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...

Monday, 29 September 2014

Singing made me unhappy

So I’ve been out of full-time education for over a year now, Opera Works is a thing of the past too, and I’ve come to a realisation. For the past 3 years or so singing was making me unhappy. It had turned into a mind-game where I was trying to please everyone (my teachers, coaches, audition panels, employers, head of department, conductors, directors, etc) but getting very little return in terms of my own joy. I kept having to convince myself I was on my way to a better future, to a career as a working singer, I was paying my dues and that it was a necessary phase that would pass… But it just became the way I was. 

I would overthink everything, which wasn’t helped by all the lectures and Q&A sessions on my various courses that sold the line ‘if you do X you will be employable’. Sing this repertoire (even if you hate it, suck it up), wear this, walk like that, stand just so, shake hands with the panel (or actually never do!), do these ornaments, vibrate on every note, suck up to so and so… Follow the magical unwritten (but oft spoken of) rules and then everyone will want you. Except they don’t. All you see is people ‘doing it all wrong’ and getting what you have been striving for. To someone like me, who likes rules and patterns that order the world somehow, not being able to understand how success is achieved was frustrating and depressing. And it infected everything I love about my ‘job’. I didn’t even notice it happening (there were enough good things in my life apart from singing to keep me happy), but various recent events and circumstances have given me a ‘forced opportunity’ to assess and reevaluate my attitude as regards singing. 

The tipping point was the decision whether or not to apply to the NOS. A long time goal of mine, I have unsuccessfully auditioned for the programme twice, but also had the opportunity to closely observe friends get in and do the programme, as well as speak to alumni. I know what the programme is, how it works, what it does to and for people. I recently went in for a consultation (honestly - to assess my chances of getting in this time) and the penny dropped. I would hate this! I’ve only just gotten out of institutionalised training and started to rediscover the joy of singing for no one but myself (well, and my employers and audiences, but you know what I mean), found a really good teacher and embarked on a path of progress that is only measured against my own criteria, not anyone else’s. And here I was subjecting myself to judgement and hanging my hopes on the opinions of people who I don’t necessarily agree with half the time. That’s not to say that they’re wrong and I have a monopoly on truth, in fact they are right, but so am I. There is no one way to make it in this profession, nor is there one gospel of singing technique (even if there were only one ‘right’ way to sing, there are infinitely many ways of talking about it and assessing it). 

The half hour I spent in the studio that day was probably the most important experience in my singing life. I got positive feedback and some notes on what to improve (that I agree with wholeheartedly and am working on), but also a lot of opinion dressed up as fact, which is the way with schools and is to be expected. But I’ve been in school a very long time, and it made me unhappy when I finished my first degree, and again for the past 2-3 years… I don’t want it any more, I don’t want to go back to school*. I want to channel Sinatra and do it my way. 

Because what has taken me back from the brink of packing it in was the realisation that there is only one thing that really matters, one recipe for success, and also one goal that motivates me in a positive way because it’s mine, judged by me, and not geared towards pleasing anyone but me - get better at singing. For an over analytical thinker like me everything else is a distraction. Rep choices don’t solve vocal problems, they can only hide them. Audition wear doesn’t get you hired, and as important as first impressions are, 'self-conscious' is not the one you want to give. So to hell with the ‘rules’, just do the one thing no one will argue with or have contradictory opinions about - get better at singing. And don’t do it for your teacher, coach, or the panel. Do it for yourself, otherwise you’ll slowly go insane and be unhappy. 

Since I made this my one rule I’ve had more success in auditions, am enjoying performing again, am able to stand up for myself in situations I would have normally stayed quiet… And I’m happy. Also, I’m hopefully getting better at singing. 


* Not that there is anything wrong with NOS, colleges, or any of the courses out there. They provide fantastic training and I owe everything I am to the courses I’ve done. But they’re not for everyone, and doing them forever doesn’t mean you keep improving, so there has to be a time when you take the step into the real world… Not that singing has anything to do with the actual real world, but that’s a rant for another day.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Teachers - trust and loyalty, but not at all costs

One of the most important relationships in our lives as singers is the one we have with our singing teacher. In career terms it is probably the most important. Your teacher is the person you trust to guide not only in your technical development, but quite often you will need their help when making repertoire choices and choosing what roles to accept in the early stage of your career. It's an intimate relationship, what happens in lessons should stay in lessons, it should be a time you are free and safe to get things wrong without fear, in order to stretch your capabilities. More often than not no one will ever hear you singing as well as your teacher hears you in that room... Or as badly. The trust has to be incredibly strong and work both ways, which is why the first months with a new teacher are often a huge leap of faith.

And it doesn't always work. There is arguably nothing worse than being stuck with the wrong teacher. Even a universally regarded teacher may not be the best one for you. And even if you've found the right one, there is quite often a time limit on how long they will be your best option. This is because of many things.

