (these vary from 10%-20%, with 15% being a standard starting place)
- Is it an exclusive contract? If it is and you get offers of work directly (through recommendation or your own networking), then the agent will still want a cut, despite not actually helping secure the gig.

Remember, agents are supposed to work for you, not you for them. In the end it should be a personal relationship with regular contact and you should be confident that they have a plan for you that you're happy with.

To help organise yourself when you don't have an agent, there are audition notification services out there. You pay them a regular monthly fee to get daily or weekly information about upcoming auditions. It saves you having to spend an hour a day googling all possible combinations of the words 'opera, audition, role, baritone, looking for, chance of a lifetime'. The most popular ones are: YAP Tracker, The Opera Stage, Audition Oracle

6. A note about London

If you went to college in Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, or anywhere outside London, I have some harsh news for you. They are great places to live in, but if you want to work, you will probably need to break into the London scene. The capital is where the work is, it's where the auditions are, it's where you can (with some self-sacifice and perseverence) forge a life where you are performing all year round (even if it is in the back room of a pub). I'm not saying that taking one small opera company job after another is the way to forge a career, in fact it's a frustrating life to live, but it's a place to start, and as you will find out - good work breeds more work. It's better to be seen performing than in an audition (unless you're good at the latter but unengaging in the former, or get stuck in bad shows), and in London you can make sure you perform regularly in a way that is simply not possible elsewhere. You will then find yourself being told in auditions 'I saw you in so and so, I enjoyed it', which makes for a nicer audition.

Breaking into London can take time and luck. It's easier if you study there, but if not, be on the lookout for people putting on shows at Grimeborn or Tete a Tete, have a go at getting into BYO, go for the Summer festivals (they rehearse in London and you will meet important people), make friends whenever you are in the capital.

7. Watch your peers

As a young singer the best way to get inspiration on what to do next with your life is to look at those who have been there before, preferably recently. Go to performances near you, buy programmes, read biogs, browse singers' websites, note companies they worked for and try approaching them. Keep up to date with your colleagues, talk about what's out there, recommend them for things if you get the chance, karma will hopefully reward you.

8. Decide what you need!

Being out of college means you are finally your own boss and can do what's best for you. You won't be prey to college politics and casting that shoehorns people into inappropriate roles just so that a particular opera can be put on. Decide what you want and need. It may be that you need stage experience, or to learn roles, in which case apply for all the small companies you can find. If you don't want to be constantly learning repertoire and performing in small venues, take the time to get more singing lessons and focus on your vocal craft and audition rep. There are no hard and fast rules about whether or not a dozen roles performed in pubs and cattle markets look better on a CV than extra chorus on a big stage, so try not to get hung up on filling out that particular piece of paper. Focus on your singing and performance abilities, do whatever you need to keep these improving. Your life belongs to you now, not college, so focus on yourself (in a good way!), get better, stay healthy, and be patient.

Oh... and you may need to get a day job...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Making the most of your 5 minutes - ENO Opera Works

I recently wrote up my thoughts on the last Opera Works weekend for the official course blog and you can read them here. I decided not to repaste that text here and trust that you won't hate me for making you click a few extra times. As promised in that text, I'd like to expand on what feedback we got from Christian Curnyn on Sunday, with some of the quotes also coming from Martin Constantine (course leader). I'm afraid I didn't write down who said what, and some of it is me paraphrasing what was said anyway, but hopefully it conveys the underlying sense of what they were both trying to say.

I'll start from the end, when Christian stayed behind after the session was over to take a few questions from us, and these were geared more towards professional advice than performance technique. Here is the advice he gave us in response to our questions:
On the rehearsal process:
Be meticulously prepared, but be prepared for changes, esp in translations / new productions.
Come in with ideas, but no preconceptions.
Check with baroque rep if the conductor wants you to come up with your own ornaments or not.
On auditions:
Keep still and relaxed, but have intent behind it. Have a theatre in your head.
If you think about the noise you're making, you never sing your best.
On performing Rameau:
Recitative is not free at all! It's metronomic, you can put a beat to it. That's why the time signature changes all the time, he didn't do the Mozart/Händel thing of writing it out in 4/4 and filling bars in with rests that you can (and should) leave out when performing. There should be a pulse, it's not a cat and mouse game where the continuo section follow the singers.

And now the meat of the session, remarks made on our attempts at performing our scenes. I say attempts, because we weren't trying to actually put on a final performing version of any of them, but rather trying out different ways and approaches (as I wrote on the ENO blog). To better ilustrate how 'out there' these attempts were trying to be, I've added a video below that gives you an idea of the kind of physical theatre we were trying to incorporate. I do think a lot of the things Christian said apply as general rules for good performance and I hope they will inspire the performers among you to maybe think about whether you achieve them in your own craft. As for 'audience' reading this, next time you're at the opera or theatre, check if the professionals are actually doing a good job ;)

Differentiate thoughts, don't sing the music, say the words. Especially in translation in recit, go with the text, not the musical rhythms and stresses.
Don't suspend the thought before you start to sing.
In recit - don't lock your memory to notes, lock it to words.
Ornaments are meant to move the line forward, not to stop it. Don't flag them up.
Keep the singing active by keeping the thoughts active.
Find the reason you go into song, not recit.
Keep phrases going to the end, don't weaken endings.
When using actions (Stanislavsky), don't let them become stage directions.
When appealing to gods, you have to have belief that they are in the room listening (or deliberately ignoring you). Otherwise it turns self-indulgent.
Don't slow your body down to the music. It can be a good choice in a production, but as a habit it is unhelpful.
There's nothing more artificial than opera. You have to either go against that as much as you can and find the natural, or embrace it whole-heartedly. Don't just sort of go with it.
In Handel - realise that it's already seasoned, you don't need to add anything. The emotion is in the music already, the moment you add any sentimentality to that it becomes too much. All it needs is action and thought, not more emotion.
If a gesture comes naturally to your body, don't stop it mid-flow, think what your body is trying to do and go with it without second-guessing.
Don't fall into a pattern of thought-stop-sing-think-breathe-stop-sing-slow down for ornament-stop-thought. Keep the flow.
Don't play the status - don't play king and princess, play real people. (People all feel the same way and are driven by the same things, status is a physicality)
When you talk to people, they are rarely actually listening, they are always responding by thinking ’what? so? why?'. Playing a scene is reacting to other people's reactions, it's not acting.
There needs to be direction!!!
Some arias are not in real time, they are a frozen moment. You don't have to 'stage' them.
Pointing to yourself on 'I' must be a decision, not a habit.
You have to think about how to make life difficult for your character, otherwise you'll find yourself with nothing to play.
You can be economic in movement without being economic with text and meaning (a teacher explaining).
When you're thinking of something your face is naturally quite masklike. Don't let acting face affect the singing and cut the audience off (closed eyes, scrunched face).
It's difficult in opera (esp early) not to fall into the trap of word-painting, which kills it (over-seasoning).
Slow walking is very unnatural. We don't walk slowly in real life.
Don't put on a mezzo sound. Use your voice. (Fach determines what repertoire you sing, not how you sing it).
Signposting and overtelling aren't truthful and don't travel well. Face-acting - few people pull faces in real life situations, but singers do it all the time, because of our need to tell every aspect of the story.
If you try to tell  the audience a complex story, it becomes vague. Try telling one aspect of it and trusting them to intuit the rest.

And now have a look at this and try to imagine opera singers doing it in a handelian aria: