A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

I finally do something mountainy

Day 13 - Saturday

The day off! A healthy lie in, nourishing breakfast and quick chat with my roommate James about who's coming and when we're heading out, and then we're off to conquer Sulphur Mountain (2451m according to Wikipedia, other sources vary). There's only three of us: myself, James, and Laurelle. This means we're able to set a reasonable pace and engage in stimulating banter (focussing mostly on us two guys giving Laurelle some survival coaching; discussing the danger of encountering highly evolved cougars, that take to preying on the passengers in the gondolas, thanks to their extra long and strong claws, which allow them to latch onto the cable to drop into the cars, and also fell a pine with one swoop; the difficulty in determining the altitude of sea level; and other topics that are just untranslatable into the language of this blog, or any sensible language at all).

Bow Falls

On the way up we pass Bow Falls, a rapid on the Bow river that peaks my kayaking interests and sends me on a bit of a rant. Then we hit the actual trail up, meandering more or less alongside the gondolas that run up the mountain. The trail is so deceptive, that it completely befuddles James, who leads us up a very steep creek by mistake. You can see for yourself how hard to follow the trail is:

Near the top we deplore how unworthy the people taking the gondolas are and contemplate coming back with a sign saying 'You lazy buggers!' to set up under the cable (the sign may have used stronger vocabulary). We do however take advantage of the facilities at the top station in the form of ice cream, so shame on us (hypocrites!). But not before we attack the summit itself, which is done by walking along a series of wooden platforms and stairs, probably built to protect the mountain from the traffic that the gondola enables. Despite the civilised nature of this, the surroundings are stunning, and Laurelle has the opportunity to test the panorama feature of her new camera (she's graciously given me her photos, some of which are already in the Picasa album).

Part of the view, notice Tunnel Mountain and the Banff Centre

The team!

After having our ice cream we almost unanimously decide to hike back down, once again shunning the gondola, and almost all of us have fun walking down. On the way we meet the next group of intrepid opera hikers, but can't stop for a chat, as we have a sweepstake bet on how long it'll take us to get down. We met another participant of our program, but as she was a gondolier, she shall not be named (she did have a valid excuse though).

Once we get back down, we go to the hot springs at the foot of the mountain. They're not as big or impressive as some others I've been to, but they're certainly warm and relaxing, and offer a great way to unwind after the hike.

The hot springs

We then go back to the Centre by taxi, and this is my first North American cab experience. It is certainly different from what I'm used to, but James (who's from New Zealand, but lives in New York, so is indisputably an expert on taxis) says that this guy was bad even by his standards. In any case, he gets us home safely and we can enjoy our dinner content in the knowledge that we've done something worthwhile today.

After dinner we find out that some of the others are planning to watch a film tonight, and although I've seen Slumdog Millionaire before, I might just join them. In any case, I'll sleep well tonight, that much is certain.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Bilingual Shakespeare and goodbyes

Day 12 - Friday

Morning: our last session with Gioconda! A great summing up of everything she's opened us up to, most of which is already coming in handy in staging both the operas. We also learn a useful skill: how to fall. It's quite counterintuitive, but works! Then a chorus session to take a look at both Cosi and Lillian Alling, fairly standard fare by now. It does produce a memorable quote from Les (conductor) however: 'Tenors, you were so unbelievably beautifully quiet that I don't think I actually heard you.'

Afternoon: another goodbye, this time to Mark. For our final acting session with him we do a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Demetrius and Helena; again, objectives, tactics and actions). This takes us into a very interesting exploration of Shakespeare's work: a bilingual French/English reading of the scene (well, we are in Canada after all) and then an analysis of the 'recipe for a rape' section. At the end we have a summing up Q&A session with Mark, and among other helpful tips he imparts this advice: don't be an audience whore. I should point out that these classes haven't been particularly raunchy, again this account says more about me than about Mark, who has been a fantastically generous tutor.

Shakespeare in the mountains

Evening: the concert! We have a quick run through of most of the repertoire in our venue: The Club. Then it's showtime, performing a selection of English songs (Vaughan-Williams, Head, Elgar, Britten), arias (Weill, Stravinsky, Strauss II) and cabaret numbers. The audience is packed (135 is a number I heard mentioned by Stage Management) and very responsive. An enjoyable evening for both us and them (I hope). What next? Socialising, but responsibly, as I have hiking ambitions for tomorrow.

To add to the goodbyes, as tomorrow is our day off and she leaves on Sunday morning, we will also not have the opportunity to work with Kathryn (English diction) again in this program. Parting hugs are exchanged after the concert.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Another missed vocation

Day 11 - Thursday

Morning: traditional 9.30 start for the warm up, tiredness keeps me in bed until 9. There's been a noticeable change in my routine this week: lying in as late as possible has moved my breakfasts from the canteen to Maclab, and limited them to a croissant or bagel and coffee. I admire the people who get up at 6.30 to go running at 7 (yes! we have at least one of those). Then we have the final 2 hours of music preparation for the Lillian Alling chorus, with Les (conductor) joining us for the latter part of the session. He seems pleased, so fingers crossed for tonight's attempt at staging Scene 2. On a lighter note, he tells us a bit about Oakalla Prison Farm (where one of the chorus scenes is set): 'It was a terrible place, the inmates had to work 16-hour days, and only got one day off a week...' 'Oh, so it was a bit like this program?' (I should point out: I often say things because they're funny, not because they're true; I am thoroughly enjoying my stay here, and I'm not sure I'm getting that across in this blog)

Afternoon: I have to miss acting, because I'm scheduled for a coaching session on Money, O! for Friday's concert, and then a costume fitting for Cosi. Yet again I find myself contemplating a change of career...

Evening: staging Scene 2 (or as I call it: the scene from hell). It was everything I thought it would be. First an interesting group talk about the role of chorus in opera (to comment on the world and story being presented and by doing so to guide the audience's focus to the main protagonists' trials and tribulations), then the history of Ellis Island and the mindset of immigrants coming through there, what they had to lose, what they had to go through to get that far and then still risk being turned back... and how to reconcile that with quite optimistic and upbeat music. Then the blocking, and then going through it a couple of times and facing the harsh reality: singing off copy while standing still, and then trying to count out 5-, 7-, 3.5-, or 4-beat rests on your feet trying to inhabit a character, are... very different experiences. Well, our characters are what Kelly calls 'pleasers' - trying to get it right and apologetic and fearful of getting it wrong, so at least getting lost in the music fed into my acting very organically. In any case, it's not a bad start and these things take time to come together and work, so I'm not panicking. It'll be fantastic when we get it working.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Trees and death!

Day 10 - Wednesday

Morning: movement, but this time a very crowded tutti session that was also filmed for promotional purposes. Then, unsurprisingly Lillian Alling chorus music (but rest assured, we are getting better with every session).

Afternoon: acting with Mark, we now get to work on the entire short play that we had isolated a scene from in the last sessions. We split into pairs and work out objectives, shifts, verbs/actions, etc. Then to wrap up we all have a chat about how this technique can be applied to singing, for example in an aria or lied to give it direction and focus. This prompts the best definition of German lied I've ever heard: 'Well, it goes like this: there's a tree, there's another tree, and there's death!'

After that we have a tutti session with Kathryn LaBouff, English diction coach in Julliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Metropolitan Opera to name but a few. The session highlights issues we often encounter as an audience: it's in a language we know, and yet we're still glued to the surtitles. Kathryn has some very good tips on how to improve diction without impeding the singing, and it was interesting to see how differently she approaches it from 'normal' vocal coaches, being a specialist in what I would call 'extreme applied linguistics'. I sing Money, O! and also get to hear an aria from Dr Atomic that I wouldn't mind having a look at for myself at some point.

English diction with Kathryn LaBouff

Evening: more LA (of course!) and then on to have our first staging rehearsal of the Cosi chorus. We find out what characters we will get to play (and as those characters we will also help out with set changes): I'm a priest (the first scene of Act 1 takes place in a church, where the 3 men are having their arguments and getting evil looks from parishioners and being shushed by an old woman - Keith in drag!), a butler, and a soldier.

The 12-hour days and chorus work are getting to me, I feel tired, and I've lost a bit off the top of my voice (not an issue in what we're singing, but a worrying symptom, I need to take it easy). However, it's Laurelle's birthday, so once more unto the breach, my friends!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Guglielmo? I don't think so...

Day 9 - Tuesday

Morning: after the late rehearsal last night (and the much needed drink thereafter) it is a struggle to get out of bed. I treat myself to a somewhat fancier breakfast, eating in the bistro rather than the canteen, drink some real coffee and head to movement. After that it's yet another session on Lillian Alling for the chorus, with a lot of it coming together nicely, with the exception of Scene 2, which just happens to be the first one we are to stage on Thursday. Such is life.

Trying to commit to the verb

Afternoon: we move onward with our exploration of Stanislavski in acting, 'actioning' (or 'verbing' as Mark calls it) a small scene - assigning an active verb to each line of text that expresses the first level of subtext. Then it's on to another chorus rehearsal, but this time we take on Cosi. I start to think that by being in both choruses and an extra scene in Lillian Alling, the understudy aspect of this program will definitely take a back seat (or even fade into nonexistence). There just isn't any time! And I do have another opera to learn by the end of August: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. In fact, I just got the dialogue by email today.

Evening: three hours of LA chorus... no comment. Afterwards I jog in between the bar and the laundry room, then collapse.


The weather today just couldn't make up its mind! One minute we were in paradise, the sun shining and basking the mountains in its warm glow, the next it looks as though the world is about to end, the clouds move in instantaneously, bringing darkness and torrential rain... which last for about 15 minutes, then back to paradise. Pre-menstrual weather, as one of the guys calls it.


Tuesday, 26 July 2011

New week = new faces

Day 7 - Sunday

Our day off, so as you can imagine this is spent lying in, relaxing, recovering from the previous night and vowing to have a more active one next week (who knows, maybe even some hiking?). As stunning as the surroundings are, the program is intense and after a week I'm not quite in the stride of it, so the day off needs to be lazy. Besides, I have chorus music to learn...

Chilling out

Day 8 - Monday

Yesterday evening the rest of the chorus arrive, so this week brings a definite split in the group of participants. Because there are so many of us, we are divided into 2 groups for movement and drama classes. The weekend also saw some of the faculty leave, while today sees new members arrive. We've lost Adrian, Joan (voice teachers), and Jean-Aimé (movement). While the thought of no more pilates is a relief, I am sad to see them all go after just one week. We do get to meet the new teachers: Kinza Tyrell (our chorus master), Mark Bellamy (acting) and Tracy Dahl (voice, I actually haven't met her yet, but some people are having lessons with her). Movement is taken over by Gioconda Barbuto, who had had one session with us last week.

Morning: we had a late start today, as Kinza's flight was delayed and she only got here for the last 45 minutes of our scheduled Lillian Alling session. We crashed through all the music and that was it.

Afternoon: even with all the work to be done on the operas themselves, we still get general tuition, so the entire afternoon is split between drama/acting and movement. Acting consists of an introduction to Stanislavski. RWCMD readers will be familiar with this (but actioning is called verbing here), but basically it is a system of breaking down a scene into it's smallest building blocks and identifying character's objectives, obstacles, tactics and actions, within each small unit of text (usually consisting of a couple of lines, units are distinguished by when characters' objectives change). Movement focussed on exploring the ideas of space, focus, awareness, push/pull and control... in short - indescribable.

Acting class

Evening: three hours of chorus work on Lillian Alling. The music is great, but quite difficult, with some of the part splitting leaving only 2 people on each line, so more ensemble than chorus. We slowly tackle the piece and hopefully a couple more of these sessions will have us ready to start staging the first (and most difficult) scene on Thursday.

Evening ensemble rehearsals happen in a conference room,
so naturally the girls try to look professional even during the break

On a more social note, while the previous week seemed to abound with a strange obsession of some of us with the Northern Irish accent, today was very much focussed around Keith's glasses and posing for photos (so the Picasa album has understandably grown).

In Maclab (the bar / bistro) with the infamous glasses
(I've decided against putting a photo title in the veins of
'making a spectacle of myself'
in the knowledge that readers probably have
a more sophisticated sense of humour than my tired self)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Can one learn an opera in 3 days?

Day 6 - Saturday

Well, the answer is: not quite, but close... and I wouldn't recommend it as standard practice. The fact is that at today's cover music run of Cosi I feel I managed to avoid embarrassment by the skin of my teeth. Having bottled down and spent all my free time (and we get only about 1.5h of that daily) with the score (as my roommate can attest to) to learn 80% of the recit (having done the rest before on various occasions) and 40% of the ensembles I got through with only a couple of rough patches. Valuable lessons learned: firstly don't leave it 'til this late next time (I have excuses, but who cares?), and secondly that it is possible to learn quickly given the right motivation.

Back to the day: In the morning we had our usual warm up, then the aforementioned Cosi run through. The afternoon saw us running Act 1 of Lillian Alling (skipping chorus scenes) and I have to say that it is a fantastic piece of music. After that we finished off Cosi.

A double rainbow to lift our spirits after the warm up

Having the evening off, we venture into Banff proper for the first time. It's everything you'd expect of a mountain resort town. We have the evening off, so I go to the photography program's show. Stunning pictures, but unfortunately technology let us down and we had to watch most of them on a laptop screen. We have a day off tomorrow (to be spent reviewing chorus music), so there's a chance to socialise tonight (which as you know, I am a big fan of)!

Banff downtown

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Have you considered a modelling career?

Day 5 - Friday

Morning: 2 hours of movement! And crammed into that we had: stretches, tai chi, pilates, folk dance, modern dance, and ballet. But what I will probably remember most is the pain that then relaxes into constant aches. That being said, I do like the feeling of slowly getting into shape.

The pretzel stretch

Afternoon: A short sit in Cosi and then on to the most exciting and mysterious part of the day: the photo shoot. The briefing we got was just to turn up at the theatre wearing what we would to rehearsal (so casual it is). What we encountered there was a circus performer posing in a vertical split with a flag-like piece of material fluttering in the wind of a stage fan, a ballet dancer doing some very impressive jumps in just his underwear, and a violin/cello duet posing with their instruments. All of this was photographed in professional lighting by the staff and participants of the Performance Photography program. So what were they supposed to do with 3 male singers in casual clothes? Well, we started out with some group pictures (fully clothed) that made us look like a boyband, and then went on to portraits and head shots. Interesting how the photographer in those situations has to turn into a bit of a stage director to make the pictures look natural... An enjoyable experience and we were promised copies of the photos, so we may get something useable out of it, though I don't think we gave the photographers quite as much to work with as the other models.

The other models

One of our shots for comparison

Afterwards I have to face the plunge from supermodel to lowly understudy, but I manage to make it through the rest of the Cosi rehearsal without showing how distraught I am.

Evening: Kelly has scheduled the Lillian Alling team for a film night! We watch The Golden Door, to give us an insight into the mindset of people emigrating to the New World. The session ends earlier than usual, so a bunch of us decide to go for a drink (to discuss the film, of course). The social aspect of programs like this is very important after all.

I write today's account in bed, wondering how our pop stars did tonight...

Friday, 22 July 2011

Breaking the vocal ice

Day 4 - Thursday

Morning: Having been volunteered to sing in a master class at 10.30am today, I take a relaxed approach to our pilates warm-up, in fact leaving early to warm up vocally and change into my (new!) suit. While I do appreciate pilates as a great work-out, it raises alarm bells singing-wise, as I have never had such a tense stomach in my life! The master class itself is with Joan Patenaude-Yarnell (Manhattan School of Music) and is fantastic: 'old school' bel canto with Joan letting nothing go (reminds me of some of my singing lessons, except with an audience). Once again I find myself in the unenviable position of singing for the first time in front of a group of singers whom I don't know. The only thing I can do is (try to) focus on the piece and get on with it. I sing more or less on autopilot and get through the aria reasonably well. As is always the case, the nerves ease off after the first sing through, and many of the issues raised by Joan sort themselves out on their own. Why can't it just work perfectly first time round? I guess that's one of the characteristic things about master classes. Anyway, everyone has heard me now, so that's a load off my mind.

Afternoon: Rehearsing the Norwegian scene in Lillian Alling, where I say one line. Kelly is fantastic at engaging everyone in the scene and you hardly ever feel as though you're standing around waiting for the principles to be taken through the blocking (which can often happen for what amounts to extras, as we're not even a chorus onstage), but he's also quite demanding in terms of research (and rightly so), so for homework we have to find out about the Norwegian immigrants in North Dakota. Going to sit in on Cosi rehearsals after this, I think of how lucky it is that by doing something in both productions at this early stage I get to see two different ways of working and the energy each approach brings to the process.

A cover's view of a Cosi rehearsal

Evening: Reviewing the Brooklyn Boys' scene. Apart from some minor blocking changes, this rehearsal really just lets us find more fun in what we're doing. At the end we're told that the time for free improvisation around the set blocking is coming to an end, and we have to find some continuity from session to session. 'Chaos can only be portrayed on stage through extreme precision, otherwise it ends up being stage noise.' After that rehearsal, hike back up to the main campus for more Cosi (Lillian Alling rehearsals are in a church gymnasium in town), during which we get tomorrow's schedule: no cover rehearsal! Time for a beer or two...

On a side note, there is so much more to this program than opera: Catriona and Shantelle have been asked to sing backing vocals at a pop concert tomorrow for the Banff Midsummer Ball, while myself and some of the guys have been volunteered (there's a lot of that going around) for a modelling gig (more on that tomorrow).

Thursday, 21 July 2011

First few days in Banff

Day 0 - Sunday

We arrived on Sunday after 20 hours of travel, so understandably tired. I say we, because I met my first fellow participant (Catriona, Scottish mezzo-soprano) in the program on the bus from Calgary Airport to Banff. Apart from meeting a couple of participants (it was nice to catch up with Dan Joy, who was our Tamino in Opera'r Ddraig's Magic Flute in 2010) and our diction coach, sampling the fantastic food in the canteen and having a sit in the steam room, nothing exciting happened.

Day 1 - Monday

45min warm-up in the morning was very energetic, fusing dance, thai-chi and yoga, a great start to the day. Next up was orientation and a tour around the Banff Centre's campus. It's a mix of new buildings and older ones going as far back as the 50s, so there's a certain sense of the architecture being all over the place, but this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the campus is surrounded by woodland and has trees in almost every available outdoor area. The facilities are stunning - rehearsal studios with full-wall windows looking out onto the valley, numerous practice rooms, movement studios, a gym, pool, steam room, climbing wall, etc. There are 2 theatres, an amphitheatre (as of Day 1 still under construction - basically a pile of rubble and the beginnings of landscaping), conference centre, 3 buildings with accommodation, and much more. The programs run during the Summer Arts Festival range from theatre, through dance, circus, opera, to instrumental and orchestral music. All this in the heart of the Rocky Mountains... Europe should be jealous.

The view

In the afternoon, a surprise! A session on Lillian Alling (a new opera receiving its second performance here) which was meant to be table work suddenly turns into a music call with the newly arrived conductor. My scene falls apart musically (it's a barber-shop-esque number with some odd harmonies), but we comfort ourselves that we hadn't ever sung it in context before. Still, some work to put in before tomorrow's coaching on it.

Evening session: diction coaching to get my brooklynese accent up to scratch, and then sitting in on Cosi rehearsals (myself covering Guglielmo). Nice to hear and meet the principals, director, conductor and stage management team. But yet another surprise: David Agler wants to go through the whole opera with the covers on Friday. Yikes!

After dinner - succumb to jetlag.

Day 2 - Tuesday

2.5 hours of movement this morning! Pilates is brutal, but after that a change of teacher takes us more into the realms of abstract stage movement, a bit less physical, but more engaging and by the evening all this proved to be very draining.

Afternoon session: dashing in and out of Cosi rehearsals to attend our first proper music session on the Brooklyn Boys quintet with the conductor and my first singing lesson with Adrian. I've underestimated the effect of this climate! We're fairly high up and the humidity... is nonexistent. I'm drinking 3-4 litres of water a day and still feel dehydrated. Halfway through my lesson I get hoarse and it's a struggle from then on. Apparently it gets better after a few days. Oddly enough, an hour or so of a break is enough to 'reset' the voice to a usable state again, so should probably ease into things for now. Have a swim to clear my head and a sit in the whirlpool (a bit like a jacuzzi) to give my muscles a break.

Evening: more brooklynese coaching, this time with all of us and it's good fun, the quintet sounds quite good now. Then more Cosi rehearsals, where us covers organise ourselves to have a sing through on our own in another room. This raises my stress levels considerably, as it turns out that I'm a bit behind in terms of preparation. From now until Friday (at least): spend every waking moment looking over the score.

There was a huge storm today, we were having food in the glass-walled canteen and could see the torrential rain and there was even a momentary power outage. A good reminder that we're in the mountains. Also doesn't bode well for tomorrow's planned hike...

Day 3 - Wednesday

First living creature I saw today other than my roommate

Morning: the weather is clear and the hike is on! We meet up behind our accommodation to see an elk resting in the grass outside the door... Second one I've seen so far, the first one being in town! Kelly (Lillian Alling director, and overall program boss) takes us up Tunnel Mountain, but this is more than just a hike - in breaks he gives us some coaching in stagecraft, culminating in a bit of a session at the summit. Issues raised: far focus, walking upstage, catching the conductor, tackling 'rough terrain', a healthy attitude to result-driven direction, and effective work structure when 'blocking'.

Far focus

Banff as seen from Tunnel Mountain

Afternoon: Brooklyn Boys! We started staging the scene, it requires a lot of energy and 'stage noise', so we need to come up with some 1920s Brooklyn banter. Great fun though, it's nice to be able to wolf-whistle and harass a pretty blonde without feeling guilty.

Evening: we got the evening off to be able to go see the ballet and dance programs put on their show. I'm not going, as I want to spend more time on Cosi, writing this blog in my breaks.

More photos here!