First off, teachers while trying to impart an overall solid technique often focus on their pet likes and hates, and what they have to offer may not be what you need at any given time. You can also get used to one another and lessons just turn into minor tune-ups and ego boosts, while habits that both of you take for granted strengthen and chip away at your technique. By the time they get so bad a teacher who is used to you notices them you'll be facing a huge challenge that could in other circumstances be avoided.

Some singers reading this will be up in arms defending their teachers, saying I've just been unlucky in who I've gone to, their teachers never let them get away with anything bad, etc. Maybe they've hit the jackpot, or maybe their trust is blinding them. It's a difficult thing realising that the person you've entrusted your voice to isn't perfect... But perfection doesn't exist, it's all about finding what objectively works best for you at any given time, which often doesn't mean the most comfortable option.

I think I've been lucky with the teachers I've worked with over the years, every single one taught me something important and helped me turn a corner in my vocal development. And they've all been different, despite ostensibly teaching the same 'good technique'. But various friends have not been so lucky, or have become complacent in their relationships with their teachers, or have stopped having lessons (which to my mind is the biggest mistake a good singer can make). I have also made the decision to change teacher a fair few times, the same with coaches (although there you have more license to shop around... Teachers do not generally like to share pupils, for good reason - that would imply that the trust necessary for them to do their job isn't there).

The key is to make sure you take stock every now and again and ask yourself:
- am I getting better?
- is my career progressing?
- if not, why? what feedback am I getting from my rejections, and are there recurring themes?
- is my teacher tackling these themes with me, or dismissing them? (audition feedback is very often opinionated and not founded on any foundation of technical knowledge... but if it is consistent from multiple sources, it does mean there is a problem you have to face up to, even if it's just a problem of perception)
- watch yourself back and notice what annoys you about how you perform, is your teacher addressing these things?
- am I too comfortable in lessons? do I come out of them with ego boosting reassurances ('I think that's great'), but not actually having improved, only tweaked?
- am I being challenged every lesson, or are we going through the motions?

There are many types of teachers/coaches out there, offering different things. You need to decide what you need most now and if you're getting it from your teacher. Here are some broad categories, and various teachers may be a combination of different categories. I may also have missed a lot of types off here, these are just from my experience of music college and private teachers.

The builder:
A quick imparter of the fundamentals, sees undergrads through their first period of rapid progress as they discover what is what. Unfortunately due to the law of diminishing returns and how the learning curve of singing works, there will come a time when the fundamentals are working well enough and what is needed is more detailed work rather than just going on about 'more support' and 'more space'. Progress slows down, can even stop as you plateau, and you wait for a penny to drop that can almost teleport you to the next level. Some teachers don't deal in small change though...

The working singer:
A teacher who is usually (but not always) still enjoying a career. They have a great working technique (as opposed to perfect technique, see Iain Patterson's excellent blog post on the subject: http://ayepatz.com/2014/06/18/the-everyday-voice/ ) and they try to teach you how to do what they do. It'll be a combination of good technique, short-cuts, metaphors and habits that will get you sounding good. But it may not be the best you can sound. However it will work, be reliable for the most part, even if it is a personal technique that isn't quite calibrated to your instrument, but rather your teacher's. They also know a lot of repertoire by virtue of doing it. They know what it takes to deliver it on stage and will teach you that, give you tips on how to go about preparing a role and point out potential problems along with fixes. Unfortunately what you do on stage isn't necessarily what you need to do when auditioning, and they can't quite navigate the difference.

The stylist:
Someone who knows repertoire not just from doing, but from study, passion and interest. They know style, language, history, performance practice, etc. They will do everything they can to have you doing what the composer asks you to do on the page. Every little marking on the page and colour that could be put into the music. Technique sometimes takes a back seat. Most coaches fall into this category, which is great, bacause they set you a bar that you must try to achieve with the technique you have. But at the end of the day I think you have to prioritise healthy vocal production over artistry. Once you're secure enough, they aren't mutually exclusive, quite the opposite, but they do need to happen in the right order.

The noise-enthusiast:
In many ways the opposite to a stylist. They like tone and will want you to deliver it consistently. The music takes a back seat and the voice becomes the priority. But sometimes they don't address how you make the noise thay want (they may be busy playing the piano rather than watching your veins pop out). They will get you sounding better in a coaching room, which will translate to sounding better in auditions and small rooms, but because you may not be delivering your tone in the most optimal way, you may notice a big drop in effectiveness in large spaces or when matched with an orchestral texture.

The 'master':
Someone who mostly does masterclasses. A celebrity. My pet hate. They will take credit for improvements in your performance that are not actually down to them, but to you getting more comfortable with the masterclass environment. I mean, it's natural that the second and third time you sing something will be better, as stress subsides, so they shouldn't take credit for it. They can raise valid points though and offer 'penny-drop' thoughts. Masterclasses are a valuable way of getting a new opinion on your singing and snippets of advice, but beware if they become about the master rather than the student.

The technician:
Never mind about the music, the markings, or what noise you make. They just focus on how you make it, and how to get is as easy and optimised as possible. They often read treatises, watch videos of great singers and analyse exactly how they do what they do, they have a strong opinion of what a perfect technique should be. They don't necessarily have one themselves, or they may have a fantastic technique coupled with a less-than-fantastic voice. In any case, they will leave the style and language to coaches, and not let you get away with any sound that is not efficient in its production. The leap of faith is trusting that the tone will come as a consequence of technique, rather than you manufacturing a pleasing sound by means which are not in line with an efficient technique. 'It's a lot easier to sound like a great opera singer than to sing like one' is something you may hear, and the difference between the two is that only one of those options will last a long time. It will also be more reliable in less-than-perfect conditions (so basically 360 days a year).

The trouble-shooter:
I wrote about one once. They are a technician that can adopt very targeted strategies to deal with specific issues in vocal production. Recovering from a medical condition or procedure, dealing with a specific muscular tension, give them a problem and they will solve it. Asking them to make you sing better may be overkill and get you embroiled in a very confusing series of countless exercises each working on a different aspect of singing, but that don't readily form a coherent 'big picture' of how one should sing.

Almost everyone thinks their teacher is a technician. Certainly most teachers think they are, because they try to teach technique. But it's about how they teach it. As singers we have to strike the seemingly impossible balance of trusting our chosen teacher implicitly, but also remaining very critical as to whether we are really getting what we need from our teacher. Life would be amazing if all teachers were perfect stylist-technicians who also knew what it takes to have a successful career...

Great teachers who have been amazingly good for us for a long time may suddenly stop being the best option for various reasons. It doesn't mean they are bad teachers, or that we are fickle. We owe it to our voices to not be complacent about our choice of teachers and coaches, to not get too comfortable, to keep challenging ourselves to improve.

As ever, the author's opinions are his own and may be partially or completely wrong.



Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Going beyond the obvious - Kasper Holten and the NOS

I've just returned from a 'masterclass' at the ROH with trainees from the NOS. The workshop (a much more appropriate word in this case) was led by Kasper Holten and took the form of him directing 3 singers as if they had just turned up for a first rehearsal of their aria in a production. He distanced himself from the word masterclass, saying that he didn't feel like a master who has all the answers about these arias, but rather wanted to see what he and the singers could discover about the characters together.

Indeed the whole thing ran like a rehearsal (albeit mic-ed up for the talking and with a surprisingly large audience). There was a brief chat about the context of the aria and an initial idea that would then be explored phrase by phrase with some rough blocking and a lot of talk about what the reality of the character's situation actually could be, rather than it just being a set number in a musical piece. I personally found it reminiscent of BYO workshops I've been on myself - an exercise for its own sake, but inspiring and invigprating to participate in (even passively). What quickly became apparent was that the operatic world (both singers and audiences) are very easily trapped in the constraints of preconceptions that have grown around the staple repertoire over the centuries, mostly because of the overwhelming temptation to just deliver the beautiful music beautifully. Kasper Holten worked hard to guide the singers to delve a bit deeper than the obvious mood of an aria, to find the ambiguities in the characters, to realise that playing what we instinctively feel it should be is an almost sure way of only doing the most boring interpretation.

Does Santuzza have to be an innocent victim who falls for the wrong man? Or can she be complicit in the tragedy, after all, she admits she knew that he only got involved with her because the woman he really loved had gotten married. She knew, but went along with it anyway, so maybe she does bear some of the responsibility for how things turned out and now that is driving her mad.

Does Faust serenade a house just because he is a young man feeling an overwhelming love? Or is he struggling with the fact that he isn't a young man at all, but an old man on borrowed time in a young body, chasing after an innocent young woman. She is innocent - poor, but pure. He is in league with the devil and is about to shower her with gifts in order to seduce her. Surely part of him knows, deep down inside, that he can never match her innocence, because he has lost his, and all he can offer her is corruption. And as he thinks of her humble, innocent dwelling, and of her purity, perhaps this isn't a love song, perhaps it's him coming to terms with a subconscious guilt while at the same time succumbing to an obsession with her as a symbol of what he has lost...

Or not. Maybe neither of those interpretations would work in context. But even briefly exploring them, probing the opposite of what we think a scene is, reveals nuance and colour that we had no way of accessing before. We owe it to ourselves as performers to explore more than one obvious way of reading a scene, especially if that way has been done before... many, many times over... and is available to own on DVD...

There were more things touched upon in this session, like physicality, dynamics, repeated words, the importance of specificity, etc. But this obligation to go beyond the obvious is what stuck in my mind and had me yelling 'testify!' on the inside.

It's a difficult ask though, because not all audiences like to be challenged in that way. They know how it should be done and want to be given what they know. Singers also don't always want to explore something that doesn't come naturally and easily. Actually, sometimes directors and conductors don't either.

The last thing Kasper Holten said was: It's great to be able to work with a stage director and explore various takes on an aria, but 90% of the time you won't be working with a good stage director. You'll be dealing with a revival director who has a week to put on a show and for your big aria his only input will be to stand you under a tree to sing for 5 minutes. It's then easy for a singer to start making excuses - they didn't give me any help, but it's our responsibility to perform and interpret, even (or especially) in that scenario. And it's performers who come up with their own take on an aria that deliver gripping performances even if they just stand under a tree for 5 minutes. But to come up with that kind of performance you have to explore more than one option...

Friday, 2 May 2014

Don't judge a book by its last page

Recently someone said to me that the problem with vocal pedagogy these days is that the teaching of singing is too sound-based, meaning that teachers and coaches are trying to get their students to create a certain quality of sound, and judging the effects of their teaching on what they hear the student produce. This makes sense, as in most lessons or coachings here in the UK the person teaching you is doing so while playing the piano, so their attention is divided between their performance and what they can hear of yours. It may not seem like a big deal, after all they have been doing this for years, and certainly coaches can play most standard repertoire almost on auto-pilot. Singing teachers though - not so much, and it's them we turn to for help with our technique. Still, maybe it's not as big a deal as the person in question was making it out to be. After all, making a good sound (as in impressive, consistent, pleasant, agile, etc) implies that there is good technique behind it...

Or does it? And even if there is good technique behind it, is it the best possible technique? We see children on talent shows presenting an adequate or even impressive facsimile of an operatic sound, but as opera singers we know that it's not a healthy thing for these kids to be doing, even if the sound is ok. We watch crossover artists and wince every time they pull a face or their shoulders go up, so we know there are flaws in how they are using their voice, but for the most part the noise they make is actually quite pleasant (if it wasn't, they wouldn't be where they are), even if we purists will never admit it. So a bad technique doesn't necessarily mean you can't make a decent sound, even though in the long run such 'cheating' will wreck your instrument.

These are extreme examples, of course, and actually for us singers it's the more subtle cases that are actually the most dangerous. Where is the line between vibrato and a wobble and how can you tell whether you're on the right side of it? I've heard all manner of pedagogues advocating vibrato as a great thing - it protects the voice, vibrating is clear evidence that you have good air flow and 'support', it means you are achieving optimum resonance... But what if the sound you're making only sounds like a healthy vibrato, but the mechanics behind it are beginnings of a wobble that will soon become habitual and increase in amplitude? Who is going to catch you in time and help you readjust your technique? It sounds fine and the people you trust (your teacher and coaches) are all basing their advice on your sound.

Audition panels may spot it, if there's someone who knows enough about singing on them (and that's hardly a given I'm afraid), but will they give you feedback? Will you trust their feedback over the words of your vocal training team? How many times will you have to hear the same thing before you think there might be a grain of truth in it? Let's say 3 (once is one person's opinion, twice could still be statistically insignificant). Assuming you get feedback from half the auditions you do (and that's a generous proportion only ever achieved by singers who have agents asking for feedback on their behalf), half of it is probably well-informed, and half of that is honest rather than polite. That's 24 auditions you've done before you start thinking there may be a problem (call it 6-12 months of your life gone?). Worse still, you're probably getting work, because you sound fine and there's plenty of opportunities out there for fine-sounding singers, which means you think you're on the right track, when actually you may have plateaued in your development, or are letting a bad habit get worse.

There are teachers out there who don't play piano in lessons. They watch you like a hawk, devoting 100% of their attention to what you're doing, all aspects of it. When I was studying in Poland we always had pianists in singing lessons, so that teachers could focus on teaching and students didn't feel so harshly exposed and vulnerable (because the first couple of times you have an a cappella lesson it is horrible!). Even if your teacher does play, it may be worth asking them not to and to have a look at you. The clues pertaining to your technical flaws (and we all have those) aren't necessarily in your sound YET, but may be in your jaw, tongue, ribcage, shoulders, left pinky, etc.

As you can tell, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this point for a few days now, almost to the point of paranoia. I'm not looking to freak out the singers reading this though, it's just something which may be worth considering if you want to get the most out of your teachers (and who doesn't? we don't go to them to be complimented, after all). There's more to singing technique than doing whatever makes you sounds good. It's a bit like a whodunit - the point of such books isn't flicking to the last page and finding out who did it, it's everything that leads you there. And with that clumsy analogy I think it's high time I stopped writing ;)

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...